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How Much Data Do Mobile Hotspots Use?

a laptop and a phone

If a friend needs to connect their iPhone or Android to an internet connection ASAP, but there isn't a public Wi-Fi network, you might be tempted to break out your smartphone and offer it as a mobile hotspot.

Mobile hotspots are super convenient and one of the most highly advertised features on modern mobile phone plans. But for all their flexibility, mobile hotspots use a massive amount of data.

Understanding mobile hotspot data usage — and how it works — is key to maximizing its effectiveness and keeping your phone bill manageable. Today, let’s discuss how much data mobile hotspots use in detail.

Do Mobile Hotspots Use a Lot of Data?

Generally, yes. While the exact hotspot use data rate will vary from device to device and location to location, hotspot data usage is directly related to whatever a connected device does.

However, a hotspot doesn't use more data than doing the same thing on normal mobile data.

For example, if someone connects to your phone’s hotspot and uses it to stream a television show in high definition, they’ll use more cellular data than if they just connected to the Internet to do a Google search. However, doing a Google search on a laptop using a hotspot will use the same amount of data as doing the Google search on your phone with mobile data.

Why? Surfing on the Internet takes much more data than standard text messaging. That's one reason why Wi-Fi networks are recommended whenever you need to surf your smartphone (and why many coffee shops offer public networks).

Mobile hotspots use even more data if you stream visual media, like shows or YouTube videos, to a device. Visual media is the most data-heavy type available, even including music.

How Do Hotspots Work?

Essentially, a "hotspot" is a local network broadcast by a mobile device like a smartphone or, in some cases, a tablet.

When you engage your mobile hotspot on your iOS or Android smartphone, you broadcast a Wi-Fi connection so that other devices (such as laptops and desktops) can harness your phone's data connection.

Usually, desktops, laptops, and certain tablets have to rely on public or private Wi-Fi networks or wired connections to get to the Internet.

Through mobile hotspot use, they can bypass this limitation and access the web from anywhere in the world — so long as the phone in question has cellular connectivity. Think of a hotspot hijacking a phone’s cellular connection to act as a Wi-Fi transmitter.

To set up a mobile hotspot, a phone user goes into their settings and enables a mobile hotspot option. Most modern smartphones have this option these days, and some even allow you to specify whether you want to provide a 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz Wi-Fi frequency band.

However, hotspots aren’t authentic Wi-Fi connections. They still use cellular data: the same data that a cell phone would use for texting and surfing the web. Because of this, you must keep track of your data usage whenever you offer a mobile hotspot to a friend or family member.

So, How Much Data Bandwidth Do Hotspots Use?

Here’s a basic breakdown of what you can expect regarding mobile hotspot data usage. Keep in mind that these are approximations, not exact data usage rates.

  • Web browsing — 60 MB per hour
  • Email browsing — Less than 1 MB per hour
  • Music streaming — Up to 150 MB per hour
  • Netflix streaming — About 250 MB per hour, at least
  • Facebook surfing — About 80 MB per hour
  • YouTube video streaming — About 300 MB per hour
  • Instagram surfing — About 720 MB per hour
  • Zoom videoconferencing calls — About 810 MB per hour

As you can see, the more video-heavy an Internet activity is, the more cellular data it uses. Seen in this light, you can easily use personal hotspot data for basic web surfing or for checking your messages.

But as soon as you use it to watch media or to participate in videoconferencing calls, your data usage rates will skyrocket, and you'll have to pay much more in most cases.

Is Hotspot Data Usage Limited?

Yes, but usage limits depend heavily on your cell phone plans, and whether hotspot plans are included. Different carriers handle hotspot data usage in different ways.

For example, some cell carriers count hotspot data as part of the same overall cell phone data pool. For instance, if you only get 2 GB of cell data per month, using any hotspot data will count toward that limit before you have to pay extra or are prevented from connecting any further.

Alternatively, some cell carriers count hotspot data as a separate data pool. They may designate high-speed hotspot data and not count it against your overall cell data — those carriers who offer these plans usually highlight hotspot data usage as a significant selling point.

If you have a plan like this, the odds are your hotspot data limit is anywhere between 10 GB and 100 GB of hotspot data per month. If you go beyond these data limits, your data speed may be slowed.

Note that on "unlimited data" mobile plans, you likely still have a hotspot data cap or limit to keep in mind.

If you go beyond the unlimited data plan’s “limit,” you may not be able to use your hotspot anymore, or your hotspot data speed will be much slower than average, dipping to 3G speeds in some cases.

In any case, mobile hotspot data limits usually don't allow you to use mobile hotspot data freely for working from home or for streaming with impunity.

It would be best if you were strategic and careful with your hotspot data usage, so you don't go above your limit and face significant fines (by using too much data in a month) or data throttling.

How Can You Track Mobile Hotspot Data Usage?

On the bright side, most cell phone carriers let you track your mobile hotspot data usage. Depending on your carrier, you may have options like:

  • Using a cell phone app.
  • Checking your cell phone’s settings app.
  • Using your online account manager, especially if you have a carrier like T-Mobile, AT&T, or Verizon — all of these resources should have your current hotspot data usage records.

It’s a good idea to check your current mobile hotspot data usage for the month before planning on using more hotspot data for a long streaming session or surfing session.

That way, you’ll know whether you likely have enough hotspot data for whatever you have planned before the month ends.

Some providers let your hotspot data carry over from month to month, but most let you “start fresh” each month by providing you with another batch of data to use without any left over.

Can You Use a Mobile Hotspot Without Data?

Technically, yes, but it depends on whether you have a compatible device. Many modern smartphones offer a function called Wi-Fi tethering (though it may be called something else depending on your phone).

In a nutshell, Wi-Fi tethering converts a hotspot into a temporary, portable router.

You may avoid using mobile data entirely by enabling this setting on your phone. Instead, your smartphone tethers itself to a nearby local or public Wi-Fi network.

In this way, your phone operates as a router rather than a Wi-Fi transmitter, taking the data from a connected device and piggybacking it to the Wi-Fi network it senses.

Settings for Wi-Fi tethering are usually under your phone’s settings or wireless and networking apps. If your device has a USB port, you may be able to manually hook it up to a Wi-Fi transmitter or router, then turn your phone into a Wi-Fi tether in that way.

But remember that this function is only available for some smartphones, and you are limited by Wi-Fi network availability.

If there aren’t any Wi-Fi networks nearby, for instance, you won’t be able to use Wi-Fi tethering since there is no Wi-Fi network for your phone to tether to. You’ll be forced to use mobile hotspot data or find another connection solution in such cases.

The Bottom Line

All in all, mobile hotspots can use a ton of data if you aren’t careful or you don’t keep track of data usage.

But when leveraged strategically, mobile hotspots can be a great way to offer Wi-Fi connections to your friends and family members or download important work documents without relying on cellular data alone in areas with spotty coverage.

Some phones offer better mobile hotspot functionality than others.

Want to compare cell phone plans to find the best ones for hotspot data? Try our free, unbiased Plan Finder below. You can select how much hotspot data you think you'll need, and we'll search through thousands of plan options to find the best ones for you.

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