How do I connect my desktop to the nearby wireless internet WiFi hotspot?

Wireless internet in WiFi hotspots makes for a convenient connection. To connect to the wireless internet you need proximity, a little hardware and permission.

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I have a desktop computer that is not hooked up to the internet, nor has been. There is a WiFi hot spot down the street; since it is free I would like to be able to connect to it. What do I need to buy and do to get up and connected to it?

You need two things to connect to that local hotspot. One you can probably buy at any computer store, but the other might be harder to come by.

Let me explain…

Hardware

First the easy part: you need a wireless network adapter. WiFi (802.11) adapters are pretty much standard equipment in laptops these days, but not in desktops. Since desktops aren’t (typically) mobile, they assume you’ll used a wired connection and thus include a wired ethernet adapter instead.

You can add a wireless adapter to your system in several ways (links take you to example components):

  • An expansion card – Unlike laptops, desktops are designed with several slots for expansion cards, and wireless adapters are, indeed, available as expansion cards. In general, for a permanent installation, this is usually my first choice.
  • A USB plug-in – Wireless adapters are now also available as devices you just plug into any available USB port on your system. Many are small, convenient, and quite inexpensive.
  • A wireless bridge – These devices plug into your existing ethernet connection and, effectively, transform it into a wireless connection. This is probably my least favorite approach, only because it’s fairly uncommon, and I’ve had no direct experience with it.
As I said, I’ve linked to examples of the components that I’m talking about so you can get an idea, but there are literally thousands of alternatives. I happen to be a fan of Linksys equipment, but again, there are many other reputable manufacturers out there.

The bottom line is that getting your PC wireless-enabled isn’t that difficult.

Range

WirelessThis phrase in the question concerns me: “There is a WiFi hot spot down the street…”.

How far is “down the street”?

WiFi hotspots are typically fairly small. The semi-official range of WiFi is about 300 feet, but even that can be seriously impacted by the characteristics of whatever else might happen to be between your computer and the hotspot.

My strongest recommendation is this: before you embark on trying to get your computer connected wirelessly make sure it’ll work first. Borrow a WiFi-enabled laptop, or borrow a friend with a WiFi-enabled laptop, and see if it can connect. There’s a good chance that you may not even be able to see a signal, if “down the street” is anything more than a couple of houses over. While you’re at it, you might also use this as an opportunity to see if different locations in your home will get a signal, and if some spots get a stronger signal than others. The laptop will be much easier to carry around for that test than your desktop would be.

Permission

And after all that, if it does work, you should also get permission from the hotspot owner, since shop owners typically provide hotspots as part of their business, as a perk for their customers. But ultimately that’s really a different topic I won’t get into further.

Stay Secure

And a final caveat: if you’re using a public WiFi hotspot that’s unsecured, your internet traffic may be subject to sniffing. Make sure you’re taking the appropriate steps to keep yourself safe and secure.

This is a minor update to an article originally posted : July 15, 2006

There are 82 comments:

  1. Greg Bulmash Reply

    Also worth noting, if the WiFi network isn’t public (i.e. it’s just a neighbor who didn’t secure it), it may be illegal for you to tap into it.

  2. Fred B Reply

    Is it possible to purchase, in addition to the Add-In Card or USB Plug-In, something that will allow one to access the internet if you don’t live a couple of houses down from a public or private WiFi hotspot? Or is it possible for cell phone providers (Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.) to offer this type of service (not free, of course!)?

  3. Leo Reply

    Options are few. You can quite probably do something using a cellular data plan. Check with your cell phone provider.

  4. PSingh Reply

    i have DSL in the next room…how do i pick up DSL signal in an adjacent room without the mess of cables? i need to know what hardware and/or software that is required for that.

