What Are Hotspots and How Do They Work?

Wi-Fi hotspots give you internet access when you’re traveling, away from home, or working outside the office. Most cell phones have built-in hotspot and tethering functions, but you can also buy a mobile hotspot device to carry around in your suitcase or bag—letting you connect to wireless speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps.

We have tons of experience using Wi-Fi hotspots and reviewing them for HighSpeedInternet.com. So we compiled all our work on this page to help you learn about how hotspots work, how much personal hotspots cost, and more.

Read more about hotspots

Hotspots can refer to a lot of things—from the hotspot on your phone to a standalone mobile hotspot to public Wi-Fi hotspots. We cover hotspots from all angles and we’ve compiled a list here of all our hotspot coverage to help you find what you’re looking for.

What is a hotspot?

A hotspot is a wireless internet access point that lets you connect phones, tablets, computers, and other devices when you’re on the go. They’re built into most smartphones, but you can also get dedicated mobile hotspot devices that deliver faster speeds, connect more devices, and have a longer battery life than your phone. You can also find public Wi-Fi hotspots at many restaurants and public buildings.

Hotspots can hit speeds anywhere from 1 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps. They usually come with limited data restrictions—unlimited data on a hotspot is very uncommon—so they’re not ideal for replacing your home internet. Still, some providers have generous service plans that let you get a lot out of a hotspot each month.

How does a hotspot work?

A Wi-Fi hotspot uses wireless data from a cellular provider to give you internet access for phones, computers, tablets, and other Wi-Fi enabled devices.

A mobile hotspot usually provides a connection over 4G LTE wireless technology, providing max speeds of around 30 Mbps. But some newer mobile hotspots have 5G capability, so they hit speeds from 50 Mbps to well past 1,000 Mbps in some places.

Pro tip:

Take our speed test to figure out what kind of bandwidth you’re getting out of your hotspot. Take it multiple times to see how your speeds are impacted by where you are and how many devices you’ve connected.

Do hotspots work without cell service?

Hotspots don’t work without cell service. Hotspots need cellular service to create a Wi-Fi signal. So you’ll need a data plan from your cell phone company or another provider to make your own hotspot work. And you’ll also need adequate cell service.

Hotspots are great for the road, but they can’t beat a good home internet connection. Find the best options in your area.

Types of hotspots

Hotspot typePriceData capOur pick
Phone hotspotPrice of phone plus data plan15–40 GB/mo.iPhone 12
Mobile hotspot$90.00–$275.00 (plus data plan)2 GB–100 GB/mo.Inseego Jetpack MiFi 8800L
5G hotspot$336.00–$509.00 (plus data plan)2 GB–100 GB/mo.Inseego 5G MiFi M2000
Travel hotspot$90.00–$180.00 (plus data plan)Depends on providerSkyroam Solis Lite

Broadly speaking, people also often use the term “hotspot” to describe any public internet access point that gives you a Wi-Fi connection. So that includes the free Wi-Fi at an airport, restaurant, or public library.

We have more info on public hotspots in our public Wi-Fi guide.

Pro tip:

Do you want a hotspot with unlimited cellular data? Unfortunately, that’s nearly impossible—but you do have some options that come close. Take a look at the best unlimited hotspot plans.

How fast are Wi-Fi hotspots?

Most Wi-Fi hotspots hit top speeds of around 30–40 Mbps.

However, speeds vary depending on the kind of hotspot you have and the cell service available. 5G hotspots reach much faster speeds, hitting 50 Mbps in the lower range while topping out at well past 1,000 Mbps in some urban areas (where millimeter-wave 5G is available).

Since a hotspot runs on a wireless connection, speeds can go up and down due to signal interference. That can happen if you’re far away from the nearest cell tower, and it can also be impacted by certain geographic landmarks in your area. Mountains, canyons, trees, and even bad weather can make it harder for a hotspot to pick up cellular signals.

Cell phone hotspots

A phone’s hotspot is the easiest, most affordable hotspot you can use. It comes built into your smartphone’s hardware, so you can switch it on with the tap of a button and use data straight from your phone plan (as long as your plan allows it).

You won’t always get a whole lot of data, and there’s usually a limit to how many devices you can connect—usually around 10 to 15. So this is the best way to go if you use a hotspot every once in a while. Otherwise you might want to invest in a dedicated mobile hotspot.

How do you turn on your phone’s hotspot?

Turning on a phone’s hotspot is very easy. Here’s a quick breakdown for iOS and Android phones:

Apple iOS phones and tablets:

Step 1: Go to Settings > Personal Hotspot. Or, depending on which model you have, go to Settings > Cellular > Personal Hotspot.

