3 Foolproof Ways to Create Your Own Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot for Tethering in North America
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This article was updated January 3rd 2016

Do you want to give multiple wireless gadgets on-the-go internet access? Are you sick of getting ripped off by wireless hotspot tethering? There’s a variety of technologies that can help you – the two most prominent being MVNO networks and portable hotspot Wi-Fi devices. By combining these two technologies, you can cheaply run around town with a bag full of Internet-ready devices, as well as share your portable Internet with friends. You can even operate a phone from a Wi-Fi (or Mi-Fi) network using software which functionally converts raw data into voice minutes and SMS.

It’s not simply a new way of doing things – it’s a lifestyle change requiring a mixture of software and hardware. However, in the end, rolling a personal Wi-Fi network is an absolute steal. You can even make money. The trick is in finding the right software, MVNO plans, and gadgets.

Smartphone Tethering: Create a Wi-Fi Hotspot

hotspot wi-fi

The most common, but least user-friendly, method of setting up a portable internet access point is by configuring what’s known as wireless “tethering.” A tether allows you to transform a mobile phone into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, although with large caveats (unless you own a Nexus phone). In the past, telecom operators frowned on this practice, often billing users for using their phone without purchasing the carrier’s bloated and outrageous tethering devices. While the government ruled that forcing customers to buy separate tethering plans was illegal, carriers still manage to find all sorts of nasty ways to discourage consumers from using their mobile devices to tether.

Advantages:

  • The biggest advantage of a single-device tether is simplicity. Rather than carrying multiple devices, you only need your phone (and another device with Wi-Fi).
  • Offers the lowest total price, since it uses your current data plan. If you are shopping for a provider, consider using T-Mobile’s $30 a month prepaid plan (at the bottom of the page), which comes with 100 minutes of talk and unlimited data (technically limited to around 5GB before throttling).

Disadvantages:

  • Carriers hate you when you use a single-device tether. Some will even try to block you from using their service “illegally.” In recent years, however, carriers began easing up on tethering restrictions. Even so, many still try to prevent you from tethering using your contract smart device.
  • Requires a smartphone or data-enabled tablet with tether capabilities.
  • When tethered, your phone will use both Wi-Fi and 3G simultaneously, which are the two most battery intensive components of your phone. Using both wireless radios results in significant battery drain and necessitates plugging your smartphone into a wall socket.
  • Potential difficulty making phone calls.
  • Many phones purchased from carriers, including Android and iOS MyWi: The Best Way To Tether With An iOS Device [iOS, Cydia] MyWi: The Best Way To Tether With An iOS Device [iOS, Cydia] Many cell phone carriers offer the ability to tether, but some don't, and many of the ones that do charge insane amounts per month. Sharing your Internet connection with another device is incredibly useful and... Read More devices, will require rooting or jailbreaking combined with an application that enables tethering. Without a Nexus smartphone, tethering can be very complicated.

Fortunately, with a Nexus phone, you can natively create a hotspot Wi-Fi hub. The operating system then disguises the network traffic to appear as originating from the cell phone, rather than from other devices. Thus, to the carrier at least, you seem to use data only from your phone. For those owning a phone that blocks tethering, an app might solve your problems.

Mi-Fi Wi-Fi Hotspot

hotspot wi-fi

A Mi-Fi device creates a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. Think of it as a mobile router for a cellular data feed. Many carriers offer locked-down, contract-only Mi-Fi devices. These devices offer good value at the point-of-sale, although the monthly fees might exceed prepaid plans. Fortunately, some companies sell these devices unlocked (or untethered, if you like puns) from any GSM carrier. I advise using a high data capacity plan from an MVNO The Future Is Prepaid: How To Save Hundreds On Your Mobile Phone Bill In 3 Easy Steps The Future Is Prepaid: How To Save Hundreds On Your Mobile Phone Bill In 3 Easy Steps Cutting your mobile phone bill in half takes only three simple steps - first, find a carrier that offers discounted plans, such as an MVNO. Second, get an unlocked phone. Third, and optionally, you can... Read More , in combination with an unlocked Mi-Fi device. Straight Talk is one of the first carriers that come to mind, although many others exist. Again, T-Mobile’s $30-per-month prepaid plan remains at the top of the spectrum.

For those of you who love signing long-term contracts, Verizon offers 5GB plans for 4G Mi-Fi devices – ignoring legal fetters, they offer excellent network reliability and data speed. On the other hand, you can get a contract-free Virgin Mobile portable hotspot for $50. The best contract from Virgin costs $55 a month with a 6GB data cap.

It’s also worth mentioning that unlocked devices combine quite well with prepaid plans from MVNOs No Longer Tied to a Cellular Contract? 10 Reasons You Should Switch To An MVNO No Longer Tied to a Cellular Contract? 10 Reasons You Should Switch To An MVNO Are you out of contract with your cellular provider? Rather than upgrading your phone, and signing a new contract, consider switching to a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO. You can save hundreds, even thousands,... Read More , particularly pay-as-you-go plans from carriers, such as Airvoice Wireless. The monthly upkeep of a pay-go plan can run as little as $10 for three months. Before purchasing a plan, however, make sure you know the basics Get Your Prepaid Mobile Phone Plan As Cheap As Possible: Four Tips To Save Hundreds! Get Your Prepaid Mobile Phone Plan As Cheap As Possible: Four Tips To Save Hundreds! In the United States, T-Mobile made history by becoming the first cellular carrier to not force customers into buying multi-year contracts. After the policy shift, T-Mo users can purchase subsidized phones independent of a monthly... Read More .

