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.
Should You Wait for 5G?
If you want 5G service on a hotspot, yes, you should probably wait until a new round of products and service plans come out later this year. We’ve heard from hotspot makers that they’re raring to go, but have been waiting for chipset availability and carrier approval.
This is going to come down to whether you expect 5G to come to your your location soon. For most people, for web browsing and basic work, a 4G hotspot is going to be just fine for the next three years. But 5G can provide a genuine boost, especially if you intend to be feeding multiple laptops in a workgroup or small business.
AT&T doesn’t currently have any 5G hotspots available to the public, but it allows 30GB of hotspot usage on its Unlimited Elite plan with the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G series phones. If you want to take advantage of AT&T’s high-band 5G network in the centers of 35 cities and the expansion of AT&T 5G over the next few years, you need to go with a Galaxy S20+ or S20 Ultra rather than a hotspot for now.
When T-Mobile merges with Sprint, it has committed to extending mid-band 5G over many major cities. The Sprint HTC 5G Hub will be able to access that part of the “new T-Mobile” network. But the 5G Hub can only access one of T-Mobile’s three sets of 5G bands, while the Galaxy S20+ and Ultra can access all of them. That makes the Galaxy phones a more flexible 5G choice for the new T-Mobile.
Verizon 5G hotspots are screwed up by a service plan problem. Currently, Verizon’s 5G phone plan includes unlimited phone-as-hotspot usage. Verizon’s 5G hotspot plan does not. That is strange, and until it’s changed, the best bet on Verizon is to buy a 5G phone and use it as a hotspot.
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. Plans range from “free” for 200MB per month with NetZero on Sprint’s network (you’ll need to buy a hotspot), up to $100 or more. The best balance of price and data right now is Sprint’s 100GB deal for $60 per month.
The median US home broadband subscriber uses more than 190GB of data per month, mostly because of video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. 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.
So who’s using 4G hotspots, for now? First and foremost, it’s road warriors—business people who need reliable connections on the go that support multiple devices and don’t drain their phones’ batteries. Hotspot plans can be affordable alternatives to hotel or convention hall Wi-Fi, and they’re more secure and reliable than public Wi-Fi in coffee shops. Vacation home and RV owners might also enjoy hotspots to light up their roaming, part-time homesteads. And small businesses that don’t use a lot of data (for instance, ones that primarily use POS systems) could find hotspots a good alternative to a wired connection.
Comparing the Carriers
Hotspots are available from all four 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 30 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 (Sprint), NetZero (Sprint), H2O (AT&T), Karma (Sprint), and Net10 (Verizon), along with a few other minor players. Expect to pay $20 to $25 per month for 2GB of data, $40 to $50 for 5GB, and $50 to $90 for 10GB.
If you’re just looking to use a hotspot without tying it to your existing carrier line, the best overall deal is Sprint’s aforementioned $60, 100GB plan. But 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.
Be aware that if you have an unlimited data plan, that may not carry over to hotspots. If you add a hotspot onto an “unlimited” plan, you’ll get 15 to 20GB of high-speed data with Verizon, 22GB to 23GB of high-speed data with AT&T and Sprint, and 50GB with T-Mobile, but after that your data will be deprioritized, or unpredictably slowed. The Sprint and T-Mobile
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 8800, MiFi 8800L, and HTC 5G Hub. 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
To help narrow down your decision, head over to our explainer on the tethering vs. dedicated hotspot debate. And check out our tips on how to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Beware: Overseas Surfing Will Cost You
Traveling soon? 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.
Pros: Fastest hotspot hardware available. Excellent access controls. Long battery life.
Cons: Heavy. No touch screen.
Bottom Line: The Nighthawk for AT&T is the first hotspot to support gigabit LTE, the fastest LTE standard currently available.
Pros: Reasonably priced. Excellent 4G performance. Long battery life.
Cons: No 5G. No Band 71 in case of T-Mobile merger.
Bottom Line: The MiFi 8000 is the best 4G hotspot you can get on Sprint. It will keep you connected for at least the next year.
Pros: Fastest 4G LTE technologies. Long battery life. Easy-to-use touch-screen UI.
Cons: 5G is on the horizon.
Bottom Line: The new Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L hotspot has the best 4G LTE networking capabilities available today-but Verizon is about to launch a 5G network that could change everything.
Pros: First 5G hotspot for Sprint. Good battery life. Long Wi-Fi range. Handsome design.
Cons: Expensive. Uneven Google Assistant UI. Sprint’s future and strategy are currently unclear.
Bottom Line: The HTC 5G Hub is the first dedicated hotspot for sharing Sprint’s new network with up to 20 devices, but it’s not a viable alternative to traditional internet just yet.
Pros: First 5G hotspot for Verizon. Doesn’t overheat as easily as phones. Supports lots of devices via wired and wireless connections.
Cons: Service plan doesn’t justify the price. Connected devices maxed out at 350Mbps in testing. Poor global roaming.
Bottom Line: The MiFi M1000 is Verizon’s first and only 5G hotspot, but it’s expensive and doesn’t offer big-enough service plans to change how you do business.
Pros: Excellent coverage with unlimited LTE data. Daily rental plans. Solid battery life. Support for up to 10 devices.
Cons: Difficult to use third-party USB-C cables for charging.
Bottom Line: The Skyroam Solis Lite is a solid international hotspot you can buy or rent, with long battery life and widespread coverage that offers unlimited LTE data in over 130 countries.