Free Wi-Fi can seem like a no-brainer, especially if you’re out and about and lacking mobile data or a strong signal. From public transport to shops and airports, hotspots are increasingly easy to find, too – it’s predicted there will be some 549 million of them worldwide by 2022. But using public Wi-Fi can be a serious security risk if you don’t take precautions.

You’ll rarely know who sets them up or who connects to them. Data transferred over unsecured public networks can be intercepted by criminals, including valuable login, personal and financial information. It’s also easier for hackers to transfer malware to your device, while your data could be shared with the network provider too.

At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the convenience public Wi-Fi offers when you want to quickly check your emails or pass the time on social media. So how can you stay secure?

Security tips for using public Wi-Fi

Verify the connection

All public Wi-Fi connections are likely to be unsecure in one way or another, so keep your guard up. Treat all networks with suspicion and aim to verify that a connection is legitimate before joining, as some cybercriminals set up false networks in the name of hotels and cafes, for example.

An easy way to verify a connection is to double-check network information with staff member at the location.

Use a virtual private network (VPN)

VPNs encrypt data travelling to and from your device to protect your information and mask your identity when using the internet. In effect, they can help you turn a public network into a private one – and over one-third of us now use them every day.

Downloading and using a VPN in the UK is relatively quick and easy too. There are plenty of types available for different devices, though you’ll generally get the best protection and performance from a paid-for solution.

Avoid certain websites and activities

Limiting your activity and avoiding certain websites is another simple way to lower the security risk when using public Wi-Fi.

Avoid logging in where possible, and steer clear of social media, banking services, and any e-commerce sites which store your payment card information. You’ll want to choose HTTPS sites over HTTP sites, too – it’s relatively easy for people to watch what you’re doing on the latter.

Update your devices and software

Operating system, software, and app updates can seem like a pain. They render your device out of action and sometimes take longer than expected – but they’re not released for the sake of it.

Many updates are designed to fix weak spots and provide enhanced protection against new cyber threats, so promptly complete them.

Following the tips above can help you enjoy the convenience of public Wi-Fi without sacrificing security. But if you still don’t feel protected, it’s best to avoid public Wi-Fi altogether and use your mobile data or wait until you get home instead.