How to use a smartphone as a mobile hotspot


Buried inside just about every smartphone is a capability that few people take advantage of but that I have come to rely on: the ability to turn my phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot. And since I got a 5G-capable phone — and 5G mobile networks have become reliably available in many places my day takes me — I can supercharge my hotspot with enough data and speed for my entire crew.

You don’t need to run out and buy a 5G phone to turn on a hotspot or even to access 5G networks. You only need a 5G phone to access the fast speeds of 5G. If you come to depend on hotspotting the way I have, though, those blazing 5G speeds are a great reason to upgrade as soon as a 5G network is available to you.

When I travel (or my office internet goes south), my phone provides more than enough data to keep me working. It has become my favorite way to stay on top of work wherever I am. I can read and send emails, move data back and forth on remote servers, and even get a taste of the latest office gossip from the comfort of my full-sized device — without compromising security or paying for a separate mobile data device or line.

A phone hotspot is a helpful collaboration tool for a group of businesspeople attempting to work together. I can imagine it being used for, say, colleagues on the way to the airport in a van who might finish a group presentation, or even an accounting team working in a conference room with an internet connection independent of the company they’re auditing. And when you add in 5G speeds, it becomes a serious business advantage.

The best news, though, is that you probably don’t need to buy anything to make this work. Most reasonably recent Android and iOS devices can do it. And using your phone as a hotspot is generally already included in your monthly plan. (With some service plans, though, after you use a specified amount of data, your service provider will slow your connection — sometimes to antediluvian 3G levels.) One big problem: using your phone as a hotspot chews through battery power very quickly.

After talking to representatives of phone makers and networks about their products and testing the speeds you can get on the three 5G networks in my area, I’m convinced that every mobile worker, and many office-bound ones, will want to have a 5G phone in hand that’s ready to dole out data at top speed as soon as there is a network available to them.

What follows are answers to 14 hotspotting questions you probably have, as well as some insight as to why this tool belongs in every worker’s pocket or bag.

14 burning questions about smartphone hotspots

1. What is a phone Wi-Fi hotspot?

2. How do hotspots work?

3. What is 5G?

4. How secure is a phone hotspot?

5. Which phones can be used as hotspots?

6. What is mobile hotspot data?

7. Which networks support Wi-Fi hotspotting?

8. What speed and range can I expect?

9. What kind of devices can connect to a phone hotspot?

10. Where can I use a hotspot?

11. Is the setup hard to do?

12. How does using a hotspot affect battery life?

13. How does using your phone as a hotspot compare to having a tablet or laptop with a data card built in?

14. How does using your phone as a hotspot compare to using a dedicated mobile hotspot?

Read on for the answers, along with step-by-step instructions for using phone hotspots.

1. What is a phone Wi-Fi hotspot?

Regardless of whether you have a 4G or 5G handset, at its essence, a hotspot is a blend of software, hardware, and back-end network data services that work together to transform your phone into the equivalent of a broadband modem and router. In other words, it can create a Wi-Fi network to distribute a web connection to nearby devices.

This not only lets me get my laptop and tablet online, but I can share it with co-workers if they are within range. All I have to do is give them the password.

Some phones also allow tethering via Bluetooth and USB cables, but as you might imagine, these techniques are less popular than Wi-Fi.

2. How do hotspots work?

A phone hotspot works just like a dedicated mobile hotspot device, but because it’s right inside the phone, there’s nothing extra to charge, carry, or try not to lose. The way it works is simple: When the phone is connected to the mobile data network, it converts a 4G or 5G data stream into a Wi-Fi signal that nearby devices can share.

More specifically, the device treats its online connection to the data network as a broadband data source. The newest handsets then transmit this data locally like a mini-Wi-Fi router using the 802.11ax protocol. The net result is that Wi-Fi devices within range can tap into the data signal as if it were a regular old Wi-Fi network — because that’s exactly what it is.

A phone hotspot uses a cellular network to connect to the internet, and typically shares that connection via Wi-Fi.

Computerworld / IDG / Getty Images

Think of it as a variation on the wireless theme. Forget about the traditional setup you might have at home or the office, where a wired broadband connection feeds data to a router that sends it out as a wireless signal. Here, the phone/hotspot grabs data from the mobile network and retransmits as a Wi-Fi signal to all in range — with the password — to use.

