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How to use public Wi-Fi safely: 5 things to know before you connect

Heading out soon? Whether you're going to the airport or the coffee shop, these Wi-Fi safety tips can help protect your data from bad actors.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Group of people forming a wifi symbol
mattjeacock/Getty Images

When you're out and about, there might be times when you have to connect to a wireless network. That network could be at a coffee shop, an airport, a vehicle, a mall, or just about anywhere. The problem with connecting to public wireless networks is that you can never know if they can be trusted. That risk is amplified when you're using your phone or laptop for important (and sensitive) communication. 

Also: How to set up a VPN on your router

Because those public wireless networks are open for anyone to use, you cannot be certain who is connected at any given time. While you're logging into various accounts or transmitting bank account details, a malicious user could be on that same network, working with specific tools to capture the data coming from your device. Once that ne'er do well has your information, they can use it to their benefit (such as stealing your identity or draining your bank account).

Because of this, it is imperative that you use public wireless connections with caution.

Also: The best security keys you can buy

To keep yourself (and your data) safe, follow these five tips any time you're away from your home or office and you need to connect to a public wireless connection.

How to use public Wi-Fi safely 

1. Verify the network

This might never have occurred to you but some bad actors are really good at creating bogus wireless networks that look like they could be official. Consider this scenario. You're at a coffee shop. You open your network connection tool and find several wireless networks from which to choose. The sign at the checkout stand names the wireless our_coffee_shop, which is listed on your device. But there's a second choice... our__coffee_shop. 

Also: The best password managers for all your logins

What's the difference? The second name has two underscores after our. You might not spot that and connect to that network instead. When you do, whoever set up that network has access to your data.

To avoid this, always double-check the name of the wireless network you are connecting to. Even better, if there is a QR code to simplify the connection, use it. That way you are guaranteed to connect to the correct network. The only danger there is if someone snuck in and switched the QR code. You can always verify with a staff member that the code is legit. 

2. Avoid transmitting sensitive information

If you can avoid transmitting sensitive data (such as social security numbers, bank account information, credit card details, etc.), do so. 

But that's not all. Every once in a while you'll run into a public wireless connection that requires you to enter a legitimate email address before a connection can be established. Here's an important tip for this. Create a new email address (such as on Gmail) for this specific purpose. By doing this, you won't be handing out your personal email address which could be then stored and sold.

Also: 5 ways to improve your Chrome browser's security

Another important tip is if a public wireless network requires you to set up a password to access it, make sure you do not use a password that is associated with any account you have. This is when a password manager can come in very handy. With a password manager (such as Bitwarden), you can create a folder specifically for public wireless connections and then use the random password generator for those accounts. 

3. Forget the network when you're done

When you're finished using that public wireless network, make sure to go back into network settings and tell your operating system to forget the network.

Why do this? 

Let's say you've saved a public wireless network in an airport you frequently visit. Should you retain that network, the next time you visit, your device might automatically connect to it, without your knowing. Should you then use your device you might inadvertently transmit sensitive data over that network. That could lead to some unwanted person capturing that data and using it.

Also: Flipper Zero FAQ: 'Can you really hack Wi-Fi networks?'

To avoid this, make sure to always have your device forget public networks after you've used them. How you do this will depend on what device you're using but often it's just a matter of selecting the network and tapping/clicking "Forget."

4. Use a VPN

If you are on a public wireless network, you should always consider adding an extra layer of security with a virtual private network (VPN). What these services do is mask your IP address/location (which is an important step to protect your online privacy) and encrypt all data leaving your device. Both of those features are invaluable when on the go. 

Also: The best VPN services right now

A VPN should be considered a must for anyone who regularly travels and needs to connect to Wi-Fi in public spaces. You'll find plenty of different vendors who offer easy-to-install and use VPNs. Do know that most VPNs have an associated cost but most are affordable. I would suggest, however, avoiding free options, as they can often require unnecessary permissions or do a poor job of masking your location and encrypting your data. Even so, there are a few VPN vendors that offer limited free options

5. Use your phone's hotspot instead

If given the choice between connecting to a public wireless or using my phone's hotspot, I'll go with the phone every time. Why? Because I know I can trust my carrier network far more than I can trust a random, public wireless option. 

You have to understand that even when you take all necessary precautions with a public wireless network, you can never know for sure if it's safe. Although using my phone's hotspot does use up plan data, it's worth the security it offers when I know I need to transmit secure information. 

Also: The best hotspot devices (besides your phone)

If you have to type a password for an account, if you need to log into your bank, if you have to type in a credit card number... use your phone or your phone's hotspot. Make that a hard and fast rule for yourself. 

Besides, with 5G wireless, often your phone's connection speed is going to be far better than most public wireless networks. 

Also: Traveling soon? 5 gadgets I can't live without on work or personal trips now

Finally, ask yourself this: Do I really need to connect to a wireless network? Maybe while you're sipping a coffee or waiting for a plane to board, you could read a book or chat with a friend. Anything that might keep you from connecting to a public wireless network should be considered an option.

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