  5. SmallBee Reply

    I am in a similar situation to the original poster, with a twist. I was connected to an ISP who had installed a directional antenna on my home and an Avaya Wireless USB card (802.11b) back in 2002. Well they went out of business this year and left the equipment, but even though I can see 10+ unsecured networks in the area, I can’t seem to get data through most of them. The strange thing is friends with laptops work just fine sitting in my home on the networks my epuipment doesn’t work with. Is the Avaya 802.11b too old to work with new providers, or is there some software setting that would fix the problem?

  6. SmallBee Reply

    After some effort to solve my problem posted above, I learned the following:
    Many of the unsecured networks were service providers(not public hot spots), and in order to connect to their site they needed to have your MAC address registered. The other thing of importance is that laptops put out a much stronger signal than desktops, so even though laptops connected right up, the wireless desktop adapters I bought (I tried external usb adapters and internal cards) could not get much of a signal and were unable to connect.

  7. Brock Reply

    My son’s laptop picks up a wifi signal from a hotel next door. What i would like to know if i use just a linksys wrt54g router and my desk top pc would i be able to pickup the signal. I live about 20 yards away.

  8. Leo Reply

    First, I’m going to assume that you have the hotel’s
    permission. NOT having permission would potentially make
    what you are suggesting illegal.

    Short answer” no. You need to get a wireless card or other
    wireless adapter for your desktop.

    The best way to think of it is that your router “sends” the
    signal, it cannot “receive” the signal from the hotel. There
    are devices that receive, and those would be the wireless
    adapters for your PC.

    Leo

  9. Tara Reply

    Hello, I have a wireless router (Dlink) and my desktop used to be conected directly to a modem and the router was for the other laptops in my apartment. At my new place I am not connected to a modem anymore and have to connect to my landlord’s internet. Can I use this Dlink router or would I have to get a wireless adaptor? I’m not sure if these are the same things, that’s why I am asking. I noticed another post had a similar question but my friend said I should be fine with the router..although we don’t know much about this, haha. Hope you can help me.

    Your router should be fine.

    -Leo

  10. Kay Reply

    My son was able to pick up a wireless internet connection on his new lap top in my house. I have tried for years to get wireless and am told constantly by all the local providers it is not available. I then bought the ad in card adaptor to make my desktop wireless and POOF.. I am online with internet explorer at huge speed. I have no idea who’s signal I am catching, and I want to “pay” for the connection. How do I figure out where it is coming from to see if I can order it or what? I can get all of the information from the connection, meaning addresses that are like IP addresses. But it means nothing to me! Is there a place where I can find out WHO actually provides service by their internet address? I really want something other than my old dial up that gets me connected at 33bps. Thanks so much
    K

  11. Ken Reply

    This for those who use others “wi-fi” hotspots. Here where I live in Florida it is totally ILLEGAL to use someone elses hot spot. I personally do not have WiFi myself, but my laptop tries to connect ( and sometimes does ) to my neighbors. Recently they arrested a number of people who were doing this. It can be traced, and at least here. It can land you in the pokey!

    Wow. I’d not heard of arrests (or jail time, for that matter) before, but I suppose it was only a matter of time. Illegal or not, depending on where you are, it’s at least unethical.

    - Leo
    31-Dec-2008
  12. lalit Reply

    i have a desktop and near a wi-fi modem .
    i want connect wifi with bluetooth .
    can i do?

    No. They’re two different, unrelated technologies.

    - Leo
    11-Jan-2009
  13. ramon Reply

    I just bought a new laptop. My neighboors have a wireless network and my laptop can access it. Will I be charged any money if I connect to my neighboor’s internet network and use it?

    Only if you’re doing it without their permission, and they try some kind of legal action against you.

    - Leo
    17-Apr-2009
  14. Jackie Reply

    I have a airlink wirless usb adapter 802.11n I still cannot get connected to wifi do I need a router or an atenna I am not trying to connect other computers I am just trying to connect to wifi. Do i need any other equipment

    You probably want to look at this article: How do I get wireless internet?

    - Leo
    21-Apr-2009
  15. Phil Cranny Reply

    Hi, i was wondering if a Xbox 360 Wireless Adaptor would work instead of buying a usb port, because it does have a usb plug on it?

