A hand over a laptop with a Wi-Fi signal on its screen. A city with a setting sun in the background

The best way to keep your data safe on public Wi-Fi networks is to get a VPN. Most, if not all, the ways a compromised Wi-Fi hotspot can steal your data are countered by a virtual private network’s encryption. And seeing what gluttons we all are for free Wi-Fi — especially while traveling — staying secure matters to everyone, even you. That’s what this article is here to explain.

Table of contents

    Secure public Wi-Fi today
    A VPN will keep your data safe and private

    What are the risks of public Wi-Fi?

    The Wi-Fi spot itself may be compromised by the provider, may be used in a man-in-the-middle attack, or be fake to begin with. 

    What personal information is at risk on public Wi-Fi?

    Any personal data you submit online while on public Wi-Fi may be at risk. 

    How do I stay safe on public Wi-Fi?

    Use a VPN.

    Can public Wi-Fi block a virtual private network?

    Yes, but there are ways you can try to get around this block. 

    Can a public Wi-Fi provider see your browsing history?

    Yes, they can see what device accessed what website and at what time. 

    Why use a VPN for public Wi-Fi? 

    To keep your data encrypted and safe.

    How does a VPN protect you?

    A VPN encrypts your data and hides your IP address. If anyone tries to spy on your activities, they’ll only see gibberish code instead of the actual data. This keeps your online activity and sensitive information safe and private whenever you use a VPN, even on public Wi-Fi networks.

    What are the risks of public Wi-Fi?

    When using a public Wi-Fi network, you never know who could be monitoring your internet traffic. For example, data traffic on public Wi-Fi connections is usually not encrypted, so network security is easily compromised. This makes it fairly easy for snoopers to intercept your traffic. Let’s go over some of their tricks.

    Man-in-the-middle attacks 

    A man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack is when a hacker interrupts your connection and gains access to your traffic. And you may have no idea that this is even happening. Data about your activities can be collected and sold to third parties and advertisers or be used to set up elaborate phishing attacks.

    Evil twin attacks

    Evil twins are fake Wi-Fi hotspots that imitate actual public Wi-Fi networks in the area. For example, if you’re in a Starbucks and see two Wi-Fi networks, one named “Starbucks” and the other “Starbucks-for-customers,” you might believe they are both legitimate. In reality, one of them could be set up by a hacker looking to steal your data. 

    Cookie theft

    Bad actors on public Wi-Fi hotspots tend to target your cookies just as much as your traffic. These cookies can be used to get sensitive information, such as your login details, home address, and name. 

    Computer worms

    Some computer worms can be implanted into your device even if you don’t download them or install malicious software. Visiting a malicious website or joining a fake Wi-Fi network can sometimes be enough for hackers to compromise your data.

    What personal information is at risk on public Wi-Fi?

    Eavesdroppers on public networks might monitor network traffic and even steal information you enter on your device. This information can include:

    • Credit card and bank account details;
    • Social media passwords;
    • Email login credentials;
    • Any other personal information that you input.

    Fortunately, by encrypting all activity on your device, a VPN service can prevent people from snooping on you and stealing your data. For this reason, a VPN connection is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself on public Wi-Fi.

    How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

    A hand typing on a laptop. A white bubble with a shield and a check mark floating above. A city with clouds in the background.

    Now, I’m not telling you to stop using public Wi-Fi altogether. Everyone loves free connection. So how can you protect yourself when public Wi-Fi is your only option? 

    Use a VPN

    A VPN encrypts your data. This means that anybody snooping on a public Wi-Fi connection will only see jumbled, unusable information. By using a VPN, you can ensure that your data is safe whenever you use a public network.

    Disable file sharing

    Whatever device you use, there will be an option to disable file sharing. Choosing this option and avoiding AirDrop on iOS or printer sharing will block possible routes that hackers can use to steal your sensitive data.

    Disable Wi-Fi auto-connect

    Sometimes, hackers will use fake networks with the same name as a trusted network. If you disable auto-connect on your device, you won’t automatically connect to any fake networks.

    Avoid using login details

    If you’re not using a VPN, avoid logging into your online accounts and inputting passwords when on a public network. This includes using passwords for online banking, email accounts, social media, and more.

    How to choose the best VPN

    Just because you know that you need a Wi-Fi VPN doesn’t mean that you automatically know which one to choose. Luckily, we have some excellent advice for selecting the best VPN for your public security needs: 

    1. Get a premium VPN

    A premium VPN covers those costs of development and maintaining the infrastructure with subscription payments from their customers (you, potentially). On the other hand, free VPNs can offer a much degraded (slower, fewer servers, data caps) service to make you get the paid version — and that’s the best-case scenario. You may also be saddled with ads, or the VPN may sell your browsing data. 

    1. Check the security features

    AES-256 is the industry-leading encryption most premium VPNs use to turn your data into gibberish only the VPN server can read. This is a great choice for encryption — but make sure that it’s paired with trustworthy open-source VPN protocols like OpenVPN or WireGuard. 