Advantages:

  • Greatly reduces the price of getting multiple devices online. Rather than paying for multiple cellular data-enabled devices, you can instead buy a single plan and leech bandwidth from it.
  • This method can provide the easiest setup of a Mi-Fi hotspot, provided you don’t try to use VOIP and Google Voice.

Disadvantages:

  • Data networks do not do a particularly good job of maintaining a high-quality connection while in transit. Thus, call quality over VOIP will suffer when traveling via automobile or train.
  • A separate Mi-Fi device requires its battery, which necessitates charging and management.
  • $50 a month for 6GB of data may offer too little an allotment for heavy users.
  • The use of a Mi-Fi hotspot can sometimes be very complicated, depending on how you configure your device. For example, using Google Voice combined with TalkaTone or Skype may include other fees and a time-consuming setup process. However, keep in mind that if you follow Chris’s directions Make Free Phone Calls Over Wi-Fi/Data Using Talkatone [Android & iOS] Make Free Phone Calls Over Wi-Fi/Data Using Talkatone [Android & iOS] In the future, your phone will only need a data connection. Paying for voice minutes and text messages will be an outdated concept and you’ll be able to communicate entirely over Wi-Fi. Google already offers... Read More , TalkaTone can allow you to receive free phone calls.

PCMCIA or USB Data Card WiFi Hotspot

hotspot wi-fi

Some carriers offer USB modems (or PCMCIA modems for older laptops) which provide mobile internet access for your notebook. These devices allow your laptop to “reverse-tether”, which permits the creation of a portable hotspot from a PC.

Advantages:

  • Using a USB modem bypasses reliance on a smartphone – therefore, you can easily take calls without disturbing any part of your portable hotspot.
  • A laptop can hold a charge longer than a smartphone, thanks to its much larger battery.
  • Laptops handle the burden of managing a hotspot with greater efficiency than a smartphone.

Disadvantages:

  • Compatibility issues mean not all wireless adapters are compatible with creating a hotspot from a laptop.
  • A lengthy setup process involving the command line. If you don’t like computers, then this option isn’t for you.

Conclusion

You don’t have to sign a two-year contract to get your mobile hotspot Wi-Fi service. Three methods exist for getting all your mobile devices online: root your phone and install tethering software, purchase a Mi-Fi device and data plan or use your laptop with a data device to reverse-tether.

All methods come with distinct advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I prefer using a Nexus smartphone to tether, but that’s because its particular advantages suit my needs perfectly. If you do elect to go with a portable hotspot, make sure you select a suitable plan.

Does anyone else regularly use a portable hotspot? What works best for you? Let us know about your experiences in the comments.

Special thanks to Richard Paddock for the tip.

Images: LaptopPhone and Fireworks via MorgueFile.com; Wi-Fi Hotspot via Shutterstock.com; device images via their respective websites.

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  1. Anonymous
    July 23, 2015 at 6:16 am

    I own a HTC One M7 Developer Edition...and to date it's been the best purchase of a smart phone I've made to date. I can't stress enough to those of you who want to be free of all the carrier-bloat or don't wish to be aggravated with a "locked" down device that this is the way to go despite often time a more expensive price tag. I use my device with Straight Talk's 5GB (BYOP) for $43.98 ($42.50 autofill) on the AT&T network. The beauty of the phone is it too can operate on T-Mobile's LTE and it's MVNOs as well. I plan to buy the M8 but not before I do my homework and if I need a DE version or will Factory Unlocked do the trick in regards to mobile data share via Wi-Fi like a router.

  2. Anonymous
    June 24, 2015 at 1:40 am

    ....Or you could just get a carrier-unlocked phone... tethering is a core feature of android and ios, and phones that don't have carrier-installed software still have the feature easily accessible... I've been using the core feature for a couple of years now, and I've yet to be socked by a fee for it... but then I don't deal with user-unfriendly companies...

    Just sayin'..

  3. Anonymous
    June 11, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Which nexus phone does this with ease?

  4. Anonymous
    June 10, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    Hi, I have a MVO for tmobile and I have a G2. Can anyone tell me how to do this? PM me?

  5. Lily
    April 19, 2015 at 2:19 am

    Hi, I'm new to all this... have an old nexus s 4g currently on sprint unlimited data plan (currently locked to sprint) and a new iPad (6 months old-new, not air) version 8.1.3 (if that means something) that is on Verizon's plan. I'd originally gotten the Verizon because I thought it'd have better reception where I needed it, but at this point am wondering what my options are as far as making my nexus a viable hotspot...... can you point me in the right direction?
    Am also considering switching phone to T-Mobile plan but wld have to get a new phone or unlock(?) this one? I am wondering if anyone knows whether sprint/T-Mobile are currently successfully cracking down on all this.
    Thank you for your time.

