Auto-Join Wi-Fi Hotspots with iPhone OS 3.0

If you’ve ever connected to the Internet at the myriad of popular Wi-Fi spots, such as in hotels, coffee shops, and airports, you know the drill. I’m talking about the at least mildly irritating two-step dance you need to do before you can access the Internet, even when such access is free:

1. Join the Wi-Fi network. With your iPhone, this is usually as easy as a single tap on the network name, as there is no password requirement or other sort of restriction. At this point, while you have a Wi-Fi connection, you still have very limited, if any, Internet access.

2. To obtain full Internet access, you must next separately log in to the hotspot. To complete this step, you launch Safari and attempt to load any Web page; your request is intercepted, and a login page for the Wi-Fi network appears instead. Enter the data requested on the page and tap to log in. If a password is required, this is typically provided to you by staff at the hotspot location.

What makes this dance even more irritating is that you usually have to repeat it, re-entering the same information, each time you return to the same hotspot.

Yet another annoyance occurs if you are unaware of (or just forgot about) the two-step requirement and assume that, after connecting to the Wi-Fi network, your work is done. Rather than go directly to Safari and complete the log in, you launch any other Internet app (such as Mail, Stocks or Weather) and are perplexed to discover that you have no Internet access.

Happily, new features in iPhone OS 3.0, notably Auto-login and (to a lesser extent) AutoFill, eliminate virtually all of these annoyances. However, to take full advantage of these features, it pays to understand exactly how they work (and sometimes don’t work). That’s what this article is about.

Use Auto-Login at AT&T Wi-Fi Hotspots

If your iPhone uses AT&T as its carrier, you have free access to any and all AT&T Wi-Fi (attwifi) hotspots in the U.S., such as the ones at Starbucks. Without an iPhone (including with an iPod touch), such access typically requires a fee. One exception: As of July 2009, Wi-Fi access is free for everyone at the Barnes & Noble bookstores that use AT&T Wi-Fi.

With iPhone OS 2.x, the procedure to obtain free Internet access via attwifi was even more cumbersome than the standard two steps just described. Rather than simply logging in via a Web page, you enter your iPhone phone number. You then briefly wait to receive an SMS text message. The message contains a Web link; tap the link and you’re in—free Wi-Fi at that location. But only for the next 24 hours; beyond that and you have to repeat the procedure again.

If your iPhone is running OS 3.x, all of these steps are gone. Logging in to attwifi could not be simpler. Just select to join the attwifi network. Done. You now have not only connected to the local Wi-Fi network, but have automatically completed the login process as well. There is nothing more to do but start enjoying your Internet access. As a bonus, the next time you are within range of any attwifi network, not just the one at the location where you first connected, it will join the network automatically.

Use Auto-Login at Other Hotspots

For all other Wi-Fi hotspots, iPhone 3.0 offers a new Auto-login feature that, while a bit less automatic than the attwifi setup, still avoids almost all the hassles of the two-step login:

1. Join the Wi-Fi network at your hotpot, using the standard procedure of either tapping the network name when prompted or via the list in Settings > Wi-Fi.

2. Open any Internet application (it need not be Safari; it could be Stocks for example). A special Log In overlay screen appears. This screen displays the same login Web page that would normally load in Safari.

3. Enter the data on the screen, as requested. If there is more than one screen that needs to be filled out, you can click the forward and back arrows at the top of the display to navigate. When done, tap to log in.

At this point, you are returned to your selected app, but now with Internet access. It gets better. Not only does this avoid the need to go to Safari initially, but the next time you return to the same hotspot, you don’t need to contend with the Log In overlay at all! The iPhone remembers the data that you previously filled in and enters it for you automatically, behind the scenes. You are automatically logged in as soon as you join the Wi-Fi network.

Use AutoFill

There are some hotspots where Auto-login does not seem to work. That is, the Log In overlay never appears. Instead, you must log in manually, via the Safari-based method. However, even here, iPhone OS 3.0 offers a new feature that makes this more convenient: If you find that you repeatedly need to fill in the same login forms, you can save time and hassle by using Safari’s AutoFill. With this feature, you enter the required data the first time as usual. On subsequent logins, when the keyboard pops up, an AutoFill button appears (Figure 1). Tap the button and the text box(es) are filled in automatically with the data you previously entered.


Forget this Network vs. Auto-Join Off

There may be times when you prefer not to auto-join the Wi-Fi network at a particular hotspot. Perhaps you don’t have the needed password, or you find the 3G connection to be more reliable in a given location. In such cases, you have two options:

Forget this Network. When you are within range of the Wi-Fi network, go to Settings > Wi-Fi and tap the More Info icon for the network. Here you will find a Forget this Network button. If you tap this, and confirm your choice, you will immediately disconnect from the network, assuming you are currently connected. In any case, you will not automatically rejoin the network in the future.

