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 network that allows you to do it. On certain mobile networks and tariffs, tethering is prohibited and using it could get you barred from the network.

The following table shows a list of UK networks and whether they’ll allow you to tether on their plans:

Mobile Network Pay Monthly Tethering Pay As You Go Tethering
EE Yes Yes
giffgaff Yes (6GB limit with Always On data)
O2 Yes Yes
Tesco Mobile Yes Yes
Three Yes (on Advanced plans only) No
Vodafone Yes Yes
1pMobile Yes
ASDA Mobile Yes
BT Mobile Yes
FreedomPop Only with £3.99/month add-on
iD Mobile No No
Lebara Mobile No
Lycamobile No
Plusnet Mobile Yes
Sky Mobile Yes
Talkmobile Yes Yes
TalkTalk Mobile Yes
Tello Yes
The Phone Co-Op Yes Yes
TPO Mobile No No
Vectone Mobile No
Virgin Mobile No No

For more information, please select the name of your network. Alternatively, see our in-depth guide to the tethering policy on UK networks.

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?

iOS8 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 > Cellular > Personal Hotspot. There’ll be an option to enable personal wi-fi hotspot: switch this to the on position.

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 > Cellular > Personal Hotspot. Toggle the “Personal Hotspot” switch to ON. When you plug your iPhone in to a computer, it should then 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 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?

For a list of the best value deals currently available, see our full comparison of mobile tariffs with tethering.

For the average user requiring 2GB of tetherable data per month, we’d recommend one of the following tariffs:

NetworkMinutesTextsInternetMonthly
Cost
giffgaff500Unlimited2GB£10.00
Tesco Mobile1,0005,0003GB£11.00
Three200Unlimited2GB£13.00
O21501502GB£15.00
Vodafone500Unlimited5GB£17.50
EE1,000Unlimited2GB£17.99

For more information, please see the EE, giffgaff, O2, Tesco Mobile, Three or Vodafone websites.

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About Ken

Ken Lo

My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.

Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 27 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Andrew Ellis said:

    Hi,
    I’m on Three with 4GB allowance for tethering, and unlimited data. I have a Samsung S7.
    I’ve just got a new car and there is a WLAN feature. What it does is use your phones data connection and broadcasts a strong WiFi signal for passengers devices. So you connect the car to your phones hotspot, and then connect the passengers devices to the car. The benefit is a stronger more consistent connection as it uses the cars antenna. I can get it all to connect but the passenger devices (I pads etc) show “no internet” on the cars wifi. However if I connect the car to use the Internet from my girlfriends iPhone which is on O2, it all works perfectly! Any ideas at all? Thank you for this article I’ve learnt a lot 🙂

  2. Russell Scott said:

    I note that by pairing my MotoE Moby (‘3’ SIM) with my old Nokia 300 (Tesco SIM) by Bluetooth, I can gain Internet access on the Tesco network from my MotoE. I guess this still counts as tethering and might be useful in a location where ‘3’ has poor coverage. Would the network be able to detect it in the same way as tethering from a tablet or laptop?

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Russell,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I don’t know the exact method each mobile network is using to detect tethering, but it’s possible they’ll still be able to detect this activity. Out of interest, is there any reason why you don’t want them to be able to detect this? Tesco Mobile allows tethering on all of their tariffs.
      Ken

  3. Brian said:

    Hello Ken and others.

    Can you please clarify? 3 doesn’t allow tethering when abroad, even though it does in UK.

    We travel fairly freely in Europe for 8 – 12 weeks at a time. I don’t yet have a smartphone (just a non-smart one!), and am trying to choose best phone and network.

    I take a laptop and normally use this on wifi where available. However, for those occasions where wifi is not available, I should like to use mobile internet. So, maybe once or twice per week on average.

    Main use is checking e-mails (TalkTalk webmail), accessing a forum, and Google Earth to research locations.

    I had assumed a phone that allowed tethering would be the best solution to this, giving me both the phone and the mobile internet access.

    I’ve been all over your superb website looking for the answer. Apologies in advance if it is there, but I can’t find it. Is there one?

    Many thanks. Brian Kirby.

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, Three doesn’t allow you to use tethering abroad in Feel At Home countries (I suspect this is simply to reduce data usage, as it costs them money for every MB of data you use when abroad). If you want to use your laptop abroad, may I suggest getting a mobile broadband tariff from Three. It starts at £10.49 for 1GB of data and you’re able to use it abroad at no extra charge in Feel At Home countries.
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

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