Step 2: Tap to toggle on Personal Hotspot.

Step 3: Switch on Allow Others to Join.

Android phones and tablets:

Step 1: Go to Settings and search for “hotspot” or “tethering.” Depending on the phone you have, it will be located in a menu titled Mobile Hotspot and Tethering, or Network and Internet.

Step 2: Tap to switch on the hotspot.

Step 3: On some phones, you’ll also need to switch on Wi-Fi sharing, which will allow the hotspot to be reached by other devices.

Once you’ve switched on your phone’s hotspot, go to the Wi-Fi menu on the device you want to connect to the internet. Look up the name of your hotspot and type in the password to connect to the internet.

In the same menu where you switch on the hotspot, you can also configure the password, network name, and other settings. And of course, make sure you’ve turned on your cellular data—the source of your Wi-Fi juice.

Specific hotspot instructions vary based on the phone you have. You can get more detailed instructions in our guide to phone hotspots.

Best cell phone hotspot plans

PlanPriceHotspot data limitGet it
T-Mobile Magenta MAX$85.00/mo.*40 GB (then reduced to 3G speeds)View Plan
Verizon Do More Unlimited$80.00/mo.†15 GB/mo. of 4G LTE/5G, then reduced to slower speedsView Plan
AT&T Unlimited Extra$75.00/mo.15 GB/mo.View Plan
Visible$40.00/mo. (after the first month)Unlimited (limited to one device, with speeds up to 5 Mbps)View Plan

Your phone likely already has a hotspot built in, so all you need to get the hotspot working is a phone plan that gives you hotspot data. We think T-Mobile’s Magenta MAX plan is the best you can get because it gives you a ton of data at a reasonable price.

These other plans will do great as well, although Visible’s über-cheap plan comes with tight restrictions. You get only maximum 5 Mbps speeds, and you can connect only one device at a time. Stick with that if you’re on a low budget.

Pro tip:

Read our full guide on hotspot data plans for more information.

Mobile hotspots

Mobile hotspots are dedicated devices that give you a hotspot connection. They’re more expensive than phone hotspots, but they work a lot better for intensive hotspot use, connecting more devices and supporting faster speeds. You can also usually get more data for your buck from a standalone hotspot service plan than you could with a phone hotspot.

Most mobile hotspots run over 4G LTE wireless networks, so they’ll hit max speeds of around 25–30 Mbps. They typically connect 15–20 devices. You can find some 5G hotspots as well.

Best mobile hotspots

ProductPriceConnectivityProviderMax devicesGet it
Nighthawk M1 Mobile Hotspot Router$349.994G LTE, dual-band 2.4GHz & 5GHz, 802.11 a/b/g/n/acAT&T20View on Amazon
Alcatel LINKZONE$50.004G LTE, dual-band 2.4GHz & 5GHz, 802.11a/b/g/n/acT-Mobile15View on Amazon
Inseego Jetpack MiFi 8800L Hotspot$199.994G LTE, dual-band 2.4GHz & 5GHz, 802.11 a/b/g/n/acVerizon15View on Verizon

AT&T has the best mobile hotspot device in the form of NETGEAR’s Nighthawk M1. It’s compact and lightweight, has a long-lasting battery, and comes with a range of security features. It also connects 20 devices—more than most hotspots.

T-Mobile and Verizon also have solid hotspot options. T-Mobile’s Alcatel LINKZONE is more of a bare-bones model that gives you decent speeds (usually around 15–30 Mbps) at a bargain price. On the other hand, Verizon’s MiFi 8800L gives you performance on par with the Nighthawk M1, but it connects fewer devices.

Pro tip:

Want to know all the specs and prices for these Wi-Fi making machines? Take a quick look at our best hotspots guide for all the details.

How well do mobile hotspots work?

Mobile hotspots work very well. Although they generally don’t give you as much speed and data as a home internet plan, they give you a reliable connection in places and situations where it’s hard to get internet access. They’re especially useful when you’re on the road a lot, working remotely in a restaurant or coffee shop, or staying in a vacation home.

Best times to use a hotspot:

  • Traveling (domestically or overseas)
  • Working remotely at a coffee shop or restaurant
  • Living in a rural area
  • Staying in a vacation home

If you’re looking for a more stable, long-term connection, you may be better off with a traditional home internet plan. Run a search to see what you can find in your area.

5G hotspots

5G hotspots are mobile hotspots that give you a connection over 5G wireless networks. There are only a few on the market right now, but they pack a lot more firepower than 4G hotspots.