Happily, none of this affects how the phone works. While my phone is feeding data to laptops, it can still view web sites on its own screen, make calls, and respond to texts.

3. What is 5G?

As 4G/LTE networks begin to show their age, 5G is taking over the mobile data scene. Despite the catch-all name, it isn’t a single network. It is, rather, three networks of differing frequencies and capabilities. Each use different frequencies, with the higher frequencies transferring more data within a shorter range.

It is 5G’s ability to operate at super high frequencies that makes 5G’s ultra-fast speeds possible. Unfortunately, because they have a short range, these higher frequencies require service providers to build more base station towers to transmit the signal. Your experience will depend not only on how far you are from the tower but which frequency it is using.

Some ISPs compare the range of networks and their ability to move data to a tiered layer cake that gets smaller as it gets higher. Imagine that the small top layer has the fastest speed but a much shorter range, while the lower level has wider range but slower speeds. Your data speed depends on how high on the cake your slice was cut from.

  • Low-Band: The cake’s base layer is the widest of the cake and uses spectrum between 600MHz and 850MHz. It has the greatest range and easily passes through obstructions and windows, so it is the one you will encounter most often. It often uses the same spectrum as 4G and will likely replace it over time. Speeds are slower than mid- and high-band 5G but can hit several hundred megabits per second, although it might lag to less than a megabit per second if the cell site is overloaded. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all have networks in this range, but T-Mobile has the largest buildout at this point.
  • Mid-Band: With frequencies between 1GHz and 6GHz, mid-band networks are the middle layer of the cake. Sometimes called C-band, the bandwidth can reach as high as 900Mbps, but you pay for it in range that’s reduced to a few miles from the tower. This will limit its use to urban areas and along major roads. AT&T built this part of its network out early in the 5G race.
  • High-Band: Also known as Millimeter Wave (mmWave), this band is the top and smallest tier of the cake. It’s also the most data-heavy layer. It primarily uses the 24GHz to 40GHz spectrum in the US and can move upward of 3Gbps of data, but it has trouble penetrating obstructions. Reaching a maximum one-mile radius, you will likely encounter it, for the most part, in public spaces like busy urban areas, sports arenas, and shopping malls. Verizon has been out in front with its Ultra-Wideband network in this range but is still in only limited areas.

4. How secure is a phone hotspot?

Using a phone hotspot can actually increase your security profile by helping you avoid insecure public hotspots in coffee shops and hotels. At the phone end of the equation, your connection is just as secure and private as making a phone call or web surfing with your phone. And the 5G networks take security to a new level with 256-bit AES encryption, the ability to block fake mobile network transmission sites (known as stingrays) and encrypting the phone’s ID during transmissions. This is only the case if the network implements these defenses, though.

Regardless of which generation phone and network you are using, a VPN can build a stronger wall around your communications by adding an extra layer of AES 256-bit encryption. But this security does often come at the cost of performance. Between the phone and the clients connecting through it, recent phone hotspots use the password-protected WPA3 standard.

5. Which phones can be used as hotspots?

It turns out that almost every Android or iOS phone on the market can be turned into at least a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot. Not only that, but many tablets that have built-in mobile data modems and can do this as well. If your phone supports 5G and is in range of a 5G network, that’s what it will use for hotspot connections. Otherwise, it will drop down to a 4G network, if that’s all it can find.

Look for the 5G logo.

5G phones will typically display a “5G” logo in the upper right near the signal strength bars, replacing the “LTE” or “4G” one. Every major phone maker has 5G models, and there are even budget-priced 5G phones that can help stretch your IT budget.

That said, a phone hotspot can’t compare to a traditional router in terms of range. Any devices that want to connect to it will have to stay pretty close to your phone. Still, you can expect to create a zone of connectivity that might reach 65 feet, which can be very handy. (A stationary router can usually blanket a roughly 100-foot range with Wi-Fi.) This should be plenty for your own use or even for a small group huddled around a conference table.

