How to Use ChatGPT for Free and When to Upgrade

ChatGPT is free for all, but you need to know what types of prompts to ask the chatbot before it will do what you want.

ChatGPT is a free AI assistant that can revolutionize how you work.

Whatever you want, ChatGPT will be quick to tell you, and all in the same calm, verbose, slightly dull tone of an encyclopedia. But the tool is a people pleaser. It’s happy to make up a false reality, if it thinks that’s what you want.

How can you drill down into the benefits of ChatGPT, all without tripping over the pitfalls of the service? Here, we’ll cover how the free tool is designed to work, what you can do with it, and all the best ways to phrase your prompts so that ChatGPT actually helps you.

In this guide:

What Is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a natural language processing tool that users can interact with just like they would chat with a friend over a text-based platform like Slack or Facebook Messenger. The tool was first launched in November 2022.

The “chat” part of the name is because the program is a chatbot, capable of interacting with a user through a back-and-forth text-based discussion. The rest of the name stands for “Generative Pre-trained Transformer.” This mouthful of a phrase refers to the large language model that powers the program.

The tool uses a predictive model to guess what response would make the most sense based on the commands that you give it. Users can use it to help plan out a vacation, create a shopping list, or code a website.

“While we have safeguards in place, the system may occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information and produce offensive or biased content. It is not intended to give advice.” ~OpenAI

The service is free to use, although it does come with a premium tier for $20 per month. According to some estimates, the chatbot’s owner OpenAI might be paying as much as $700,000 per day to keep the tool operating. By keeping it free, OpenAI is able to continue collecting data that lets the company make even more money down the road.

How to Use ChatGPT 3.5 for Free

ChatGPT 3.5 is the latest version of the chatbot that is easily available on the ChatGPT website.

  1. To get started, you’ll need a free ChatGPT account. Click the “Sign Up” button on the upper righthand corner of the screen, and enter an email address and password.
  2. Head over to your inbox to verify your email by clicking a link.
  3. Then, you’ll need to add more information: First name, last name, your organization (that’s optional), and your birthday.
  4. Finally, you’ll need to enter a phone number, which OpenAI will verify.

That’s it! You’ll be directed to the ChatGPT tool whenever you’re signed in, and you can start using it.

An even more recent version of the chatbot, GPT-4, came out in March 2023 — you can sign up to try it as well, but you’ll kept be on a waiting list. The only reliable way to gain access to GPT-4 is by paying for it.

ChatGPT Free vs Paid ChatGPT Plus: Is It Worth Upgrading?

ChatGPT has one paid tier, in addition to the free version. It’s called ChatGPT Plus and costs $20 per month.

OpenAI cites three benefits to paying for ChatGPT Plus:

  • It will be available constantly (the free version may be throttled when demand is high)
  • It has a faster response time than the free version
  • New features will debut first on Plus before eventually trickling down to the free version

These benefits aren’t likely to be a huge deal for most users, so we’d recommend sticking with the free version. But if you’re really into the tool and you want to stay on the cutting edge of the technology, it’s there for you.

What Does ChatGPT Actually Do?

You need to understand what ChatGPT does before you can use it. A lot of people don’t.

The creator of popular Netflix anthology series Black Mirror, Charlie Booker, recently gave an interview discussing why ChatGPT can’t write an episode. His statement is one of the most concise explanations of what ChatGPT is designed to do:

“I’ve toyed around with ChatGPT a bit. The first thing I did was type ‘generate Black Mirror episode’ and it comes up with something that, at first glance, reads plausibly, but on second glance, is shit. Because all it’s done is look up all the synopses of Black Mirror episodes, and sort of mush them together.” ~Charlie Booker, Empire magazine

In other words, ChatGPT can synthesize existing content. Like all large language models, it can’t create something truly original or groundbreaking, because by definition it is only looking at what already exists.

It also has a limited context window, so it can’t take into account all the factors that a human might when considering the same prompt. It may even contradict itself over the course of several responses.

ChatGPT is good for:

  • Creative fiction – If you’ve ever wanted life advice from Uncle Iroh from the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, or you want to hear Dracula’s review of Legally Blonde, you just have to ask.
  • Small text-based tasks – If you need to create a first draft of a speech, blog post, or grocery list, ChatGPT can help. But you’ll need to give it thoughtful prompts, and you’ll need to fact-check what it says.
  • (Some) Coding – ChatGPT is great at creating brand new code from scratch (although you should still check your work). It’s great for debugging error messages or helping with code reviews. However, there are limits. If you’re contributing to a preexisting code repository, ChatGPT won’t understand this larger context, making it a less useful tool.
  • Simplifying confusing text – If you copy and paste stilted academic paragraphs into ChatGPT, you can ask it to translate it into an easier read.
ChatGPT Dracula review

