How to use a smartphone as a mobile hotspot

Using your phone as a hotspot makes the internet available just about anywhere and anytime. With 5G speeds thrown in, it’s a solution that rivals your office Wi-Fi.

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6. 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 Speedtest.net’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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.
phone mobile hotspot ios IDG

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.
phone mobile hotspot android IDG

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.

phone mobile hotspot android qrcode IDG

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.

10. How does using a 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.

11. 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.

Or you could buy a dedicated hotspot device. 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 you 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.

opensignal 5g map IDG

Check OpenSignal's coverage maps before you travel.

This story was originally published in November 2011 and most recently updated in May 2022.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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