6. What is mobile hotspot data?

Mobile hotspot data is simply data that you transmit via a hotspot, whether that’s your phone or a dedicated hotspot device. You should look at your mobile plan before you start relying heavily on your phone as a hotspot, though. Most of the business plans — and many consumer plans — from the Big Three (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon) include hotspot use, sometimes called tethering, in one way or another. But even when your talk-time and texting is unlimited, many networks limit your hotspot use to a set amount of data per month at full speed (anywhere from 3GB to 120GB, depending on your plan). After you hit the max, your service provider might drop your speed drastically.

Many cellular providers offer separate hotspot data plans for use with dedicated hotspot devices. If your hotspot data needs are high, a dedicated hotspot device and data plan might be the way to go.

7. Which networks support Wi-Fi hotspotting?

Because it is treated like other data, all mobile networks support the use of a phone as a hotspot. As mentioned above, though, it’s important to understand how much hotspot data you get with your plan — and upgrade to a better plan if needed. Here’s a rundown of what each of the Big Three national networks offers.


Business customers have the choice of several plans, ranging from the Business Unlimited Standard subscription, which starts at $70 per month (for the first line) and includes 5GB of hotspot data per phone, to the Business Unlimited Premium plan, which starts $90 at per month with hotspot data topping out at 200GB.

For consumers, AT&T’s Unlimited Starter, Extra, and Premium plans come with 5G access for $66, $76, and $86 per line per month (for a single line), respectively. The plans include 5GB, 30GB, and 60GB of hotspot data per line per month.

When you reach your monthly allotment of hotspot data, all AT&T accounts drop the bandwidth to about 128Kbps for the rest of the month.


With access to the network’s 4G and 5G infrastructure, T-Mobile’s business plans start with the Business Unlimited Select subscription at $60 per line (for the first line) with 5GB of high-speed hotspot data per phone. At the top end is the Business Unlimited Ultimate plan, which starts at $85 per line and offers 100GB of hotspot data per phone. Once you’ve reached the limit, data speed drops to 3G levels of around 100Kbps.

As for consumer plans, T-Mobile’s Essentials plan provides unlimited use of hotspotting at 3G speeds for $60 for one line a month. Getting 4G/5G data speeds starts with the $70 Magenta plan, which includes 5GB of hotspot data, while the $85 Magenta MAX plan ups that to 40GB of high-speed hotspot data with unlimited 3G speeds afterwards.


The major business mobile phone plans with hotspot data at Verizon are Unlimited Start 5G, Unlimited Plus 5G, and Unlimited Pro 5G. All include unlimited mobile hotspot use and give you the best price if you sign up for paper-free billing and autopay.

  • The entry-level Unlimited Start 5G plan costs $30 per line and includes 5GB of 4G/5G hotspot data. After that the speed drops to 600Kbps.
  • The Unlimited Plus 5G plan costs $35 per line and includes 50GB per line of hotspot data before dropping to 600Kbps for 4G LTE & 5G connections; if you’re near a 5G Ultra-Wideband cell site, the speed is limited to 3Mbps.
  • The Unlimited Pro 2.0 plan is the top tier and costs $45 per line. It includes 100GB of high-speed hotspot data and — like the Plus plan — drops to 600Kbps (4G LTE & 5G Nationwide) and 3Mbps (5G Ultra-Wideband) after that.

Consumers have the choice of the Unlimited Plus and Unlimited Ultimate plans. The Unlimited Plus plan comes with 30GB of hotspot data for $80 (for one line), and the Unlimited Ultimate subscription includes 60GB of hotspot use for $90. Hotspot speeds drop to 3Mbps of 5G Ultra-Wideband data and 600Kbps of 4G/5G data after your allotment has been used per month.

8. What speed and range can I expect?

As 5G replaces 4G LTE as the base speed, the actual results you’ll see depend on lots of factors, including how congested the internet is, how far you are from the closest cell tower, and how many other devices are using that same cell site. Most of all, though, it depends on the type of network you’re connected to, with the 5G high-band connection being the best. I’ve gotten nearly 500Mbps (plenty for 4K video, downloading a large presentation or supporting my small group of data hogs) or as low as 100Kbps (enough for individual email and web work but hardly enough to support a group).

By connecting three phones to a hotspot-connected iPad, I tested the 5G networks in the metro New York City area at four locations. For the AT&T network, I used a Samsung Galaxy A53. For the T-Mobile and Verizon networks, I used a Samsung Galaxy Note 20 5G Ultra and Google Pixel 6. I used’s bandwidth meter to measure upload and download speeds. All the tests were within 10 minutes of each other for better comparisons.