ChatGPT is bad for:

  • Math – ChatGPT uses a large language model, not a calcuator. It creates thoughtful insights in realms like philosophy, but it’s just not designed for hard science. It might answer a math problem correctly, but at no point will it complete the calculations needed to get a trustworthy solution.
  • Fully factual information – ChatGPT is a predictive technology, but its predictions aren’t fact-checked. It doesn’t tell the truth; it tells truth-like statements. It will make up entirely new sources for an essay, and will attribute made-up quotes to anyone you ask it to. It will claim that the word “mayonnaise” has four Ns.
  • Verifying if something was written with ChatGPT – One college professor flunked the majority of his class after ChatGPT falsely claimed that it had written their essays. The program is not designed to verify if it has or hasn’t written anything.

The bottom line is that everything ChatGPT does should be taken with a grain of salt.

ChatGPT is like a really smart toddler. If you’ve ever heard a toddler try to tell you a joke before they’ve settled on a punchline, you’ve likely experienced the context-light word-assocation you can expect from generative AI like ChatGPT.

Best ChatGPT Prompt Tips

ChatGPT is a tool for predicting what a good response might be to a prompt. The more specific your prompt, the better the ChatGPT response.

Here a few guidelines to help you understand what the process of creating anything with ChatGPT should look like.

Start your prompt with a command

ChatGPT will respond conversationally to prompts like “How are you today?,” but what it really wants is to help you solve a problem. To guide ChatGPT towards realizing exactly what you want it to do, you should start your prompts with terms like “Write,” “Create,” “Generate,” or “Suggest.”

Specify the tone and writing style

Do you want a technical tone? A poetic one? Say so. Adjectives are your friend here. You can even specify the exact writer whose style you’d like to emulate, from Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Aristotle.

Specify the intended audience

ChatGPT can phrase its response as if it’s explaining the world to a five-year-old or a 1920s gold panner. If you need marketing copy for a specific product, you should mention the demographic information for the customer that you want to reach.

Use quotes

One odd quirk of ChatGPT is that it will laser-focus on a particular phrase if you put quotes around it. Asking its opinion on ‘honey bees’ will give you a more complex, honey bee-specific response than simply asking its opinion on honey bees.

Set limits

ChatGPT needs to know the boundaries of what you want. You can tell it the number of words or the number of paragraphs you want in a response. Just saying “give me a concise overview” of a topic is an improvement over just saying “tell me about” a specific topic.

Iterate your prompt

Once you get a response, you can finetune your original prompt to try for a better one. For instance, I find that adding “avoid using filler words” to the end of a prompt tends to improve the quality of a response.

ChatGPT suggests prompts

ChatGPT Alternatives That Are Free

ChatGPT isn’t the only generative AI available for all, even if it is the most well-known. We’ve covered the top alternatives to ChatGPT in the past. Here’s a quick look at the best.

GitHub Copilot: Best Alternative for Coding

GitHub Copilot is a text-based generative AI for coding. It’s free for students, teachers, and anyone maintaining an open-source project. Everyone else can try a free trial for 30 days, but will need to pay a subscription fee afterwards. Like ChatGPT, Copilot is a useful tool for creating new code or other simple coding tasks.

Google’s Bard: Best Alternative for Human-like Interactivity

Google’s ChatGPT competitor Bard launched hot on the heels of its rival. It operates with a completely different language model, and comes with an extra benefit: While ChatGPT uses data entirely from 2021 and earlier, Bard can access up-to-the-minute data straight off the internet.

ChatSonic: Best Alternative for Accuracy

ChatSonic creates AI-generated images as well as text. Like Bard, it is connected to the internet, and it will even generate reference links to help users verify if it is telling the truth or not. Best Alternative for Transcriptions

The bot can parse audio clips, using AI to write down what it thinks is being discussed. It’s a fast, pain-free way to turn an audio interview or conversation into a more useful format.

The free plan is capped at 30 minutes of audio at a time and a total of 300 minutes per month, but two paid plans expand on the amount of transcribing as well as adding extra features.

Jasper Chat: Best Alternative for Businesses

Jasper Chat is a tool aimed at the advertising and marketing wings of a business: It allows for business-oriented tasks like writing ads, social media posts, video scripts, and more. Sadly, this service is the only one listed here that isn’t entirely free: You’ll get just a 5-day free trial, with plans starting at $29 per month after that.

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Written by:
Adam is a writer at and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for more than a decade. He was a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry, for which he was named a Digital Book World 2018 award finalist. His work has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect, and his art history book on 1970s sci-fi, 'Worlds Beyond Time,' is out from Abrams Books in July 2023. In the meantime, he's hunting down the latest news on VPNs, POS systems, and the future of tech.
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