From supermarkets to shopping centres, airports to train stations, public Wi-Fi is everywhere. It's convenient and very often free. What's not to love?
Unfortunately, using a public Wi-Fi hotspot does carry risks. In fact, without taking a few precautions you could have your data intercepted, login or bank details stolen, or see your computer infected with malware.
How does this happen? One of the biggest threats is something called a man-in-the-middle attack. This is where hackers are able to exploit vulnerabilities on a network to position themselves between you and the Wi-Fi hotspot, enabling them to snoop on your activities or even divert you to fake websites where they can steal your data. You won't even notice it's happening.
Public Wi-Fi can also potentially be used to distribute viruses and other malware to connected devices. And with the rise in the number of public hotspots, some of the hotspots themselves may even be wholly fake. They might present themselves as being connected to the coffee shop you're sat in, but are in fact created for malicious purposes.
These risks apply whether you're connected with a laptop, tablet or your phone.
Stay safe on public Wi-Fi
This is not to say that you shouldn't use public Wi-Fi at all. The good news is that by taking a few simple steps, and understanding the potential problems, you can remove most of the risk. Here are your public Wi-Fi dos and don'ts:
Don't just connect to a random hotspot. Don't be tempted to hop onto any old wireless network within range, make sure you know what it is first. Ideally, choose secure networks - password protected and possibly even paid - over free, open ones.
Make sure the hotspot is legit. Just because the hotspot is called "Hotel Wi-Fi" it doesn't mean it's an official service. Always check that you're connecting to the right network, and if you have to ask staff for the password or get it off a receipt or leaflet then that's even better.
Don't set your device to automatically connect. Make sure your devices aren't set to join open networks as they come within range.
Use a VPN for full protection. A VPN is a piece of software that encrypts and secures your connection to the internet. Even if someone does manage to intercept your data they won't be able to do anything with it. See our guide on why and how to use a VPN for more information.
Keep your devices up to date. This should go without saying, but make sure you install all available updates on your laptop and other devices. Use antivirus software and a firewall for extra security. Some broadband providers offer free antivirus tools for their users, so check to see if yours does.
Try to avoid logging in to sensitive sites. Here's the simplest way to stay safe on public Wi-Fi: just don't use it for anything important. If you need to check your bank account use the app on your phone instead, connected to your mobile network.
Keep an eye on your surroundings. It's not just virtual snoopers you need to watch out for. "Shoulder surfing" is a real thing - it's the most low-tech form of hacking, where someone literally watches over your shoulder as you type in your password.
Use mobile broadband. If you need to use the internet regularly when you're not at home or in the office, you might be better off signing up to a mobile broadband deal rather than relying on public services. Not only will it be much more secure, you're likely to find it faster and more reliable, too. Want to know more? Browse the best mobile broadband deals now.