SXSW Guide + How to do it for Free 2023

Austin Texas

This article has links to products and services we love, which we may make commission from.

So what is SXSW? SXSW is an incredible ten-day programme of film, music and interactive shows which takes place every March in sunny Austin, Texas. The conference is attended by media and tech businesses, artists and party-goers who are looking to discover new talent, often for free.

We (Gemma and Craig) have attended three South by South West festivals (2015, 2016, 2019) and even got hitched at Lou Neff Point straight after it in 2016. Craig ditched me and went solo in 2018.

In 2019, we opted for premium badges so we can now compare how to do SXSW for free against doing it like the industry types. Here’s your ultimate guide to SXSW with tips on bagging gratis food, booze, entry to SXSW free parties. As always, we discuss how much South by costs, what to pack and tips on how to get the best out of the fest.

South By Southwest 2023 runs from March 10-19, 2023.

You may also like our guide, free things to do in Austin and where to stay for SXSW.

What is SXSW 2023?

SXSW or South by Southwest is an annual multi-media festival and conference which takes place every March in Austin, Texas for just under two weeks. 

The 10-day event is split into three sections, interactive, film and music.

You can expect the following:

  • International movies playing in a variety of cinemas.
  • Panel members speaking at the Austin Convention Center.
  • Startups showing off their new products at the SX Trade Show.
  • Bands performing in hotels, churches, clubs and even vans.

What makes SXSW special is that the festival takes over the whole city. No space is safe.

Many locals actually escape the city.

Band in Van East 6th Austin Texas SXSW

Participants can either pay for a badge, wristband, or, with a bit of effort, see gigs and events for free.

You can purchase badges for each theme or go platinum for primary access to all three.

If you choose just the interactive or film or music badge you gain secondary priority access to the other two.

When is South by Southwest 2023?

The show kicks off March 10-19, 2023.

EDU takes place 6-9, then Interactive portion takes over on 10-19. Film overlaps on 10-18. Finally, music will fill the streets officially from 13-18.

The Future 20, a multi-night showcase dedicated to emerging artists, takes place 14-17 at ACL Live at The Moody Theater in Austin.

Purchase your early bird South by Southwest 2023 tickets here.

You can learn more about the different types of accommodation, and prices, in our SXSW accommodation guide.

Want to attend online? SXSW online registration is available.

When was South by Southwest 2022?

SXSW 2022 took place March 11th – March 20th 2022.

EDU took place 7th – 10th March, then Interactive portion took over on the 11th – 20th March. Film overlapped on the 11th – 20th March. Finally, music filled the streets officially from the 14th – 20th March.

How to do SXSW for free Austin

South by Southwest Line Up 2023

You might be surprised to hear this but the lineup for SX isn’t fully announced until the weekend before it starts.

The first big wave of acts/panellists tend to be announced around August/September but it is pretty much a guessing game until March and even then some artists have to pull out because of funding.

Don’t worry, we’ll explain how to create your own SX itinerary below.

Although Austin is the live music capital of the world, it’s not just about the music.

Sessions include the topics of gender, health, business, marketing, self-help, etc.

Sessions mainly take place in the Austin Convention Center.

2023 sessions will include Grammarly, Duolingo, Reddit, Google, Sony Pictures, The Walt Disney Company, LEGO Group, Shopify, IBM, Spotify, Warner Music, MIT Mobility Initiative, Partnership on AI, and Axios.

Previous artists and speakers have included big names like Chvrches (2019) and CEO of Tesler/SpaceX (2018).

However, SXSW is not about the known, it’s about the discovery of new talent from every genre.

South by Southwest Line Up 2021

2021 Featured Speakers included Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, Julia Cheek, Maëlle Gavet, Ann Hiatt, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Emily Ma, Ghazi, Hari Ravichandran, Andrew Zimmern.

For music, Circuit Des Yeux, Moor Mother, bbymutha and Sunflower Bean joined the bill.