  16. H. O'Neill Reply

    I want to take my laptop on vacation with me. The hotel offers free internet access. What do I need for my computer to make this work ??

    • Mark Jacobs Reply

      The same things described in this article, except you already have permission in this case.

  17. rachel Reply

    that comment was for all of the people afraid to use free internet wireless service

  18. Taylor Rhea Reply

    I’ll buy you 2 LATTE’s if you help me out.

    I have a 2-wire modem with AT&T 6 mb connection, i have a windows xp desktop connected hardwired to my modem, i have a macbook pro, connected wirelessly to the modem, however, whenever i am on, both at the same time, my internet gets disconnected, I play online games and i hate it when this happens. they have sent me (3) modems’ so I know its not the modem. do you know if they might be limiting my bandwidth?

  19. derek Reply

    i have a desktop computer and was wondering how do i get it to have wireless internet the same way as laptops do. i have a wireless adapter installed and still cant get internet. do i need a wifi wireless adapater or something. i tryin overall not to have to spend money on internet service.

  20. Trae Reply

    My home computer is a desktop with a Broadband Modem thru Verizon. I also have a new laptop that has Wi Fi and I want to know what I need to buy so that I can share the connection that I already have with my home computer. Can I just buy a Wirless Router? Also my home computer has Windows XP and my laptop has Windows Vista. Will these be compatible, and can I make the 2 of them share the same connection? Any help you can provide me with would be most appreciated.

  21. yasirahamed Reply

    my brother has a loptop he had connected to internet with modom near by room i have a desktop computer how can i connect to wireless internet

  22. Derrick Reply

    My neighbors have offered to let me use there Ver..n internet service and I am paying for half the bill so it’s all good. However, can they monitor or in anyway see what I am doing? Is there any possible way for them to request from Ver..n a report as to what sites I visit? If not 100% discreet please let me know.

    I’d be shocked if the ISP saved or made available that information. However they may not need to contact the ISP – if they provide the physical connection (i.e. you eventually end up connecting throught their modem) then they could be watching it all, yes.

    Leo
    29-Oct-2009

  23. Crockhamtown Reply

    If you have a Wifi card installed in a desktop, won’t the steel case affect its performance?

    Perhaps, but most have an external antenna outside the case in the back of the machine, and some even have a connection for an antenna you can place away from the machine.

    Leo
    01-Nov-2009

  24. rob Reply

    i have a desktop computer with windows xp. how do i get it to have wireless internet the same way as laptops do? i have a wireless adapter installed and still cant get internet.

  25. Administrator Reply

    Guys check your desktop if he has a wireless adapter if it does no worry you just need to turn on the wireless adapter connection then connect to a network but if you don’t you need to buy one at local computer store (i recommend) and connect it to your desktop then turn it on and connect to a network done

  26. Tracey Reply

    I recently bought a wireless adapter for my sons desktop. i have a netgear router connected to may main computer. I connected the adapter, got a signal and it says i am connected but when i try to pull up internet explorer it says the page cannot be displayed. help pls and ty.

  27. Mohammed Hye Reply

    I bought a desktop pc with external wireless antena.This antena connect internet but slow and sometimes disconnected. How can i get it regular.

  28. Jackie Reply

    So are you saying that if I buy the Compact Wireless-G USB Adapter from Linksys, I’ll be able to access wifi from the desktop. My laptop wifi works in the bedroom so I know I get wifi there.

    You mentioned two things to connect to wifi hotspot, but I only see one thing (wireless adapter). Is there something else?

    Correct – you should be able to add a WiFi adapter to your desktop. You’ll need to configure the system properly of course (which’ll depend on your specifics). The “other thing” you need is permission – which if you own the WiFi access point you have.

