If you work online, you know what a nightmare it is to ever be without a Wi-Fi signal. Keep that nightmare from becoming a reality by picking up one of these pocket-sized portable hotspots you can take anywhere.
Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots aren’t meant to replace your regular home internet. Their plans are often much pricier, and many have lesser network coverage and speeds compared to what most ISPs offer. Rather, hotspots are designed to provide a Wi-Fi connection for those who are traveling (including commuters) or who live in rural areas with a limited or spotty connection. If you’re looking for inexpensive Wi-Fi, consider using the free Wi-Fi hotspots found at cafes and other public spaces.
Why Not Just Use Your Smartphone As a Hotspot?
Most smartphones have a built-in feature that allows them to act as a hotspot for your other devices. This option works just fine, but should only be used sparingly or when you’re in a pinch, as it will drain your smartphone’s battery and eat through your data plan. Of course, if you’ve got a (relatively) unlimited plan and are near a charger, go for it.
What to Look for in a Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot
Hotspots are tools meant to help you stay connected, especially when you’re traveling. As such, they should be feature-rich and easy to use. Here are the most important features to consider in a Wi-Fi Hotspot:
- Reliable Network Coverage: The best portable Wi-Fi hotspots should give you a solid signal regardless of where you are, which ultimately comes down to the network they connect to. If you’re traveling, it’s especially important to favor coverage over speed, so ensure the device you choose can make a connection wherever you go. (If you’re staying in the states, Verizon has the best nationwide coverage.)
- Fast Data Speeds: A fast connection is also important, and it makes it easier for you to get work done or for multiple devices to comfortably use the hotspot. Good speeds should be easy to achieve in more metropolitan areas, but this isn’t a guarantee in extremely rural areas or super-congested areas where you’re fighting other people for bandwidth. Also, keep in mind that certain network carriers might have data caps or throttle your data speed if you use more than a predetermined amount.
- Low Device Cost & Flexible Plans: Wi-Fi hotspots can be costly, but most go for anywhere from $100 to $250. Service plans also vary, with some offering pay-as-you-go options where you purchase 5 or 10 GB upfront, while others offer unlimited data plans for a higher amount and offer a little more breathing room. The pay-as-you-go plans are certainly more budget-friendly, but you’ll have to keep a close eye on your data usage. If you know you’ll be connecting frequently, or connecting multiple devices, choose a plan with more (or unlimited) data.
- Plentiful Wi-Fi Options: The best hotspots are capable of broadcasting a variety of Wi-Fi bands and standards, especially if you are interested in tethering or setting up a guest network. As with your Wi-Fi at home, your hotspot should give you the option to connect to both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, depending on your needs. It should also support at least 802.11ac Wi-Fi—bonus points if it also supports older Wi-Fi standards like 802.11n, g, or b, which is great to have if you need to connect older devices.
- Great Battery Life: As with any device nowadays, battery life matters. And because these are meant to help you stay connected with friends or for work, they’d better be able to keep up. Most hotspots are capable of working for the better part of a day on a single charge. Some hotspots even double as battery banks, which is great for charging your smartphone or tablet on the go—just keep in mind that will shorten the overall battery life of the device for tethering.
- A Simple Design: The hotspot should be small and easy to use, with clearly labeled buttons and ports for tethering and charging. Some hotspots have a digital touch screen interface, where you can view and manage things like connectivity, account information, data usage, plan details, and more right from the device. We favor devices with this feature, as opposed to ones that only offer management options through the web or a companion mobile app.
Best International Option: GlocalMe G4 Pro
Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, having a reliable Wi-Fi connection is a must. The GlocalMe G4 Pro ($169.99) is perfect for any kind of international travel. It ships with 1.1 GB of global data and 8 GB of North American data for use in the United States, Mexico, or Canada to start, but there are a variety of data plans to choose from. The hotspot provides coverage in over 140 countries, and is SIM card- and roaming-free.
The GlocalMe G4 Pro has a large touchscreen for monitoring and managing your plan, and comes with TripAdvisor, Google Maps, and a translator app preloaded. You can also download the companion GlocalMe Android or iOS apps and manage things there.
The hotspot supports 4G connectivity for up to 18 hours on a single charge, and it allows you to connect up to 10 other devices at a time, like your phone, tablet, or laptop. It even doubles as a battery bank, with a 3,900 mAh capacity for charging your other devices.
Plans vary by country, but in the United States GlocalMe offers four plans: a 2 GB day pass for $6.99, a 25 GB monthly pass for $88, a 50 GB monthly pass for $99, and a 100 GB monthly pass for $159. Its day pass is a great deal, and we like that it offers incremental monthly passes, but the lack of an unlimited plan is disappointing as they are ideal for heavy usage and for keeping multiple devices connected.
Best Prepaid Option: Skyroam Solis X WiFi Smartspot
Having a Wi-Fi hotspot with a pay-as-you-go plan is a budget-friendly way to ensure you have a secure internet connection wherever you are. Luckily, that’s exactly what the Skyroam Solis X WiFi Smartspot ($179) offers, and its vSIM technology lets you forget about SIM cards. Skyroam has a handy Pay-Per-GB GoData Subscription plan that gets you 1 GB of 4G LTE Wi-Fi for as low as $3 per GB, with a minimum of 5 GB. Skyroam also provides a Global Unlimited Data Subscription option ($99 per month), which gets you high-speed data for your first 20 GB in over 130 countries, though speeds slow once you pass 20 GB. (The fact that they don’t publish the slower speed is pretty telling.) There’s also an Unlimited Global Daypass option ($9 per day), which includes 24 hours of unlimited Wi-Fi on up to 10 devices as a pay-as-you-go service sans contract.
