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What is iPhone and Android tethering, and how do you use it?

Using a phone and laptop

What can you do when you’re away from home and need to get online with a laptop or tablet, but there’s no Wi-Fi connection handy? 

In that situation, the tethering feature of your smartphone can come to the rescue.

But what is tethering, and how do you set it up?

This guide will explain everything you need to know about tethering the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.

Topic: the key points

  • Tethering is when you connect a phone or tablet to another device to share mobile internet.
  • Tethering is a free feature that is built-in to Android and Apple phones and tablets.
  • You must check with your network before using tethering, as there may be additional data limits or fees.

What is tethering?

Tethering is where the mobile network connection of a phone or tablet is shared with other devices.

So if you have a device such as a laptop or tablet that does not have a SIM card or access to any other data connection, you can get online using the mobile network link of a smartphone or mobile broadband tablet.

Tethering can be extremely useful if you need internet in a pinch, or as an alternative to purchasing a separate mobile broadband dongle.

How does tethering work?

Mobile tethering provides a connection to the phone or tablet, which another device can use to piggyback onto the mobile signal to access the internet.

Tethering can be achieved via Bluetooth or USB, but the most straightforward method — and the one we’re going to focus on for this guide — is Wi-Fi tethering.

This is also often known as a personal hotspot, mobile hotspot, or Wi-Fi sharing. 

With a personal hotspot, the tethered device creates a Wi-Fi network that any Wi-Fi-capable hardware can use.

Since Wi-Fi is so widely supported, this is an effortless way to provide internet access to anything from laptops to games consoles.

What devices and operating systems support mobile internet tethering?

The following operating systems natively support tethering via Bluetooth or USB:

  • Android 2.2+
  • Apple iOS 3.0+
  • Windows Mobile 6.5
  • Windows Phone 7

The following operating systems natively support Wi-Fi tethering:

  • Android 2.2+
  • Apple iOS 4.2.5+ (supported by iPhone 4 and iPad 3rd Gen onwards)

However, support for tethering varies depending on the device and network. Not every manufacturer will offer the same features, and networks may request that tethering is disabled on their handsets (you can avoid these restrictions by purchasing a SIM-free mobile phone).

It is possible to add tethering with third-party software utilities, including older and less popular mobile operating systems such as Symbian and MeeGo. But for this guide, we will only be covering the native Wi-Fi hotspot tethering features found within Android and Apple iOS.

How to set up Wi-Fi tether on Android, iPhone, and iPads

How to tether an Android smartphone or tablet

While it is easy to set up tethering, there is an added wrinkle for Android — the user interface is not the same for every device. That means we can’t provide exact steps that any device.

For this guide, we’ve used a Samsung Galaxy S21 running Android 11. Unless you have either the same model or another recent Samsung device using the same version of Android, the process for your phone or tablet could very well be different. You should find the basic options are similar, but the feature may have a different name, and it might be located in another menu. 

With that disclaimer out the way, here’s how to use Wi-Fi tether with Android 11 on a Galaxy S21:

  • Go to Settings > Connections
  • Tap Mobile Hotspot and Tethering.
  • Tap Mobile Hotspot.
  • Note the network name and password. 
  • Toggle Mobile Hotspot On
  • Using the device you want to connect with, scan for the Wi-Fi hotspot network, and enter the password when prompted. 

Some newer Android devices may also offer a Wi-Fi hotspot toggle in the notification shade, so you don’t need to go through the settings menu to enable/disable unless you want to tweak a setting.

You can also change the Wi-Fi password, and usually the network name too.

  • Within Mobile Hotspot, tap Configure.
  • Enter a Wi-Fi network name.
  • Enter a Wi-Fi network password.
  • If not already configured, set the security/encryption to ‘WPA2’.
  • Save the settings.

How to tether an iPhone or iPad

To use Wi-Fi tethering (or Personal Hotspot, as it’s called) on the iPhone and iPad, follow these steps: 

  • Go to Settings
  • Tap Personal Hotspot
  • Toggle Personal Hotspot On by tapping the button.
  • Using the device you want to connect with, scan for the Wi-Fi hotspot network, and enter the password when prompted.  

The password is automatically generated, but you can change it with a tap. There is no option to change the Wi-Fi network name as it’s linked to the name of your device. 

Which UK networks allow tethering?

Some providers include tethering as part of the package at no additional cost. Others do not permit tethering unless you purchase an add-on for your contract, or may not allow it full stop.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t work, but if the network catches on, you may have to pay an extra fee.

So before you cancel that home broadband contract and switch to your mobile phone for internet access, it’s essential to check whether your network allows tethering, and what it might cost.

Here are the tethering policies for the four major network operators: 

  • EE: Tethering is permitted, and the data used comes out of your regular mobile data allowance. If you exceed the data limit, you’ll be charged at the standard rate.
  • O2: O2 says it doesn’t recommend tethering because it can use a lot more data than usual, but it doesn’t stop you, either. Data used while tethering comes out of your mobile data allowance, so keep an eye on usage to avoid extra charges.
  • Three: Tethering is included with Three Advanced and Three One plans. Those on a Three Essential plan will need to purchase a Personal Hotspot add-on.
  • Vodafone: You can tether all you like on Vodafone, but keep within your data allowance, or you’ll be charged extra. Vodafone recommends installing its mobile app to monitor data usage.

Frequently Asked Questions about tethering

What does tethering cost?

Tethering is often free, in the sense that data used while tethering doesn't come with any additional costs.

But it comes out of your mobile plan’s data allowance, and if you go over that limit you’ll have to pay the standard rate for data usage.

If your mobile plan does not include tethering your provider may charge for a tethering data package — consult the network to find out how much this will cost.

Does tethering affect battery life?

You will notice an impact on battery life when tethering because your phone is not only using its data connection but also operating a Wi-Fi network.

Bluetooth tethering will consume less power, and USB even less than that.

Can I use a tethered smartphone instead of a mobile broadband dongle?

In terms of speed, a tethered smartphone will perform similarly to a mobile broadband dongle on the same network.

However, tethering might not be ideal if your data usage is higher than average, in that situation you should look for a mobile broadband package with a very high or unlimited data cap. It may also not be suitable if you need to connect multiple Wi-Fi devices at once as there is usually a limit of around five connections.

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