These days most of us are used to getting Wi-Fi access just about everywhere we go, from coffee shops and bars to trains and even the London Underground. Still, there’s one area that’s lagged behind: planes.

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While you can get Wi-Fi on planes more and more often these days, it’s still not supported by every airline, and when it is it’s often slow, unreliable, and expensive. We’re going to run down the basics of how in-flight Wi-Fi works, how to connect to it, and how to get in-flight Wi-Fi cheaper or even for free.

How does in-flight Wi-Fi work?

There are two basic methods that airlines use to get internet access at 35,000 feet. The first uses a network of ground-based mobile broadband towers which send signals up into the air. The plane then picks this up using an antenna mounted onto the underside of its fuselage.

As you travel the plane picks up signal from the closest tower, hopefully giving you unbroken internet access - though obviously that depends on how comprehensive the tower network is. It also means that web access tends to drop any time you hit a big body of water - an ocean, say - where it’s a little trickier to build network towers.

That’s one of the big advantages of the other method, which sees the planes pick up signal from orbiting satellites, which in turn send and receive signals from Earth. In addition to better coverage, satellites tend to be able to offer faster speeds, but at a cost - a literal cost, that is, because satellites are really expensive to build, maintain, and upgrade - which also means speeds aren’t likely to improve as quickly.

How do I connect to in-flight Wi-Fi?

Unfortunately, the short answer is: it depends. Not every airline offers in-flight Wi-Fi, and the ones that do use a variety of providers with a variety of different connection methods.

Generally speaking, you can expect your airline to advertise their Wi-Fi services either in a flyer or in the in-flight magazine, and that will likely come with connection instructions. Normally it will involve turning your device’s Wi-Fi on (once the cabin crew say you can switch flight mode off, that is) and looking for a Wi-Fi network carrying their branding. Odds are that once you’re 35,000 feet up it’ll be the only network - unless some of your fellow passengers are running hotspots - so it should be easy to find.

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Depending on the airline, connecting will likely require you to create an account, and usually pay a fee - either per hour or for the flight as a whole. Once you’ve paid you should be able to connect and browse freely.

Bear in mind the limitations though. Your connection speed will likely be very slow (some flights have as little as 3Mbps for the whole plane to share), and as a result most airlines will block you from streaming video, and potentially even audio. It’s best to plan around only being able to browse the web and check emails, not entertain yourself with Spotify or Netflix, though you may get lucky.

How can I get cheap or free in-flight Wi-Fi?

If you’ve ever been overjoyed to discover that your flight boasted Wi-Fi, only to sink down into depression when you realised that connecting to it would probably cost almost as much as your plane ticket, you know that Wi-Fi on a plane can be pretty pricy. Unfortunately there’s not much you can do about it, but there are a few tricks that may help ease the cost.

First up, check if your airline happens to offer Wi-Fi for free in the first place. At the time of writing, all of the following airlines offer some sort of free connection, though some limit free access by either time or data:

  • Emirates
  • JetBlue
  • Norwegian
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Air China
  • Philippine Airlines
  • Hong Kong Airlines
  • Nok Air

If the airline you’re flying with does charge for Wi-Fi access, you might be able to save money by booking it in advance. Some airlines allow you to pre-purchase Wi-Fi access when you book your tickets, and you can also often buy access online in advance otherwise, at a discounted rate. Again, check with your specific airline to find out what your options are.

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Finally, there are a couple of tricks you can take advantage of to try and circumvent some airlines’ pricing structures. Since these involve either taking advantage of loopholes or outright tricking the airline’s systems, we can’t recommend them, and haven’t tested them, but they are reported to work in certain cases.

First up, some airlines offer different pricing structures depending on the device you’re connecting with - charging more for laptops than for mobile devices on the basis that they’re likely to use up more bandwidth. However, there are extensions that you can use for Chrome and Firefox that will spoof your browser user agent, so that you can make your laptop appear to be a mobile phone, and thus connect at the lower rate - sometimes as little as half as much.

The other workaround is a bit more specific. It only works with airlines that use GoGo, the in-flight Wi-Fi provider used by most major US airlines, and some others internationally. It also only works for iPhones, so you’re out of luck if you have an Android phone or PC.

To take advantage, you connect to the GoGo Wi-Fi network, and then browse to the GoGo built-in Movie Library. Select a free film and try to watch it, which will prompt you to install the GoGo app, and take you through to the App Store within Safari. Don’t download the app, but instead use the same browser window to start browsing the web freely.

Essentially, GoGo gives you a limited internet connection in order to download its app, but you can use this connection to browse the web elsewhere. As we said, we can’t condone or recommend taking advantage of this sort of loophole, and haven’t tested it ourselves, but it is one way to potentially get free in-flight Wi-Fi.