Tethering: Share Your Phone’s Internet Connection With Other Devices

April 3rd, 2013

Tethering allows you to share your smartphone’s mobile internet connection with other devices. This includes a tablet, laptop or MP3 player.

TetheringToday’s smartphones are attached to a high-speed, portable, mobile internet connection. This makes them a great asset for accessing information on-the-go and for staying in touch with our friends and family. Using the tethering feature of your smartphone, it’s possible to share your mobile internet connection with other devices. You’ll essentially get a mobile broadband service that can be accessed from a laptop, tablet or MP3 player.

In this article, we take an in-depth look at tethering. We’ll look at the different methods you can use to get your devices online and we’ll look across the networks for the mobile tariffs that support it. We’ve also got step-by-step instructions on how to tether from an iPhone or an Android-based device such as the Samsung Galaxy.

What is tethering?

Having on-the-go internet access is one of the key benefits of a smartphone. With the tethering functionality of your smartphone, you can extend this connectivity to other devices. Supported devices include tablets, laptops, MP3 players, e-book readers and games consoles. You’ll be able to work on the move with your laptop and download multimedia on-the-go with your iPod Touch and Kindle. You can also use a tablet outdoors, even if it lacks 3G connectivity.

How does tethering differ from mobile broadband?

Mobile Broadband Dongle

When tethering, your smartphone acts as the mobile broadband dongle.

Tethering is essentially a way to get mobile broadband without signing up for a separate, standalone contract. Rather than paying for a new mobile broadband contract, you can simply use the data allowance that’s already on your smartphone plan.

When you sign up for a mobile broadband service, you’ll normally be given a USB dongle or a portable hotspot. A dongle plugs in to your computer and enables it to access mobile broadband. A portable hotspot will take your mobile broadband service and will broadcast it over wi-fi.

With tethering, your smartphone replaces the dongle and the hotspot. Instead, it plays the role of the dongle and hotspot and acts as the go-between for mobile internet connectivity on your other devices. Because it’s sent through the same connection your smartphone uses, you won’t need a separate contract.

Does my mobile network allow tethering?

In order to tether, you’ll need a mobile tariff that supports tethering. On certain tariffs, tethering is prohibited and using it can get you barred from the network.

The following table shows UK mobile tariffs and their policies on tethering:

Mobile Network Tariff Is Tethering Permitted?
EE All Tariffs Yes, comes out of your monthly data allowance.
giffgaff £10 Goodybag Yes, comes out of your 1GB monthly data allowance.
£12+ Goodybag
Gigabags Yes, comes out of your monthly data allowance.
Pay As You Go Yes, costs 20p/day for first 20MB, then 20p/MB.
O2 Pay Monthly (since April 2011) Yes, comes out of your monthly data allowance.
Pay Monthly (before April 2011)
Orange Pay Monthly Yes, comes out of your monthly data allowance.
T-Mobile The Full Monty
Standard Internet
Basic Internet
Three The One Plan Yes, with all-you-can-eat data (unlimited downloads).
Ultimate Internet
Essential Internet
Pay As You Go
Vodafone Pay Monthly Yes, comes out of your monthly data allowance.

As tethering can consume significant amounts of data, we recommend choosing a tariff with a significant data allowance. The best tariff for people who will tether regularly is The One Plan from Three. Available from £25/month, The One Plan comes with all-you-can-eat data that also applies when tethering. This means you can tether to your heart’s content without worrying about download limits.

What are the different methods of tethering?

There are two ways to tether: either by creating a portable wi-fi hotspot or by connecting your phone to a computer via a USB cable.

Creating a portable wi-fi hotspot.

Android Portable HotspotThis is the most popular method of tethering. By creating a wi-fi hotspot from your smartphone, you can share your mobile internet connection with up to 5 other devices. This includes laptops, tablets (including wi-fi only tablets), MP3 players, games consoles and e-book readers. It’s quick and easy to use: there’s no need to install any extra software on your devices. The wi-fi hotspot simply appears as a new option in your list of wi-fi networks.

