The Best Ways To Get Wi-Fi in Your Car in 2021
Getting Wi-Fi in your car is convenient in many ways, including using a navigation app, checking real-time traffic conditions or seeking help in emergency situations. While many simply use their 3G-enabled smartphone for these purposes, you would need other methods to get reliable Wi-Fi in your car so that your passengers can use it as well.
We’re lucky to live in 2021, when getting Wi-Fi in your car is easier and more affordable than ever, with plenty of choices to suit your budget and demand for data consumption. This article will explain in detail the different options available so you can compare and make the decision yourself. Each method involves a one-off expense for hardware and recurring data plan costs, and comes with its distinct set of pros and cons, so there’s something for everyone.
Getting Wifi In Your Car: What You Should Consider
Why get Wi-Fi for your car?
If you just need to use navigation apps from time to time or to seek help in case your car breaks down, you might just as well use your smartphone to connect to the Internet, as most of us have a smartphone nowadays. But there are other circumstances where you would want to have Internet access in your vehicle at all times, for example if you have kids and need to keep your kids entertained (thus contained!), or you often travel with your spouse or family on long camping trips.
Many folks might need the strongest and most reliable service possible to work on their laptop at times when away from the office or from home, like sales representatives. And in the era when most of us are working from home due to COVID, having Wi-Fi in your car would offer more possibilities in terms of redesigning the way you coordinate working at home with spending time elsewhere.
Plus there are many disadvantages to using your smartphone for surfing the net or as a mobile hotspot to provide connection to other devices, as will be explained further below. Before we dive into the details of different ways to get Wi-Fi in your car, there are a few things you need to know first hand, since they are relevant regardless of the method you choose.
Data cost essentially means how much you have to pay each month for a maximum amount of data you can use. If you have high demand, there are a host of data plans with unlimited data, and after you have used up the allowance for limited high-speed data, you will not have to pay extra but might only have low speed if the network is busy. The monthly cost and the allowance for high-speed data both vary between plans, so you need a balance between what you pay and the bandwidth provided by the provider.
Sometimes when you buy a smartphone or a brand new car with built-in Wi-Fi (yes it’s the new thing), you might get a free data plan with a limited amount of data, or a complementary data allotment for a limited time. Data is only free within these limited circumstances, so you will need to look for a solution eventually.
Each country has a few major cellular providers and smaller ones, and bigger doesn’t mean better when it comes to data plans. The common opinion is you don’t necessarily have to go with the giant companies to get good service, but still need to look at different providers and different data plans to get one that offers the best value for money in your circumstances.
Limited High-Speed Data
As above, do not just look at a plan’s maximum amount of hotspot data, but look at the actual amount of data that will be available at the fastest possible speed. There’s no point in getting a plan advertised as “unlimited” if it only offers a small monthly allotment of high-speed data, after which you’d get annoyingly slow services.
Another important factor to consider when getting a data plan for your car is a provider’s network coverage or network availability. It refers to where the provider has service and where it has good data speed.
Many providers advertise very wide-coverage networks, which should mean you can get very good connections almost anywhere you go within your country, but it’s not uncommon to find out that you can only get the fastest data speeds in certain geographical areas. Many others have large high-speed networks but have huge “dead zones” where absolutely no cell service is available, because they haven’t built necessary facilities in those locations yet.
Getting a data plan from a cellular provider with good network coverage would offer you more flexibility and possibilities to prepare for whatever in the future. This is especially important if you often travel on long road trips to hard-to-get-to places, or if you live in a rural area. You’d need to look around for a data plan that will get you covered.
One note for using your car Wi-Fi after you’ve got it. When you have Wi-Fi in your vehicle, be mindful that someone in the cars nearby may have access to your mobile Wi-Fi connection. At all times, treat your in-car Wi-Fi connection like public Wi-Fi: do not input any sensitive information (credit card information, bank account login, as well as your full name plus date of birth, which is enough to be used in identity theft). For extra protection, you can use a VPN.
The Easiest Way to Get Wi-Fi in Your Car: From a Smartphone Hotspot
Unless you’ve been living in a cage, it’s common knowledge now that you can use your smartphone as a hotspot to provide Wi-Fi connection in your car. This is absolutely the easiest, most readily available and cheapest method, since you wouldn’t have to pay for hardware like other options if you already have a smartphone.
Although you might if your smartphone isn’t capable of acting as a hotspot, but this is rare for smartphones these days, and even if this is the case, you might just as well consider upgrading your phone. Because if you only need Wi-Fi once in a while without having to use too much data, then having a hotspot-enabled smartphone would be a versatile and cost-effective option.
