Why you never have to give out your email address to get online


Don’t you hate it when you can’t get online unless input your email address? How frustrating.

Well I say, the hell with them.

I’m talking about WiFi captive portals. These are the screens that show up when you first connect to certain WiFi networks. Instead of going to the web address you requested, you get sent to a different place.

You will be asked to do one of a few actions:

  1. Click a “Connect now” button, agreeing to some terms and conditions that no one will ever read.
  2. Watch an ad and then click a “Connect now” button.
  3. If it’s a pay network (such as Boingo, Gogo, or other similar companies) they will ask you to input payment information.
  4. Ask you to input your email address (or other personal information).

The first one is fine by me. Same thing with the second one. I don’t begrudge advertising as long as it’s clear that that’s what it is. (I don’t hate all advertising; I just think that it means that the product is unnecessary.) Even the third one is fine. If you want to charge for the service of getting online, who am I to argue?

It’s the last one that gets me.

But luckily, here’s a little secret: you never have to enter your email address on these portals. Never.

Here’s why.

“Free” WiFi at the hostel

To set the stage, I was staying at a hostel in Dublin. A quite nice hostel, one of the new brands of “luxury” hostel, with a bar, cafe, event space, and lots of amenities. It was kind of like a hotel with dorm beds.

And unlike other hostels that tend to be rowdy everywhere, this one managed to be lively in the common areas and quiet and peaceful by the rooms, which for me is the best of both worlds.

They also offer free WiFi, but there was a catch, as you can see below, when you connected.

Two unfortunate options.
Two unfortunate options.

You had two options: “Sign in with Facebook” and “Sign in with Email.”

Now, let’s dispense with the first option. Even if I used Facebook, that is a bad plan.

(Did you know, at another hostel I stayed at in Copenhagen last year, they actually required you to log on their WiFi with your Facebook account? There was no other way to log on. And as soon as you gave them access, they would start posting on your behalf. Why sure, I’ll let a company pose as me. Not.)

So, Sign in with Email it is.

Email games

So why don’t you have to enter your email address?

Easy: there’s no way that they can verify it!

It’s not uncommon for websites to require your email address. To ensure that you’ve entered the correct address, they send you an email with a confirmation message, usually with a link that you click on to verify yourself. No problem.

But in a captive portal, you’re not (yet) online, so there’s no way for them to verify that you’ve given a correct email address!

Now, technically, a service could do one of two things:

  1. Check to see if the email address is real. It could send a message, and if it was invalid, the mail server would reject it. But you could still get around that by supplying a real email address just not yours.
  2. Give you access for just long enough to retrieve your mail and confirm that you’re real. But while this is theoretically possible, I’ve never seen any service do this.

So, you can enter in any email that you want.

Feel free to come up with your own ideas here. Be creative.
Feel free to come up with your own ideas here. Be creative.

Then, similarly, they can ask for your name, and you can answer in whatever way you wish.

I value consistency.
I value consistency.

Congrats! You’re online! And you didn’t need to divulge any of your personal information.

World's most boring success screen.
World’s most boring success screen.

Now, by using a public connection you may be divulging personal information inadvertently. Here are some other tips on how to not be seen online.

But enough about me. How do you get around giving out your personal information to get online?


  1. drew

    how about captive wifi sign-ons that require your phone number, how do I get around that?

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Wow, some require your phone number? Do they actually verify it by calling you? I’ve not ever encountered this. Yikes.

      If you can’t get away with just putting in a fake number, Google Voice might come to the rescue. It allows you to create new phone numbers for free and link them to your existing phone number. You could use it and then disconnect it so you wouldn’t be bothered in the future.

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