SXSW Guide & How to Do it For Free in 2025

Man standing with back to camera on 6th Street in Austin Texas

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So, what is SXSW? SXSW is an incredible nine-day program of film, music, and interactive shows every March in sunny Austin, Texas.

The conference is attended by media and tech businesses, artists, and party-goers looking to discover new talent, often for free.

We (Gemma and Craig) have attended South by Southwest festivals for many years and even got hitched at Lou Neff Point straight after it in 2016.

Uniquely, we both have experience attending SX as premium badge holders and non-paying attendees, so we can 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, and entry to SXSW-free parties.

As always, we discuss the cost of South By, what to pack, and tips on how to get the most out of the fest.

South By Southwest 2025 runs from March 7-15.

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

What is SXSW 2024?

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

The 9-day event is split into tech, film, music, education, and culture sections.

You can expect the following:

  • International movies playing in a variety of cinemas.
  • Panel members speaking at the Austin Convention Center and across the city.
  • Startups showing off their new products at SXSW exhibitions.
  • Movies playing alongside discussions about the content.
  • Bands performing in hotels, bars, clubs, churches, and even in vans.

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

Many locals actually make plans to escape the city during the 9-day event.

Band in Van East 6th Austin Texas SXSW

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

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

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

SXSW Badge Free Food Drink Party

When is South by Southwest 2025?

According to the official schedule, the show starts March 7-15, 2025.

The Interactive and Film portion continues throughout March TBD.

Finally, Music runs from March TBD, but it’s Austin, so you can expect music from the start until after the official end of the festive.

Purchase your early bird South by Southwest 2025 tickets here.

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

To find out previous SX dates, check the FAQs section below.

How to do SXSW for free Austin

South by Southwest Line Up 2025

This section will be updated when 2025 announcements are made.

For now, here is the 2024 lineup.

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/panellsts tends 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 world’s live music capital, it’s not just about the music.

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

Sessions mainly take place in the Austin Convention Center.

Announced 2024 sessions include Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney (The Black Keys), Jane Fonda (actress and activist), Dwyane Wade (former professional basketball player), Devery Jacobs (actress), Elijah Wood (actor), and Dr Sweta Chakrabort (Climate Behavioral Scientist).

Previous 2023 sessions featured 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.

Problemista was one of the big movies of the year, and it featured a Q&A session with Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, and RZA.

Ben Affleck was also in town to promote his movie, Air.

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

For more previous line-ups, check the FAQ below.

Til Death Do Us Part Austin Texas Art

SXSW Badges Explained

SXSW was created to support artists and the industry in meeting and discussing 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 sessions and films because we missed the window to request specialist passes through the SXSW GO—2024 Event Guide; some scheduling can be a little tricky until you get into the swing of things.

Another perk we’ve enjoyed as badge holders is the complimentary daily drink at an Austin venue.

In the past, we’ve met interesting locals and visitors from a range of backgrounds, including blockchain companies and gaming marketers, during the visit.

SXSW PanelPicker 2025

Applications for the PanelPicker open at the beginning of summer.

The online application gives the SXSW community a voice in the sessions programmed at SXSW.

SXSWGO App screenshot

How To Do SXSW For Free: Music, Food, and Booze

It’s universally known that you can visit Austin during SXSW just to enjoy the free music shows, food, and drinks.

Private companies sponsor venues and gigs, and with sponsorship comes free stuff!

Here’s how to get the best out of your free South by Southwest trip.

You will need a holiday after it.

Social Media

Planning for SXSW starts months before the big event.

Start stalking the bands and artists you love on social media to watch who is attending.

You should also pay attention to SXSW X and Instagram accounts and venues in Austin.

During the festival, the following official and unofficial accounts will tell you where to get food, the lines, and where the surprise gigs are taking place.

You might want to create a separate Twitter account to keep track of events.

@RSVPATX (was @SXUnofficial)‏
@Do512 <— also an app
@SXSWMF <— Craig’s recommends

Follow the hashtag #SXSW during SX, and hit the ‘latest’ tab in X 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 latest experience of SX-free events was very different from the first.

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, monitor those accounts to see where lines are feasible; you must be flexible at SXSW.

You’ll see many ‘no badge, no problem’ signs, especially on Rainey Street.

You will have to pay for your drink at these ‘no badge’ events unless it is a sponsored party to which you’ve RSVPed.

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.

SXSW 2016 Austin Har Mar Super Star North Door Austin Photography

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.

However, they seem to be a thing of the past now.

Here are some examples:

  • Stubb’s BBQ – free breakfast tacos and beer, aka in bed by 8 pm.
  • British Music Embassy.
  • Whatever TV show is being pimped – pop-up venue, three free drinks and food tokens.

Once the free beverages run out, there are no more, so get in early.

Vibrancy Guitar Austin Texas


The Do512 app is useful but difficult to use.

The best way to avoid this is to search for the act you wish to see, pull up the venues where they are playing, and then investigate which party that would be.

