If you’re a nerd, the prospect of setting up a new router might actually get you a bit excited. What’s not to love after all? You get to name networks, tweak settings, squeeze out some extra speed, and generally just have fun poking around to see what you can do. If that doesn’t sound like a fun Wednesday evening to you, though, you probably just want to set up the important stuff and get going – so let’s do that!
Step 1: Get the router connected to the Internet
The first step is getting an Ethernet cable plugged in to your router, probably in a port labeled “WAN” (Wide Area Network). The other end will most likely be plugged in to a modem (or a gateway that you’ve configured to work in modem-only mode), and you shouldn’t have to do much else to get your router an Internet connection.
Step 2: Access the router’s configuration panel
Once your router is plugged in to a power source and the modem, it should already be giving you Wi-Fi. Theoretically, you could just leave it like this and not do anything else at all, but that wouldn’t be very secure or fun.
Your router should have a number printed on the back that looks something like “192.168.1.1.” If you can’t find it, just search “[manufacturer] IP address.” That will probably turn up the right number. If you’re tech-minded, you can type
ifconfig for macOS/Linux) into a command prompt and find the Default Gateway address.
Connect to your router’s network, enter the number you found into any browser’s address bar, and hit Enter. When you get the login prompt, use the default credentials printed on the back of the router. (The admin/password combination is often something like “admin/admin,” “admin/password.”) If those are missing, see if you can find them online using a tool like this one.
Every router manufacturer has their own style of control panel, so you may have to do some research to figure out where to find certain things and what certain terms mean for different routers.
Step 3: Change the router’s login credentials
You may have noticed that you just logged in to the router using a generic username/password combo that anyone could guess or Google. Leaving those defaults in place is a real security risk, so you’ll want to change them to something more secure.
This option will usually be found in a section like “Administration” or “Router Settings” and might be labeled something like “Router Login” or “Set Password.” If you forget this in the future, you can reset it by using something small (like a paperclip) to hold down the “reset” button in the back of the router for a while (10 to 30 seconds usually).
Step 4: Update the firmware
Your router has probably been sitting on a shelf somewhere for a while, and in that time the manufacturer might have released some important security and/or functionality updates. Most routers make the “Update” option easy to find, and newer routers should just be able to download and install it automatically.
For some routers, though, you may have to find and download the most recent firmware version, then browse for the file on your hard drive.
Step 5: Follow the “easy setup” steps
Pretty much every modern router now comes with a guided setup process that helps you get your router up and running with good security and everything you need for a basic network. Unless you have some specific customizations in mind, this is a great place to start.
Once you follow the manufacturer’s instructions, you should have one or two networks with custom names and passwords. The guide may also help you configure other settings, such as remote router access or guest networks.
Step 6: Get your networks going
Wi-Fi is the most important thing you get from a router, so it’s worth getting right! Every network you set up should be password-protected and encrypted with WPA2. (WEP is weak; don’t use it!) If you have to choose between AES and TKIP, go with AES – it’s a stronger encryption standard.
Your router probably gives you the option to create two networks with two different frequencies: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The basic difference between these two is that 2.4GHz is effective over a longer range, but since a lot of things operate on 2.4GHz (Bluetooth, microwaves, etc.) and it has fewer channels, it can get congested more easily.
If you give the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks the same SSID and password, your devices will simply choose which one to use based on which one they think will give you a better connection. Not all devices are good at this, though, so if you want to have more manual control over which devices are on which frequency, you may want to name the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks something different.
Don’t worry about setting the channels or channel width unless you experience connection trouble. If you think you might be getting interference, changing your channel and/or making your channel width smaller may help, but it’s not necessary out of the box.
Step 7: Guest networks
If you often have people coming over and using your Wi-Fi, it might be a good idea to set up a guest network to keep them separated from all your devices and data. Your friends might not be trying to hack you, but they might be carrying malware in with them that could end up infecting your devices as well.
Guest networks can also be a handy way to keep your IoT devices separate from your personal machines. That way, if your smart lightbulb gets recruited into a botnet, it won’t also be able to give anyone access to your private data.
Setting up a guest network is pretty much the same as making a normal network. Just find the option in your router’s settings, name it, give it a password, and tell people to connect to that one instead of to your main one. You can either combine 2.4GHz and 5GHz under one SSID or just use 2.4GHz, since older devices may not be able to use 5GHz and you get better range with 2.4. Depending on your router, it may also give you some other options, like limiting your guests’ bandwidth.
Taking it to the next level
Depending on your router and your needs, you may have any number of other interesting settings to play around with. If you’re obsessive about optimizing your connection, you’ll need to do some digging and Googling to figure out what you can do with your particular setup. A few standard options, though, include:
- Better DNS settings: changing your router’s default DNS server can be good for your speed, security, and privacy. Cloudflare, Quad9, and Google are popular choices.
- Back up your router settings: if you ever reset your router, you’ll lose all this work. A lot of routers give you the option to save a backup configuration file that you can load after a reset to get your settings back.
- QoS (Quality of Service): lets you prioritize certain devices or services to make sure that your router will allocate bandwidth where it’s needed. You can set it to prioritize certain sites or apps (Netflix, Steam) or devices (a laptop, phone, etc.)
- Parental controls: most routers give you the option to apply different rules to different devices. Just find and enter a device’s MAC address, and then you’ll be able to set it to do things like limit bandwidth, schedule when the device is allowed to access the Internet, and block certain sites for certain devices.
- Whitelisting: to really take your security to the next level, you’ll want to set up a list of devices that are allowed to access your network (using their MAC addresses) and exclude anything else from logging on. Connecting new devices will be annoying, but no one will be able to get on without your permission!
- Network-attached storage: If your router has a USB port, it might be able to turn into a wireless storage device. Just plug in a USB drive and go through your router’s setup process, and you’ll be able to access files wirelessly. You could set up automatic backups, turn it into a media server, or even set up an FTP server to make those files accessible via the web.
What’s the absolute minimum I need to do to set up a router?
If you really don’t feel like getting into the guts of your router, the least you can do and still have a fairly good, secure network is this:
- change the router username/password
- update your firmware
- set up 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks with the same name and password on both
- Use WPA2 to encrypt your Wi-Fi
Every router has its own quirks and features, and they’re adding more all the time. The few steps above are all you need to get a good, basic connection, but if your router can do more, it might pay off to do some tweaking in your spare time!