My tests may be unscientific and anecdotal, but they still give a good indication of what you can expect. I found the results to be eye-opening. T-Mobile led the pack with an average download speed of 234.8Mbps, indicating its lead in building out 5G networks. Next was Verizon at 171.3Mbps and then AT&T at 100.9Mbps. It’s important to note that any of these speeds would satisfy a small group of users.

The surprise was that all three networks had upload speeds of over 25Mbps, with some breaking 60Mbps. This is more than enough to support high-quality hotspot videoconferencing. Hello, work from anywhere!

As far as the range I got from the phones, the Pixel 6 handset led at 75 feet before it lost contact with my iPad, followed by the Galaxy A53 at 70 feet. The Google Pixel 6 had a range of 65 feet. Any of this would serve to fill a conference room or bus with Wi-Fi data.

9. What kind of devices can connect to a phone hotspot?

A phone hotspot can work with any Wi-Fi-based device, including laptops, tablets, other phones, and even game consoles. (I don’t judge what you do in your off-hours.) Think of it as just another Wi-Fi source, only it comes from your phone.

Most Android phones can connect up to 10 devices at a time, while iPhones from the 4S model to the current iPhone 13 can accommodate up to five connections at once, although it’s possible your network will limit this to four clients. Because it’s a communal resource, the more users sharing the internet throughput, the lower the speed for each connected device.

10. Where can I use a hotspot?

Using a hotspot is not limited by where you are, as long as your phone is connected to your service provider’s data network. In fact, any place you have a signal strong enough to use the web on your phone, you can generally use it as a hotspot with good results. Over the years, I’ve used phone hotspots in my home, office, trains, hotel lobbies, and coffee shops throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. I’ve even used it while hiking to bring up a trail map on a tablet screen so the map would be large enough to read.

Your phone can be a lifesaver as well if your office’s data connection suddenly goes south. My office’s internet connection became unreliable last month, so I simply started using my Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G as a hotspot and kept everyone up and running until the problem was resolved. It wasn’t as fast as I’m used to, but it kept the emails and data exchanges flowing.

11. Is the setup hard to do?

It is very easy to set up a Wi-Fi hotspot from your phone. In fact, it’s one of the easiest configuration changes you can make. It’s different for iPhones and Androids but should take no more than a minute or two. A word of advice: For security purposes, be sure to change the network name and password.

Setting up an iPhone or iPad as a hotspot:

  1. Start on the Home screen and tap the Settings icon.
  2. Open the Personal Hotspot section.
  3. Tap the slider switch to Allow Others to Join. (If you’re still using iOS 12 or earlier, the slider just says Personal Hotspot.)
  4. Instructions now appear near the middle of the screen and the network’s password near the top; the network name is the same as the name of your device.
  5. I suggest for security’s sake changing the password by tapping the Wi-Fi Password section and typing in a new one.

Turning on an iPad’s hotspot and changing the default password.

Setting up an Android phone or tablet as a hotspot:

Because of the variety of models, providing instructions for Android phones is a little trickier. I’ve included instructions for my Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G using Android 12, but depending on its software and network, your phone might be slightly different.

  1. Swipe the Home screen up or down to bring up the apps and open Settings.
  2. Tap Connections, then scroll down and tap Mobile Hotspot and Tethering, and then tap Mobile Hotspot to enable it. Depending on your software, your menu wording might be different (such as “Wireless & networks” instead of “Connections”), and you might need to tap More to find the tethering and hotspot option.
  3. Open the Mobile Hotspot section to do everything from changing the network name and password to picking whether you want the hotspot to run on the 2.4GHz or 5GHz Wi-Fi network. You might need to tap Configure to make changes.
  4. If you scroll down, at the bottom you can see how many devices are connected to your hotspot network.

Enabling a hotspot on my Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G.

Connecting a device to a mobile hotspot:

Once you’ve enabled the hotspot, devices discover it by scanning for Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity. Only users you’ve shared the password with can connect to it, though.

Start by opening the Wi-Fi settings for your laptop or tablet, look for new networks, and locate yours. Then enter the password. The system should link up in less than a minute.