The Solis X has a few built-in extras, like an 8 MP wide-angle camera that also shoots video in 720p HD (though we’re honestly not sure why anyone wants or needs a camera on their hotspot). The camera has a flash and auto-focus, and the companion Android or iOS apps let you control it remotely via Bluetooth. It also has a microphone and speaker, for both video capture and the integrated Skyroam Smart Assistant. These features certainly aren’t necessary for a hotspot to have, especially because you still need to have your phone on you in order to use them, but they may still come in handy.
The 4,700 mAh battery keeps you online for up to 16 hours or fewer, if you decide to charge your phone or other devices on the go. Overall, the Solis X is powerful and easy to use, as it automatically connects to the local contracted carrier when you turn it on, wherever you are. Plus, Skyroam’s straightforward data plan options take the stress out of receiving a jaw-dropping bill after weeks of travelling.
Best Unlocked Option: NETGEAR 4G LTE Broadband Modem
If you don’t want to be bound to any service provider in particular (or if you want the option to switch whenever you want), the NETGEAR 4G LTE Broadband Modem is a terrific unlocked choice. It accepts all micro-SIM cards, and is compatible with T-Mobile, AT&T, and limited Verizon service. With this hotspot, you can enjoy up to 150 Mbps download and up to 50 Mbps upload speeds.
The NETGEAR 4G LTE hotspot has a gigabit WAN Ethernet RJ-45 port for connection pass-through, as well as two TS-9 connectors available for connecting optional 4G/3G antennas if you need to boost the signal. LEDs on the device show the hotspot’s signal strength and network status.
Should you need to adjust any settings or manage your account, you can do so through its web-based interface. The hotspot measures 3.9 x 4.7 x 1.2 inches, and weighs just under half a pound, so it’ll be easy to store; and it ships with a power adapter, Ethernet cable, and a quick start guide. It does not have a built-in battery and needs to be plugged in to work, unlike the other devices, so you’ll need to be near a wall socket when you use it, which is kind of a downer for on-the-go use.
NETGEAR 4G LTE Broadband Modem - Use LTE as Primary Internet Connection (LB1120)
This hotspot is unlocked so you can choose the carrier and get great Wi-Fi anywhere you go.
Best for Verizon Users: Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot Mifi 8800L
With Verizon’s expansive coverage map behind it, the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 8800L ($199.99 with monthly payment options) is not only the best hotspot for Verizon users, it’s hands-down the best choice for a network-locked hotspot. If you’re planning on traveling, the Jetpack MiFi can access Wi-Fi in over 200 countries and features additional bands for easy international connectivity. It supports dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac connections and has a built-in Auto VPN, along with a guest network option for added security.
The Jetpack MiFi’s 2.4-inch color touchscreen has a straightforward interface and lets you easily manage settings and your account. Its removable 4,400 mAh battery lasts up to an entire day, and its QuickCharge technology (via the USB-C port) means recharging won’t take forever. It’s tiny 4.14 x 4.14 x 2.64-inch footprint won’t take up much space in your bag or on your desk, either.
Data plans for the Jetpack MiFi start at $15 per month for a 1 GB data only option. There’s also the option to add on Verizon’s Total Equipment Coverage plan for a few dollars extra each month, which offers next-day replacement for lost, stolen, or damaged hotspot devices, unlimited $29 cracked-screen repairs, and battery replacement at authorized repair centers.
If you’re interested in the fastest speeds you can get, Verizon also has a 5G hotspot available—the Verizon 5G MiFi M1000 Hotspot ($649.99 with monthly payment options)—but it’s super spendy and has a fraction of the coverage compared to the other Verizon option.
Best for AT&T Users: NETGEAR Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot Router
For AT&T users, the NETGEAR Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot Router ($249.99, with installment plan options) is the one to beat. The 1.4-inch LCD digital screen shows pertinent details, like how much data you’ve used, how much time you have left in your billing cycle, the number of connected devices, data speed, and the battery charge level. Though the screen makes it easy to monitor such stats at a glance, you’ll still have to hop on the web to manage anything, which is annoying.
The Nighthawk LTE’s battery lasts up to 24 hours per charge, and it has up to 1 Gbps download and 150 Mbps upload speeds. The hotspot supports dual-band dual-concurrent Wi-Fi and 802.11b/g/n/ac connections, along with 3G, 4G, and 4G LTE technology. It allows for 20 devices to connect to it at a time, and the USB-A and USB-C ports are great for external device charging.
Currently, AT&T is offering plans starting at $30 for 3 GB per month (though with a $20 device access fee tacked on).
Best for T-Mobile Users: Alcatel LINKZONE 2
If you want your hotspot to connect to T-Mobile’s network, the best option is the Alcatel LINKZONE 2 ($90, with financing available). The hotspot supports 3G, 4G, and 4G LTE technology, as well as 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac connectivity options. It boasts download speeds up to 150 Mbps and upload speeds as fast as 50 Mbps, and can connect up to 16 devices simultaneously. Various light indicators let you monitor signal strength, battery levels, and more.
The only measurable downside of the LINKZONE 2 is that managing it can only be done online, with no on-device options (or even a teeny digital screen showing data usage or anything). That said, T-Mobile’s dedicated web-based tool does make it easy to manage access, track data usage, check messages, and adjust device and plan settings from a single place.
The LINKZONE 2 has a 4,400 mAh battery, which keeps you connected for up to 24 hours on a single charge, and USB 2.0 and USB-C ports if you decide to charge your phone. The hotspot measures 4.13 x 0.75 x 2.6 inches and weighs just 5.15 ounces, so it can comfortably fit in your pocket or bag.
No information regarding plan options for this device were shared online; if you’re interested, you’ll need to call or visit the T-Mobile store nearest you.