We've all been there — you've run out of data on your mobile phone and desperately need to get online to access an important email or check updates on social media. Fortunately, there are free wifi hotspots that you can use in public spaces like supermarkets, malls, restaurants, and coffee shops. However, is that really a good idea?

Is Free Wifi Safe?

Think about it — is there really such a thing as free wifi? According to Statista (a statistics database company, there are over 362 million public wifi hotspots around the world as of 2019. In a related study by One World Identity (a market intelligence and strategy company), they found that roughly 81% of US consumers use public wifi either on occasion or regularly.

The statistics cited above translates to millions of people using public wifi networks. As you might imagine, the cost of running these networks isn’t cheap, and the money has to come from somewhere. 

What most people don't realize is that like everything else in business, access to so-called free wifi networks come with a hidden cost — your personal information! Public hotspots collect bits and pieces of information that users send out over the network. This information is then sold to the highest bidder — businesses and marketers, even the government. 

Also, it doesn't help that public wifi networks are often unsecured, which makes them a goldmine for cybercriminals. Unscrupulous individuals can hijack sensitive information transmitted over an unsecured network. This includes passwords, banking information, social security numbers, and the like.

How to Secure a Free Wifi

So are we saying that you shouldn't under any circumstance, use public wifi? Well, not at all, but rather, more people should know the risk of doing so and take steps to secure wifi connections over a public network.

The truth is that it's entirely possible to stay safe while connected to a free wifi network by taking the following measures:

Deactivate public network sharing

When connecting to a new network for the first time, you may have noticed that the device asks you whether or not you trust the connection you're on and whether you want to set your information public. Many people tend to overlook this query, thinking that it doesn't matter what option they choose (set the network as public or private), which just isn't the case.

Setting the network to public strips your connection of any security and authentication features that would have made it difficult for anyone to step in and steal your personal information. Hence, you'd want to make sure the network settings are always set to private and more so if you're on a free wifi network.

Turn on your network firewall

Most internet-capable devices have a network firewall feature. Many people just don't know that the feature exists or prefer to turn it off due to the constant notifications and permission requests as they switch networks and apps. That said, you should turn on this feature if you're on public wifi. Doing so would make it that much harder to intercept your information over the public network. 

Note that turning on your device's firewall will decrease network performance. Still, most people would agree that's a small price to pay to keep your personal information safe when you're on a public hotspot.

Secure your connection with a VPN (Virtual Private Network Service)

Roughly 25% of users in the UK and the United States use a VPN to secure their Internet connection. That's a shame considering it's the single most effective method for protecting sensitive information over an unsecured public wifi network. How is this so?

How a VPN Keeps You Safe on an Unsecured Network

Indeed, a VPN service can protect your personal information and ensure your privacy over a public wifi connection. A Virtual Private Network accomplishes this by doing the following:

  • It hides your real IP address so that no third-party can see it — websites, Internet service providers, the government, cybercriminals, etc.
  • It encrypts all data coming in and out of a device. This makes your information inaccessible to other users who are on the same public network and looking for any potentially valuable data to steal.
  • Most reputable VPN services offer additional features for data security. This includes ad blockers, Double VPN (routes your connection to two VPN servers for higher security), and an Internet Kill Switch (disables your Internet connection whenever the VPN fails).

Read more: Why Use a VPN When Connecting to Public Wifi

Best VPNs to Use with Free Wifi

Now that you have a good idea of what a VPN can do for you in terms of data security over public wifi, you might be wondering — what's a good VPN service to use? There are hundreds of VPN companies out there all claiming to do the same thing; keep you safe on the Internet. Just like any service provider, though, there are some notable few that do a better job than others.

If you are considering a free VPN, read: Free VPNs Sell Your Data. Here’s How

Here are our recommendations:


FEATURES
AssguardSurfsharkNordVPNIPVanish
Safe JurisdictionNo (USA)
Voice call-friendly connection speed
AES-256 encryption
Number of countries50+ 61+59 75+
No-logs policy
24/7 Customer support
No of devices6Unlimited610
Supports chain VPN connectionsYes (Double VPN)Yes (Multihop)Yes (Double VPN)No
Price range
(per month)
$4.99 – $7.99$1.99 – $11.95$3.49 – $11.95$3.25 – $5.00

Summary

So there you have it — all that you need to know about how to protect yourself when connecting to a free wifi network. As you may have already realized, there's no harm in doing the latter as long as you know the risks and take the appropriate steps to mitigate them. In this regard, we hope this information has been useful, and we urge you to consider adding a good VPN service to your stack, especially if you've been using free wifi networks a lot.