When the hotspot function is active, your phone essentially acts as both a portable modem and a router, and thus creates an ad hoc localized wireless internet connection that other devices like ipads, laptops or even Wi-Fi-enabled head units can connect to. This is called tethering. Most smartphones have the option to be turned on in the phone settings, or in some cases might require that you download an app for this purpose.
So basically there’s still only one connection, which is the same data connection that allows you to surf the web on your phone, but now it’s shared with any other Wi-Fi-enabled devices you or your passengers have. Because of this, the main downside of turning your phone into a mobile hotspot is the risk that your cellular data allotment for the month will be used up quickly, since it’s shared. So say, after a long road trip when your passengers were watching a lot of Youtube videos in the backseat, later in the month you may find that you have eaten up your high-speed data allotment, and cannot even check and answer emails on your phone.
The second downside is tethering is very bad for your phone, as it puts excessive strain on the battery. Doing this constantly will deplete your battery and make it deteriorate faster.
Tethering is available with virtually every cellular provider, whether included in the basic data package or sometimes offered as an add-on. With certain providers, when you’re using your phone as a hotspot, any device connected to it will only get slower download speed. So sometimes, even if the phone is capable of 4G, you’ll only get 3G data in your car. If you decide to use your phone for tethering, remember to ask about this point when comparing data plans and read the fine print to be extra sure.
Get Wi-Fi in Your Car: Use a Dedicated Mobile Hotspot
If you don’t want to stress your phone’s battery and/or you need a fast and reliable connection, getting a dedicated mobile hotspot would be a great way of getting Wi-Fi in your car. A mobile or portable hotspot basically works in the same way with your phone’s tethering function.
They are easy to use, and come with many advantages. For one, these devices typically can connect more devices than a phone’s hotspot would allow, typically up to eight devices, including phones, tablets, laptops and cameras. Compared to your phone, a mobile hotspot usually offers better Wi-Fi signal through 4G LTE networks and there are ample plans with more data allowance.
Not at all a downside, but do note that a mobile hotspot is a device meant for tethering only, so you don’t get a multi-functional device like your everything-in-one smartphone.
While you’re tapping into the same network and data plan when using your phone as a hotspot, a dedicated mobile hotspot requires hardware cost for the device itself and on top of that a monthly plan with a cellular provider. The average recurring cost is anywhere between $20 to $90 a month for typically 2 GB to 10 GB of data. Most cellular providers allow you to add a hotspot to your current phone plan, or if that does not meet your needs, you can totally get a separate data plan for mobile hotspot with a different provider.
Here it’s useful to understand the difference between two major types of dedicated mobile hotspots: cellular dongles and self-contained devices.
Cellular dongles are portable USB devices typically designed to plug into laptops or other devices with a USB power source to create a localized Wi-Fi network. With initial setup, certain units can even be plugged into any USB port that you may have in or have added to your car, like your head unit, a powered USB connector or the OBD-II port.
One example that plugs into your car’s OBD-II port is Sprint Drive. This cellular dongle offers connection for up to eight devices and you can opt for a monthly unlimited data plan. Handy extra features include virtual vehicle maintenance and roadside assistance services. Another popular product in the US market is the Alcatel’s LinkZone 4G LTE, which plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter socket through a USB to stay charged at all times.
Being more portable than dongles, self-contained dedicated mobile hotspots are typically available at a higher price range. While these self-contained units are designed to be plugged into any 12-volt accessory socket for power, they come with built-in batteries. They don’t need an external power source at all times, which means if you need to, you can conveniently take your Wi-Fi network away from your car, like working or streaming music in your camping tent.
A notable example is the MiFi by Verizon. The advice is if you prioritize better services, more data and wider coverage, it’s best to go with major cell providers like Verizon and AT&T, given that you are willing to pay a higher price for these of course. Otherwise, if you don’t ask for a lot, opting for a smaller carrier like Freedompop would be more economical, since they offer a small allotment of free data.
The Most Reliable Way to Get Wifi In Your Car: Install a Permanent Wireless Modem and Travel Router
The two methods above are portable and convenient. But if you really need a lot of high-speed data and reliable services at all times, the better option is to permanently install a wireless modem and router device in your car.
This option comes with many valuable benefits. The only downside is it is by far more expensive. The hardware alone will cost anywhere between $200 to $600, and on top of that you’ll also be paying installation cost and recurring monthly data fee, which varies from carrier to carrier.
These wireless routers for cars are also not as versatile and portable as phone hotspot and mobile hotspot. Further below, we’ll talk about the most high-tech option currently available, that is vehicles with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. Such convenience is possible because those cars are equipped with one of these devices.