Everything Everywhere All At Once by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert aka ‘Daniels’ starring Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., and Jamie Lee Curtis opened SXSW Film.

SXSW 2019 Highlights

Here are some of our top music acts/events from 2019. We were lucky enough to see some gigs twice.

  • Jonathan Bree – eery band think The Village/Handmaid’s Tale with an awesome sound (saw twice). Free.
  • The Ninth Wave – Scottish band, Depeche Mode vibe played the British Music Embassy. Free.
  • Nordista Freeze – wow, energy from Nashville! Caught on the rooftop of Handlebar. Free.
  • APRE – indie pop, happy band from London (saw twice, once stripped back at Holy Roller). Free.
  • Majestic Casual party – excellent lineup at the Rainey Street party. Badges.
  • Good Omens Garden Party – this was a phenomenal two-day party with drink, food, music and puppies. Free SXSW event!

SXSW Badges Explained

SXSW was created to support artists and industry meet and discuss future partnerships. Those who are serious about networking should invest in the SXSW badge.

Badges give you access to all shows, talks, events and gigs in your chosen area (or access all areas for the platinum badge), you may still need to wait in line but not to the extent of those who enjoy SXSW by stalking the free events.

Even as badge holders, we’ve missed out of sessions and films because we missed the window to request a SXXpress Pass.

You do this through the SXSW Go app. It looks as if you have to request around 9 am the day before the event.

Another perk we’ve enjoyed as badge holders is the free daily drink at the Registrant Lounge. Here we’ve met interesting locals and visitors from a range of backgrounds including blockchain companies to gaming marketeers.

Here’s the difference between the four badges –

SXSW PanelPicker 2023

Date TBC.

On this date, the online application allows the SXSW community to have a voice in what sessions are programmed at SXSW.

How To Do SXSW For Free [music, food and booze]

It’s universally known that you can visit Austin during SXSW just to take advantage of the free music shows, eats and drinks. Venues and gigs are sponsored by private companies and with sponsorship comes free shizzle!

Here’s how to get the best out of your free South by Southwest break. You will need a holiday after it.


Planning for SXSW starts months before the big event. Start stalking the bands and artists your love on social media to keep an eye on who is attending. You should also pay attention to SXSW Twitter accounts as well as venues in Austin.

During the festival, the following official and unofficial accounts will tell you where to get food, what the lines are like and where the surprise gigs are taking place. You might want to create a separate Twitter account to keep track of events.

@SXUnofficial ‏
@Do512 <— also an app
@SXSWMF <— Craig’s favourite

During SX follow the hashtag #SXSW20 and hit the ‘latest’ tab for the most up to date news.

Also, pick up a copy of the Austin Chronicle paper for shows.

The Rules of Free SXSW Events

Our experience of 2019 was very different from that of 2015 and 2016. In the past, RSVPing was a must as stewards checked for the app tickets at the door.

Things have changed, as long as you wait in line and the venue isn’t at full capacity you might get in.

Again, keep an eye on those Twitter accounts to see where lines are doable, you need to be flexible at SXSW.

In 2019, there were heaps of ‘no badge, no problem’ signs, especially on Rainey Street. You will have to pay for your own drink at these ‘no badge’ events unless it is a sponsored party you’ve RSVPed to.

No Badges Sign SXSW Rainey Street Austin

Waiting in Line

Waiting in line is just part of the SX bloodline. Even badge holders need to stand in line at times, albeit in the primary one. We waited for a good few hours, drinking our tins from the gas station, to try and catch Years and Years one evening.

We failed to get anywhere near the front. However, one of the best things about SX is that although full one day, you’ll get to see the artist the next at another venue.

We missed Har Mar Superstar on 6th but caught him in a tiny intimate venue the next day. He was basically dancing on top of us, naked.

