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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 don’t have Wi-Fi, or the Wi-Fi speed is too slow to be useful?

Tethering your mobile could be a really great troubleshooter. But what exactly is tethering, and how do you set it up?

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

Mobile tethering: 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 into 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's 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 a tablet that doesn’t have a SIM card or access to any other data connection, you can still get online using your mobile network. You just link it up to your smartphone or tablet.

Tethering can be extremely useful if you need to get online but don't have access to a decent Wi-Fi connection, or as an alternative to purchasing a separate mobile broadband dongle.

How does tethering work?

Tethering is where your mobile or tablet sets up a connection that another device can use to piggyback onto the mobile signal to access the internet.

You can tether using Bluetooth or a USB cable. Both should work well, and you can choose whichever method you prefer. But there’s a third, simpler option, and that’s the one we’re going to focus on for this guide – transforming your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Using your smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot

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 give internet access to anything from laptops to game consoles.

Depending on the terms of your contract, we don’t recommend doing this for too long or doing anything too data-intensive. But it’s definitely a great way to get yourself online if your regular broadband connection isn’t available.

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. If you want to avoid these restrictions, you can purchase a SIM-free mobile phone.

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

How to tether an Android smartphone or tablet

While it’s easy to set up tethering, there's an added wrinkle for Android: the user interface isn’t the same for every device. Unfortunately, that means we can’t provide exact steps for your specific phone or tablet.

For this guide, we’ve used a Google Pixel 3 running Android 12. Unless you have either the same model or another recent Pixel device using the same version of Android, the steps for your phone or tablet could 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 of the way, here’s how to use Wi-Fi tether:

  • Swipe down from the top screen, scroll right and tap 'Hotspot' (if this isn't showing, tap 'Edit' and drag 'Hotspot' into your quick settings).
  • Hold down this button to open 'Hotspot and tethering' settings.

Then, to connect another device to your phone's hotspot, you'll need to do the following:

  • Pick your phone's hotspot name (we recommend setting it to something that's easy to spot in a crowd)
  • Drag the 'Use Wi-Fi Hotspot' position to 'on'.

You'll be able to share your phone's mobile data with up to 10 other devices via a Wi-Fi hotspot.

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' OR 'Mobile Data > Personal Hotspot'.
  • Toggle Personal Hotspot On by tapping the button.
  • Verify the Wi-Fi password and name of the phone.
  • Using the device you want to connect with, scan for the Wi-Fi hotspot network, and enter the password when prompted.  

Which UK networks allow tethering?

Some providers include tethering as part of the package at no additional cost. Others don’t permit tethering unless you purchase an add-on for your contract. A few don't allow it at all.

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.
  • giffgaff: Tethering is allowed on all giffgaff goodybags and when data is paid for using pay as you go credit.

Frequently asked questions about tethering

  • What does mobile 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 you’ll have to pay the standard rate for data usage if you go over that limit.

    If your mobile plan doesn’t include tethering, your provider may charge for a tethering data plan. You should contact your network to find out how much this will cost.

  • Does tethering affect battery life?

    You’ll notice an impact on battery life when tethering because your phone isn’t just using its data connection but also hosting a Wi-Fi network.

    Bluetooth tethering will consume less power, and USB tethering 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’s usually a limit of around five connections.

    Also, keep in mind the impact on battery life; if you’re going to tether frequently, keep a charger or portable battery handy.

Expert Summary

If you’re having problems with your broadband, on public transport without access to a decent connection, or you'll be somewhere without Wi-Fi for a few weeks, tethering could give you internet access for free. Whether you tether through a USB connection or transform your phone into a mobile hotspot, this is a great way to get you connected when you don’t have broadband.

We recommend that you use your phone as a mobile or personal hotspot. This allows you to use your mobile device as a Wi-Fi router. You then use your mobile data on your computer or whatever other gadgets you need it for. But unless you have unlimited data, try not to use this for anything too data-intensive and not too often.

If you need a longer-term internet service but want to use mobile data, then you can look into mobile broadband deals or 4G / 5G home broadband instead.

Meet the author:

Contributor

Matt has been working with Broadband Genie since 2009. A lifelong tech enthusiast, he has 20 years of experience writing about technology for print and online.


Specialist subject: The technicalities of broadband

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