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How to Share Your Smartphone’s Internet Connection: Hotspots and Tethering Explained

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Practically all smartphones can tether, sharing their data connection with your other devices. You can do this over Wi-Fi, a USB cable, or Bluetooth — if your carrier lets you. You might have to pay extra.

You should be able to tether with your phone if it’s a smartphone with a mobile data connection. This includes iPhones, Android phones, Windows phone, BlackBerries, Firefox phones, and almost anything else.

Do Your Carrier and Cellular Plan Allow It?

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Whether you can tether doesn’t just depend on your phone itself. It depends on your cellular carrier, and the plan you have through them.

Even if you’re paying for data, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can use that data to tether. For example, let’s say you have a data plan that gives you 1 GB of mobile data per month. If this is the cheap, lowest-end plan, it’s possible your carrier won’t let you use that 1 GB for tethering purposes. On a carrier-provided Android phone or iPhone, the tethering option may be disabled. If you try to jailbreak on an iPhone or use third-party tethering apps on an Android phone to get around this limitation, they may block the tethered traffic from your laptop — it looks different from smartphone traffic — or helpfully add the tethering option to your account and start charging you for it.

You may have to pay an extra $5-$10 a month for tethering, or upgrade to a more expensive plan that just includes it. Tethering data may cost extra — for example, you might have an unlimited data plan that gives you unlimited mobile data to your smartphone, but only includes a few gigabytes of month of high-speed data when tethering. You can go out of your way to use less data on your computer when tethering. Check your cellular data plan or contact your carrier for more details.

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Battery Life Considerations

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Tethering drains your smartphone’s battery life — the common type of Wi-Fi tethering, at least. Your phone has to use its Wi-Fi radio to operate a local Wi-Fi network your laptop, tablet, and other devices can connect to. It’ll then have to forward the traffic back and forth.

This can use quite a bit of battery life, so take that into account. Consider connecting your phone to a power source or bringing a portable battery pack to recharge it with. You could also just connect your phone to your laptop and draw power from your laptop.

Be sure to disable the portable hotspot feature when you’re not using it, too — only enable it when you need to tether with it. Remember that your phone’s battery will drain faster when using this feature and plan accordingly.

Wi-Fi, USB, and Bluetooth Tethering

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There are several ways to tether. Most people normally think of the Wi-Fi hotspot feature, but you can also tether via a USB cable or wireless Bluetooth connection.

  • Wi-Fi: When you use this feature, your phone creates a local Wi-Fi network. You can connect your devices to it just like you’d connect them to any other network, and your phone will provide the Internet connection — automatically forwarding traffic back and forth over the cellular data network. This is easy to use, and it’s simple to connect your devices to your personal network — just choose your device from the list of Wi-Fi networks and enter the password you can configure on your phone. You can get high-speed Wi-Fi speeds and even connect multiple devices at a time.
  • USB Cable: Smartphones also offer a USB tethering feature. Connect them to a laptop — or even a desktop PC — via a USB cable. Your computer can then use your smartphone to connect to the Intenret, and it all happens over the USB connection. This method can be faster than Wi-Fi (because it’s wired), and the USB cable even provides power to the phone from the laptop. You don’t have to set up Wi-Fi, and you can even connect computers without Wi-Fi to the mobile data network. However, you can only connect one device at a time via USB tethering, and it requires the device have a USB port. You may also need to install the appropriate drivers.
  • Bluetooth: You can also share a smartphone’s mobile data connection with other devices via the wireless Bluetooth radio. This is known as a Bluetooth personal area network, or PAN. Devices that include Bluetooth radios can connect to the smartphone via Bluetooth and access the Internet through it. This method is slower than Wi-Fi, and the process of pairing Bluetooth devices can be more complex and take longer than simply connecting to a Wi-Fi network. However, Bluetooth tethering does use less battery life than creating a Wi-Fi hotspot, so it may be useful in situations where you’re trying to preserve battery life and don’t mind having a slower connection.

How to Tether

Tethering should be simple to enable and use. If your carrier is blocking it, you may not see the tethering option at all on your smartphone’s settings screen. For example, if you visit your iPhone’s settings screen and don’t see the Personal Hotspot option near the top, your carrier is blocking it. If the feature doesn’t work after you enable it, your carrier may just be blocking it on their end instead of disabling the option on your phone.

For example, on an iPhone, open the Settings screen and tap “Personal Hotspot” near the top — it should be below “Cellular” and above “Carrier.” On an Android phone, open the Settings screen and look for a feature named something like “Tethering & portable hotspot” — it may be in a different place depending on your phone’s manufacturer and what version of Android you’re using. You can also use third-party tethering apps on an Android phone.

On other types of phones, head to the Settings screen — there should be a clearly marked “tethering,” “mobile hotspot,” or similarly named feature.


You might wonder why you often have to pay extra for tethering. After all, if you’re paying for a certain amount of mobile data, why can’t you use it for anything you want? The generally agreed upon reason is because you’re more likely to actually use that data you’re paying for if you’re tethering. Yes, it is silly.

Image Credit: zombieite on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 04/4/15

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