SXSW free parties

Wristbands For Free Shows

Don’t expect free food and drink at every party. The free, like actual free, days will be the BIG parties held at the notable venues:

  • Stubb’s BBQ – free breakfast tacos and beer aka in bed by 8 pm.
  • Fader Fort – this is the first year we’ve managed to get an RSVP! Sign up for the newsletter and apply nearer SXSW 2020.
  • Whatever TV show is being pimped – pop up venue, three free drinks and food tokens.

For Stubb’s BBQ you wait in line on guest list opening day to collect the passes then line to get in. Once the free beverages run out there are no more so get in early.


The Do512 app is useful but difficult to use. The best way to get around it is the search for the act you wish to see and pull up the venues that they are playing at then investigate which party that would be. Twitter is definitely the best app at your disposal and taxis apps will be required to get into the city and out.

SXSW Go is the official SX app. As badge holders, it has been useful for scheduling events and attempting to request SXXpress passes for popular events. Craig didn’t feel this app was much use as a non-badge attendee.

A charged phone is essential, pack an Anker battery charger US / UK too.

SXSW free gigs

SXSW Venues

There are hundreds of venues at SX and the will literally pop up anywhere. Some of the most popular ones for free parties include:

  • Cheer up Charlies – 900 Red River St, Austin, TX 78701 (Gus Dapperton, Men I Trust, Gang of Youths).
  • Container Bar – 90 Rainey St, Austin, TX 78701 (The Marias, a bar made out of… containers. Saw Charles Bradley here in 2015).
  • Rainey Street – rammed full of sponsored parties that change every day (Dreamer Boy at Bangers ’19).
  • Hotel Vegas – 1502 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702 (5 different rooms, day goers can stay until evening without getting thrown out).
  • Mohawk Austin – 912 Red River St, Austin, TX 78701 (Broken Social Scene ’19. We actually went to a Junior Boys gig here on the night of our wedding elopement).
  • British Embassy – now at Cedar Courtyard. Awesome venue.

Accommodation in Austin SXSW

Hotels and hostels prices hurt in Austin around SXSW. Be prepared to pay around three times the amount you would normally pay for a popular North American city and if you get in quick don’t be complacent.

We’ve now stayed with HI Hostel Austin twice in a private room. It is in the perfect location, 30-minute stroll along the water to the city.

Airbnb in Austin

Straight after our first SXSW stint, we checked into an airstream through Airbnb and in 2016 after being ditched by Drifter Jacks Hostel we booked an Airbnb miles away from the city resulting in a taxi every day but that’s the reality of accommodation options during SX.

We’ve had countless number of Airbnbs cancel on us when they’ve realized that the period we were trying to book was SX.

Straight after the festival prices drop, we stayed in a cute garden hut house at Barnton Springs and chilled by the swimming pool.

Read next | Our full SXSW accommodation guide

Getting Around Austin

Uber, Lyft and Ride Austin all operate as taxis in Austin. Ride Austin is a nonprofit company fighting against Uber and Lyft operating in Austin and carries the slogan Keep Austin Local. It operates on an app basis like Lyft and Uber.

New to Austin is the electronic scooter system. Uber (Jump), Lyft and Bird all have scooters dotted around the city. You need the app and a credit card to activate the scooter.

I’m quite an anxious driver but using the scooters with ease. The traffic is very understanding (surprisingly). You can’t use the scooters on the sidewalks or down by the river. Stick to the cycle lanes when there are some.

Austin B-Cycle programme allows bike rental for up to 24 hours.

What Do You Wear to SXSW Conference

Anything goes but be comfortable. Expect some days to be hot and sticky, other is can rain (not that often though). The number one item on your packing list should be well worn in shoes for all the dashing between locations.

If you are there to network you should aim to stand out. Bright hair, cool hat? Whatever your bag is. Prepare your elevator speech before you go too. Don’t forget your business cards.

