The Best Travel WiFi: Pocket and Portable Hotspots to Buy or Rent

Shawn Forno

WiFi is more important than sex. No, really. A 2016 survey of 1,700 mobile professionals found that 40% of people ranked reliable WiFi was a higher daily priority than sex (37%), chocolate (14%), or alcohol (9%). And that was three years ago. It’s gotten far worse since then.

In 2018, more than 60% of all internet traffic was on a mobile device, and mobile usage is increasing every year. It’s more important than ever to stay connected, especially if you’re traveling and working as a digital nomad.

  • How do you get cheap, reliable WiFi while you’re traveling?
  • Is a mobile hotspot the best way to get international WiFi?
  • Should you rent or buy a pocket WiFi hotspot?
  • Can you use your phone as a mobile hotspot?
  • And how much mobile data do you really need? 

Here’s our rundown of some of the best mobile WiFi hotspots on the market, as well as a closer look at mobile WiFi to keep you connected all over the world.

What is a Mobile WiFi Hotspot?

 

At its core, a mobile hotspot device is just a battery-powered wireless router. A mobile router works by tapping into the signal from nearby cell phone towers and turning that radio frequency (smartphones are really just hi-tech radios) into a digital signal that your phone and laptop can use to connect to the internet.

Mobile data is complicated and full of jargon like “GSM” and “WPA2,” but all you need to understand is that a mobile hotspot is really just a different kind of cellular device. That’s why you have to pay for the data you use when you buy a WiFi hotspot. It’s like getting a second phone line, because that’s exactly how they work.

The only difference between a mobile router and the bulky thing in the corner of your bedroom is where the data comes from—a cell phone company, like T-Mobile, instead of an internet service provider (ISP), like Time Warner.

So, the question is:

“If WiFi hotspots just use cell phone towers and LTE data bandwidth, why do you need to lug around an expensive clunky mobile hotspot in addition to your smartphone just to get online with your laptop?”

The simple answer is… you don’t. There are some advantages to a mobile WiFi hotspot vs. a tethered smartphone, like better speeds and saving your phone battery, but the upsides of mobile WiFi hotspots aren’t that dramatic—at least not without paying a lot for data.

How to Turn Your Smartphone into a WiFi Hotspot: A Guide to Mobile “Tethering”

 

If you’re confused about using your phone for mobile WiFi, don’t worry, it’s actually really easy. Android and Apple devices both have settings that let you turn your hotspot on an off. Just go to Settings > Cellular > Personal Hotspot > and Agree. You’ll get a login password for your new mobile wifi network that you can use on any other device. It’s that easy.

T-Mobile + Smartphones = MobileWiFi

T-Mobile’s unlimited international plan—T-Mobile One—has been my preferred phone plan for for years. I’ve tried Sprint’s international data plan (it’s okay), but the coverage, speed, and flat billing of T-Mobile are just better. Plus, you’ll never pay more for data overages. If you use more than your plan allows they throttle your speeds down to 2G instead of hitting you with an insane bill.

T-Mobile partners with cell phone carriers all over the world to let you use their local network immediately when you land. You don’t have to toggle a switch, reply to a text, or set anything up. It just works. It’s like having a universal SIM card in your phone. You just pay the same monthly rate that you do back home. (voice calls cost extra, but who uses their phone as a phone anymore?!)

For $70/month you get unlimited texting and data in over 210 countries and territories and 5GB of tethering data (which is a fair bit) on any plan. T-Mobile One plans get slower data speeds after 14GB, and One Plus plans get high-speed data up to 20GB/month before throttling kicks in.

However, many people are convinced they need a stand alone mobile WiFi device. And while I don’t think they’re that much better than your phone, some of the mobile hotspots are better than the rest. Below are six of my favorite options and some things you need to know before you buy a hotspot.

What to Look for When Buying a Mobile Wifi Hotspot

 

Not all hotspot devices work in every country because of how cellular signals work. Some carriers use GSM frequencies, others use CDMA. It’s complicated and has to do with radio frequency algorithms, but just know that GSM is far more popular (most SIM card phones use GSM). In the US, Sprint, Verizon, and US Cellular use CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM.

The important takeaway is that If your phone isn’t configured to “talk” to the cell phone towers in a country, you simply won’t be able to get online—even with a mobile hotspot device—because they get wifi by using cell signals too.

Here’s a super complicated map that shows the frequency and GSM compatibility of every country. Just do a quick country search for compatibility before you buy a mobile hotspot.

Other features to look for in a mobile WiFi hotspot include: 

  • 5GHz WiFi support: it’s usually faster and less congested than 2.4GHz wifi
  • 5000 mAh battery:  mobile hotspots with large batteries last all day and can even double as a portable charger for your other devices
  • SD card reader: transfer photos and files from your DSLR or GoPro to your cloud storage or laptoplike a media hub
  • Visual displays: display show the network name, battery level, speed, and current data usage (especially helpful if you’re on a pay-as-you-go data plan)

Best Mobile Hotspots for International Travel

There’s no way around it—international mobile data plans are expensive. Whether you pay for GBs as you go, pay by the day, or pay a flat monthly rate, you’ll be hard pressed to find a data plan for less than $100 month, especially if you’re a heavy user. If you’re a light data user, your cell phone tethering ability is usually more than enough.

Here are some of the best mobile WiFi hotspots available right now.

SkyRoam ($9/day or $99/monthly unlimited plan)

SkyRoam has been a big name in mobile WiFi hotspots for a few years thanks, largely, to their clear pricing model and reliable global coverage. You can choose from two options—renting or buying the hotspot.

Renting a hotspot starts at $9.95/day, but most people will upgrade to the 4G speeds available on the new Solis hotspot device ($11.95/day).

