Published Jun 29, 2022 11:15 AM
The Internet is a basic requirement for existence at this point, but choosing the right hotspot plan can be difficult. But, using public Wi-Fi has its own set of risks, especially if it’s free. Considering you are likely carrying a 5G-capable internet device in your pocket, why not make your own hotspot? And for that, you need the best hotspot plan.
There are more than 500 million public hotspots in the world but more than 7 billion smartphones, and many phones offer tethering options that turn them into makeshift hotpots. Sometimes the best, however, is not necessarily the phone in your pocket. Rather, the best might require a hotspot device to connect, offered by numerous carriers and third-party vendors. We tend to take the internet for granted at this point in its evolution but not all of us are connected all the time. Sometimes we need some 5G or 4G LTE help to get on the web. Especially if we are holed up with too many family members at a remote cabin in Michigan where the Wi-Fi is akin to two soup cans with string.
A mobile hotspot plan offers you the ability to connect to the internet securely. It’s your own personal ISP. While that’s not necessarily true, as all hotspot plans are through a major (or minor) carrier, it’s your connection that works just for you from wherever. If you travel for work, you probably could use a reliable connectivity source. If you like having the internet out in the woods where there is no Wi-Fi but somehow a 5G signal, a hotspot is your choice. The best hotspot plans ensure you’ll never have to go camping without access to online Mario Kart sessions ever again.
How we picked the best hotspot plans
Choosing a hot spot plan is different than buying a gadget. There are more variables involved that you have to consider. For instance, your current cellular carrier may offer a substantial discount for hot spot usage, which can seriously skew the numbers. In order to choose the best hot spot plans, we considered the specific needs of various people from casual browsers to serious power users. We relied on a combination of personal experience, editorial reviews, user feedback, company reputation, and spec comparisons.
We included most of the major carriers, as well as some of the smaller names in the space who offer more niche plans. If you already have an account with a major cellular carrier, we suggest starting there.
Things to consider before buying a hotspot plan
While you can just go out and buy a hotspot and get your internet, there are some factors to consider before buying. When it comes to a hotspot, the differences between services offered come down to the things you’d expect: price, network, plan details, and so on. Before buying a hotspot plan, you’ll at least want to consider how much data you might be using. Keep your expectations realistic. Even the best hotspot plans can’t typically handle long Netflix marathons.
All the major carriers offer hotspot plans. Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T each sell devices and plans. Aside from that, minor carriers like U.S. Cellular, Cricket, and Straight Talk Wireless offer hotspot plans. Then there are virtual carriers that usually piggyback off of the major carriers. Visible is a solid example of one of those carriers. Considering all this, you’ll generally want to dance with the one that brought you. That is, if you already use one of these carriers for your main smartphone, that’s likely your best bet.
Prices can be all over the place for hotspot plans. Either there is a flat monthly fee or a per GB usage fee. This shouldn’t be the factor that totally influences your decision, as each pricing stage offers something different. Some of the pay-per-GB plans, for instance, are great for international travel. Verizon offers a discount on hotspot plans if you already have a Verizon phone. You can expect to pay on average around $40-$60 a month for most hotspot plans. This is cheaper than most ISP monthly costs.
Most hotspot plans do not offer unlimited data. If you are expecting your phone carrier, with whom you may have unlimited data, to have a hotspot plan without a data cap you may be disappointed. Regardless, most hotspot data plans offer enough GB of data to cover whatever you are working on. Pay attention to what is offered by your current phone carrier, you may get a good deal on hotspot data plans. Additionally, check what happens when you exceed your data cap. Does it cut off? Are there additional charges or slower speeds? Each carrier handles overages a bit differently and it can get very costly if you’re not careful.
Unlike the standard internet delivered through Wi-Fi, the signal coming through hotspots uses cellular signals. The best you can hope for is a good 5G signal if you are in a 5G area. More often than not you’ll get 4G LTE or, at worst, 3G. So you’ll want to check if the carrier supporting the hotspot is loaded with 5G towers. All the major carriers are expanding their 5G networks and it’s debatable who has the widest coverage. You’ll want to check coverage maps in relation to where you are going to need a hotspot in order to determine the largest, best network.
Cell or mobile
Do you want to use your cellular device as a hotspot or do you want to purchase a dedicated hotspot device? That’s the question you’ll have to answer before choosing a hotspot plan. If you have very little to do besides uploading a few files from your work laptop here and there, or answering some email, your smartphone should do the trick. If you are planning on sitting down and pumping out Powerpoint presentations for eight hours from a lawn chair on the beach, then you might want a dedicated device.
