Everything you need to know about cellphone hotspots

Joe Supan

Apr 24, 2021 — 8 min read

Learn how to connect other devices to your phone’s data — most cellphone plans include this at no extra charge.

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Have you ever been away from a Wi-Fi connection, but wanted to connect your laptop or tablet to the internet? A cellphone hotspot will allow you to leverage your phone’s data connection for use on other devices as portable Wi-Fi. For some people, it can even be a way to entirely eliminate their home internet bill

Most smartphones today have a built-in mobile hotspot. With some plans, the amount of data you can use through a Wi-Fi hotspot is limited, but most of the time, it’s simply taken out of your phone’s data allotment. Learn more about how a mobile Wi-Fi device works so you can make the most of your current plan:

What is a mobile hotspot?

A mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, also known as tethering, allows you to connect other devices to your phone’s data. Think of it like a Wi-Fi connection that’s available anywhere you can take your phone. As long as your phone can get on the internet, so can your laptop, tablet or even some game consoles. 

Mobile hotspots are either built right into your smartphone or you can purchase them separately as a standalone device for $50 to $350. Most carriers also allow you to add a mobile Wi-Fi device hotspot onto your plan for a monthly fee.

How does a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot work?

A mobile phone hotspot works by turning your smartphone into a portable Wi-Fi device. You’re probably familiar with the router box in your house that sends the internet signal throughout your home so you can connect your devices to the internet without a cable. Smartphones are now built to do the same thing.

To share your data, go to the phone’s settings. Most phones will have a Wi-Fi hotspot setting. Toggle it on and decide whether you would like to share with anyone, or if you’d like to restrict who can tether to your phone. Since you’re paying for data usage, it’s a good idea to set up a password for your mobile Wi-Fi hotspot to restrict usage. Otherwise, anyone can connect to your phone hotspot and use your data allowance.

How well do portable Wi-Fi hotspots work?

Portable Wi-Fi hotspots work well, especially when you’re on the go and don’t have other options. However, your carrier may have restrictions on whether hotspot Wi-Fi is allowed. Before you sign up for a plan, ask about your provider’s rules and restrictions for mobile Wi-Fi devices.

Which wireless carriers allow you to use your phone as a hotspot?

The main carriers all allow hotspots for customers under contract. So if you’re with AT&T, T-Mobile (now including Sprint customers) and Verizon, you can turn your phone into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. The key phrase to watch out for is under contract — if you’re on a prepaid plan without a contract, you may not be able to create a phone hotspot, even if it’s one of the companies that typically allow them.

Does hotspotting your phone cost extra?

You don’t typically pay extra for using your phone as a hotspot Wi-Fi. Whatever you share is taken from your monthly data allowance. However, mobile providers have recently introduced plans that separate your personal usage from how much you share through your phone’s hotspot. Depending on the type of plan you signed up for, you may need to keep an eye on usage to avoid overages that lead to slower, throttled speeds when you exceed the data limit you paid for.

AT&T charges $75 for up to 15 GB of dedicated hotspot usage per month of data. T-Mobile has an unlimited mobile hotspot data plan for 3G speeds starting at $60. Verizon starts at $80 per month and allows up to 15 GB for mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

Does hotspotting your phone give you the same speeds as using the internet on your phone? 

It’s hard to determine the speed of the hotspot connection. The phone or device connecting to your phone hotspot may be slower, especially if it’s older. And as mentioned, going over your monthly data allowance can slow internet speeds to a crawl. 

Here are all the plans that include hotspots, along with the amount of hotspot data you’ll get on each line before your speed is throttled:

All three carriers have fairly comparable hotspot features. AT&T and Verizon are more generous with their high-speed data allotment, but T-Mobile is slightly cheaper. If you want to use more hotspot data than your plan comes with, you can usually purchase more for a monthly fee.

AT&T mobile hotspot

AT&T has two 5G plans that provide you with a good amount of phone hotspot data. For $75 per phone line, you’ll get 50 GB for yourself and 15 GB to tether. For another $10/mo., you can double your AT&T mobile hotspot limits to 100 GB/30 GB.

After your data allotment is used, you can still connect other devices through your hotspot — it will just be at drastically reduced speeds. AT&T slows you down to 128 Kbps, which is enough to check email or read an article, but not much else. Even Spotify requires 320 Kbps on its lowest setting. 