Portable wi-fi hotspots can be created on the iPhone and on Android-based devices (including Samsung Galaxy devices).

  • Can be used to tether up to five devices at a time (up to 10 on the latest smartphones).
  • Compatible with any device that supports wi-fi. This includes laptops, tablets, netbooks, MP3 players, game consoles and e-book readers.
  • Can adversely affect the battery life of your smartphone. If possible, charge your smartphone when using this feature.
  • Don’t forget to password protect your hotspot. Otherwise anyone can connect to it.

Connecting your phone to a computer via USB.

This is an older method of tethering which involves using a USB cable to link your smartphone with a PC. Your PC will need to have a spare USB port. You’ll also need to install the drivers for your phone – this should happen automatically the first time you connect your phone.

This method of tethering is supported by the iPhone and all Android-based devices. iPhone users will need to have the iTunes software installed on their computer.

  • Can be used on one device at a time. Only compatible with PCs, laptops and netbooks that have a spare USB port.
  • May require you to install additional software on your computer.
  • Fewer worries about battery life: the USB cable will charge your phone at the same time.

How do I tether on an iPhone?

iPhone TetheringIf you’ve got an Apple iPhone, you can enable tethering as follows:

Creating a portable wi-fi hotspot.

On your iPhone, navigate to Settings > Personal Hotspot. If you can’t find it, try navigating to Settings > General > Network > Portable Hotspot. There will be a toggle to enable wi-fi hotspot: switch this to ON.

On any wi-fi enabled device, you can now connect to the new hotspot that was created by your iPhone. You’ll need to enter the password that was displayed on the screen of your iPhone. Once you’ve entered the password, it should be saved on your device.

Remember to turn off the wi-fi hotspot feature once you’ve finished. This will help to conserve your battery.

Connecting your phone to a computer via USB.

First of all, you’ll need a computer with iTunes installed (version 8.2 or later). The computer will also need to be running a recent version of Windows (Windows XP SP2 or later, Windows Vista & Windows 7 are supported) or a recent version of Mac OS (version 10.5.7 or later).

On your iPhone, navigate to Settings > General > Network > Internet Tethering. Toggle the “Internet Tethering” switch to ON. When you next plug your iPhone into a computer, it should appear as a new network connection.

How do I tether on an Android device (e.g. Samsung Galaxy)?

Galaxy S4 ColoursIf you’ve got an Android-based device, including Samsung Galaxy devices, you can enable tethering as follows:

Creating a portable wi-fi hotspot.

On your handset, navigate to Settings > Wireless and network > Tethering and portable hotspot. From here, you can enable the setting for “Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot/Mobile AP”. For security reasons, you should also make sure there’s a password set up for your wi-fi hotspot. We recommend using the “WPA2 PSK” security setting.

On a wi-fi enabled device, you can now connect to the new hotspot. Enter the password for the hotspot (you can find this through the configuration screen). Once you’ve connected to the hotspot for the first time, it should store the password for future connection attempts.

Please remember to turn off the wi-fi hotspot feature once you’re done. This will save on battery consumption.

Connecting your phone to a computer via USB.

Connect your Android phone to your laptop via the provided USB cable and choose the tethering option. You’ll need to have the relevant drivers installed on your computer. See the Google website for full information on setting up a connection this way.

How much data is consumed when tethering?

data-binaryAs with mobile broadband, it’s difficult to say how much data you’ll need when tethering. This is because data consumption depends strongly on how you use the tethering functionality.

If you’re using online radio, P2P file downloads and voice-over-IP services (e.g. Skype and Facetime), you should expect data consumption to be high. Video streaming sites such as iPlayer and YouTube will also consume a large amount of data. By sticking to basic web browsing and e-mail, data consumption will be much lower.

