More than ever, being online is part of being alive. And when insecure public Wi-Fi has slowed down your lifestyle too much, or when you want to get online while out and about with a device that doesn't have its own wireless connection, it’s time to create your own personal online world. The easiest way to do that is to get a mobile hotspot. It’s ready for everything from binge-watching on a train to an impromptu online gaming fest at the beach.
While all carriers now offer advanced 5G hotspots, their massively increased cost isn't worth it for most users. If you're a serious power user, read on. But for most folks, the hotspots that we recommend stick to a 4G connection, and those will serve most purposes just fine.
What is a mobile hotspot and how does it work?
Small and light, a hotspot is often no bigger than an Altoids box yet can put you online anywhere you can make a mobile call. Like a mobile phone but without the ability to make or take voice calls, a mobile hotspot connects to the internet the 4G or 5G mobile data network and then transmits a fresh, secure Wi-Fi network for you and your friends.
It usually can run for hours on battery power and is as secure as your router at home, often with the choice of Wi-Fi Protect Access-3 (WPA-3) level encryption. Plus, all your data is further encrypted while on the mobile data network, making everything as protected as it can be.
How much does a mobile hotspot cost?
It depends on the hotspot, the network and the service you are paying for, but two things are relatively consistent across all the options: You have to buy the hotspot, and then you have to pay for service in perpetuity.
The up-front price of actual hotspot hardware can vary pretty widely. A major factor, for right now at least, is whether the hotspot tops out at a 4G connection, or is future-looking enough to support 5G. You probably won't be surprised to learn that 5G hotspots tend to be significantly more expensive. Where 4G hotspots can be found for under $100, 5G hotspots tend to run upwards of several hundred — just for the hardware. Almost all cellular providers allow you to pay for expensive hotspots on an installment plan, reducing the cost of even the pricey ones to around $15 a month or lower. But as with all things tech (and just in general), purchasing outright if you can afford it will almost certainly save you money in the long run.
The price of a plan also varies depending on a number of variables, including how much data you are looking to have on your plan, the speed of the connection, and whether you have an existing plan with a given provider. Verizon, for instance, offers a $20/month "Essential" plan, which comes with 15GB of data (or up to 150GB for $80/month), but only for people who are adding a hotspot to their existing coverage. At T-Mobile, you can grab a hotspot and attach it to a prepaid plan for a recurring fee of as little as $10 a month, but for a smaller 2GB limit.
At the end of the day, you should expect to pay at least around $20 a month for the luxury of a hotspot, after you've tackled the upfront costs.
Mobile Hotspot vs Smartphone Hotspot
The term "mobile hotspot" generally refers to a dedicated device, but before you go out and get one, there's another solution you should consider: using your phone as a hotspot. Most modern phones have the ability to do the same thing a separate device can: connecting via cellular and producing a Wi-Fi network for other gadgets to connect to locally.
Using your phone keeps you from needing another network account and is one less thing to lose. On the downside, using your phone as a hotspot can cut the phone’s battery life in half. It can also add a lot of extra expense to your mobile plan, if your mobile plan supports it at all.
Setting it up is quick and simple. Here’s how:
For Android phones:
1. Start at the Settings Connections section and tap Mobile Hotspot and Tethering.
2. Finish by turning the Mobile Hotspot slider switch on.
3. The network name and passcode you’ll need are now on-screen.
For iPhones and iPads:
1. Open the Settings tab on the Home screen and tap the Personal Hotspot section.
2. Turn on Allow Others to Join.
3. The network’s name is your device’s name and the password appears in the middle of the screen.
If you want to use your phone as a hotspot, you need to shop carefully for mobile data plans. There’s a lot hidden in the fine print and it means that "unlimited" isn't as clear cut as it.
• T-Mobile’s $30 Essentials, $40 Magenta and $47 Magenta Max plans provide all the hotspot data you want, but at 3G speeds. The Magenta plan adds 5GB per month of 4G/5G hotspot data while the Magenta Max plan includes 40GB of 4G/5G hotspot use.
