How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

SafeWise experts have years of firsthand experience testing the products we recommend. Learn how we test and review

You're in between flights and you're on a deadline. That "Free Public Wi-Fi" sign on the wall next to your gate looks tempting, but you pause before logging in—don't hackers lurk on public Wi-Fi, just waiting for clueless passengers like you to offer up your personal information?

The answer is yes, they do. But that doesn't mean you have to give up public Wi-Fi altogether. There are plenty of ways to protect yourself and your sensitive info while using free public Wi-Fi.

We'll explain how hackers use public Wi-Fi to sneak into your accounts, and we'll walk you through the steps you should take to fly under their radar and browse safely.

Understand how hackers use public Wi-Fi

The best way to beat a hacker is to think like one. Stay one step ahead by understanding how hackers and identity thieves try to take advantage of unsuspecting public Wi-Fi users.

  • Fake hotspots. Like luring in kids with candy, hackers will try to lure you in with the promise of a free, easy, open Wi-Fi network. The catch? They're in control, and they can see everything you're doing online.
  • File sharing. Hackers may use open file-sharing networks and AirDrop to infect your computer with malicious software (malware) or other viruses that can open up holes in your system and let them in.
  • System upgrade alerts. You might think that performing a system upgrade will help keep you safer, but it could be a hacker acting like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Anytime you click on an alert while you're on public Wi-Fi, you could end up with a virus instead of an upgrade.
  • Peeping toms. Simply put, if you're using the same network as a hacker, they can see everything you're doing online, including the sites you visit, the passwords you use, and the personal information you share. Armed with that information, they can steal money from your bank account, open up fraudulent accounts in your name, and commit other damaging crimes.

Know the Wi-Fi you're using: Secured vs. unsecured

Anytime you use public Wi-Fi managed by someone else, it's always somewhat unsecured. Unlike your home Wi-Fi, you don't know who else has the password, so you don't know who else might be on the network with you. For that reason, you should treat every public Wi-Fi network as potentially unsafe.

  • Unsecured Wi-Fi
    Unsecured Wi-Fi (aka, "open" Wi-Fi) is the kind you find at McDonald's and airports: no password needed. As long as you're in range of the router, anyone can hop on the Wi-Fi and surf the web to their heart's content. Unsecured Wi-Fi is about as public—and as risky—as you can get.
  • Secured Wi-Fi
    Secured Wi-Fi (AKA, "semi-open" Wi-Fi) typically requires a little more work to access than unsecured. You will usually need a password to log in, and you may be required to check a box on a terms and conditions page before gaining internet access. Some businesses also require a purchase before you can access their secured Wi-Fi. If you have a choice, always opt for secured Wi-Fi.

Follow these 8 public Wi-Fi safety rules

Just like knowing the dangers of sun exposure doesn’t mean you should never go outside, knowing the security risks of using public Wi-Fi doesn't mean you should never use it. Here are your hat and sunscreen equivalents for enjoying public Wi-Fi:

1. Enable firewalls and antivirus software.

Firewalls and antivirus software can warn you of suspicious websites and files, and protect your system against hackers trying to get at your data.

2. Turn off automatic connectivity features, including Bluetooth, before you log in to public Wi-Fi.

Turn off all features on your phone, laptop, or tablet that allow your device to automatically connect with another device or public wireless networks. This includes file sharing, AirDrop, and printer sharing.

3. Choose your public Wi-Fi wisely.

You want Wi-Fi that is secure, legitimate and has as few users as possible. Look for a network that is password-protected, connected to a high-profile brand (like Starbucks), and tied to a business with small square footage.

Password protection and small square footage limit the traffic on the network, and high-profile brands are more likely to run a tighter network ship because they have more to lose from a hacking scandal.

Light Bulb
WiFox tells you public Wi-Fi passwords

If you want to avoid big airport Wi-Fi networks with lots of users, check out WiFox. It uses a crowd-sourced map to give you public Wi-Fi spots and passwords for airport restaurants and lounges all over the world. 

