In the UK, there are four main providers of free public wi-fi: BT Wi-Fi, O2 Wi-Fi, The Cloud and Virgin Media Wi-Fi. Find out how to get access to each of these services.
It’s now fairly straightforward finding free wi-fi when you’re out-and-about here in the UK. Whether you’re in a high-street coffee store, supermarket or bank, there are four main providers of free wi-fi internet you’re likely to come across: BT Wi-Fi, O2 Wi-Fi, The Cloud and Virgin Media Wi-Fi.
In this article, we’ll review and compare the main public wi-fi providers in the UK. We’ll discuss the level of service available on each provider and how you might qualify for their free wi-fi internet. We’ll also show you to how to find nearby hotspots.
BT Wi-Fi is by far the UK’s largest provider of public wi-fi internet (it was previously known by the name of BT Openzone until 2012).
At the time of writing, there are 5.1 million BT Wi-Fi hotspots across the UK. Premium hotspots can be found in many high-street coffee stores, supermarkets, department stores and banks. They include branches of Starbucks, Tesco, Marks & Spencers, John Lewis, Barclays, HSBC and TSB Bank. Premium BT Wi-Fi hotspots can also be found in hotels and service stations like Hilton and Welcome Break.
As well as the many BT Wi-Fi hotspots found on the high street, there are also a large number of BT Wi-Fi hotspots to be found in residential areas. This is because most customers of BT Broadband (the nation’s largest ISP) share a portion of their internet connection with other customers through the BT Wi-Fi service. The public portion of the BT Wi-Fi service is always fenced off from the customer’s private home wi-fi network for privacy and security.
The cheapest way to get access to BT Wi-Fi hotspots is to order a BT Mobile SIM card for your smartphone. This will give you a free log-in for BT Wi-Fi with unlimited downloads and unlimited uploads on BT Wi-Fi hotspots. BT Mobile’s SIM-only deals start from just £10/month (discounted to £5/month if you’re a BT Broadband customer).
You’ll also have inclusive free access to BT Wi-Fi hotspots if you’re a customer of BT home broadband.
If you don’t want either a BT Mobile or BT Broadband subscription, it’s also possible to buy standalone access directly from BT Wi-Fi. This is more expensive as the cheapest subscription starts from £15/month on a 12-month contract:
- Pay As You Go: £4 for 1 hour, £10 for 1 day, £25 for 5 days or £39 for 30 days.
- Pay Monthly: £30/month (3 month commitment) or £15/month (12 month commitment).
Available from £10/month on a BT Mobile SIM card.
All BT Wi-Fi packages come with unlimited downloads & unlimited uploads.
O2 Wi-Fi provides free public wi-fi at “thousands of hotspots” across the UK. It’s available to everyone, regardless of the mobile network they’re on, with you just needing to provide a UK phone number to get access to the service.
O2 Wi-Fi is available in locations including Argos, Costa Coffee, David Lloyd, Halfords, Homebase, House of Fraser, McDonalds, Nandos, Pizza Hut, Subway and Santander. You can find a map of nearby hotspots on the O2 Wi-Fi website.
Your usage of O2 Wi-Fi is limited to a maximum of 10GB per month.
The Cloud is Sky’s public wi-fi service with 20,000 hotspots across the UK.
At many locations, it’s free for anyone to access The Cloud. However, to do so, you’ll need to set up an account. This involves choosing a username & password and also providing some personal information to the service.
At other hotspots from The Cloud, you may sometimes need to pay for a subscription. This is sometimes on a “freemium” model. For instance, London Overground provides 60 minutes of free wi-fi on The Cloud each day. If you continue using the service after this, you’ll need to pay for the service.
You can find hotspots from The Cloud at branches of Caffè Nero, Eat, Greggs, Pret a Manger, Pizza Express, Wagamama, WHSmith, Wetherspoons and more. You can also get access to The Cloud at 79 London Overground stations. For a a map of nearby hotspots, please see The Cloud website.
At paid-for hotspots, the price may vary depending on the location.
Virgin Media Wi-Fi (London Underground)
If you’re travelling on the London Underground, you can currently access wi-fi internet at 250 stations. The service is provided by Virgin Media and is available in ticket halls, corridors and station platforms (it’s not available when your train is passing through the tunnels).
If you’re a customer of one of the following mobile networks, you’ll normally receive free access to wi-fi on the Tube:
- EE: Eligible customers of EE, Orange and T-Mobile will get free access to wi-fi on the Underground. All Pay Monthly customers are eligible for the offer. Meanwhile, Pay As You Go customers will need to have topped up their phone by least £5 in the last 30 days. You can connect your phone to EE WiFi-Auto if your device supports SIM card authentication, otherwise you can log in to Virgin Media WiFi hotspot. For more information, please see this guide on EE’s website.
- O2: On O2, both Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go customers get free access to wi-fi to the Underground. If you’re a Pay As You Go customer, you’ll need to have topped up your phone at least once in the last 90 days.
- Three: On Three, both Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go customers are able to access wi-fi on the Underground. If you’re a Pay As You Go customer, you’ll need to have used your phone at least once in the last 30 days for making a call, sending a text or browsing the mobile internet. On the 321 tariff, this could cost you as little as 1p per month.
- Vodafone: If you’re a Pay Monthly customer on Vodafone, you’ll get access to wi-fi on the Tube so long as your plan includes an allowance of mobile data. If you’re a Pay As You Go customer, you’ll need to have an active Big Value Bundle to access wi-fi on the Underground. For more information, please see the Vodafone website.
- Virgin Media: If you’re a Virgin Media customer, either for your mobile or for home broadband, you’ll get free access to Virgin Media Wi-Fi.
If you’re not an existing customer of one of the mobile networks above, the cheapest way to get access to wi-fi on the Tube is by ordering a Pay As You Go SIM card from Three. The only condition is you’ll need to use the SIM card at least once every month to qualify for free wi-fi (on the 321 tariff, this could cost you as little as 1p per month).
You can also buy a standalone pass for Virgin Media Wi-Fi, but this is relatively expensive and starts at £15 for 2 months usage:
- Pay As You Go: £2 for 1 day, £5 for 1 week, £15 for 1 month or £15 for 2 months.
As an alternative to using public wi-fi hotspots, it may also be worth investigating tethering on your smartphone. Only some mobile networks will allow you to do this so you should double-check before using the functionality. For more information, please see our in-depth article on UK mobile networks and their policies on tethering.