    Leo
    05-Jan-2010
  29. Kate Reply

    I have 2 laptops in my home which are both running off the same wireless adapter I have (I have a modem and router in one [motorola]). My brother just gave me his Dell PC (maybe 4 yrs old). How do I get this on my wireless connection like my other computers?[edited]

  30. Naomi Reply

    I purchased a linksys wireless network adapter card and installed it in my desktop. I can get the internet (public wifi) for free which is great. However, the connection is unbearably slow. How can I speed it up? My laptop connects to the same network with 4 bars and is fast enough. I have put them side by side and there is still a difference so location isn’t an issue. Please help!

  31. Dennis S. Sheboygan, WI Reply

    will this adapter allow my desktop(XP) to share its active LAN with my daughters nearby laptop(VISTA), with internal wifi capabilility? More specifically, my desktop “transmitting” to my laptop.

  32. Ankit Reply

    what is thw wifi range of normal wifi available in laptops…..????

  33. Geroge Reply

    I have a desktop with built-in wireless. Do I need something else to connect to a hotspot

  34. suraj Reply

    hello, sir i have acer laptop which have wifi connection, i m getting signals of wireless connection but i cant configure to network, can you tell me how to configure it …plz help me ..

  35. Laurie Reply

    Hello, I read the entire article but haven’t found my exact situation. I have set up a wireless network using a Linksys WRT54G-BP router. I have permission to connect to my landlord’s WIFI. What I found is that I can only be connected to one or the other – either the WIFI or my wireless network. Is it possible to connect to both? Thanks!

  36. jon Reply

    Question about the last issue in the article… how do i secure my own information (computer)from being accessed or my information that is sent as well? I have used an open hot spot but have never had an issue as of yet (knock on wood). is there a program to protect myself from accessing the open hot spot?
    thanks

    This article: How do I stay safe in an internet cafe?

    Leo
    18-Feb-2010

  37. chetan jethe Reply

    hello, sir i have acer laptop which have wifi connection, i m getting signals of wireless connection but i cant configure to network, can you tell me how to configure it …plz help me ..

  38. Christina Reply

    I have two computers. A laptop, and a Desktop. We need the desktop hooked up wireless. From our own connection. Im sick of having the cord going from one room to my own.

  39. rishi doshi Reply

    Hi, I have a weird question. I want to connect the PC (which doesnt have wifi) to a wifi network. Wat i have is a nokia 5800 phone which has wifi. I wanna connect PC to 5800 using USB, and hook onto the wifi therafter. how do i go about it?

  40. muhammad bilal Reply

    i have a hitachi pentium4 laptop hifi enabled and i connect nokia n81 wifi ,but not to be connected ,please help me ,

  41. Charles Tilley Reply

    Yes, you can connect you desktop to a Wi-Fi connection, as my desktop has a built in adapter & internal antenna for it. In fact, I use it (through my legit wireless router that I pay for) as my main connection. But regarding connecting to a legal hotspot or a neighbor’s connection, you best ask permission, or possibly face legal action. I pay with my own money for my high speed (7mbps) connection, and no one had better slow my speed because they’re a freeloader. It’s not like when walking by a house, or your next door neighbor has an apple tree, and it hangs over into your yard, the fruit is yours for the picking. Slow down my connection w/o my permission, you better get an attorney, and fast. It’s called stealing, no matter how anyone tries to justify it. The same goes as far as wireless phones are concerned, there are federal laws that apply to these actions. Mooch off of a service that I pay for, you will pay a lot more in the end.

  42. Jasimeen Reply

    I HAVE A PSP AND A LAPTOP…I USED TO CAN CONNECT TO MY NEIGHBORS WIRELESS INTERNET BUT HER NAME ISNT POPPIN UP ON THE LAPTOP..BUT WHEN I GET ON THE PSP AND USE NETWORKING CONNECTIONS SHES ON THERE..EVERYBODYS CONNECTIONS ARENT COMMING UP ANYMORE.??????CAN SUMBODY HELP ME

  43. sikspakk Reply

    Charles….it’s not stealing if the connections are open. Everyone has the option of securing their connection with a ten digit WEP or WPA security code. If you elect to not do that then you are allowing it through implied consent….no crime. If you have a key and it gets stolen or hacked then the law has been broken.