4. Never download or install anything while on public Wi-Fi

Don't click on any pop-up windows asking you to install or download something in order to log on to free public Wi-Fi. Don't download anything from the web, and always avoid doing any system upgrades or updates while on public Wi-Fi.

5. Look for the HTTPS padlock.

When possible, make sure every site you use has that little "s" for "secure" after the HTTP in the web address and the padlock symbol to the left. HTTPS sites are more secure than HTTP sites because they use encryption to protect any data you might send to the site's server.

6. Don't input any personal information on any sites you visit on public Wi-Fi.

Even with HTTPS, it's still risky to input any personal info while you're using public Wi-Fi.

7. Limit the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots you use.

Just like you limit your risk of catching a cold by avoiding the number of strangers' hands you shake in a day, you'll limit your exposure to public Wi-Fi danger by limiting the number of open networks you connect to.

8. Always "forget" the network after you use public Wi-Fi.

Be sure to click the "forget network" option on your network preferences once you finish using an open network. This will prevent your device from automatically connecting to it again without your permission.

Beef up your security

If you've made it through the do's and don'ts and you'd still like to take advantage of free public Wi-Fi hotspots, here are a few additional security measures you can take to protect yourself out in the public Wi-Fi jungle.

  • Keep your security updates current. Yes, they take forever and they're a big pain, but keeping your device's security updates current will keep you safer on public Wi-Fi.
  • Use two-factor authentication on your accounts. Two-factor authentication requires you to use a password and something else—like a security question or a PIN—to get access to an account. Using this on all your accounts is a good way to thwart any hackers who might get your password.
  • Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN lets you surf the web anonymously by routing all your web activities through a secure, encrypted server. VPNs are a good choice if you're a frequent traveller on public transport. Keep in mind that paid VPN services are more reliable and secure than free ones, and they cost only a few bucks a month.

Compare the best VPN services

Monthly price
Annual price
Servers Icon Tooltip  Dark
Countries Icon Tooltip  Dark
Locations Icon Tooltip  Dark
Devices Icon Tooltip  Dark
Trial period
57256083630-day money-back guarantee
3000+94160530-day money-back guarantee
3200+100143Unlimited30-day money-back guarantee
8079100125745-day money-back guarantee
3,024691011030-day money-back guarantee

Prices are accurate as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

*ProtonVPN Plus plan used for comparison. Cheaper plans are available, but offer limited servers, connections, speed, and more.

Consider safer alternatives to public Wi-Fi

If you've decided public Wi-Fi is too risky and you'd like to avoid it altogether, here are a few safer alternatives for you to consider.

  • Use free hotspots offered by your mobile provider. Many companies now offer their registered customers exclusive access to public Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • Use an unlimited data plan on your smartphone. If you just want to use the internet to play games and surf social media, using unlimited data on your phone is a safer choice than logging on to public Wi-Fi.
  • Use your smartphone as a private hotspot. If you need to use a computer or tablet, consider using your phone as a hotspot to connect to Wi-Fi so you can still conduct your online business in private.


MITM stands for “Man in The Middle,” and an MITM attack is just what it sounds like: a hacker virtually places himself between your device and the server for a website you’re using. MITM attacks can happen when a hacker is sharing a public network with you.

Not always. Most companies’ mobile apps don’t have the level of encryption that their HTTPS websites do. If you have to use your phone to conduct transactions involving sensitive info, it’s best to use your browser and go directly to the website instead.

Yes. VPNs are an effective protective measure for devices whose users may not be as vigilant about potential threats. If you want to increase internet safety for kids, installing a VPN on their device is a good way to allow them to still access public Wi-Fi without running the risk of them accidentally being hacked. VPNs are also good for keeping seniors safe online.

Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time of publish and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on the retailer’s website at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product. SafeWise Australia utilises paid affiliate links.
Kasey Tross
Written by

Recent Articles