    1. Investigate the connection speeds

    A VPN will slow down your internet — the question is, “How much?” A good premium VPN will have minimal impact due to using the fastest servers, the most efficient protocols, and servers near your location. In general, WireGuard is considered to be the fastest protocol these days, so take that into account. 

    1. Count the servers

    The number of available servers AND the number of server locations both matter. The distance between you and the server impacts speed — and also reasons you may want to get a VPN. The server count, as it increases, ensures that the servers that you join are unlikely to experience traffic jams. 

    1. Appreciate ease of use

    If you want to use a VPN whenever you go online, you would hope that the app would be easy to use. So, see if the app has an intuitive interface and 24/7 customer support for the times when the app breaks down. 

    1. Inquire about additional features

    VPN apps are so sophisticated these days that many can offer a lot of privacy and security features. They can also work as ad blockers, do split tunneling, provide double VPN functionality, and more. 

    Can public Wi-Fi block a virtual private network?

    Yes, public Wi-Fi networks can block you from accessing them with a VPN. Whoever is hosting the connection gets to choose the terms of use, so occasionally, they will block them.

    However, anybody who intentionally blocks you from using a VPN is generally doing it so they can track your online activity.

    If anyone blocks your VPN connection, you can try using a different VPN protocol, switching VPN ports, or switching to another VPN server. While this won’t always work, it can help you overcome local blocks.

    Can a public Wi-Fi provider see your browsing history?

    The owner of the Wi-Fi network you’re connected to can access a lot of your information. This includes browsing history, although it’s usually limited to the pages you visit while connected to the network.

    No, using Incognito/Private mode doesn’t help. It only stops your device from tracking browsing history. Your ISP (Internet Service Provider) or the owner of the Wi-Fi hotspot can still see the traffic. 

    In fact, if you don’t protect yourself with a VPN, the Wi-Fi provider can see and track all your activities, not only the websites you visit. When you use a VPN, your traffic is encrypted before it leaves your device, which means it stays hidden from the owner of the Wi-Fi network and everyone else.

    Why use a VPN for public Wi-Fi? 

    There are a lot of risks on public networks, but what are the exact benefits a VPN will provide? Here are a few that come in particularly handy when you’re using public Wi-Fi:

    Stay secure on public Wi-Fi networks
    Encrypt your data on banking apps
    Share sensitive information securely
    Forget hackers and relax whenever you use free Wi-Fi.
    Protect your transactions with the best encryption on the market.
    Send private files without the fear of them being intercepted.
    Access content on any network
    Work from your favorite coffee shop
    Check social media anywhere
    Get unrestricted access to the internet on any network, anywhere.
    Feel as secure as you do on your work network, no matter where you are.
    Post pictures of cute dogs wherever you are without leaking any sensitive data.

    Disclaimer: Please note that using Surfshark services for any illegal activities is strictly forbidden and violates our Terms of Service. Make sure that any use of Surfshark services for your particular activities conforms to all relevant laws and regulations, including those of any service providers and websites you access using Surfshark.

    In conclusion: use a VPN to stay safe on public Wi-Fi networks

    It’s important to understand the dangers of public networks and take proper action to protect your sensitive information when using them. Unless absolutely necessary, we recommend avoiding public Wi-Fi. But if you want to work from a cafe for a day, use a VPN.

    A VPN like Surfshark uses a high-level AES 256 GCM encryption for all your activities. Surfshark is affordable, easy to install, and you don’t need any technical knowledge to use it, so it’s the perfect way to protect your data and get that extra peace of mind when using public networks.

    If you’d like to see more features, take a look at an in-depth review of Surfshark.

    Stay safe on public Wi-Fi with a VPN
    And get a 30-day money-back guarantee


    Is a VPN a free Wi-Fi?

    No. Although a VPN protects any network, it isn’t a network itself and will not provide you with an internet connection. 

    Which VPN gives free Wi-Fi?

    None. VPNs are additional tools that protect you and your devices. They do not provide Wi-Fi. However, they make it safe to use free Wi-Fi, which makes them an essential tool if you want to stay private and secure whenever you use free internet networks. 

    Can you use a VPN on Wi-Fi?

    Yes, you can use a VPN on Wi-Fi. In fact, using a VPN is highly recommended, especially if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network. It encrypts your data and protects sensitive information from bad actors lurking on public Wi-Fi.

    Which VPN can I use on free Wi-Fi?

    To protect your sensitive data on free Wi-Fi, you should use a premium VPN that doesn’t keep logs of your activity. Premium VPN providers prioritize your privacy, so they protect you with secure encryption and ensure your data stays hidden. 

    Can I use a free VPN on public Wi-Fi?

    No, you shouldn’t use a free VPN on public Wi-Fi. If your goal is to increase your privacy and security when connected to an unsecured Wi-Fi network, then you should aim for a premium VPN. Premium VPNs have the latest security features, so they will protect you on compromised hotspots. Plus, free VPNs offer inferior speeds while also being likely to sell your browsing data to finance themselves.