    I am not a lawyer, but I do not believe that your statement is true. That’s like saying it’s ok for people to come into your house uninvited if the door is unlocked. An open WiFi does not imply consent, IMO.

    Leo
    17-May-2010

  44. marcus speight Reply

    Maybe you need a new laptop or get closer to the neighbor

  45. chaka zulu Reply

    You said “first the easy part”… what’s the second or third part if any?.

  46. j l frandsen Reply

    Charles, chill out. Making threats doesn’t make for friendly conversation.
    If you don’t have a secure wifi connection, why?
    If your unsecured wifi is leaking out all over the place, how will you know who is using it?
    I, also, am not a lawyer, but I’d be willing to bet that comparing using someone’s wifi without permission to walking uninvited into your house won’t work out for you in court.

    Just make sure you’re connection is secured. Save yourself from a lot of useless stress and useless lawyers.

  47. Art O'Shea Reply

    I got a refurbished Dell laptop that was “Internet ready” for my ward, I am his payee, he is disabled. I took it to Seattle Laptop and got the max memory for it then took it home here to setup for him. I was surprised that it had no problem finding a lot of free Internet selections so I bought a Edimax wifi card for my Dell Dimension 8300 and an antenna for it. I could get Linksys on it but when I disconnected from Comcast I couldn’t connect. Any suggestions?
    Thank you.

  48. catherine Reply

    thank u so much it really help me a lot your so kind. Gb!

  49. Shashank Reply

    Actually i wanted an external usb wifi device,, so that i can attach the antenna to wall outside ma window, n get the connectivity inside ma room.. coz i get network outside ma room n not inside ma room.. can i get the usb cable i mean of a larger lenght for it?

    There are USB extension cables that you could use.

    Leo
    07-Aug-2010

  50. Rosebud Reply

    We are next to a RV park at our lake house we visit a couple of days a month and the owner is a friends saying , Hey, I don’t care who uses it so we can do it with our laptop but was wondering if we might get more than one bar reception with our new desk top computer? Do you think it would pick up a stronger signal? Thanks so much

    It’s not it being a desktop that would make a difference – it’s the quality of the wireless card you’ll get for it, as well as the quality and location of the antenna that it will use. If you can connect the antenna external to the RV somehow that could help a lot.

    Leo
    27-Oct-2010

  51. Andrea Reply

    I have a wireless internet connection for my laptop already in my home. But I am getting a new desktop, How do I use the wireless connector, for my desktop? Do I have to buy a new modem? What do I have to do to connect to the internet?

    You just need to get a wireless network adapter for your desktop. That can be an expansion card you install inside, or any of the USB WiFi adapter.

    Leo
    13-Feb-2011

  52. Anna Reply

    We already have the wireless router. But I wanna connect it to my desktop. I’ve tried to read the instruction. And it’s no use. What should I do???

    If the article doesn’t help I’m not sure how much clearer I can make it. As outlined in it you need to add a wireless adapter to your system.

    Leo
    19-Feb-2011

  53. ololo chukwuemeka bright Reply

    sir
    pls kindly help me on how to connect desktop to the internet for free.i want abroadband connection of about 400MB/sec over long distances.pls help i have spent money and i aint gat solutions.

  54. sandesh Reply

    sir how can i use wi-fi in my dextop. and i m having wi-fi of broadband. but im not useing.

  55. Tim Reply

    So, I did what you said: i got a usb wi fi adaptor. but after running all the activation setup steps…nothing happens. i can select a “unsecured” connection but when i go to log onto the internet, it says i explorer cant open the website(any of them). What do i try next? please help

  56. Ahmad Shakib Reply

    Sir, I have my loptop with modil 5100 Dill so i have a blackberry modil 9100 i want to use the remoe controll.
    My mobile has an option that i have to establish a WiFi connection then i can use the remote controll.

