[Updated 3/12/2018] Like the idea of wherever-you-go Wi-Fi? Consider a Wi-Fi hotspot, a device that bathes you in a personal cloud of wireless data, perfect for on-the-go laptop and tablet users. So, how do mobile Wi-Fi hotspots work, what are their drawbacks, and how much do they cost? Read on for answers to those questions, and more.

What exactly is a mobile wi-fi hotspot, anyway?

Think of it as a tiny, battery-powered Wi-Fi base station that’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Generally speaking, mobile wi-fi hotspots come in two forms: either built into a smartphone, like an iPhone or an Android phone, or as a standalone portable gadget, often no larger than a small stack of credit cards. Indeed, if you own a relatively new iPhone or Android handset, you probably already have a hotspot in your pocket.

Portable standalone mobile wi-fi hotspots

Not only do most newer iPhone and Android phones comes with built-in hotspots, you can also get a portable standalone hotspot, like this one.

How do mobile Wi-Fi hotspots work?

Well, here’s the thing about mobile wi-fi hotspots: they won’t just work anywhere. Put simply, a portable hotspot taps into 3G and/or 4G cellular networks, just like a smartphone does. Once it’s zeroed in on cellular data connection, a mobile hotspot can share that connection via Wi-Fi with nearby laptops, tablets, game consoles, or anything that can connect to a Wi-Fi network. No cellular connection? No data, which means a mobile hotspot won’t do you much good if you’re deep in the woods with no cellular signal.

Huh. So what would I need a mobile hotspot for?

Well, here’s a question for you: Do you ever use your laptop on the road? If so, you can use a mobile hotspot to connect your laptop to the Internet, without having to hunt around for a public Wi-Fi hotspot. And since multiple Wi-Fi gadgets can connect to a single mobile hotspot simultaneously, you could be surfing on your laptop while a friend streams music on her Wi-Fi-only iPad.

Wait, does that mean anyone can connect to my mobile hotspot, even strangers?

Just like your Wi-Fi hotspot at home, most mobile Wi-Fi hotspots come with a full suite of security tools, including WEP and WPA encryption. That means as long as you’ve enabled your wireless security and set a password, your hotspot should be reasonably safe from hackers and freeloaders.

Related: 7 (more) of your mobile Wi-Fi hotspot questions, answered

Do I need a wireless plan to go with my mobile hotspot?

Yes, you do, and the details vary depending on your carrier and your current data plan. For example, if you have a data plan with a monthly cap, any data used by your mobile hotspot may be counted against your monthly data allowance. If you’re on an unlimited plan, your hotspot use may be capped, or your carrier may “throttle” (or slow down) your hotspot data speeds, either across the board or after you’ve used a certainly amount of hotspot data. In any case, make sure to check with your carrier and read the fine print before you go nuts with your hotspot usage.

How much battery life can I expect out of a mobile hotspot?

That depends on the device, of course—but in my experience, you’ll typically get about four hours of juice from a stand-alone mobile hotspot. Your mileage will also vary depending on the strength of the wireless signal (the weaker the signal, the more power it takes to lock onto it), as well as whether you’re using just a little data (for, say, surfing the web) or a lot (streaming YouTube videos, for example).

Using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot will generally get you a little more battery life than you would on a dedicated portable hotspot—think four or five hours rather than three or four. Then again, draining your smartphone’s battery while using it as a hotspot means no more phone calls, either.

I’d like to go ahead and use my iPhone or Android phone as a mobile hotspot. How do I get started?

First, make sure you’re signed up for a data plan that allows for mobile hotspot use. Just check your account online, or call your carrier and ask.

All set? Next, you’ll need to enable and configure your phone’s mobile hotspot. Don’t worry; it’s a lot easier than it sounds.

To enable an iPhone mobile hotspot

  1. Tap Settings, Personal Hotspot, then flick on the Personal Hotspot switch.
  2. Next, tap Wi-Fi password, then create a password. The password must be at least eight characters
  3. long, And … that’s it! Now, anyone who wants to use your iPhone as a hotspot simply needs to open
  4. their menu of available Wi-Fi networks, select “iPhone,” then enter your hotspot password.

To enable an Android mobile hotspot

Note: These instructions are for Google’s “stock” version of Android. If you’re using a Samsung phone or another make of Android phone, the exact steps may differ.

  1. Tap Settings, Network & Internet, then Hotspot & Tethering.
  2. Tap Set up Wi-Fi Hotspot to create a name and a password for your hotspot.
  3. Go back to the Hotspot & Tethering screen, then switch on the Wi-Fi Hotspot setting.

Wait, I have more questions!

No problem; just post ’em below, and I’ll get back to you.

Bonus tip

Want to know more about the ins and outs of Wi-Fi in general? Check out this handy infographic.