As a digital nomad, you strap on your hiking boots to hit the local trails or fly to Mexico for a week of margaritas and sunshine. And with remote working becoming more commonplace, a lifetime spent jumping from country to country is finally within reach for many of us. But life on the road or in the woods lacks a necessary modern convenience: an internet connection.
Fortunately, portable Wi-Fi hotspots are the perfect solution for travelers and digital nomads to stay connected. These compact devices offer a high-speed connection wherever you go, allowing you to get your work done (and pay the bills) while exploring new places or camping under towering evergreens.
How do mobile Wi-Fi hotspots work?
A portable Wi-Fi hotspot is a handheld device that uses a cellular signal to create your own Wi-Fi network. These hotspots typically broadcast 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi connections and connect to the Internet through mobile networks that transmit cellular data through radio waves, called frequencies. This means that you can connect your laptop, tablet or smartphone to the internet even if there is no public Wi-Fi available. Portable Wi-Fi hotspots are sometimes also referred to as “Mi-Fi” devices.
Features To Look For In A Wi-Fi Hotspot
Prepaid data plans vs SIM card
To connect your portable Wi-Fi device to the Internet, you will need to purchase a prepaid data plan or a local SIM card. If you plan to use your Wi-Fi hotspot to travel abroad, look for a device that offers prepaid data plans. Buying a prepaid plan before you travel means you can skip the hassle of finding a foreign service provider and picking up a SIM card.
If you plan to use your hotspot primarily in the United States and North America, purchasing a SIM card from a major carrier like AT&T or T-Mobile will give you the best network coverage. I recommend this option for campers, hikers or van-lifers who need an internet connection in remote locations.
Supported networks and frequencies
The frequencies used to transmit data vary depending on the region or country you are in and the carrier you are on. You need to keep an eye on what frequencies your hotspot will support.
The most common networks and their frequencies include:
- 2G/3G: The second and third generation wireless technology. These networks operate on GSM (Global System for Mobiles) or CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) frequencies. GSM is more widely used and better for travellers.
- 4G or LTE: This network is currently the worldwide standard and offers the fastest connection speeds. 4G transmits over LTE frequencies and only uses GSM or CDMA as a fallback when no LTE connection is available.
- 5G: Fifth-generation mobile network technology offers increased network reliability, speed and capacity, but global coverage is currently only 25%. Outside of major cities, 4G LTE and 3G networks are the most widely available.
Fortunately, device manufacturers don’t want to create a different device for each frequency, so most Wi-Fi hotspots are compatible with 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE. Keep in mind that your hotspot will only work in areas where there is cellular coverage, regardless of frequency. Often remote locations will not have a signal because there are no nearby cell towers or the closest one cannot reach it.
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The NETGEAR Unite Explore AC815S is a fast and reliable hotspot with 18 hours of battery life. This device offers download speeds of up to 450 Mbps. The device is compatible with GSM SIM cards, so you can use it with your preferred service provider. Bonus points go to Unite Explore for its durable design with rubber bumpers and splash resistance.
The MightyWiFi is a SIM-free hotspot that supports 29 frequencies on the 4G network giving you coverage in over 150 countries. This hotspot offers flexible, prepaid global data plans ranging from 3GB to 30GB. The 5,000mAh battery doubles as a portable power bank with up to 12 hours of use. The MightyWiFi supports up to five devices at once.
The GlocalMe G4 is a powerful pocket hotspot with up to 12 hours of battery life, built-in data plans and support for SIM cards from over 140 countries. With a 5-inch touchscreen for easy setup and setup, and built-in apps like Google Maps, this little device is a hassle-free companion.
The Huawei E5885 Wifi 2 has super-fast download speeds of 300 Mbps and is compatible with 4G LTE bands in Europe, North America and Asia. A built-in 6400mAh battery provides 25 hours of battery life and a 2-in-1 charging cable that can easily keep the hotspot or your phone powered up. Setup is made easy with one-click NFC connectivity. Plus, it’s dust and splash resistant, so it’s perfect for tougher adventures.
The Netgear Nighthawk M1 is an unlocked, fast and reliable 4G mobile hotspot. It comes with a built-in 5000mAh battery capable of providing 11 hours of battery life while you are hiking or traveling. This compact device has a USB port for streaming media from an external drive or charging your phone in a snap. Compatible with SIM cards from most major service providers, but also supports prepaid data plans from AT&T and T-Mobile.
The ZTE Velocity MF923 is an unlocked GSM hotspot that supports up to 10 devices at once. It comes with a 2,800mAh battery that offers 10 hours of battery life, and you can insert a microSD to use as a shared network drive. The Velocity also features a bright and responsive 2.4-inch touchscreen, making it easy to set up your device in minutes. This device connects to 4G and 5G networks in 200 countries.
Alcatel’s LINKZONE is a simple cost-effective access point capable of delivering 4G LTE speeds of up to 150 Mbps. The LINKZONE works with a SIM card from any GSM operator and supports up to 15 devices at a time. You’ll get six hours of battery life from the 1,800mAh battery, and setup is a breeze thanks to the user-friendly interface. This access point is ideal for travelers to Central or South America because it is compatible with 4G networks that transmit on frequencies from 1700 to 2100 Mhz.
The Huawei E5577Cs Access Point costs less than $100. It has a 1500mAh battery that lasts an average of six hours and supports all GSM networks. Download speeds reach up to 150 Mbps. This access point can also be used as a home Wi-Fi extender, making it useful even when you’re not traveling. Plus, with the LCD touchscreen, you can view available networks, battery life, and easily change other settings.