Who Needs a Hotspot?
4G LTE networks are better than ever, and with 5G networks lighting up around the world, wireless web surfing can be faster than your home Wi-Fi connection. While most modern smartphones have a hotspot mode, cellular modems and Wi-Fi hotspots have historically been your best and most flexible option if you have a lot of devices you want to share web access with.
Hotspots can connect more than just laptops to the web. They’ll work just fine with a tablet, a camera, and pretty much any other Wi-Fi-enabled device. They support more devices at one time than your phone’s hotspot mode, don’t drain your phone’s battery, they can be hooked up to better antennas than your phone has available, and they can have separate service plans paid for by your company.
That said, we’re in a weird moment right now. If you want the absolute fastest, latest 5G technology, US smartphones and their service plans are generally ahead of hotspots and their service plans, making a 5G-enabled smartphone a better choice if you’re in a place with meaningful 5G coverage.
With that in mind, here’s what you need to know to pick the right service and hardware, along with the top-rated hotspots we’ve tested, and even an international option.
The Best Mobile Hotspot Plans
Hotspots are available from all three nationwide carriers, as well as several virtual operators that use the larger carriers’ networks. Our Fastest Mobile Networks feature compares carrier speeds and coverage in major cities across the US. In general, AT&T and Verizon lead on speeds right now.
Along with the four major carriers, you can get hotspots from Boost (T-Mobile), NetZero (T-Mobile), H2O (AT&T), Karma (T-Mobile), and Net10 (Verizon), along with a few other minor players. Plans range from “free” for 200MB per month with NetZero (you’ll need to buy a hotspot), up to $100 or more.
Hotspot plans change all the time. For most people, the best idea is to add your hotspot line to your existing carrier’s phone plan, as a separate line. That will get you the most data for your dollar.
Unlimited data plans have limited hotspot data, but they’re still better deals than standalone hotspot plans. If you add a hotspot onto an “unlimited” plan, you’ll get 15 to 20GB of high-speed data with Verizon, 15 to 30GB of data with AT&T, and 50GB with T-Mobile. After that your data will be deprioritized, or unpredictably slowed.
Should You Wait for 5G?
Verizon and AT&T both have 5G hotspots out now. Verizon’s M2100 is a good buy if you are near Verizon’s admittedly limited 5G coverage. We haven’t tested AT&T’s new Netgear Nighthawk 5G hotspot, but considering that AT&T’s 5G performance is generally poor, I don’t know if it will perform much better than the 4G model we feature in this roundup.
T-Mobile currently has no 5G hotspots—and not even any fast 4G ones. This is especially disappointing because T-Mobile is best positioned to provide broad, relatively fast 5G coverage over the next year. While I include a T-Mobile 4G hotspot in this roundup, you’re likely to get better performance with the hotspot mode on a T-Mobile 5G phone.
On both AT&T and Verizon, I’d say that if you can wait until mid-2021, you should. The reason is something called “C-Band,” a new frequency being auctioned at the end of this year that could give those carriers much better 5G speeds across major cities. C-Band products won’t be out until 2021.
Hotspots Can’t Replace Home Internet
Wireless broadband isn’t for everyone. It costs much more per byte than a home DSL or cable setup.
The median US home broadband subscriber uses more than 308GB of data per month, mostly because of video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. All of those Zoom calls for work and school are likely to eat up a data cap quickly, as well. So if your needs don’t involve video or music streaming, a wireless hotspot may be a viable alternative for your home. But if they do, you’ll find you become quickly frustrated by the data bucket limits.
There is such a thing as wireless home internet, and it’s sold differently from hotspots. It uses larger, less portable routers and it’s generally tied to one location. The data caps on wireless home internet plans tend to be much higher than those on hotspot plans, so they’re more suitable for your Zoom-school needs. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all sell wireless home internet in various parts of the country, along with a wide range of smaller, local wireless internet service providers (WISPs).
So who’s using 4G hotspots, for now? Prior to COVID-19 it was road warriors—business people who need reliable connections on the go that support multiple devices and don’t drain their phones’ batteries. Now, food trucks and other outdoor-dwelling small businesses use hotspots to light up their POS systems and get their Seamless orders. Vacation home and RV owners might also enjoy hotspots to light up their roaming, part-time homesteads.
The Best Hotspot Hardware
The four carriers have been frantically upgrading their networks recently, and in many cases, network capabilities have now outstripped the quality of older hotspots running on them. That means recent phones will get better speeds than older hotspots do.
The best 4G hotspots use the Qualcomm Snapdragon X20 or X24 modems, which you’ll find in the MiFi 8000 and MiFi 8800L. Other hotspots out there, including everything T-Mobile and the virtual carriers currently sell, use three- or four-year-old modems that have lower speeds and worse signal strength than the best new phones. That means you may get 5Mbps to 10Mbps where your phone gets 25Mbps to 30Mbps, for instance.
High-quality hotspots also have TS9 external antenna ports to help you improve your signal using inexpensive antennas you can purchase online. TS9 is a standard, and these antennas cost much less than a cellular signal booster does.
Make sure your hotspots support 5GHz Wi-Fi, which is typically faster and less congested than 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. Some hotspots also support guest networks and access controls, such as MAC filtering and time-based access controls. Those features are on pretty much all dedicated routers nowadays, but you can’t take them for granted on mobile hotspots.
Hotspots with big batteries can be used as power banks to charge your phone, and hotspots with microSD card slots can be used as tiny servers to share media on their Wi-Fi networks. That said, we’ve never found a real use for that media server functionality.
We really like the displays on the front of many current hotspots. They can report the strength of your signal, your hotspot’s name, data usage, and the network password right on the device.
To Tether or Not to Tether?
If you decide to make the jump, hotspots and cellular modems aren’t the only option. Smartphones have a Wi-Fi hotspot mode, and if you have a 5G phone, you’ll probably get better performance in that mode than you would with a 4G hotspot. That said, phones support fewer devices at once than hotspots do, they have fewer network management features, and the hotspot usage drains your battery quickly.
Beware: Overseas Surfing Will Cost You
US hotspots generally allow you to roam in Canada and Mexico, although rates may be high—definitely check with your carrier in advance to find out. For short trips further abroad, we recommend renting the Skyroam Solis Lite, which has LTE connectivity in most places.
It’s surprisingly hard to find an unlocked hotspot with global LTE bands in the US, so if you want to go the route where you buy a local SIM to take advantage of much lower local data rates, your best choice is to use the hotspot function on your phone.
And before you commit to a modem or a plan, make sure to check out our most recent hotspot reviews.