The best hotspot plans: Reviews & Recommendations
Best overall: T-Mobile Magenta MAX
Why it made the cut: The top hotspot plan on most lists, the T-Mobile Magenta MAX plan is a phone plan with a hotspot plan built in.
- 40 GB Premium data cap
- Smartphone hotspot
- 5G Unlimited data
- Plenty of data
- One plan for phone and hotspot
- Large 5G network
- 5G speeds can be slow
- Price is on the high end
If you already have T-Mobile or are thinking of switching, the $85 T-Mobile Magenta MAX plan is for you. The bonus with this plan is not just that it offers you a hotspot without another device but that it’s an unlimited data plan. The catch is that after you use 40 GB of hotspot data, it reverts to 3G speeds for whatever you use after (per month).
As long as you have a limited amount of devices connected to your hotspot (say, like one or two) then even 3G speeds can give you up to 3 Mbps. That’s not terrible for doing basic tasks. While the plan is meant to be used through your phone, you can still use a hotspot device instead. Depending on the model phone you have, this might be a good tack to take. Some models get mighty hot when pulling double duty. Regardless, the T-Mobile Magenta MAX plan offers you a hotspot option without necessarily having to buy another device.
Best no-contract: Straight Talk Wireless
Why it made the cut: Of all the ancillary carriers out there, Straight Talk offers one of the more compatible hotspot plans.
- No contract
- Starts at $15/month
- 4G LTE data
- Good download/upload speeds
- No contract, no cancel fee
- GB pricing better the more you purchase
- No 5G service
- Limited network size
Straight Talk Wireless is known for its pay-as-you-go plans. If you don’t want a contract then this is the hotspot plan you are looking for. Plans range from $15/month for 2 GB of data to $75/month for 20 GB of data. Either plan delivers a moderate 31.1 Mbps download and 15.6 Mbps upload speeds. That’s not too shabby and comparable to some basic Wi-Fi services. The catch is that it’s all delivered across a 4G LTE network, likely piggybacking off a larger carrier’s tower.
With a Straight Talk Wireless hotspot device, you can connect up to 10 devices at a time. This is probably the way to go here, as with 4G LTE you probably don’t want to burden your phone with being the community hotspot. The no-contract deal is a handy thing to have (or not have), especially when you only need to use a hotspot for a limited time. Straight Talk Wireless isn’t the only carrier out there to offer a no-contract hotspot plan, but it has some of the best plan options.
Best 5G speed: Verizon Pro
Why it made the cut: The Verizon Pro is another hotspot plan from another major carrier. It makes sense if you already use Verizon.
- 100 GB of Premium data
- 5G/4G LTE speeds
- Smartphone hotspot
- Discount with a phone plan
- 5G millimeter-wave compatibility
With the Verizon Pro hotspot plan, once you go over 100 GB of data, you get whacked down to a meager 600 Kbps. That’s weak sauce but at least there are no extra charges for going over. The Verizon Pro plan offers a $30 discount down to $60 if you already have a Verizon phone plan. That’s not too shabby for 100 GB of data. Verizon has one of the fastest 5G networks out there, utilizing the millimeter-wave 5G in limited areas, mid-band 5G in others. Like the other major carriers, Verizon is working on expanding that network.
If you use a hotspot a lot, then you’ll want a plan that takes advantage of those 5G speeds where available. While with this plan you can use your smartphone as a hotspot, Verizon’s Jetpack device has long been a reliable hotspot. Many businesses use the Jetpack for connectivity, which means its been field-tested plenty. You know what you are getting with Verizon, and the Verizon Pro hotspot plan takes full advantage of the growing 5G service network.
Best international: Solis Global Pay-Per-GB
Why it made the cut: The Solis Global Pay-Per-GB hotspot plan can be used almost anywhere around the world.
- 1 GB data cap
- International use
- Easy pricing
- Network in 135+ countries
- No contracts
- Speeds dependent on geography
- Have to purchase 1 GB at a time
With the Solis Global Pay-Per-GB Subscription, getting internet access from anywhere in the world is a relatively simple process. It should be noted that there are two ways to get the internet when you are traveling out of the country. The first is to buy a phone in your host country, with a new SIM. The second is to bring an international hotspot. There is a third option, but if you use your phone for the internet outside of the country, your phone bill would make Elon Musk do a spit take.
