Public wifi is handy when you’re out-and-about and need to connect to the internet to browse the web, check online prices or send photos or email. But many people ask if public wifi is safe. The good news is that wifi safety is possible. By taking a few, simple steps to set up public wifi security, you can confidently access wifi on the move and lessen the risk from hackers or that your data will be stolen.

What is public wifi?

Public wifi works in a similar way to your home wifi network. The key difference is that while only you and people you allow can access your home wifi network, anyone can log onto public wifi. Free wifi is available in lots of public places in the UK – from hospitals and cafes, to libraries and airports.

How do I access public wifi?

Public wifi is usually straightforward to log onto. Open your device’s settings – on the iPhone, for example, tap the Settings app, then tap Wi-Fi. A list of wifi networks will appear. Networks with a padlock icon are private wifi networks and require a password to access. Wifi networks without a padlock are public networks.

Look for the name of the wifi network you want to join – this is usually the name of the café, shop or station you are in. Tap it to connect. Once connected, a web page may appear asking for details such as your name, email address, and ask you to confirm usage terms and conditions. Some wifi will also attempt to sign you up to marketing permissions – untick any permissions if you don’t want marketing sent to you.

Once connected, you can access the internet over the wifi network. You device should remember the wifi network, making it quicker to access in the future without having to fill in your details.

Public wifi safety – what are the dangers?

Most public wifi is safe to use, however there are some potential risks when using public wifi networks.

Fake public wifi. It is possible for hackers and criminals to set up their own public wifi network, especially in large spaces such as train stations and airports. These networks will use a tempting-sounding name, such as ‘Free Public WiFi’, in an attempt to get you to connect. Once connected, your device can be exposed to hacking and malware. Your network access can be monitored, and your data such as passwords and account details stolen.

Public intercepts. It is possible for hackers to position themselves virtually between your device and the public network, exploiting security holes to steal any data your device sends to and from the public wifi access point.

Insecure wifi. Unlike your home wifi network, public wifi is less secure and information can be sent unencrypted across the internet. That means your information may be more suspectible to being intercepted or stolen by online hackers and web sites.

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Staying safe when connecting to public wifi means taking public wifi security seriously. Some sensible steps about which public wifi network you connect to, what you use it for, and being alert for anything suspicious can ensure you can confidently use public wifi without the risk. We’ve put together ten tips to keep safe when accessing free public wifi networks when out and about.

Public wifi safety – 10 security tips

With all public networks you should never use them for any confidential or private activities such as online banking. Here are ten tips that can help keep you safe when using public wifi.

Only connect to genuine networks. Where possible stick to well-known networks, such as those provided by companies for their customers. Make sure you know whose network you are connecting so you avoid falling prey to a bogus public wifi network with a convincing-sounding name. If you’re not sure what the network is called at your location, ask a staff member to confirm the name before connecting.

Manually connect to public wifi. It may be convenient, but think twice about allowing your device to connect to networks automatically. Most devices today aim to keep you connected to the internet at all times, but that means you may not check if a network is safe to connect to. Change your device’s settings so it doesn’t connect automatically whenever it detects a nearby network.

Use ‘forget this network’ option. While it is convenient to have your device reconnect to previous networks, it can be worth turning this off so it forces you to reconnect manually and double-check you’re connected to a secure public wifi network.You’ll find this option in your device’s wifi settings.

Limit activity to web browsing. Wifi is great when you need to look something up – such as comparing online prices to in-store pricing or reading reviews of a product you’re thinking of buying – but avoid using public wifi for anything that requires log-in details, such as your bank or email account.

Only connect to secure sites. Public wifi can be insecure, even if it a bonefide service from a company. If data is unencrypted it’s at greater risk from being stolen, so limited web browsing to secure websites. These will encrypt data as a matter of course. Use websites protected by HTTPS – look for the padlock next to the website address and the web address starting with ‘https’.

Avoid giving away personal details. Be especially wary of signing up for public wifi in exchange for providing your email address or phone number. If you’re unsure of the legitimacy of the connection, or if you’re being asked for details other than your name and email address, think twice and double check the network is genuine.

Avoid downloading software. While most public wifi is quite slow and rules out downloading large software files, it’s sensible to avoid any software downloads. It can be difficult to be sure of the source of an app or downloaded file, which could include a hidden virus or other form of malware.

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Turn on two-step authentication. It’s best to opt for two-step authentication on any account that offers it, and especially with websites that you’re likely to access using public wifi. Sites such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and LinkedIn offer this along with online banking. This means that you’ll need to enter a numerical code sent to your mobile phone when logging into the account. This extra security layer makes it difficult for hackers to access your accounts because even if they know your password and username because they won’t have the secondary code.

Use a trustworthy VPN. The best way to be sure of staying safe on public wifi is to use avirtual private network (VPN) connection. A VPN lets you connect to the internet provider’s servers via an encrypted connection, which stops prying eyes from seeing any information. Even if a hacker manages to intercept your internet connection, it’s unlikely that they’ll attempt a lengthy decryption process to get to your information – they prefer easier targets. You can buy VPN services for laptops and mobile devices. However, these services vary in quality and how they work, so research them carefully before you buy.

Turn on your laptop’s firewall. If you’re using a Windows laptop or Apple Macbook and connecting to public wifi, make sure that your computer’s firewall is turned on. This prevents hackers also connected to the same public wifi network from accessing your laptop – keeping your files and details safe. On a Mac, the firewall is located in the System Preferences > Security & Privacy settings. Click the Firewall tab to turn the firewall on or off. On Windows, go to Windows Firewall in the Control Panel to turn it on.