VPNs on Public Wi-Fi Networks

Find your IP address with the click of a button.

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Sep 23, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Sep 23, 2021

Many of us don’t realize exactly what personal information is revealed when we connect to public Wi-Fi networks. And it’s easy and convenient to hop on a network while we’re waiting in line at the drugstore, so we’ll admit that even we’ve forgotten to use VPNs at times. However, using a VPN is the safest way to access public Wi-Fi networks. We’ll fill in the why, when, and the how.

NordVPN App
NordVPN App

Do VPNs Protect You on Public Wi-Fi?

VPNs protect you on public Wi-Fi by hiding your IP address as well as your web activity; i.e., all of the sites you’ve visited while connected.

How to Encrypt Information

Unlike incognito mode, VPNs give you true anonymity online. While incognito mode merely hides your web activity on your browser, VPNs hide your web activity from your internet service provider (ISP), meaning that no one can see what you’re up to.

Free vs. Paid VPNs

“The best things in life are free” doesn’t apply to VPNs, most of the time. In fact, free VPNs as well as VPNs with free trials often come with caveats. Some of them don’t actually hide your IP address and web activity, and worse, some will actually sell you data to create targeted ads. Instead of hopping on the free route, we recommend a paid subscription from one of the best VPNs.

Is Public Wi-Fi Safe?

Without a VPN, public Wi-Fi networks are not safe. Your ISP can see everything you’re doing online, plus, you’re more susceptible to hacking.

Information at Risk of Hacking: What the Public Wi-Fi Provider Can See

We take for granted how much of our lives are online. When you’re surfing the web on a public Wi-Fi network unprotected by a VPN, you may reveal your:

  • Social Security number
  • Login information for financial accounts, social media networks, etc.
  • Phone number
  • Mailing address

If it gets into the wrong hands, this information could lead to identity theft, a nightmarish situation that could lead to ruined credit and other dire consequences.

Why Public Networks Are Insecure

Public Wi-Fi networks are insecure because your ISP can see everything you do online as well as your device’s private IP address. It’s easy to hack people when they’re on public Wi-Fi networks; without a VPN, that is.

Is Public Wi-Fi With a VPN Safe?

Yes, the safest way to secure a public Wi-Fi network is to use a VPN. But what is a VPN in the first place?

What Is a VPN?

A VPN is a virtual private network that creates an encrypted tunnel between a device and an ISP.

Surfshark Connected to VPN
Surfshark Connected to VPN

How Does a VPN Work?

Rather than running to the ISP directly, web traffic goes through a tunnel that the VPN created. In the process, the VPN encrypts your web traffic, sometimes multiple times, so that your ISP has no idea where you are going online or what your real IP address is. Learn more about how a VPN can hide your browsing history.

Additional Features

VPNs often come with additional security features such as:

  • Kill switches: A kill switch will shut down all of your web browsers and apps in case the VPN connection is lost.
  • Multi-hop: Also known as a double VPN, multi-hop means that the VPN encrypts your web activity and IP address multiple times, leading to even more security.
  • Split tunneling: Split tunneling lets you route some of your traffic to the ISP directly and some through the VPN tunnel.

Pro Tip: To lower bandwidth and increase speeds, turn off multi-hop and use split tunneling instead.

Why Use VPNs?

In our annual VPN consumer report, we found that people have different reasons for using VPNs aside from protection on public Wi-Fi networks, such as:

  • Bypass work or school restrictions or government internet censorship
  • Privacy
  • Security
  • Change Netflix region to access foreign libraries; this applies to nearly all of the streaming services
  • Research sensitive information for journalistic or activist purposes

When Should I Use a VPN?

At the bare minimum, you should use a VPN whenever you’re on a public Wi-Fi network. But you can also use one in countries with censorship like China or Russia or if you want to change to another country’s streaming library, among other situations.

What Is a Public Wi-Fi Hotspot?

A public Wi-Fi hotspot is a Wi-Fi network in a public space. The hotspot means that the internet connection is made through wireless equipment on a wireless network. Hotspots can be either public, mobile, or pre-paid.1

How Can I Find Public Wi-Fi Networks?

Access your phone’s Wi-Fi settings to find public Wi-Fi networks. They should come up automatically.

Public Wi-Fi Safety Tips: How to Secure Your Internet Connection

Aside from using a VPN, here are other ways to secure your internet connection on public Wi-Fi networks:

  • Connect only to URLs beginning with https, not just http.
  • Use mobile data, which is typically encrypted.
  • Avoid using any websites that involve your personally identifiable information or financial information.
  • Only use websites with encryption. If you need to add encryption, use a browser extension like https everywhere.
  • Use different, secure passwords for all of your accounts; it may be annoying, but it’s a great habit to get into.
  • Sign out of all your web accounts, especially if you’re on a public device.2

How to Install and Use a VPN

Installing and using a VPN is easy, but the exact process will depend on your device. Nonetheless, here’s a general overview:

How to Install and Use a VPN

  1. Create a VPN account on the company’s website.
  2. Download the app or browser extension from either the website or your operating system’s app store.
  3. Complete the app installation process.
  4. Sign in with your newly created account credentials.
  5. Click on a server to automatically connect. Now, the VPN service will hide the information you send and receive online.

At Home

For more detailed instructions on how to use a VPN at home, learn about how to use an Xbox VPN, how to use a Mac VPN, how to use a Fire TV Stick VPN, or how to use a router VPN.

In Public

More importantly, if you’re on a public network, read about how to use an iPhone VPN or how to use an Android VPN.

NOTE: For the most protection, use antivirus software on all of your devices in addition to a VPN.

Are VPNs Legal?

In the U.S., where we live, VPNs are legal. This is true for most countries with high levels of internet freedom. However, VPNs aren’t legal everywhere. If you’re in China, for example, make sure before using a VPN for Hong Kong, as VPNs are illegal there.

Finding the Best VPN

Recap

That’s it for our VPN how-to, but if you want more information, read our complete VPN guide. You can also keep reading our FAQs below for more information on VPNs and public Wi-Fi networks.

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s answer your questions, rapid-fire.

Citations
  1. CenturyLink. (2020). What is a WiFi hotspot?
    centurylink.com/home/help/internet/wireless/what-is-a-wi-fi-hotspot1.html

  2. Federal Trade Commision. (2021). How To Safely Use Public Wi-Fi Networks.
    consumer.ftc.gov/articles/how-safely-use-public-wi-fi-networks