You’re meeting a friend at your local café. While you wait for them, you decide to catch up with a few things on your phone. In two taps, you’ve joined the café’s Wi-Fi and off you go. You check your emails, pay a bill and are just browsing your favourite shopping site when your friend arrives.

The café offers free high-speed Wi-Fi – like so many other public spaces nowadays. With it, we can stay connected when we’re out and about. But it does have some risks.

In this lesson, we’ll help you to understand the types of free Wi-Fi available. We’ll show you the risks of using them and how you can manage these risks.


  • Recognise the types of Wi-Fi
  • Know the risks of connecting to public Wi-Fi
  • Find out how to manage the risks

Read time:

6 mins

Chapter 1

The two main kinds of public Wi-Fi

Read time:

1 min


This type of Wi-Fi network is like what you’d have at home. Before you connect, you need a password or to sign up with details such as your email address. There’s likely to be a ‘terms and conditions’ box to tick. You might have to pay for this type of Wi-Fi or maybe buy something before using it. Sometimes you’ll find the password on your receipt.

When you use this kind of Wi-Fi, your data is encrypted. This means it scrambles your data, making it harder for someone to see your information without permission.



This type of Wi-Fi is just as it sounds, unsecure. These networks aren’t password protected and you probably won’t need to log in. All you do is select the name of the Wi-Fi network in your device settings, and that’s it.

Your data is unlikely to be encrypted. This means anyone else on the same network can see the information you’re sending and receiving.


Comparing these in the café

Using an unsecure Wi-Fi network is often very quick and easy. No password to think of, no ‘Terms and Conditions’ box to tick.


You should note this can mean that:

  • When you read your emails, others could access your email account
  • When you pay your bills, someone could see your bank details


So secured Wi-Fi is best. But you might not have that option – maybe the café’s Wi-Fi has no password. Plus, even secured Wi-Fi has some risks. In the next chapter, we’ll talk about what to check, and how to reduce these risks.

Chapter 2

Identify the risks

Read time:

3 mins

What are the risks?

Although using free Wi-Fi is handy, there are some risks. In this section, we’ll equip you with three things you should be aware of. In chapter 3, we’ll then give you top tips to avoid them. You should know though, that being aware of these risks is always the first step you can take to keep safe.


Be aware of who can spy on you

When you’re on your devices in public, there’s always a risk that people can use this to spy on you and your information. People can physically look at your screen. There is also software that people can use to spy on you while connected to the same Wi-Fi you are. This is called ‘Spyware’ and can be used to steal your details (like personal or bank details).


Be aware of other software

Not only can others see what you do online using software, they can also use it to harm your device. Using ‘malware’ they can transfer code across Wi-Fi networks that will cause damage. As an example, you might get asked to install an update on your device. When you click it, that is when the malware is downloaded onto your device.


Be aware of networks that aren’t genuine

Anyone can create a network connection. So, people can use this to create connections that look like free Wi-Fi, but allow access to your device once you connect to them. They might have names like ‘Free airport Wi-Fi’, or the name of the café you are in. So you join, thinking you’re on the right Wi-Fi. Instead, you’ve connected to a hotspot set up by someone trying to trick you.


What to look for

Now you know the risks, let’s look at how to spot them.

Who does the network belong to?

What information are you sharing?

Can you encrypt to keep safe?

Is it really better than using your phone data

Who does the network belong to?

Always check the name of the network you’re connecting to. Try to use networks you recognise, such as Starbucks, BT, etc. If you’re in an independent shop or café ask a member of staff for the Wi-Fi details. Valid networks will ask for a password.

You may need to type in some login information, such as email address. Don’t hand over any information if you don’t feel comfortable. Think the login page doesn’t look right or is asking for unnecessary information? Check with a member of staff that you’re on the right network. If in doubt, just disconnect.


What information are you sharing?

Never access or enter personal information such as your bank account or email account. And avoid shopping online. This is especially important if you’re using unsecured Wi-Fi. But even secured networks are not always 100% safe.


Can you encrypt to keep safe?

Earlier, we talked about secure Wi-Fi using ‘encryption’. This scrambling of data makes it harder for others to access your information. But you can encrypt your data yourself, by using something called a VPN.

A VPN (or Virtual Private Network) helps keep your data safe when you’re using public Wi-Fi. So even if you’re using the same public Wi-Fi hotspot as others, they won’t be able to see your data. There are lots of smartphone apps that do this, both free and paid for. Do your research to pick the one that works best for you. This Which? guide is may be able to help you get started.


Is it really better than using your phone data?

Sometimes we use public Wi-Fi to save our data. But we often don’t use the data allowance that we’ve already paid for. When we use 4G or 5G networks, it’s a lot more secure than public Wi-Fi.

So think about switching off Wi-Fi and making the most of your data. If you’re just browsing the internet or using social media, this often works well. But be aware that streaming movies and joining long video calls can drain your data quickly. Always check your phone contract to see what your allowance is, and the charges for going over this.

Chapter 3

Top tips for connecting to Wi-Fi in public

Read time:

2 mins

Staying safe – our top tips

  • Connect to a secured network if possible
  • Think about using a VPN – Especially if you need to use an unsecured network
  • Don’t access personal information – Any info you wouldn’t share with others. For instance, bank account details, passwords and payment details when you’re shopping online
  • Keep your device with you – This avoids the risk of theft, or someone looking at what’s on it
  • Turn off auto-connect – This makes sure that your device won’t connect to a public network unless you tell it to do so
  • Try using your phone data – 4G and 5G connections are fast, and more secure than using public Wi-Fi networks


Using a secure Wi-Fi connection doesn’t make your phone or laptop 100% safe. Keep your security software up-to-date and don’t forget to apply security updates when they become available. Older phones can be less secure – this article can help you check yours.

Test your knowledge

Answer this question by selecting one answer from the three options provided.

That's not quite right!

Hint: it's good to check for the most secure Wi-Fi

That's right!

The café staff will be able to confirm the network name so you know you're on the right Wi-Fi. And knowing that there's a password tells you it's more secure.


Bank of Scotland Academy is committed to providing information in a way that is accessible and useful for our users. This information, however, is not in any way intended to amount to authority or advice on which reliance should be placed. You should seek professional advice as appropriate and required. Any sites, products or services named in this module are just examples of what's available. Bank of Scotland does not endorse the services they provide. The information in this module was last updated on 14th July 2023.