SXSW Packing List

  • SXSW Badge
  • Proof of age
  • Credit cards and cash ($1 for drinks tips)
  • Comfortable shoes
  • Waterproof coat – I recommend Marmot Precip US / UK, folds away neatly, looks good
  • Warmer layer
  • Day bag
  • Phone battery pack – we use Anker US / UK
  • Phone charger cable
  • Hydration tablets US / UK – for the hangovers, seriously,
  • Business cards
  • Shades
  • Sunscreen
  • Camera
  • Battery pack
  • SD Card
  • Earplugs for music venues
  • Reusable water bottle – Bud Light party refused us entry, capitalism killing the planet
  • Reusable straw – I have this bamboo cutlery kit US / UK
  • Reusable cup
  • Hand sanitizer

SXSW For Free Roundup

Don’t be put off by the queues, SXSW is an electric 10-day event bringing together the best of music, film, and interactive to one of the U.S’s hottest cities.

Regardless if you are a badge goer or a free gig stalker I highly recommend adding SXSW to your bucket list.

Oh, and take your ID – you have to prove who you are (and that you are over 21) at every door.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is SXSW free?

It can be. There are plenty of free SXSW events around the city during the festival but the main point of SX is to connect clients with creatives and give companies the space to showcase their talent during the badge’s events.

SXSW Meaning?

SXSW or SX stands for South by Southwest. Apparently, it came from the movie North By Northwest.

How Long is South by Southwest?

The festival is officially ten days but there are events before and after if your liver can handle it.

Where are the Free SXSW Shows?

All over the city! On rooftops, in shops, in trucks, in theatres, and less surprisingly, in bars. Check out venues for an idea of some of the reliable venues.

Save to your Austin board

How to do SXSW for free

Are you going SXSW?
Let us know in the comments below

37 thoughts on “SXSW Guide + How to do it for Free 2023

  1. Cherri Megasko says:

    My daughter attended this one … she is an online marketing guru for her company. She loved it there. I tried to get her to let me come along, but she said she’d be too busy to spend any time with me! LOL

    • TwoScotsAbroad says:

      You are very lucky to have that talent in the family! Digital is a massive part of SX too. If only I could get my hands on one of those badges!

  2. Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru says:

    This event has grown into a megalith over the years. The digital media component is, quite honestly, the only part of it which I am even remotely familiar. Your ingenious strategies could be adapted for almost any multi-day event, though, so very helpful! I liked how you reminded people that actual performances don’t comprise the entire show – plenty to see and do in the queues! A fun look at SXSW, thanks.

    • TwoScotsAbroad says:

      Betsy, we are trying to get accommodation for 2016 and THE STRUGGLE IS REAL! It has grown arms and legs and it’s a shame because it’s more about corporations than the music.

  3. Lindsay Nieminen says:

    This sounds fun! I never knew music festivals could be so complicated and cool at the same time! While I don’t see me and the kids attending for a few more years yet ( they are still at the “stars on ice” type of concert stage) it sounds like a great way to travel in conjunction with your hobby!

  4. Lesley Carter says:

    It reminds me of visiting Galway, Ireland during the horse races. There are so many interesting things happening in the streets and music pouring from every building and even people in the streets. Waiting in lines was never a problem there either. That’s part of the fun, right? We met two guys that I stayed friends with more than 10 years later.

    • TwoScotsAbroad says:

      I didn’t even know that existed in Galway! Sounds like fun. Looking forward to meeting up with friends we made last year again and some Austinites we’ve met on the road in the past few months!

  5. Heather Widmer says:

    Excellent information! I love festivals and SXSW has always been very high on my bucket list. I had no idea the event was so connected. You have saved me future hours of research and frustration in planning to attend this festival. I look forward to attending in the future with my charged phone and backup battery 🙂

    • TwoScotsAbroad says:

      Awesome to hear Heather! Post on ‘where not to stay’ coming soon after the last week we’ve had trying to nail a bed down the this SX in March.

  6. Veronika says:

    HI! I was never into festivals, but this one sounds like fun. Interesting that it also includes the digital side. Thanks for the detailed description on how to get involved!

    • TwoScotsAbroad says:

      Thanks Veronika. It is certainly a lot different from beer soaked, crowd surfing type of festivals you get in Europe.