If you opt for buying the SkyRoam Solis hotspot it’ll set you back $150. Then you can choose between daily usage ($9/day) or flat monthly rates of unlimited WiFi for $99/month. SkyRoam also offers a pay-as-you-go data plan called “SkyRoam GoData” that costs $9 per 1GB.

The biggest difference between buying and renting is that you only pay for the days you use the hotspot when you own the device. If you’re only logging on a few days a week to get work done, SkyRoam’s daily plan can be a great way to create “office hours” for yourself where you’re available and days when you’re literally offline. If you rent, you pay for the days you have the device, so go nuts.

The Solis hotspot is well built with a 6000 mAh battery for all day use (and as a portable charger). Plus, SkyRoam works in over 130 countries around the world. If you have the budget or really need to get (paid) work done while you travel, the SkyRoam Solis hotspot is a good solution. I especially enjoy that you only pay for the days you use the device.

KeepGo Lifetime 4G LTE WiFi Hotspot ($99 with data starting at $21 per 1GB)

KeepGo offers a fairly expensive pay-as-you-go mobile WiFi plan, but it’s not out of the norm. Paying for mobile wifi data adds up quickly. The device is tiny (just 2.6 oz) and lasts for about 6 hours on a single charge, but it’ll set you back $99. 

The international SIM card works in over 110 countries, and data stays in your account for up to a year. Personally, I can’t see the functionality of paying $21 per GB for mobile data, but if you don’t have an international plan you can trust and really don’t want to get a local SIM card, KeepGo is an expensive alternative.

My Webspot 4G+ Pocket WiFi – 10€/day

Great for travelers looking to rent a reliable WiFi device, but not looking for anything flashy. The hotspot looks like another phone (because, of course it does), but it’s nice to have for short trips. I’d recommend this to anyone taking a two week vacation who wants to stay super connected but just doesn’t know if their phone’s data plan covers them while they’re traveling.

It’ll cost you around 10€/day (they say it “starts” at 5€, but I doubt you’ll use it like that), which isn’t bad if you’re only traveling for a few days or weeks. Again, you have to decide if paying $150 for two weeks of internet access is worth it, and even with overages, your regular cell phone plan will still probably be cheaper than renting a mobile hotspot.

Best Mobile Hotspots for US Travel

Karma Go ($199)

This is a tough call, but if you’re a digital nomad in the US and you really need to power through on your laptop in remote locations, the Karma Go might work for you. Yes, the device is expensive ($199), but it’s tiny at 2.3oz and the 8 hour battery life is decent. The real upside is the cheaper data plans.

“Drift” pricing starts at just $3 a month and $10/GB. That’s actually not bad, and it’s more than ideal for sporadic use. If you’re hiking for a few days then blogging part-time from your converted van, this is a sweet way to stay connected for less than the price of a phone bill. You can also go with flat monthly plans that range from 5GB/month ($39) up to 20GB/month ($99). Both are pretty great deals all things considered.

Huawei Mobile Wifi Pro ($100+)

I’ve had a few friends swear by their Huawei Pro Mobile WiFi mostly due to the long battery life (5200 mAh) and LTE speeds (that’s 3G and 4G).

It even has a 32GB micro SD slot so you can transfer photos to the cloud directly from your device. Prices can vary from $100 to $150 and more on Amazon.

Adding a Line to Your Existing Plan ($20+)

Adding an extra line to your existing phone bill (or additional device like mobile data for a tablet) is actually one of the most affordable hacks for more mobile data. Most carriers are more than happy to let you add another “line” of unlimited data for your phone or mobile hotspot device. Verizon, for example lets you add another 20GB line to your existing plan for about $20 (for a total of $90/month for both lines)

Mobile Hotspot: When to Rent and When to Buy

 

Owning or renting a mobile hotspot is really all about the cost/benefit analysis. If your livelihood depends on a strong, steady connection, it pays to own your own mobile WiFi hotspot. If you’re earning money as a digital assistant for instance, you can factor this in as a cost of doing business (and maybe even a deduction at tax time).

However, if you’re a blogger or traveling writer (like me!) a mobile hotspot might not make quite as much sense. I worked exclusively off my iPhone 6s using a bluetooth keyboard for six weeks on a particularly lean backpacking trip last year. I didn’t even have a laptop and I still got tons of client work done.

It wasn’t an awesome way to write and file stories—LTE data is great for uploading small documents, but downloading photos was pushing it—but I got the job done. Had I used a mobile hotspot it would have cost me hundreds of dollars.

If you’re posting a few times a week, with no hard deadlines, a mobile hotspot is probably another expensive device you don’t need to carry. Plus, the whole point of traveling isn’t making it as easy as possible for you to browse Facebook. Unplug a little. You might like it.

TL;DR

“The average US home broadband subscriber uses more than 190GB of data per month, mostly because of video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu,” according to PC Mag. That’s a lot of data for a mobile hotspot. But that’s also a family of four. Watching Netflix.

If you’re a writer or a blogger, you don’t need 50GB of mobile data. You just don’t. If you’re uploading tons of video footage… maybe you do. But it’ll cost you. Mobile hotspots are great, and the convenience of a separate dedicated device for mobile internet usage is cool, but you just don’t need a mobile hotspot for most travel, even digital nomads.

Invest in a good international cell phone plan with reasonable data limits and use the internet to get work done—not binge-watch The Office. The whole point of traveling is to see the world, not your laptop screen.

  • Your phone is already a mobile hotspot, since it uses the exact same cellular signal as every mobile wifi device
  • An unlimited international data plan is a great substitute for expensive pay as you go plans
  • Get a mobile hotspot with at least a 5000 mAh battery to use as a portable charger
  • Most data plans charge around $10/GB for mobile data. If you can beat that, go for it

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