If you aren’t sure how much data you are going to use, and need a fairly cheap option then this is it. At $12 a GB of data using the Solis Lite hotspot, you know what you are getting. Need another gigabyte? That’ll be another $12. There is no bulk pricing plan; it’s just the single plan. Of course, if you do use the Solis Global Pay-Per-GB Subscription hotspot plan, then you are at the speed whims of your host country’s cell towers. This is solid as a backup plan if you get into a real jam overseas.
Best for streaming: AT&T 100 GB Plan
Why it made the cut: The AT&T 100 GB plan is one of several hotspot plans offered by AT&T, one of the major carriers.
- 100 GB Data
- 5G/4G LTE Speeds
- Unlimited data options
- Unlimited plan comes with Hulu & HBO Max
- Works with Netgear hotspot devices
- 100 GB for $55
- Plan has to be ordered in store
- Works best for existing customers
If you are an existing customer with AT&T then you really don’t need to shop around. The AT&T 100 GB hotspot plan is one of several prepaid and postpaid hotspot plans offered by AT&T. If that’s too much data, there is a 25 GB plan for $50 per month or a 40 GB plan for $75. If it’s not enough data, there is a postpaid $75 per month unlimited plan that allocates 15 GB for hotspots, while the $85 unlimited elite plan allocates 40 GB. The unlimited plans are phone plans, while the prepaid plans are best for mobile hotspots or tablets.
The best hotspot plan is the 100 GB plan for $55 a month. Comparable to the Verizon Pro hotspot plan, that’s a good deal for 100 GB. This is a good amount of data if you are planning on spending your hotspot time streaming movies. While only the unlimited plans come with Hulu and HBO Max, you probably already subscribe to those. Speeds vary as AT&T is still working on expanding its 5G network, but you’ll at least get 4G LTE in most areas.
Q: Does a hotspot work without Wi-Fi?
Yes. That’s the entire point of a hotspot. A hotspot, unlike a Wi-Fi device, uses cellular connectivity, not a home network, to deliver the internet. Instead of connecting to an ISP running cable into your home, it connects to a cellular carrier. This makes hotspots ideal for connecting your devices to the internet on the go. Hotspots are then reliant on the speed of the connected cellular carrier. While some speeds can get up to 5G, most of the time you’ll at least see 4G LTE speeds.
Q: Can I use a hotspot for home internet?
Technically, you can. However, using a hotspot for home internet can be kind of limiting in its ability to handle large bandwidth events such as multiple device streaming. If you live alone and have very little to do on the internet and don’t mind mediocre download and upload speeds, then a hotspot for your home internet can be a money saver. Generally, hotspots are used as temporary or necessary internet connectivity solutions, not as long-term static solutions.
Q: What happens if I use all my hotspot data?
This varies by your hotspot plan. Some plans offer more data at an additional cost, while other plans throttle your speed after the initial data has been used up. Other plans offer pay-as-you-go options, using incremental chunks of data. Check this carefully when you purchase a hotspot plan, as there is nothing stopping carriers from implementing outlandish fees if you exceed your data caps.
Q: Can I use a hotspot for Zoom?
Yes. While the connection might not be perfect, Zoom also isn’t perfect so it’s a wash. If you have a good 5G connection with your hotspot, then video conferencing isn’t off the table. If you drop down to a 3G connection in a bad signal area, then you might want to stick to voice calls. There is little difference between using a laptop through a hotspot or just using your phone for Zoom calls.
Q: How good is hotspot Wi-Fi?
Hotspot Wi-Fi is generally limited to a shorter range than traditional Wi-Fi. Most hotspot devices run Wi-Fi 6 to allow for greater device connectivity. These two factors make hotspot Wi-Fi the best option for portability. It’s all about being able to connect on the go, so hotspot devices aren’t built to act as standard Wi-Fi routers.
Q: Which is better, a hotspot or home Wi-Fi?
Neither is better, neither is worse. Each serves a different purpose. When you can’t take your home Wi-Fi network with you, you take a hotspot. Both provide connectivity to the internet. A hotspot device creates its own Wi-Fi network through a cellular signal, while your home Wi-Fi distributes its signal off of a hard line to the ISP.
Final thoughts on the best hotspot plans
One of the hardest things about shopping for the best hotspot plan is deciding whether or not you want to switch carriers. Chances are, you are going to stick with whatever carrier you already use and piggyback a hotspot plan onto your existing phone plan. This is the easiest solution. If you do find yourself in the market for a new phone carrier, or plan to use a hotspot enough that it could stand to have its own dedicated line, then shopping around can’t hurt. The best hotspot plan is the one that works best for your needs—whether those be price, data, speed, or some combination—and there is a plan somewhere that will work perfectly.