    • Kannon Y
      April 20, 2015 at 1:11 am

      Verizon was legally required (because it purchased a block of wireless spectrum with special clauses in the contract) to allow tethering. It violated the contract up until 2012, when the FCC forced them to allow tethering apps. While they do allow tethering on limited plans, they still illegally try to block access on unlimited plans. I don't know if much has changed since I last checked, but here's an old article on the subject:

      http://lifehacker.com/5933152/the-right-to-tether-what-the-verizonfcc-settlement-means-to-you

      T-Mobile, and other carriers, are not bound by the same rules as Verizon, so I can't tell you whether or not they permit it. My guess is that they will charge an additional fee if you try to tether on their networks.

  6. ADIEL KERR
    April 8, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    how di i creat my hotspot on my tablet

    • Kannon Y
      April 9, 2015 at 4:49 am

      It depends on the model of tablet. If you have an LTE equipped tablet (you wouldn't need a hotspot on a WiFi tablet), there's an option in some versions of Android that let you configure a hotspot from the Settings menu.

  7. Terrance
    March 12, 2015 at 6:35 am

    I just wanna download a portable wifi app that metro pcs isn't illegally blocking is there one?

    • Kannon Y
      March 12, 2015 at 7:37 pm

      I've heard that carriers attempt to find users who are using WiFi hotspots and then they add the cost of tethering to their bill -- which is ridiculous.

      Have you tried using Android's baked in tethering abilities? They may have removed this on your phone.

  8. TIM JOHNSON
    December 15, 2014 at 12:57 am

    question I have a good virgin mobile galaxy s3 can I use good components to fix a tmobile phone as that's my carrier

  9. Tom
    December 13, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Paying for tethering??? Buahahahahahaha. Aaaaa. Only in America. Did I say haha?

  10. null
    June 3, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I use NetZero 4G with a hotspot device that provides access for 8 devices. I do most of my Internet access using my home Ethernet cable connection over Verizon wireless at 50/25 MB/s for my desktop and notebook. I use WiFi to that router from my tablets. I've tested the NetZero4G service side-by-side and it compares well for performance. Since I use very little WiFi in the wild, I can get by with the lowest tier of NetZero4G service which is free. So I get everything that I need for just the one time ($100) cost of the hotspot device. I use this to augment my cell phone service from T-Mobile (10 cents/minute - flat - no contract) thus, since I do not live on or by my smartphone FB, texting, etc, I get everything that I need in the way of mobile communication for about $90 to $120 per year.

    • Kannon Yamada
      June 4, 2013 at 7:34 pm

      Wow. According to the NetZero FAQ on this, the first YEAR of service is free!

      That's really good for 4G access. And the various monthly tiers are very competitive with alternative plans.

      http://www.unitedonline.net/netzero/faqs.html

      The 200MB a month for free, though, is really outstanding. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Onaje Asheber
    June 3, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    I got a lot out of this. Thanks!

  12. Leland Whitlock
    June 2, 2013 at 1:17 am

    The carriers can not charge you for tethering on 4G networks but there was an out for them with 3G networks. I would have to dig for specifics but needless to say tethering on 3G could lead to additional charges if the carrier wants to. So be careful.

  13. Khai
    June 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    should be noted - all Samsung phones have a wifi hotspot function built in. tho personally I use my old Galaxy Y with FoxFi (gives you more control than the basic hardware function, passwords etc) to create my roaming hotspot.

    for the data I use Virgin Pay-as-you-go (UK, just credit £15 a month to get unlimted data and texts on the "big data" plan, you still get the 15 to use for calls etc) who are cool about tethering.

    took less than 5 minutes to set up...

  14. Mike
    June 1, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Remember the law says that the carrier cannot kick you off their service for tethering on your smartphone. But it does not say that they cannot charge you more as per their TOS.

    For example at&t will automatically bump you up to tethering plan if you are discovered. You have to get a tethering app with cloaking.

  15. Zhong J
    June 1, 2013 at 3:36 am

    You can also use Connectify to use your own laptop as a wifi hotspot, I'm wondering if this will work with my Blackberry curve but sadly people said it won't work.

    • Kannon Yamada
      June 1, 2013 at 3:40 am

      Thanks Zhong! I completely forgot about Connectify!

      I've never used it either - but I've heard really good things about it. Simon Slangen wrote a really good article about it, too. It's definitely worth reading for anyone seeking to setup a VOIP line over their laptop.

  16. Lee
    May 31, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    You actually don't need a smartphone to tether. I used to tether on my dumbphone for a while. Basically, you connect via bluetooth or USB to your computer and the phone shows up as a modem, so you can dial a special number and it uses your data connection (which, on AT&T, is only $10-$15 for unlimited dumbphone data). Combine that with a jailbroken iPod Touch with iBluever and you can basically have an iPhone with unlimited data with a $10 a month data plan.

    • shantira
      May 19, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      does it really work

    • shantira
      May 19, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      if you have a chance talk to me