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What is a hotspot?

Headshot of Brittany McGhee
Researched by
Brittany McGheeContributing Writer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor
Updated 1/26/23

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A hotspot is a Wi-Fi network that lets you connect your devices to the internet when you’re on the go. There are a few different types of hotspots. The term hotspot can refer to a public Wi-Fi network, a portable hotspot device, or your smartphone’s hotspot feature. Connecting your devices to a hotspot is as easy as connecting to any other Wi-Fi network.

We explain the different kinds of Wi-Fi hotspots and how they work below, so you can find the best way to stay connected when you’re out and about.

Mobile hotspots


  • Often included with your mobile phone plan
  • No extra device to carry around

  • Limited data
  • Can be slow

A mobile hotspot is a smartphone feature that lets you share your cellular data with your other devices by acting as a Wi-Fi network.

Having a mobile hotspot is like having your own private Wi-Fi network in your pocket wherever you go. It’s a convenient way to connect your devices, including laptops, tablets, and phones, to the internet when you’re away from home or the office. It’s also more secure than public hotspots, since you don’t have to share the connection with anyone else.

Connecting devices to your personal hotspot is sometimes called tethering. It’s possible to connect multiple devices at once, and you can connect them via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or USB. Turning on your phone’s hotspot feature and connecting devices takes just a couple of minutes, and the process is simple whether you’re using an iPhone or an Android smartphone.

An infographic displaying the process of how a mobile hotspot works

When you connect your devices to your mobile hotspot, you’re using your mobile carrier’s cellular network to access the internet. You’ll need to have a good cellular signal on the device you’re using as a hotspot. You’ll also want to keep your connected devices close to your mobile hotspot for the best connection.

Your phone’s hotspot feature is incredibly convenient for quickly connecting your devices when you’re away from home, but it has some limitations that can be problematic for frequent users.

Before using your phone as a personal hotspot, you’ll want to check your phone plan to see how much hotspot data is included, even if your regular mobile data is unlimited. Every major carrier places limits on hotspot data usage. You can monitor your usage in your carrier’s app. After you reach your limit, your speeds may be slowed down too much to be useful. If your hotspot data limit is under 5 GB, occasional light browsing may be fine. But if you’re trying to work or do video calls with a mobile hotspot often, you’ll want 100 GB or more. Another thing to consider when using your phone as a mobile hotspot is that it can drain your phone’s battery life quickly, so you’ll want to carry a charger.

If you’re a heavy mobile hotspot user, you should consider getting a portable hotspot device to use instead of your cell phone.

Portable hotspot devices


  • High speeds and data caps
  • Can connect multiple devices

  • Additional cost

A portable hotspot is a small, wireless device that creates a personal Wi-Fi network for sharing cellular data with your other devices, so they can stay connected to the internet from anywhere. It works similarly to your cell phone’s hotspot feature, but it’s a separate device that uses a separate data plan to create a mobile hotspot.

An infographic displaying how a portable hotspot works

If you want to use a mobile hotspot often, it’s worth considering getting a hotspot device and hotspot data plan from your mobile carrier instead of using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot. A separate data plan for your hotspot device will cost you extra each month, but you can make sure you have enough data for your needs and avoid running up against your cell phone plan’s hotspot data limits. You also won’t have to worry about using up your phone’s battery with a hotspot device.

Portable hotspot devices are ideal for those who often travel or work remotely outside of their home or office. These devices aren’t meant for replacing your home internet, but they can come in handy if your home internet connection goes out often. They are also a great way for road trippers to get internet in their RV. If you’re looking for a wireless internet connection for your home, fixed wireless internet is a better option, especially for those who live in remote areas where fast, reliable wired connections may not be available.

If you think a portable hotspot device is for you, we recommend Verizon and T-Mobile, but check with your cell carrier to see if they have any bundle deals with your service.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots


  • Usually free

  • Must visit hotspot location
  • Can get congested
  • Lower security

Public Wi-Fi hotspots are Wi-Fi networks offered in public places or businesses that let you connect to the internet. Public hotspots can be found all over, and they are a fantastic option for saving your mobile data, working remotely from a cafe, or keeping in touch while traveling.

Where to find public Wi-Fi hotspots:

  • Coffee shops and restaurants (1)
  • Shopping malls and retail stores
  • Airports and hotels
  • Libraries and museums

Public hotspots are easy to find and sometimes free. Libraries, malls, and retail stores often have free Wi-Fi. At cafes and restaurants, Wi-Fi access is usually free but reserved for paying customers. If you're unsure how to find a Wi-Fi hotspot, there are apps like WiFi Map that can help you find hotspots near you (2). It’s not uncommon to have to pay a fee to access an airport or hotel Wi-Fi hotspot.

To connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, open up the Wi-Fi settings on your phone, laptop, or tablet and choose from the available networks. Before you’re allowed to connect, you may have to accept terms of use, enter a password provided by the establishment, or enter payment information to pay a fee.

In addition to public hotspots, there are other ways to get internet access without it costing you. Check out our guide on how to get free internet at home.

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Contributing researcher
Headshot of Brittany McGhee
Researched by
Brittany McGheeContributing Writer

Brittany is a Contributing Writer for Switchful with over five years of experience writing about technology in the US and Europe. Her primary focus is on mobile and internet topics. She is passionate about helping people choose the right tech for their needs at the right price.

Contributing reviewer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.

Endnotes and sources

1. "The 16 chains with the best free Wi-Fi, ranked," CNET. Accessed 26 January 2023.

2. "All your connectivity needs in one place," WiFi Map. Accessed 26 January 2023.