    Now i want to help me how can i find and use that ?

    Thank You.

  57. alan lemaitre Reply

    are usb longrange adapters any better thanthe built in acer Nplify802.11b/g/n or a waste of money.

  58. venktesh dr Reply

    hello sir , im venky & im having hp compaq nx6310, laptop & i want to know , how to connect wlan internet to laptop.

    right now i am having motoraker e6 mobil & i connected net through airtel g p r s via bluetooth.

  59. imtiyaz Reply

    HI, I have a lenova laptop and samsung wifi enabled mobile. i want to connect to internet using my laptop through my wifi internet on mobile. How can i do that …I tried to but not able to connect..

  60. jehu Reply

    you will realise that it was very easy if you had a laptop.wy dont you get yourself one?

    anyway here is how:

    simply get a wireless network adapter for less than $10 and simply mount it on the pci slot!

    and there is that message:new hardware detected.
    Drive it and you are good to go.

  61. Marie Reply

    The links only take me to the cisco website. I don’t know what I’m looking for so from there I’m a little stumped. Could you update the links?
    Thanks!

    Done!

    Leo
    23-Nov-2011
  62. Brad Reply

    In the article you started with “You need two things to connect to that local hotspot – one you can probably buy at any computer store, but the other might be harder to come by.” I get the USB plug in but I guess I’m blind and can’t find the other thing mentioned. What was the second thing? A router?

  63. Mark Jacobs Reply

    @Brad
    You’re right, it does look a little unclear. The second thing is being within range of the WiFi signal.

  64. ucefkh Reply

    hey thanks its was very helpfull :)

    hotspot here i am ;)

    an advise get a pci wireless card with extended antenna

  65. Dee Reply

    I need to conect my computer to the internet & have wireless in the house at the same time.
    How can I have both at the same time with only one internet box fr the cable company?

    You need to set up a home network: How should I set up my home network?

    Leo
    23-Aug-2012
  66. aniket Reply

    Hey Can You TEll my THat
    i have Desktop i want to UsHEy HI I want TO ASk You that
    Can YOu
    Help ME ?
    Can u tell Can this Work for me or not and which hardwear i need to Install on my desktop to use my wired cable net i.e Pacenet i have a wired net (pacenet) in my desktop i want to share this net on my wifi enable phone so how to configure my desktop to use the pc’s net in my mobile ?
    i have Windows Xp sp 3 on desktop
    and which wifi chip i needed to install externally in my desktop so i can use it is wifi hotspot ??
    please reply as Early as Possible

  67. lisa a Reply

    I have a question…I have two desktop computers, one is in my livingroom and it has the modem and a wireless router hooked up to it, for my kids ipods etc…my daughter also has a desktop in her room, I want her computer hooked up to the internet as well but don’t want any cords running across my floors…what do I need to do to her computer to have that? Thanks

  68. connie Reply

    @Lisa,
    You’ll need a wireless adaptor of some sort on your daughter’s desktop. Leo explains it just under “You can add a wireless adapter to your system” in this article.

  69. collete Reply

    I have a virgin mobile broadband mobile hotspot thst I am trying to use with my desktop it’s not connecting do I neef an adapter for the desktop ‘

  70. Mark J Reply

    @Collete
    Most desktops don’t come with a wireless adapter. You can purchase a USB or built-in wireless adapter for as low as $15-$20 on NewEgg or Amazon

  71. robert Reply

    I’m want to hookup desktop to recieve wifi.can you tell me if all i’ll need is a usb wireless adapter and a signal?wanting to use mobile hotspot for signal from my smartphone.thx

  72. connie Reply

    @Robert,
    I think you could also just use the connector from your phone and plug straight into a USB port to get online. I can do that with my smart phone at least. Try that first. Otherwise a USB wireless adapter will do the trick.

  73. Mark Jacobs Reply

    If you don’t have a laptop available to test the signal strength, you can use a smartphone or a tablet

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