Most of the time, these automotive routers are hard-wired though. That said, there is a way to make them more portable to a certain extent, that is to permanently wire a cradle into your car, which allows the device to be easily removed and installed into another cradle in another vehicle.
Some popular products in this category include the single-band GL.iNET GL-MT300N-V2 Wireless Mini Portable Travel Router at $20.50, the single-band HooToo FileHub at $40, the dual-band TP-Link AC750 Wireless Portable Nano Travel Router at $40 and the dual-band RAVPower FileHub at $50.
Benefits of Permanently Installed Travel Modem/Router
Stronger signal: The key selling point of permanently installed travel routers is you get stronger Wi-Fi and cellular radio signals compared to the previous methods. While a mobile hotspot uses a built-in antenna to receive a signa, a travel modem/router essentially turns your vehicle into the antenna, and this mechanism typically offers more reliable signals and better speeds.
Wifi all the time: Instead of having to, say, turn on the hotspot function on your phone, you won’t have to do anything with a travel router. Whenever your car is on, Wi-Fi will instantly be available, since these devices run on your vehicle’s power.
Multi-functional: A travel modem/router typically double- or triple-duty as a range extender to boost weak Wi-Fi signals, as a portable charger for phones and tablets, a memory card and even as a cloud-sharing hub for external hard drives. If you work remotely while traveling on long trips, you’d love these handy features.
USB or ethernet connection: Although these permanent devices are not portable, they offer a different kind of versatility. Some modem/router combos for cars include USB or ethernet ports, so there’s also the option of connecting various mobile devices via USB or ethernet.
Doesn’t drain your phone’s battery: As above, turning your phone into a mobile hotspot would drastically drain your battery and over time, might cause it to deteriorate prematurely. Sure, you might always store a charger in your car, but the long-term damage to your battery is still unavoidable, and keeping your phone charged at all times means no one else gets to charge their devices too.
Save your mobile plan’s data: If you only need Wi-Fi once in a while and not for anything data-consuming, a smartphone with hotspot capabilities might get you by. But if you travel with others on long trips in your truck or van, you should get a permanent modem/router combo with a separate data plan to get the best of everything, all the while saving data on your mobile phone’s plan for when you will need it, including in case of emergencies.
Convenient services for your vehicle: Some carriers offer devices that come with useful extra features like location and driving history sharing, and crash response, like Hum by Verizon.
Get Wi-Fi in Your Car By Using an OBD-II Device
If you’re still considering between a dedicated mobile hotspot and a built-in modem/router combo, check out OBD-II Wi-Fi devices. In terms of portability, they are right in between mobile hotspot and permanently installed devices, and they also offer unique features that the other options lack.
These devices plug into your car’s OBD-II port. If you’re not familiar with this technology, an OBD-II port is the connector that you can conveniently plug your smartphone in and run a dedicated app for computer diagnosis of your car’s health.
An automotive OBD-II Wi-Fi device, like the Delphi Connect, creates a localized Wi-Fi network to various mobile devices, and another great feature is it allows you to use an app on your smartphone to run a health check on your vehicle (kind of like a mobile hotspot and an ELM 327 scanner all in one).
These devices also provide vehicle tracking data so you can track the location of your vehicle in real-time as well as in the past.
If You’re Thinking Of Upgrading Your Car: Consider Cars With Built-in Wifi
Again, depending on your circumstances, you may not need an in-car Wi-Fi connection at all times. That said, as it is now 2021, and if you’re looking to buy a new car in the near future, you will most likely come across a few models with built-in Wi-Fi technology in your search, whether you’re specifically seeking one or not. If you do need to use Wi-Fi in your car at times, maybe it’s time you consider getting one of these modern cars when shopping around.
This technology will become the norm in no time, since most manufacturers and all of the major ones have already offered at least one or two models with built-in cellular data connection, so that you just have to get a data plan with a carrier to get reliable Wi-Fi in your car at all times.
Since the cellular connection is built right in, you typically get more functionality than what offered by all the other options we have discussed so far. These include internet radio, or connectivity to something like OnStar, which offers an array of handy automotive services like turn-by-turn navigation, in-vehicle security, emergency services, remote diagnostics systems, hands-free calling and subscription-based communications throughout North America (OnStar Corporation is a subsidiary of General Motors). So you can run computer diagnostics and software updates remotely, without having to drive to the mechanics or dealership.
For more handy tips and knowledge that you should equip yourself with, head to our comprehensive library of maintenance tips to take proper care of your precious vehicle.