T-Mobile hotspot

T-Mobile technically includes a mobile hotspot on all of its plans, but its cheapest unlimited plan, Essentials, only allows you to tether devices at 3G speeds. What exactly those 3G speeds translate to is unclear. As one T-Mobile customer service rep wrote, “We can’t guarantee exactly what your 3G speed experience is going to be like. Speeds will vary depending on signal and tower proximity.” According to OpenSignal testing, this translates to around 4.6 Mbps. That’s enough to use the T-Mobile mobile hotspot to stream Hulu, but slightly below Netflix’s recommended speed.

The more expensive plan from T-Mobile comes with unlimited data for your use and 40 GB of high speed wifi hotspot before it slows you down to unlimited use at 3G speeds. Still, that throttling is a lot less severe than AT&T and Verizon, which both take you down to less than 1 Mbps. 

Verizon mobile hotspot

Verizon’s mobile hotspots are included on all unlimited plans that cost $80/mo. and above for one line. With a Verizon mobile hotspot, you’ll get between 15GB and 30GB at 5G speeds, then Verizon lowers your speed to 600 Kbps. This is enough to stream music, but probably not video. You’ll still be able to browse the internet and check email, but it’ll probably take longer than you’d like. 

What phones are compatible with a hotspot and how do you use it with your phone?

Any smartphone is capable of working as a mobile Wi-Fi device. iPhones use Apple’s operating system. Samsung, Motorola, LG and Google phones all use the Android system. 

Setting up a mobile hotspot on your phone usually only takes a few clicks. Before you get started, make sure your phone plan actually includes a mobile hotspot. You can do this by logging into your account and checking your plan’s features.

Setting up a hotspot for iPhones

To set up a mobile hotspot on your iPhone, go to Settings > Cellular or Settings > Personal. From there, simply toggle the Personal Hotspot slider to the “on” position. 

You can now find “iPhone” listed in the Wi-Fi networks on another device. A secure password will automatically be created for you, but you can change it in your Personal Hotspot settings.  

Setting up a hotspot for Android smartphones

To set up a hotspot on your Android phone, go to Settings > Network & internet > Hotspot & tethering > Wi-Fi hotspot. From here, simply set the toggle switch to “On.” You should now be able to find the hotspot in your Wi-Fi networks, locked with the password you choose from your phone’s settings.  

Pros and cons of phones as Wi-Fi hotspots

A mobile hotspot is ideal when you don’t have access to Wi-Fi and need to use other devices, such as a tablet or laptop. All you need to do is turn on your phone hotspot and the devices can connect to it as long as you have a data connection. It could also be advantageous to use a mobile hotspot if you only occasionally go online and want to save yourself the cost of home internet service.

However, there are times when you wouldn’t want to use portable Wi-Fi. Some activities such as streaming or gaming need large amounts of data and can use up your allowance or run laggy. It’s best to go with an ISP with a stable internet connection.  

How many devices can connect to a hotspot?

Phone carriers don’t typically limit the number of mobile Wi-Fi devices. But if you allow too many to connect, your speeds will be affected. In addition, some devices just won’t work well using a Wi-Fi hotspot because they are data-heavy. They include smart TVs and video gaming consoles. 

Disconnecting your Wi-Fi mobile hotspot

It’s a good idea to disconnect your Wi-Fi mobile hotspot once you’re done to avoid burning through data unnecessarily. It’s easy — locate the hotspot setting on the phone and toggle it off to shut all devices out. Or disconnect from the tethered device once you’re done.

Other helpful tips for using your mobile device as a portable hotspot 

  • If you share your hotspot often, consider changing the hotspot password occasionally to control who can log in. 
  • Give your hotspot a unique name to make it easier to find — there may be several Samsung or iPhone hotspots available, making it hard to know which one to select.
  • iPhones have a “Family Sharing” setting in the personal hotspot section that allows certain individuals to connect to your hotspot automatically, or with your approval. 
  • Wi-Fi hotspots tend to drain your phone’s battery. Consider plugging in your phone if you plan on allowing other devices to connect to it.

To learn more about how to get the most out of your phone, bookmark our Resource Center and follow our experts on Facebook and Twitter

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Joe Supan

Written by:

Joe Supan

Senior Writer, Broadband Content

Joe oversees all things broadband for Allconnect. His work has been referenced by Yahoo!, Lifehacker and more. He has utilized thousands of data points to build a library of metrics to help users navigate these … Read more

Trey Paul

Edited by:

Trey Paul

Editor, Head of Content

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