X is the best app at your disposal, and taxi apps will be required to get into and out of the city.

SXSW Go is the official SX app.

As badge holders, it has been useful for scheduling events and attempting to request special 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 they will literally pop up anywhere.

Some of the most popular ones for free parties include the following.

I’ve also listed acts that have played here.

  • Cheer up Charlies (900 Red River St) – Gus Dapperton, Men I Trust, Gang of Youths.
  • Rainey Street is full of sponsored parties that change daily – Dreamer Boy at Bangers.
  • Hotel Vegas (1502 E 6th St) has five different rooms; guests can stay at the hotel until evening.
  • Mohawk Austin (912 Red River St) Broken Social Scene ’19. We went to a Junior Boys gig here on the night of our wedding elopement.
  • British Embassy The Courtyard (208 w4th).
Dirty 6th from second floor bar Austin

Accommodation in Austin SXSW

Hotels and hostel prices hurt in Austin around SXSW.

Be prepared to pay around three times the amount you would normally pay for a room in a popular North American city, as rooms book up quickly.

We’ve stayed with HI Hostel Austin a few times, taking advantage of their private room, but unfortunately, this hotel did not survive past 2020.

Consider The Firehouse for a hostel close to 6th Street. Check the best rates at Hostelworld.

The Hilton Hotel is great for proximity but will be pricey. Check the best rates at Expedia or Booking.

Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake is close to Rainey Street, which is ideal stumbling distance. 

Check the best rates at Expedia or Booking.

Airbnb in Austin

Airbnb is a popular option for those trying to keep prices down.

There are several options for booking a private room, guest house, or full apartment.

A word of warning, though: we have countless Airbnbs, and one hostel canceled on us when they realized that the period we were trying to book was SX.

Read next | Our full SXSW accommodation guide

Austin Motel Sign Hotel

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, similar to Lyft and Uber.

Lime 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 can use the scooters with ease.

Stick to the cycle lanes when there are some.

You can’t use the scooters on the sidewalks or the river.

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

Juan in a Million Tex Mex Breakfast Austin

What Do You Wear at the SXSW Conference?

Anything goes, but be comfortable.

Expect most days to be hot and sticky, with a small chance of rain.

The number one item on your packing list should be well-worn shoes for all the dashing between locations.

If you are there to network, aim to stand out.

Bright hair, cool hat?

Whatever your bag is!

Prepare your elevator speech before you go, too, and don’t forget your business cards.

River Cruise in Austin Boat Buildings Bridge

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; it folds away neatly and looks good
  • Warmer layer
  • Day bag
  • MagSafe or 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
  • Reusable straw – I have this bamboo cutlery kit US / UK
  • Reusable cup
  • Hand sanitizer
Man on horse South Congress buildings

SXSW For Free Roundup

Don’t be put off by the lines; SXSW is an electric nine-day event that brings the best music, film, and interaction to one of the U.S.’s hottest cities.

Regardless of whether 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 must prove who you are (and you are over 21) at every door.

Greetings from Austin Mural

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 events.

SXSW Meaning?

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

How Long is South by Southwest?

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

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 reliable venues.

When is South by Southwest 2024?

SXSW 2024 took place from 8-16, 2024.

When was South by Southwest 2023?

SXSW 2022 took place from March 10-19, 2023.

When was South by Southwest 2022?

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

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

These dates will give you an idea of when SX 2024 is if you can’t make it in 2023.

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, and 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.

This movie went on to win many awards in 2023.

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 – an eerie band. I think The Village/Handmaid’s Tale has an awesome sound (saw twice). Free.

The Ninth Wave – Scottish band Depeche Mode vibe, played at the British Music Embassy. Free.

Nordista Freeze – wow, energy from Nashville! Caught on the rooftop of the 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!

Save to your Austin mood board

How to do SXSW for free

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

43 thoughts on “SXSW Guide & How to Do it For Free in 2025

    • Two Scots Abroad says:

      Hi Larry, sorry you didn’t find anything useful in my SXSW guide. Unlikely that you are the target reader having visited 20 times. Please feel free to share the secrets from your extensive experience.

      Hope the time it took you to leave a negative comment were worth it for you. Have a great SX! ~ Gemma

  1. Tom says:

    There are a lot of non SXSW music events during SXSW. They used to be noted by NSXSW. GiddyUp’s used to name theirs South X So What until they got legal notice. It is now Spring Fling. A 5 day lineup starting march 14 2024. Other places may note theirs as NSXSW. You will see some firs rate new and well know acts at these. A lot are free.

  2. S Delukasia says:

    Wow. Racking’ up advertising bucks, eh? This article was three times as long as it needed to be. I gave up looking for the info I needed. Quicker to find it someplace else.

    • Two Scots Abroad says:

      Hey S. We’ve created and updated this guide every year to help new visitors navigate the crazy world of SXSW. So yes, it is detailed and we’re not going to apologize for that! Have a great one and good luck networking with this kind of attitude.

  3. 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.

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