How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi networks

By Naomi Stone •  Updated: 06/18/20 •  7 min read

No public Wi-Fi network is safe. However, you can minimize the risks by using a VPN and an antivirus, turning on the firewall, and choosing only HTTPS sites. In this article, you’ll find helpful tips on how to protect your personal data and financial credentials from hackers when connected to public Wi-Fi.

When trying to sign in to a public Wi-Fi network, you’ll probably see a notification that warns you about the potential risks of such a connection. Even if you’re required to enter a password, it doesn’t mean that the connection is risk-free. Hackers might try to get hold of your private info and bank card data — but you can minimize the hazards by following these simple steps.

Choose the hotspot cautiously.

If you have several networks to choose from, select the one that belongs to a trusted brand — such as Starbucks, for instance. These cafes make money on you by selling your snacks and coffee. However, why would someone who doesn’t profit from sharing their connection give you free wifi?

Before you sign into a network, be sure to glance through the terms and conditions. If you aren’t a professional, you’ll hardly understand the meaning of every sentence in this lengthy text. But you’ll probably notice warnings marked by red flags or bold letters and pay attention to them.

Don’t neglect the firewall.

A firewall is an anti-malware barrier that monitors the incoming data from the network. If any data packet seems malicious, it ends up blocked. A firewall won’t guarantee you 100% safety, but it’s better to keep it enabled.

Unfortunately, people often disable firewalls because they display numerous pop-ups and notifications. Later, they forget to enable the program. To switch on a firewall on a Mac, you may find the corresponding tab in the “Security & Privacy” section of “System Preferences.” The tab for the Windows counterpart is located in the “System and Security” section.

Use a VPN

A virtual private network creates a protected tunnel between the server and the browser. It encrypts all your data before sending it so that it remains invisible to hackers. With a VPN, it’s impossible to identify your actual location. You might be waiting for a flight at Barcelona airport, but your IP address will show that you are in Estonia or elsewhere.

Some VPNs are available for free, but the paid products offer more impressive functionality. One of the most popular and efficient options is to install the MacKeeper app. It’s a multi-functional software with a built-in VPN, an antivirus, an adware cleaner, and a device tracking system. Its VPN encrypts the data you send online and prevents identity theft. Thanks to the multi-layered protection, you can safely browse sites and send payments. When the app suspects any data breach, it will send you an alert. If you purchase MacKeeper with a 1-month license, it will cost you €14.95. If you select the 2-year tariff, you’ll be billed €4.95 monthly.

Browse only the HTTPS sites

HTTPS is the golden standard for site security. The letter S in this acronym stands for “security.” It encrypts the connection between the server and the browser, which comes in handy when you don’t resort to a VPN. To emphasize the high level of security, some browsers add a padlock symbol at the beginning of a site’s address. HTTP addresses aren’t safe; hackers can easily see what you’re doing there.

Some sites are available in both HTTP and HTTPS versions. If you want your browser to redirect you automatically to the safe version, you might install the HTTPS Everywhere extension. It’s free, and it’s compatible both with desktop and mobile browsers.


You should update your antivirus regularly so that it can detect even a new and formerly unknown threat. You won’t need to scan your device: it’s enough to keep your antivirus enabled. In case any malware tries to get inside your computer from a public network, you’ll get a notification.

The above-mentioned MacKeeper has an in-built antivirus. Or you can choose, for example, Norton, which has received excellent expert reviews. Its basic package includes a secure VPN, a safe cam option, password manager, and dark web monitoring. The Deluxe version includes parental control as well, and the LifeLock version also features a smart firewall, a cloud backup, and the so-called “Million Dollar Protection Package”. Depending on the tariff, you might buy Norton starting with $49.99 per year, plus there are 30-day free trials for smartphones.

Sign in to as few public networks as possible

And “forget” them as soon as you log out. If your device doesn’t forget the network, it might connect to it automatically the next time it detects it — and you won’t even notice it. So it would be wise to disable automatic connection as well. When on holiday or a business trip, try to stick to the same hotspot. The more connections you make, the higher your risks.

Which strategies hackers use

To sneak your personal data from a public network, hackers typically create a fake hotspot or attack you through the one you use.

Fake hotspots

You might think you log in to a regular hotspot of a cafe or hotel, but this might be a fake. To play safe, please double-check the name of the network and its IP address. Never hesitate to ask the staff of the venue which of all the available connections is hazard-free.

If you sign in to a hotspot created by hackers, they will access your financial credentials, social accounts, and other sensitive data, including shared files. Before you go online from a public network, switch off your file sharing option. Depending on the operating system, you may do this either from the control panel or through the system preferences. Also, disable your print sharing, AirDrop, Bluetooth, and other similar options.

Be cautious about the system upgrade notifications that you receive when connected to a public network or after it. It might be malware in disguise that will broadcast your private data to hackers. It can get inside your device through the file-sharing system.

Never download anything from a public network, even from the sites that you use regularly. If you absolutely need to, rely on your phone hotspot instead. The same applies to payments: if you need to pay, please do it through your own hotspot.

Attacking from the same network

Hackers often target the connections between the public Wi-Fi router and the users connected to it. They get hold of all the incoming and outgoing data, acting as men-in-the-middle.

Too many public networks function with outdated, inefficient software. Their protection level will be higher when the WPA3 security protocol becomes widespread, but this might take a few years. So far, make sure to update your software and install the latest patches before switching from your usual hotspot to an unknown one.

If you need to enter your e-mail address when signing up to a public network, don’t share what you use for daily communications. Register an extra one specifically for such occasions.

Try to apply 2-factor authentication for all the services you use. In this case, even if the hackers steal your logins and passwords, they won’t get access to your accounts.

Hopefully, these pieces of advice will help you stay safe while you’re traveling. It will take you just a few minutes to properly configure your device to prevent ID thefts, money loss, blackmailing, and extortions.

Naomi Stone

Naomi Stone is a business strategist, storyteller and global speaker who's crazy about technical stuff and how things work. She's a regular contributor to The Thrive Global and HubPages.