Want to get online when you’re out and about? Wi-Fi hotspots are just the ticket. Some charge a fee but many are free to use. Either way they can be pretty handy when you're on the move.
They're areas with wireless broadband put in by providers, and allow you to use the internet in various public spaces. Places like cafes, pubs, and shopping centres in particular like to offer them, as internet access is something that tends to attract customers.
You'll also find hotspots in shops, train stations, restaurants, airports, department stores… all kinds of busy places where there are a lot of people.
Wi-Fi hotspots are great for when you're out and want to get some work done, reply to your emails, check the train times, stream some music, or just send a WhatsApp message or two. It's faster and more reliable than mobile broadband like 4G, especially if the hotspot has a fibre optic connection, and has the added bonus of not eating into your mobile data allowance.
(Got a business, such as a cafe or pub, and want to offer Wi-Fi for your customers? Here's how to set up a public Wi-Fi hotspot.)
How do I connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot?
To find a hotspot to connect to, the first thing you'll need to do is to enable Wi-Fi on your device. It'll give you a list of available Wi-Fi networks - look for the 'open' ones that let you connect without a password. They'll usually be from BT, O2, The Cloud, Virgin Media, or the name of the place you're in ('McDonald's Wi-Fi,' for instance). Select one, and it'll usually take you to a landing page on your browser, where you can either sign in or just click to connect. Et voila, you're online.
It doesn't matter if you're using a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or even a handheld game console - so long as it's Wi-Fi-enabled, you can get online in public.
Where can I find public Wi-Fi hotspots?
Different mobile networks operate public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the UK at a variety of locations. Some are free to use for their own customers and charge a fee for everyone else - while others are free to access for all.
If you're a BT broadband (www.bt.com) or BT Mobile customer, you're lucky enough to have free access to BT's various Wi-Fi hotspots around the country. Everyone else can use them too, though it'll come at a cost, with allowances ranging from one hour to a whole year's unlimited usage. And once you've subscribed from one hotspot, you can carry on connecting from other ones too.
BT Wi-Fi can be found in shopping centres, Hilton hotels, Starbucks, John Lewis, motorway service stations, and old payphones that BT have converted. With 5 million of them scattered around, most of the country is covered.
It also includes access to the Fon network internationally, which BT is a part of, so you can connect to one of nine million hotspots worldwide when you're abroad.
Wi-Fi hotspots from O2 are, wonderfully, free for everyone - albeit with a 10GB monthly download limit if you don't have an O2 phone or mobile broadband. You'll find them in places like McDonald's, Costa Coffee, Café Rouge, Debenhams, All Bar One, and various pubs.
O2 mobile customers can also use Wi-Fi from Virgin Media in London tube stations.
Public Wi-Fi from Sky (www.sky.com), also known as The Cloud, gives Sky broadband customers free unlimited access. For non-customers, access varies from venue to venue. Some will just let you connect for free, some give you a time limit, and some will charge you. Either way, you'll have unlimited downloads once you're online.
Sky Wi-Fi and The Cloud are found in places including Wetherspoon pubs, Caffe Nero, Eat, M&S, Pret a Manger, train stations, and the London Overground.
Virgin Media Wi-Fi
Virgin Media (www.virginmedia.com) hosts Wi-Fi hotspots in places like coffee shops and libraries - and, notably, in around 150 London Underground stations. Access to these is free for customers of Virgin Media broadband, Virgin Mobile, EE, Vodafone, O2, and Three. Non-customers can still get online for a small cost.
If you have an Android or iPhone on Virgin Mobile, you can also download Virgin Media's WiFi Buddy app, which automatically signs you in to all kinds of Wi-Fi hotspots.