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Mobile Hotspot vs. Phone Tethering: What’s the Difference?

Phone tethering is a way to use your smartphone to set up a Wi-Fi access point for devices like laptops and tablets while you’re on the go. A mobile hotspot is another way to do the same thing with a separate device.

Either way, you use mobile data to set up portable Wi-Fi. But how are these methods different, exactly? And which option is better for your needs? Read on for a full explanation.

Tethering explained—a hotspot on your smartphone

Phone tethering means making a connection (or “tether”) from your phone to a separate internet-capable device, like a laptop. In doing so, you use mobile data to set up an internet connection for the laptop.

You can tether devices using Bluetooth, a USB cable, or a Wi-Fi signal.

How tethering works

Your phone grabs data from a cellular tower.

The phone’s hotspot uses that data to set up an internet signal.

Your laptop or tablet picks up that internet signal from your phone, either through a USB cable, Bluetooth tethering, or a Wi-Fi signal.

Internet access connects when you select the Wi-Fi account and enter the password.

Phone tethering is a simple and cost-effective way to connect to the internet when you’re out and about. As long as your phone plan comes with hotspot data, then you can switch on your phone’s hotspot and use it for Wi-Fi anywhere you get cell service.

Most phones nowadays have built-in hotspots that allow for phone tethering, and many phone plans come with hotspot data you can use expressly for this purpose. If your cellular carrier doesn’t automatically give you hotspot data, you can usually add it to your plan for an affordable price.

Pro tip: Here’s how to turn on your hotspot

Not sure how to set up your phone’s hotspot? Take a look at our phone hotspot guide to find out.

Phone tethering pros and cons

Phone tethering is easy and fast, but it’s best for short-term use. You’re limited with how much data you can use and how many devices you can connect, and the hotspot drains your battery when you use it for an extended period.


  • Easy setup
  • Affordable data
  • Accessibility anywhere with cell service


  • Limited features
  • Strict data caps

Mobile hotspots explained—standalone devices with added features

A mobile hotspot is a standalone device that works the same as a phone’s hotspot, letting you set up a Wi-Fi connection for laptops, tablets, and other devices using cellular data.

However, a mobile hotspot can do a lot more than a phone hotspot can. Personal hotspots can connect anywhere from 20 to 30 devices. Some come with security features like firewalls and guest networks. And newer 5G hotspots also have up-to-date Wi-Fi standards that make it easier to support a large number of devices at the same time

How a hotspot works

  1. The hotspot grabs data from a cellular tower.
  2. The hotspot uses that data to set up a Wi-Fi signal.
  3. Your laptop or tablet picks up the Wi-Fi signal from the hotspot.
  4. You select the Wi-Fi account and enter the password to access the Wi-Fi network.

Using a mobile hotspot is just as straightforward as using your phone, but it comes with added expenses. On top of buying the actual hotspot device, you also have to invest in a hotspot data plan from a cellular carrier. But the extra investment nets you more data, greater flexibility, and an extra backup option when you need portable Wi-Fi while traveling.

Pro tip: Get the best hotspot for your needs

If you’re on the market for a mobile hotspot, take a look at our best hotspots guide to learn more about prices and specs. You can get a top-of-the-line 5G hotspot for under $300 or a budget-friendly 4G hotspot for way less.

Mobile hotspot pros and cons

A mobile hotspot is a significant upgrade from your phone’s hotspot, but not everyone needs one. Aim to get a mobile hotspot if you spend a significant amount of time away from the home or office and need a reliable way to get Wi-Fi when fixed broadband isn’t available. Hotspots are also ideal for school groups and teams of employees on work trips.

If you don’t have heavy-duty hotspot needs, you’re probably just fine using phone tethering to get some Wi-Fi every once in a while.


  • Connectivity for up to 32 devices, depending on hotspot
  • Consistent performance with Wi-Fi 6 on 5G devices
  • Affordable rates for data plans


  • Added expense for the device and data plan
  • No totally unlimited data plans
  • Location-dependent speed and quality

What’s better for you: Phone tethering or a mobile hotspot?

Stick to phone tethering if you only need portable Wi-Fi every once in a while. Your phone’s hotspot doesn’t have a whole lot of firepower or features, but it’s cheap and easy to use.

You’re better off upgrading to a mobile hotspot, though, if you regularly go on long trips or regularly share your hotspot with a group of friends, classmates, or coworkers.

Device typeBest for
Phone tethering
  • Short trips (2 days or less)
  • Traveling once a month or less
  • Working solo at a coffee shop
  • International travel
Mobile hotspot
  • Long trips (3 days or more)
  • Traveling multiple times in a month
  • Vacation rentals
  • Work conferences

Author -

Peter Holslin has more than a decade of experience working as a writer and freelance journalist. He graduated with a BA in liberal arts and journalism from New York City’s The New School University in 2008 and went on to contribute to publications like Rolling Stone, VICE, BuzzFeed, and countless others. At, he focuses on covering 5G, nerding out about frequency bands and virtual RAN, and producing reviews on emerging services like 5G home internet. He also writes about internet providers and packages, hotspots, VPNs, and Wi-Fi troubleshooting.