They’re way faster and can hit speeds upward of 1,000 Mbps (in some places). They connect a lot more devices. And they have Wi-Fi 6 capability—the latest Wi-Fi standard, which keeps speeds consistent for multiple users on the same connection.

A 5G hotspot isn’t necessarily a must-have—you can still get great performance out of a 4G hotspot device or phone hotspot. But with their boosted capability, 5G models are excellent picks for businesses and schools. They’re also helpful if you do a lot of high-bandwidth activities since they tap into the fastest 5G speeds.

Best times to use a 5G hotspot:

  • Sharing Wi-Fi with coworkers at conferences and conventions
  • Using Wi-Fi as part of a school study group
  • Connecting to Wi-Fi in an urban area (where you can get millimeter-wave 5G with gigabit–plus speeds).

Best 5G hotspots

ProductPriceConnectivityProviderMax devicesGet it
Inseego 5G MiFi M2000$336.005G, 4G LTE, dual-band, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11b/g/ax)T-Mobile30View on T-Mobile
Inseego MiFi M2100 5G UW$399.995G, 4G LTE, dual-band, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11b/g/ax)Verizon30View on Verizon
NETGEAR Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot Pro$509.995G, 4G LTE, dual-band, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11b/g/ax)AT&T32View on AT&T

T-Mobile takes the cake when it comes to 5G hotspots. The Inseego 5G MiFi M2000 is essentially a carbon-copy of Verizon’s MiFi M2100, with all the same excellent features and capabilities but at a lower price. On top of that, you can also get a flexible and generous data plan from T-Mobile, with prices starting at $10 a month for 2 GB and going up from there.

Verizon and AT&T both have great 5G hotspot contenders—the only catch is you’ll have to shell out more bucks for essentially the same features.

Pro tip:

Want to know more about these 5G devices? Take a look at our best 5G hotspots page.

Travel hotspots

Technically, all hotspots work for traveling. But some hotspots are designed specifically for traveling internationally, giving you Wi-Fi either through a special data plan or via a SIM card from a local provider.

If you’re on a budget, it’s best to use your cell phone’s hotspot while abroad—that way, all you have to do is swap in a local SIM card to get data. But consider paying extra for a standalone hotspot device if you plan to use a hotspot regularly and don’t want to deal with finding SIM cards or working with international cell companies.

Best travel hotspots

ProductPriceMax devicesData planGet it
Skyroam Solis Lite$119.99 (plus data plan)10$9.00–$12.00/GB, $99.00/mo., or $9.00/dayView on Amazon

You can avoid the headache of getting an international phone or data plan by sticking with Skyroam’s travel hotspot, which works right out of the box using Skyroam’s own data plans.

Hotspot data plans: Can you get unlimited hotspot data?

You need a data plan to use a hotspot. So here’s the bad news first: you usually cannot get unlimited hotspot data. Cellular providers simply aren’t as generous when it comes to internet data, so the vast majority of hotspots come with relatively strict service plans.

But you still have some solid options when it comes to getting a hotspot data plan. The best data plans cost upwards of $50 per month for 40–100 GB of data. Some plans let you buy a smaller amount of data up front for a lower monthly price, saving you money if you use a hotspot only once in a while.

Best hotspot data plans

PlanPriceData allowanceGet it
T-Mobile 2GB$10.00/mo.*2 GB/mo. (can order more GB w/ data pass)View Plan
Verizon Unlimited Plus$40.00/mo.50 GB of 4G LTE/5G, then reduced to 600 KbpsView Plan
AT&T 100 GB$55.00/mo.100 GBView Plan

Our top mobile hotspot plan is T-Mobile’s 2GB plan. It gives you 2 GB of data for $10 a month. If you run out, you can get a “data pass” to buy more data. We like this one because it’s really affordable and gives you more flexibility, since you don’t have to commit to a bunch of data at a high price upfront.

AT&T has an excellent hotspot plan: you can get 100 GB at just $55 per month. And Verizon is no slouch on the hotspot front either, offering a range of hotspot plans with generous data options at competitive prices.

Pro tip:

Although unlimited data isn’t easy to find with hotspots, you can find some unlimited wireless internet options with all the data you need.

Hotspot or not, it’s always helpful to know if you’re getting the best home internet available in your area. Run a search with our zip code tool below.

 

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 HighSpeedInternet.com, 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.

Editor - Cara Haynes

Cara Haynes has been editing and writing in the digital space for seven years, and she's edited all things internet for HighSpeedInternet.com for five years. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. When she's not editing, she makes tech accessible through her freelance writing for brands like Pluralsight. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span.

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