A Wi-Fi hotspot is really just a wireless access point. Typically, they are public locations where you can access the internet through Wi-Fi on your mobile devices. They are convenient, but there are also some security issues to be aware of when using them.

Technically, there’s nothing distinguishing a Wi-Fi hotspot from any other wireless access point. You could consider the wireless router in your home to be a Wi-Fi hotspot. However, when we talk about hotspots, we’re usually talking about the public, physical locations where you can sign on to Wi-Fi (often for free). They’re usually provided by businesses like coffee shops and hotels, but are sometimes provided as a public service. To connect to a hotspot, the only thing you need is a device with wireless connectivity, whether that’s a smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

How to Find and Connect to a Hotspot

If ever you’ve gone to a coffee shop to get a low-fat, double shot, soy caramel macchiato and connected to their Wi-Fi on your laptop, then you’ve already used a hotspot. You’ll find public hotspots in all kinds of places—coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, airports, libraries, bookstores, and more. If you’re traveling (or even roaming around your own town), it’s not hard to find a hotspot—even in other countries.

RELATED: How to Find Free Wi-Fi Hotspots When Travelling

Aside from the obvious locations, like major chain restaurants and coffee shops where’d you’d expect to find them, you can just search the web for something like “wireless hotspots in Chicago”—or whatever town you happen to be in. Of course, if you don’t have an internet connection at all, searching the web isn’t an option. In that case, you can prepare ahead of time by downloading an app like Wi-Fi Finder (free for iOS and Android). It downloads and installs a database of free and paid Wi-Fi hotspots that you can search later, even when you don’t have a connection.

After you’ve found a hotspot near you, connecting to it is usually pretty easy. If you’ve got automatic network discovery enabled on your device, you should see available networks pop up automatically when you hit your Wi-Fi settings. If you don’t, you’ll have to browse for it. That’s where the app—or a good web search—comes in handy. It will usually let you know the name of the network, the password, and whether or not the network is free or time-limited.

RELATED: Beginners: Connect Your iPhone, iPod Touch, or Android Phone to a Wi-Fi Network

There are some things to be aware of when connecting, though:

  • Some hotspots are free; some are not. And some give you a limited amount of time for free, and then require you to pay for more time.
  • Some have passwords that change frequently. If a business is providing the connection (and you’re a customer), just ask at the counter.
  • Some require you to sign in via a web portal when you first connect, and may require some basic information like your name and age.

Still, it’s not hard to score some free internet when you’re out and about—especially if you just need quick access to look something up.

What about Security?

Security is a genuine concern with Wi-Fi hotspots. They are, after all, publicly available networks. Keeping all your sensitive information private should be a priority to anyone using a public network. Even though you might be signing in with a password (and maybe through a web portal), that only helps the people providing the connection limit access. It doesn’t keep your internet activity private.

RELATED: How to Avoid Snooping on Hotel Wi-Fi and Other Public Networks

It’s entirely possible for other people using the same Wi-Fi hotspot to snoop on your traffic. This is especially true when you’re using an open Wi-Fi network—one with no encryption and that doesn’t require a password.

There are, however, a few good ways to protect yourself:

  • Use a VPN: A virtual private network (VPN) lets you create a secure connection on top of a public connection. Think of it like a secure tunnel through the internet. There are a lot of VPN services out there and, if you’ve never used one, we recommend you brush up on what a VPN is, and why you might need one. That guide also has some solid recommendations for safe, reliable VPN services.
  • Mark the network public: If you’re using Windows, it should ask you the first time you connect whether the network is public or private. Windows changes some important security settings based on what type of network you’re connected to.
  • Use HTTPS: Accessing a site that encrypts your information using HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) ensures your connection is secure. It does this by checking security certificates to ensure that the site you’re connecting to is the correct site, and by encrypting web traffic. You can tell a site supports HTTPS because you’ll see a lock symbol next to the URL in your address bar, and “https” at the start of the URL itself.

Creating A Mobile Hotspot

Aside from public Wi-Fi hotspots, you also can create your own. Your smartphone likely has a hotspot setting that allows you to share your mobile connection with other devices. Whether you have that setting depends on your phone and your mobile carrier, but it can be really useful on those occasions that you need to connect something like a laptop to the internet and don’t have other options.

There are a couple of things to note, though. Enabling this feature will eat up more battery in your phone, since it both the Wi-Fi and mobile radios. If you do plan to use it, you might want to plug your phone in.

Also, most carriers place limits on how much data you can use through the mobile hotspot feature. Even on plans where you have unlimited data, you might find your hotspot allowance limited to something something less. For example, Verizon limits hotspot usage to 15 GB per month (after which the speed drops dramatically). And yes, that seems like a lot of data, but it really depends on how you’re using the internet.

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