The following table shows what you could do with a 500MB or 1GB download allowance:

500MB corresponds to… 1GB corresponds to…
Basic webpages (mainly text) 5,000 10,000
Rich webpages (with multimedia, e.g. BBC) 1,500 3,000
Basic e-mails 500,000 1,000,000
Rich e-mails (with attachments) 1,000 2,000
Downloading/streaming music 100 songs 200 songs
Downloading/streaming video 1 hour 2 hours
Skype voice call 15 hours 30 hours
Skype video call 2 hours 4 hours
Listening to online radio 8 hours 16 hours

Source of estimates: O2 [1, 2]. Our testing found a Skype mobile voice call consumes around 0.55MB/minute (70kbps). Skype video call uses 4MB/minute (500kbps). Online radio calculation assumes 128kbps bitrate.

If you’re using a PC or laptop, you should take particular care with automatic software updates. Whilst you’re connected to the internet, Windows will automatically download security updates. Other applications (including Microsoft Office, Google Chrome, Firefox, Flash, Adobe Reader and Java) will also download updates automatically. Combined, these software updates can use up a fairly hefty chunk of your monthly download allowance.

If you reach your monthly download limit, you’ll be prevented from accessing the internet. This applies to both your smartphone and any devices that are tethered to it. For this reason, we would recommend tethering only with a suitable tariff. For regular users, we recommend The One Plan as it has no download limits.

For more information on download allowances and what they mean, see our in-depth guide to download limits.

Is it possible to tether on a 2G connection?

Mobile Mast

Tethering is not recommended on 2G.

We would not recommended tethering on a 2G connection. Whilst it’s possible, the experience will be frustrating and impractical.

When connected to a 2G mobile network, download speeds are limited to around 60kbit/s (the same as a dial-up internet connection). This gives a reasonable (but slow) experience when browsing mobile-optimised sites on a smartphone but the slow speeds are far from suitable when browsing full web pages on a laptop.

Another downside of tethering on 2G is that you cannot make or receive phone calls whilst the data connection is in use.

We’d recommend tethering only when you’re connected to a 3G or 4G mast. See our full guide to download speeds for more information on the differences between these technologies.

Can I tether on a tariff where it’s prohibited?

Tethering is prohibited on some tariffs (see the full list of tariffs above). Whilst there is nothing to stop you from tethering on a tariff where it’s prohibited, it’s super-easy for your mobile network to tell that you’re doing it. As a result of this, they may block your connection for breaching the terms of use.

Some common ways by which tethering can be detected include:

  • Checking your browser’s user agent string. Every time you request a web page, your web browser will send some information that identifies its version and the operating system that it’s running on. A desktop web browser will send very different information to a mobile web browser. This information can be a clear give away that you’re tethering.
  • Studying the TTL of data packets. This is fairly technical and relates to the way that information is transmitted over the internet. Data packets are assigned a TTL (Time To Live) value before they’re sent over the internet. The TTL value will be different when you’re using the tethering functionality on your phone.
  • Checking the services accessed. Tethering can be detected by studying the services you access. For instance, most computers will check for security updates automatically. Clearly, it would only make sense for a laptop device to access Windows Update. This would be a tell-tale sign that you’re tethering.

Several networks have recently been targeting users who tether illegitimately. This has come in the form of automated tools that detect tethering. For this reason, we would advise readers to tether only on tariffs that permit it.

Will I be throttled or slowed down when I’m tethering?

Road

When tethering, some activities are throttled.

If you’re tethering, you may find that certain applications don’t work or work incredibly slowly. This can be a common problem when you’re using P2p applications (e.g. BitTorrent) or when you’re using online video services (e.g. YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Netflix).