  7. Jenna says:

    Thanks so much for sharing these tips! I’ve always wanted to go to SXSW but it seemed so expensive, so I put it on the back burner. I think I’ll have to take another look for next year though now! Looks like such a fun time!!

    • TwoScotsAbroad says:

      I’m going to write an article about accommodation soon as we’ve had a ‘mare of late. You can’t book to early as everyone cancels on you once they realise it’s SX and they can make their millions in that week. Stay tuned!

  8. shayne says:

    thanks for the tips! this sure sounds like an interesting festival, very diverse! hoping we could have one like this in our country too!

  9. Vox says:

    Wow! This looks like a blast! We are DEFINITELY planning to attend next year. We’re not sure if we are going to bother getting REAL passes or if we’re just going to sniff around and find stuff. We do know that we will be vlogging/blogging the whole experience. Thanks for this super post!

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      We’ve done it for ‘free’ for two years now [Craig – three] so we’re biting the bullet and buying passes!

      • Vox says:

        We ended up going and DEFINITELY are happy we had badges! For 2020, we just submitted a workshop proposal. If we are selected, we will each get a free platinum pass, can save 2 grand AND can add SXSW to our list of speaking engagements! 🙂 We’ll see you there, I hope. 🙂

  10. Sammy P says:

    Great guide for the newbie! I’ve been once and 2019 will be my second time and definitely starting to research in Jan. Perhaps we’ll meet up there in March!

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      I am starting to get excited about it! It’s so full on but a lot of fun. We’ll be the couple in tartan, look out for us 😉

  11. Alison Rollo Rose says:

    We are heading to SXSW this year for the first time as part of our Honeymoon! We’ve both wanted to go for ages and I’m taking all the tips I can 🙂 I’ve set us a dedicated twitter already @rolloroseSXSW and I’m going to use our wedding email address and sign up for RSVPster – on that point do you know if we can use the same email address for two RSVPster passes?
    I’m going to give the SXSW spotify a listen so I have some idea of the smaller bands we would like to see live.
    Any other tips for 2 pasty Scots would be greatly appreciated 🙂
    Thanks, Alison xx

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      Rock on! You are going to have a ball. I would set up a completely separate email address (you’ll need one each) because the emails come thick and fast and you use them to sign up for parties (although Craig says he used it less last in comparison to 2015, still a safe bet). Are you on Instagram? What’s your handle if so?

      • alison rollo rose says:

        I’m so excited, trying to get organised seems like such an epic task! My instagram is @mrs.rosie.rollo but I’ve started a new one for following bands/labels and documenting the trip which is @rollorosesxsw and a twitter account to match 🙂

  12. BX says:

    Unfortunately the Blackheart has closed down since SXSW 2018. They may reopen the space for a temporary venue in March but it won’t be the same space we all loved.

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear this. Great bar and venue space. I’ll update my guides, many thanks for letting me know.

  13. SXSW says:

    Thanks for sharing this ultimate hack to visit this amazing event for free, i think every music and business enthusiast should visit this event for sure this year. Only few days are left in event so plan for it accordingly.

  14. Mary Shackelford says:

    We just so happen to be in town during the SXSW fest! We have never been to Austin and bought tickets to a concert. Did not know about this and soooo excited we lucked into being here during. We have no tickets so will be checking things out by chance and luck I suppose. Thanks so much for the tips!

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      I’m just updating the guide to say if you see Two Scots in tartan, that’s us. Come to say hi!

  15. Ian Donohue says:

    Brilliant Guide – Really easy to follow and straightforward.
    Can you assist please – I have committed to travel to the SXSW Music Festival but am having trouble sourcing a ticket/wristband. Can you advise nohow I can purchase this please

    • Gemma says:

      Thanks Ian, appreciate that feedback. Great decision, you are going to have a fun time. You can purchase your tickets on the official SXSW website. Sign up for the newsletter to find out the release dates.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.