Tethering: which mobile network is best?

Submitted by Abi on 1 April 2015 - 9:39am
Tethering - which mobile network is best?

What is mobile tethering? 

Tethering allows you to use your phone as a portable WiFi hotspot by connecting your mobile phone to another device, such as a laptop or tablet. This can be especially useful if you don't have a strong WiFi signal and need to use your laptop when you are out and about. 

Whether you want to connect using USB, Bluetooth or WiFi tethering you can, provided your network contract allows it and you have a data allowance included in your mobile phone plan.

Is tethering different to MiFi?

Tethering works in the same way as MiFi in that it uses 3G or 4G mobile network to connect multiple devices to the internet. However, using your phone to tether means you can save money as you don't need to have a separate mobile broadband contract, you simply use your mobile data allowance.

Tethering works best for short periods of time as it drains your battery and most people's data allowance isn't big enough for prolonged use or heavy duty video streaming. Laptops and Tablets are bigger and more powerful than mobile phones and use much more data to perform tasks. This means you can quickly eat through 1GB-2GB using your phone as a portable hotspot.

If you regularly find yourself using more than 2GB-5GB of data each month via tethering you may find it cheaper to purchase a MiFi device instead. MiFis are great if you have multiple devices to connect at the same time, or choose a Dongle if you only need to connect one device.

Which mobile networks allow tethering?

As you can see from the table below all of the big mobile network providers allow tethering, though restrictions apply such as no tethering on unlimited data plans or when you're roaming. 

If you are looking for a short term plan then Vodafone is the only operator to allow tethering on its PAYG SIMs. While this isn't the cheapest way to tether, it does have the benefit of being entirely flexible as you can use as much or as little data as you need, as long as you have enough credit on your account to cover the cost.

As tethering relies on your mobile provider's data signal it is important to choose a provider with good coverage in your area. 3G shouldn't be a problem as most networks 3G coverage is pretty good. The 4G rollout is still underway so, depending on where you live, there may be variation in service. To check 3G and 4G coverage near you, tap or click the network logos in the table below.


Tethering limits

Penalties for breaking the rules

EE tethering

Up to your plan allowance (max. 20GB). Not allowed while roaming. Data will stop working once you have reached your data limit or, if you need extra, you buy an add-on.

Giffgaff tethering

Up to your plan allowance. Not available on unlimited data plans. Not allowed while roaming.

Internet suspension and block from data services.

O2 tethering

Up to your plan allowance. Not allowed while roaming.

Service will be slowed. If you continue you could face suspension from the network and extra charges.

Tesco Mobile tethering

Up to your plan's data limit (max. 8GB). Not allowed while roaming.

You will be charged £2.50 per 250MB for any data outside of your plan.

3 tethering

Up to your plan allowance (max. 4GB). Not allowed while roaming.

Data will stop working once you reach you data limit. 

Vodafone tethering

Up to your plan allowance (max. 20GB) iPhone's require specific tariffs. Not allowed while roaming.

You will be charged £6.50 per 250MB for any data outside of your plan.

Why can't I tether on unlimited plans? 

Gone are the days when you could tether freely on unlimited data plans. The networks say this is due to a small percentage of customers using unlimited data tethering to stream videos, music and play online games on their laptops. These activities can easily use tens - if not hundreds - of GBs, resulting in congested data streaming for other network users.

The networks argue that caps ensure better data speeds for all customers – regardless of whether they use up their full allowance each month, or don’t tether at all.

Can I buy tethering add-ons? 

If you do find you run out of data, most of networks will happily sell you a data add-on that you can use to continue tethering. This is definitely the cheapest way to continue using mobile internet as the charges for using data off-plan can be expensive.

If you find you are running out of data each month read our guide How to reduce your mobile data usage for practical tips on saving your MBs.

My network can't stop me tethering though, can they?

Yes they can. If you regularly tether outside of your data limit then you will be in breach of your network contract terms and conditions and a penalty may be applied to your account by your provider. This could be in the form of charges to your account or your network may just decide to throttle your data, making your connection frustratingly slow.

If you try to tether beyond your allowance on either giffgaff or O2, you may find your SIM disconnected from the internet entirely. In order to unblock your card, you'll need to fall on the mercy of your network's customer help team and hope they return your data access.

Have you fallen foul of your network's T&Cs? If so, what happened? Tell us your tethering stories in the comment section below.