Mobile phone operators often throttle or shape the traffic that goes through their network. Their traffic management policies are as follows:

  • EE: P2P services, including BitTorrent, are slowed down at all times. Between 8am and 2am, P2P traffic is limited to 50kbit/s. This makes it virtually unusable (it would take 3 hours to download a single album). From 2am to 8am, the speed restrictions are relaxed slightly to 1.8Mbit/s. If you’re outside a 4G coverage area, video websites are also slowed down.
  • giffgaff: giffgaff uses “video optimisation”. Online video sites may be slowed down.
  • O2: O2 does not throttle their service.
  • Orange: Orange throttles P2P services (including BitTorrent) between 8am and midnight. Online video sites may also be slowed down. Images are reduced in quality before they’re sent to your browser: you can adjust these settings at http://accelerator.orange.co.uk/.
  • Three: Three does not normally throttle their services. On congested sites, P2P and software updates may be slowed down between 6pm and midnight.
  • T-Mobile: P2P services and voice-over-IP services (e.g. Skype) will be blocked on some tariffs. T-Mobile also slows down online video services. Images are reduced in quality before they’re sent to your browser: you can adjust these settings at http://accelerator.t-mobile.co.uk/.
  • Vodafone: On some tariffs, Vodafone blocks the use of voice-over-IP services (e.g. Skype).

For more information, see our guide to traffic management policies & throttling on UK mobile networks.

Where can I get a mobile tariff that supports tethering?

Our top pick for a tariff that supports tethering is The One Plan from Three. It’s unique in allowing you to tether on a tariff that comes with unlimited downloads. The unlimited downloads apply to tethering as well which makes this a great choice for mobile broadband.

Looking beyond The One Plan, you can also pick up a contract with support for tethering from O2, Orange and Vodafone. These tariffs come with a download limit so you’ll need to keep an eye on your usage.

    

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About Ken

Ken Lo

I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.

Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 13 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Julia Hardiman said:

    Hi, this was fantastic. I couldn’t finish it all right now. Do you have any information for mobile networks in Australia by any chance? Can you recommend any one’s forum? I am on a low income. Trying to streamline : my mobile, daughter’s mobile, landline. Using amaysim prepaid at the moment. Takes a lot of data. Anyway, thanks for your site.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Julia,

      Thanks for the kind feedback! I’d definitely recommend using the tethering feature to streamline your outgoings: particularly if you can find a tariff with suitable data allowances & the ability to tether. In the UK, we have a number of networks offering large 4G data allowances or unlimited downloads. They also permit tethering so you don’t need a separate contract for mobile broadband. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of the ins-and-outs of the Australian market (I live in the UK) but if you find a suitable tariff then all of the information relating to how you can tether will still apply in Australia!

      Ken

  2. matt said:

    Hi Ken

    I hope you can answer this one.

    I am about to move to the one plan with an unlocked iPhone 5s. I currently have a three mobile dongle at £20.99 a month with a 15gb limit, so it makes sense to move to the one plan. My question is: When tethering on the one plan will I see image compression artefacts on my iPad like I do with my work phone when tethered, and if so is there anything that can be done to work around this. I had heard you can change the APN settings to bypass the scripts that cause the compression, but am not sure. hope you can help.

    Matt

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m not aware that Three uses image compression on The One Plan – they certainly weren’t doing this in 2011. If they’re doing this now, it must be a new policy or it may be restricted to congested sites. Take a look at this article for more information on 3’s Traffic Management Policy.

      Ken

  3. Austin said:

    Hi Ken,I have a Three MiFi device on an 18 month contract expiring soon. I am considering buying a new phone (HTC One) on The One Plan. Will utilising the phone as a mobile wifi give the same quality of signal that I have enjoyed on the specialist MiFi device (Huawei)

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Austin,

      The quality of signal should be just as good on the HTC One, yep! In fact, you might even notice an improvement as the HTC One is an ultrafast enabled. This means it supports DC-HSPA+ download speeds (around 8Mbit/s typically, up to 42Mbit/s). It'll also support 4G download speeds (typically around 15Mbit/s, up to 100Mbit/s) when it launches later this year.