Some newer Android devices offer a shortcut to hotspot connections with a QR code. To do this:

  1. Tap the QR code icon in the hotspot phone screen’s upper right; it now displays a QR code.
  2. Aim the camera of the phone or tablet you want to connect at it and snap a photo.
  3. Tap to confirm you want to connect.

All told, it takes about 10 seconds to accomplish and get online.

Some newer Android devices let you scan a QR code to make the hotspot connection without a password.

Disconnecting from a mobile hotspot:

Disconnecting a device from a mobile hotspot is exactly the same as with a more stationary one: either turn the Wi-Fi data exchange off or switch to another network.

Important: To prevent trailing a Wi-Fi signal wherever you go, it’s a good idea to turn the hotspot off as soon as you’re done with it. Your battery will thank you.

12. How does using a phone hotspot affect battery life?

Unfortunately, turning on the hotspot abilities of your phone is like firing up a micro router, which seriously cuts into your phone’s battery life. So if there’s an AC outlet nearby, plug in. I can get about 36 hours of use with occasional calls, texts, emails, and web work on my Galaxy S20 Ultra phone, but when I also used it as a hotspot feeding data to a ThinkPad T470, which was playing videos, it lowered my battery life to about 12.5 hours. That’s a 65% decline, though it still left more than a full day of work and mobile internet.

13. How does using your phone as a hotspot compare to having a tablet or laptop with a data card built in?

The ultimate convenience on the road would be to have a data connection built into every piece of mobile gear, but that would be an expensive proposition. To add mobile a data card to a notebook or tablet generally costs $100 to $200 for the networking hardware and a monthly usage fee from the cell provider. This might make sense for those who travel constantly. But for occasional travelers, using a phone as a hotspot is more cost effective.

14. How does using your phone as a hotspot compare to using a dedicated mobile hotspot?

Another option is to buy a dedicated mobile hotspot device, along with a hotspot data plan. These can, typically, run for a full workday on a battery charge, and some can connect up to 15 clients, all while weighing just a few ounces. Most mobile hotspots fit easily into a shirt pocket or small briefcase compartment. But even this will cost an extra $100 to $200 for the hardware and add a line to your cell plan.

Note, though, that a dedicated mobile hotspot can do something else: deliver up to 2TB of common storage space for all connected users to share. That can hold anything from a group presentation to archived business records for collaboration sessions. If that suits your needs better than using your phone, it’s certainly an option.

Global hotspotter

In recent years, my travels have taken me to such far-flung places as Washington, DC, Maine, China, Korea, Central Europe, Great Britain, and the Caucasus mountains. In every place, I used my phone as a hotspot to connect my laptop, tablet, and often my travel companions’ devices to the internet, with wildly mixed results.

I connected at reasonable speeds in a hotel in The Hague, Netherlands, on the train from Shanghai to Beijing, and on the island of Malta. My worst Wi-Fi experience occurred recently near New York City’s Bryant Park, where I could barely get a megabit per second of throughput.

The best hotspot connection I got was just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, NYC, where I hit a peak of nearly 500Mbps. It was more than enough to make me feel like I was at my office with access to all my files and the ability to video chat. In other words, I felt like I owned the world, or at least the internet. 

The oddest place I used my phone as a hotspot was near Mount Shahdagh, Azerbaijan, close to the Dagestani border. Even though it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, I got about 100Kbps of bandwidth, meager by most standards but lavish in such an isolated place. I fed the data into my iPad to check my email and look over a map.

The bottom line is that the connection and your hotspot speed is only as good as both your phone and the network it’s using. As 5G takes over, data speeds should increase for hotspot connections, but rural areas, because there are so few people there, will probably continue to be serviced with slower connection speeds. For those who take the road less traveled, this can be an annoyance.

When there’s no network to connect to, every phone is just a small box with a screen and buttons. My advice is to check the OpenSignal coverage maps (available via its mobile app) before going anyplace off the beaten track, so you’ll know ahead of time if you’ll be able to get online and share the connection with your phone’s hotspot. The addition of maps with the closest 5G towers is a big help.

Check OpenSignal’s coverage maps before you travel.

This story was originally published in November 2011 and most recently updated in April 2024.

Mobile, Small and Medium Business, Smartphones, Wi-Fi

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