• AT&T’s Unlimited plan ($35 a month) lacks any hotspot data, but the Unlimited Extra ($40 a month) includes up to 15GB of hotspot phone use. The top-of-the-line Unlimited Elite ($50 a month) plan ups the hotspot data limit to 30GB. After that, speeds drop to 128Kbps.
• Verizon has an array of five plans for phone hotspotting, but the Start Unlimited and Just Kids accounts lack any hotspot data; both cost $35. While $45 Play More and Do More Unlimited plans each include 15GB of 4G/5G hotspot usage, the $55 Get More Unlimited comes with 30GB of hotspot data. After you reach the threshold, the hotspot speed drops to roughly 600Kbps.
Using Hotspots Abroad
If you’re aching to use your passport, the good news is that hotspotting works just about anywhere in the world that the mobile data network exists, but it might cost you extra. T-Mobile leads here included international data roaming. On the other hand, speed might be limited to 256Kbps, depending on the country.
That said, AT&T requires a separate international plan, like the monthly Passport plan. It provides 2GB (for $70) or 6GB (for $140) of hotspot data per month. Alternatively, the company has an International Day Pass that provides unlimited talk, text and hotspot data for $10 a day.
By contrast, Verizon’s TravelPass lets you use your data allowance internationally; it costs $5 a day for Canada and Mexico or $10 a day for the rest of the world. There’s also a Monthly International Plan that provides 5GB of data for $100 a month or you can pay as you go at the rate of $2.05 a megabyte. Be careful, it adds up quickly.
Picking the perfect hotspot
When it comes to getting a mobile hotspot, our advice is to start with the data network, then pick the hardware. That’s because not all carriers have the same coverage footprint and the same hotspot devices available.
I found this out when I bought a home in rural Connecticut, where only AT&T works, making my T-Mobile accounts just about worthless. To get an idea as to what works where consult the OpenSignal app, which shows actual user experiences, not the carrier’s optimistic coverage map. It’s a sad fact that the farther you get from major highways and urban areas, the lower your data expectations should be.
Next up, the actual hotspot needs to be small, light and provide a day’s worth of battery power. Working with 5G as well as LTE 4G data is a big help, but these devices are heavier, bigger and more expensive. Also, look for a hotspot that has a good info screen and can share the Internet connection with a bunch of friends.
AT&T's Best Mobile Hotspots
AT&T has two mobile hotspot data plans to choose from. The $50 DataConnect 25G provides 25GB of top speed data while the $75 DataConnect 40GB has (your guessed it) 40GB of high-speed hotspot data available. After you hit your limit, extra data costs $10 for every 2GB. Both allow you unlimited use of AT&T’s network of public Wi-Fi hotspots.
T-Mobile's Best Mobile Hotspots
T-Mobile’s mobile hotspot plans mirror its mobile phone hotspot accounts, with Essentials at 3G speeds, Magenta with 5GB of 4G/5G hotspot data and Magenta Max with unlimited 4G/5G hotspot usage.
Verizon's Best Mobile Hotspots
The network’s Unlimited plan costs $75 a month (discounted to $20 if you have a Verizon mobile phone); it comes with 15GB of 4G/5G hotspot data. The Unlimited Plus plan costs $85 ($35 a month if you have a Verizon phone account) and includes 30GB of 4G/5G data as well as the bonus of 50GB of 5G Ultra-Wide Band data. After that, the speed of 5G UW data drops to 3Mbps and the 4G data slows to 600Kbps.
Unlocked hotspot options
There is another way that can avoid buying the hardware from a carrier, but there’s a potential gotcha. If you buy an unlocked hotspot and get a SIM card from the carrier of your choice, you can hotspot anywhere. This method might require a call to the network’s support people to get it all to work, but it is a viable option that I’ve used. Here are three of my current favorites.