      AFAIK the Huawei MiFi supports only supports up to HSPA+ speeds (typically around 4Mbit/s, but up to 21Mbit/s).

      Hope this helps,

      Ken

  4. Rob said:

    Hi Ken,

    I have a question which no one I have asked, has been able to answer definitively.
    (This includes, Mobile phone technical departments etc.)

    My question is: "Does using tethering/mobile wifi use more data than other methods, eg USB Dongle?"

    At the moment I have a Vodafone dongle and would like to start using my phone's tethering/personal wifi feature instead.

    I have calculated my average data usage with the dongle over the past year and have negotiated a tariff that provides me with this level data on my phone.

    Some people have suggested that I will need much more data if I am going to tether/personal wifi as this will result in: "more data being used/data being used up more quickly".

    Others insist that there is no difference between using the dongle and hotspot.

    To me, it would seem there there should be no difference – all that is being done is that you are using a different means to connect to the internet – the number of webpages viewed, emails downloaded isn't changing, just the means of accessing them.

    Essentially, I can't understand why viewing the same webpage via dongle or via tethering should result in different data usage.

    Many thanks for any help you can give.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Rob,

      You're totally right: it's simply another way of connecting to the internet so there should be no difference in data consumption whether you connect over a USB dongle or a wi-fi hotspot. Just be careful of automatic software updates as they can quickly use up your data allowance without you even being aware!

      I wonder if the misunderstanding comes from the fact that you can connect up to 5 devices at a time over wi-fi as more connected devices obviously mean more data consumption.

      Ken

  5. scandalxk said:

    Hi Ken,

    Very good article. Thank you.

    Vodafone data tariffs now include tethering. I had a detailed online chat with a support technician yesterday on this subject. Here is the relevant section of the chat:

    You: I want to know whether the 250MB of data would include both browsing on the phone, and browsing on a tethered laptop. The reason I am asking is because the advice on the forums is contradictory: some people say tethering is included, some say it is not included in the 250MB data limit.
    In my local shop, in Carlisle, the staff say tethering is NOT included.
    Salim: Tethering is included in the price plan and the data will come out of the allowance
    However if you go over your data allowance standard charges will apply
    You: Thank you. Is that permanent or does it only last for the 3 month trial period?
    Salim: Permanent
    You: Thank you. And is it the same for all phones – for example, would it be different with an iPhone?
    Salim: No same for all handsets. Tethering is included in the Price plan
    You: Thank you. So, to be clear, if I get the Samsung Galaxy S2 with 300 minutes, 250MB and unlimited texts, I would be able to browse the internet up to the 250MB limit either on the phone or on a tethered computer, and the data would come out of the 250MB allowance regardless of which method I was using?
    Salim: Yes that is right

    Hope this helps.

  6. Shinar said:

    what is the speed of tethering on laptop? I would like to watch stream HD video. Is the speed of mobile 3G connection able to stream easely on laptop? Thank you!

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Shinar,

      Have a look at this article for an idea of the speeds you might expect.

      In order to stream HD video, I suggest you probably need a reliable connection in the region of 2Mbit/s.

      Ken

  7. Imp said:

    I've been on Orange's Racoon 30 plan for the last 2 years with added 500mb free internet on an HTC Touch 3G with Windows Mobile. I had no idea tethering was frowned upon and this has made up almost all of my internet usage over the contract period (granted, not a great deal, but I do use it to connect my personal laptop when I'm away from home and sometimes when I'm out in the field at work to avoid hogging one of the few dongles).
    I've never incurred any additional charges for this data usage.
    I have a new phone due tomorrow, but now am thinking I should go with 3 instead.

  8. Adam said:

    Your articles on 3's 'The One Plan' has both converted me and saved me from getting the Galaxy S on 100mb per month. Will be sining the contract next week. Thanks man..now just have to figure out how to use the phone ¬¬

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