All stored data for the network is removed when you choose Forget this Network. This means that, should you decide to manually rejoin the network, you will need to re-enter its Wi-Fi password (if there is one). In addition, for hotspots that have a separate login, you’ll have to re-enter the requested login data.

Auto-Join Off. Starting in iPhone OS 3.0, and only for commercial hotspots that require a separate login (as opposed to home network setups), you’ll typically find an Auto-Join option just below the Forget this Network button (Figure 2). The option may not appear until after the first time you successfully join the network and log in.


Like Forget this Network, sliding Auto-Join to Off prevents automatic rejoining of the network on future occasions. However, unlike Forget this Network, turning Auto-Join off does not log you out of a current connection. In addition, if you later revert to Auto-Join On, the Wi-Fi network’s previously entered password is remembered. Depending on the length of time since your last login, and the particular hotspot setup, the Log In window may or may not reappear.

Manually rejoining a network when Auto-Join is Off does not automatically shift the slider to On. You have to manually do this. Even if you shift Auto-Join to On, the change will not be retained unless you successfully join the network.

Problems with Auto-Login and AutoFill

As with any major new feature in an OS update, Auto-login and AutoFill don’t always work as expected. Here are some problems that may crop up:

Login fails when using AutoFill. On several occasions, I have found that, after tapping AutoFill, the text boxes are filled out apparently correctly but the login fails; a message states that my name and/or password was entered incorrectly. If I instead manually type the name and password, it succeeds.

I can confirm just by looking at the screen that AutoFill had entered my name correctly. For the password, which is “hidden,” I manually re-enter the password. While this works to log me in, it still does not lead to success on the next AutoFill attempt.

As a more extreme fix-it attempt, I cleared cookies (via Settings > Safari > Clear Cookies). This eliminates all stored cookies, including the relevant AutoFill data for the problem network (there is no easy way to delete just the cookies for a specific site unfortunately). Even after carefully re-entering the name and password, and successfully logging in, the login still may fail on the next AutoFill attempt. There certainly seems some glitch here that needs fixing.

Note: Some Web sites have a “Remember me” option that you can enable. While this also typically uses cookies to store data, it works independently of the iPhone’s AutoFill option. It may thus work even if AutoFill fails, providing an alternative to AutoFill.

Can’t get iPhone to forget. If you select Forget this Network and/or set Auto-Join to Off, and still find that your iPhone automatically joins a given network, there is a last resort. Go to Settings > General > Reset and select Reset Network Settings. This should wipe out all stored Network settings, including those of the problem network. While this means you’ll have to re-enter all your network settings, it should accomplish the desired forgetting.

Oddities with attwifi. When attempting to join a attwifi network with your iPhone, oddities may occur. One of the oddest is that, after appearing to log in successfully, some Internet apps work while others do not. For example, in my case, it is common that Stocks and Weather respond successfully, but Mail does not.

If I launch Safari, a “Connecting…” overlay screen typically appears. After this overlay goes away, I am now “really” connected and all Internet apps and settings work as expected.

Unfortunately, the overlay sometimes does not go away; Safari remains stuck in this state. In this happens, I found that quitting Safari and relaunching may succeed, especially if I can also immediately shift to a different Web page. Sometimes, success required disconnecting entirely from the attwifi network and joining again. On a few occasions, I was never able to get past the Connecting overlay and just gave up. Perhaps selecting to Reset Network Settings would have helped, but I did not give it a try. 

Third-party software conflicts. As noted by Glenn Fleishman in a Macworld article: “Auto-login may conflict with certain iPhone applications designed to let you either roam across many networks for a fee, like iPass Global Wi-Fi, or automatically connect to hotspots for you, such as Devicescape’s Easy Wi-Fi.”

If you still have problems… If you can successfully join a Wi-Fi network, but its separate Log In fails no matter what you try to do, it may be that the network’s Web-based login software is incompatible with the iPhone OS. In this case, there is nothing you can do except hope that a compatible update is in the works.

If you can’t even join the Wi-Fi network, or if you appear to have logged in successfully but you still have no Internet connection — and assuming that you have done standard iPhone troubleshooting (such as making sure that Wi-Fi is enabled in Settings) — there is most likely a problem with the hardware at the local hotspot; check with the establishment to find out.

Otherwise, I expect to see fixes for at least some of these problems in the forthcoming iPhone OS 3.1.