Going visiting this holiday season? If you’re staying with friends or family members, don’t be surprised if the bed is lumpy, the room is cold, and the Wi-Fi is locked down.
Not on purpose, of course. Nearly everyone has a home Wi-Fi network nowadays, but not everyone remembers their network password when guests start showing up with tablets, laptops, and phones in need of Internet. Typically, this happens because after Uncle Rusty sets up the router, he never has to touch it again and eventually his unbeatable password gets forgotten. Result: No Wi-Fi for you, or any other visitor.
Wi-Fi Wizarding 101
Thankfully, there are a few simple tricks for solving this problem. The fastest, quickest way to remedy a lack of Internet is to fire up your smartphone’s hotspot option, though if you’re out in the country (grandma does live over the river and through the woods), the connection could be slow. Worse, streaming a couple of Netflix movies will quickly burn through your monthly data allotment.
No, the only smart fix here is to wrangle your host’s router, to duck into the settings and make the network more amenable to guests. Tricky? It might be, but I bet it’ll be easier than you think.
Step one: get permission. You wouldn’t go poking around someone’s underwear drawer without asking, and the same rules apply to fiddling with someone’s lifeline to the Internet. In fact, you should be prepared to pay for a tech support call if your monkeying around tanks the whole setup—nothing ruins a holiday like busted Wi-Fi.
Next, see if there’s an easy software fix. I recommend you start by checking out NirSoft’s WirelessKeyView, a free utility designed
to help recover lost WEP/WPA passwords. Just run it (with permissions!) on your host’s computer—it requires no installation, and in fact can run right from a flash drive toolset (you do carry a survival flash drive filled with handy tools and utilities, right?)—then look for the password (or “key”) associated with the network name. If it works, you should be able to log into the network on your own laptop, tablet, or whatever.
However, WirelessKeyView will work only if your host used Windows’ Wireless Zero Configuration service to connect to the router. There’s probably no way to know that in advance, but you should definitely try your luck with the utility—it could be a 10-second solution.
If not, you’ll need to sign into the router directly, which must be done via the Web browser on your host’s computer. But first it’s time for a little detective work, starting with eyeballing the actual router to determine the make and model. You need to find two key pieces of information: the IP address and the default password.
The IP address is what you’ll enter into the browser’s address field to establish the initial connection to the router. The vast majority of them use one of the following:
If you type in one of those addresses and then press Enter, you should find yourself looking at the router’s sign-in screen. If not, a little Web searching should reveal the correct IP address. Try something like, “Trendnet N300 default IP address.” Alternately, head to the router manufacturer’s website and peruse the support pages. You should be able to find an online manual for that particular router, if not a FAQ page that lists the address.
Now it’s time to sign into the router proper. Hopefully the owner never bothered to change the default username and password, in which case you should head to RouterPasswords.com, select the router brand from the drop-down menu, then click Find Password. You’ll see a list with all the default usernames and passwords for that brand’s models. Find the one that matches, then give it a try.
If your host did set up a unique username and password for the router (which, remember, will probably be different from the password for the Wi-Fi network itself, which is ultimately what you’re after), and doesn’t have them written down or committed to memory, this may be where you reach an impasse. Although most routers can be reset to factory settings (again, Google it), thereby wiping all passwords, that may be more than you want to take on during a friendly holiday visit.
Let’s assume, though, that you were able to sign in. Now it’s just a matter of finding the Wi-Fi network settings, which in most router menus are plainly labeled. (If not, the aforementioned online manual should help you locate them.) From here you have two choices: change the network password or enable guest access.
If you change the network password, make sure to write it down for your host for safekeeping. Also, do the cool thing and sign back into the network on each of his or her devices, as each one will have to reconnect using the new password.
The better option, however, is guest access, a feature common on most newer routers. Enabling it allows visitors like yourself to get online while restricting access to other areas of the network, and without revealing the primary network password. Again, make sure to clear it with your friend or relative before setting this up. But it really is the best option for keeping a home network private while still allowing visitors to hit up the Wi-Fi. And once it’s set up, you’ll never again dread spending a long weekend with those people. Well, except for the usual reasons.
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For more than 20 years, Rick Broida has written about all manner of technology, from Amigas to business servers to PalmPilots. His credits include dozens of books, blogs, and magazines. He sleeps with an iPad under his pillow.