In places where mobile broadband is wildly expensive, or SIM cards are hard to get, a traveller becomes dependent on finding WiFi connections.
WiFi providers have a raft of techniques for limiting your access to their WiFi network. Sometimes, these limitations are reasonable (if, for example, one person watching a video would use so much bandwidth that it would prevent anyone else from using the internet). Sometimes, they are completely unreasonable (for example when a five-star hotel limits the number of free access codes it will allow you to use, and wants you to pay $15 for each code after the first few – as well as paying the inflated prices they charge for tea and coffee). We encountered one coffee shop that would only allow you to use the internet for 30 minutes ONCE PER DAY, no matter how much coffee you bought from them.
Some places provide you with a time-limited code, which cuts off your access after 30 minutes or an hour. Some throttle, or block completely, certain websites, like YouTube and Netflix. Some prohibit you from downloading anything.
Here are the best ways to get around the artificial limiting techniques, and optimise the WiFi connections in your area.
Note – if the internet connection is actually really bad, you might be better off trying some of the ideas we have for getting decent WiFi speeds in places with poor WiFi connections (coming soon). If the connection is good, but your access is being artificially restricted, here’s what you can do:
1. Extend the duration of your access code
Many systems are set up to deny you access once the time period allocated to your code has passed. That moment ticks over, and the next request your computer makes for a web page will be blocked, and a page demanding a new code will appear instead.
Depending on their WiFi setup, they may only block new connections. If so, when you use a VPN (Virtual Private Network), they will see only one connection, right when you first connect. All your browsing and internet usage will be carried in the VPN right past the greedy paws of the local provider, so you will be able to continue browsing until you close down your VPN (as you are packing up to leave).
Don’t know much about VPNs? We have a whole article on how to use a VPN for online security, accessing geo-limited web services, getting cheap airfares, and much more.
2. Avoid daily time limits or data limits
Often free wifi is free… but only a bit free. After you’ve used the amount of time or data they allow, you get cut off. Some allow you to reconnect again immediately, others require you to wait a day. However, sometimes your internet banking or scheduled skype call can’t wait another day.
Disconnecting from then reconnecting to the WiFi hotspot won’t cut it – they know that it’s you trying to dodge them because each device has a unique identifier, called a MAC address.
Here’s the trick: Did you know that you can change the MAC address of your computer?
Superman has used the interwebs for 30 minutes, so he gets blocked… but here comes Clark Kent – we’ve never seen him before …
MAC addresses are 12 hexadecimal digits arranged in pairs. Not that you really need to know that. All you really need to know is how to change the sucker.
- Download and install MAC Address Changer
(Hint: download the MAC address changer BEFORE you get cut off from the internet…)
- Write down your current MAC address just in case you need to change it back
- Click “Change MAC”, then “Randomise”
- Change the first two characters to 02, then click “Change”
For the geeks, the initial “02” means “locally administered” – yes, the specification allows you to do this by design.
Mac OS X:
- Open a Terminal window (press Command + Space, type Terminal, and press Enter)
ifconfig en0 | grep ether
- Write down the MAC address, just in case you need to change it back. (It will change back automatically when you reboot, anyway)
sudo ifconfig en0 02:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx
Where an ‘x’ is a random character from 0-9 or A-F
sudo ifconfig en0 02:8a:7c:e6:48:a3
3. Escaping Other Artificial Limitations – Censorship, Throttling, Torrent Blocking, and “Shaping”
Many countries are attempting to limit the access their citizens have to the internet, by using internet filters to block thousands upon thousands of domain names.
Even when you are at home, many internet service providers (ISPs) speed-limit websites like Youtube and Netflix, to lower their own data expenses due to the increasing popularity of watching videos online (See the Net Neutrality Map for what your ISP is doing to you).
Does your WiFi provider prohibit you from downloading torrents, or slow their download speed? This is increasingly a problem, even if the torrent website domains haven’t been censored at the country level.
All these limitations can be escaped by using a VPN (virtual private network). So even if you don’t have to deal with time-limited access codes, there are still some very good reasons to use a VPN.
Not sure how to get a VPN? It’s really simple. Just go to our article on how to use a VPN for online security, accessing geo-limited web services, getting cheap airfares, and much more, for an easy-start guide.
4. Find a better WiFi hotspot
If the WiFi requires a purchase to get an access code, and you’re already jittery from the 3 coffees you purchased to justify your codes, then for the sake of your health, budget and convenience it’s time to go elsewhere!
Instabridge is a great community-sourced database of free WiFi hotspots (including their passwords). Download the app on your Android or iPhone and follow the map to the closest hotspot and the app will connect you automatically.
Be sure to add what you find to the database to benefit others in your situation.
You can also do a Foursquare WiFi search to find other options in your area.
If you have more hints and tips, please let us know!