Your guide to car WiFi

Connectivity on the go can be a big plus for you and your passengers, but what’s the best way to get online? Read the pros and cons of mobile hotspots, MiFi and cars with built-in WiFi to get you going in the right direction.

Connectivity on the go can be a big plus for you and your passengers, but what’s the best way to get online? Read the pros and cons of mobile hotspots, MiFi and cars with built-in WiFi to get you going in the right direction.

Holly Niblett
From the Digital team
5
minute read
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Posted 9 SEPTEMBER 2021

What is car WiFi?

Car WiFi works in a similar way to mobile phone WiFi – with a SIM card or data-only SIM, and data access via a mobile provider. It allows you and your passengers to get online by creating your own wireless network on four wheels.

A lot of newer cars now come with built-in WiFi, but for older models which don’t, you can install a portable solution to set up your own car WiFi hotspot.

What’s the advantage of having WiFi in my car?

Obviously surfing and driving don’t mix – you can’t text, send emails or do anything that makes you a danger to other motorists. However, there are other reasons why having your own in-car WiFi connection is a big plus.

As long as you’ve got network access, it generally allows you to:

  • Provide in-car entertainment for your passengers with a high-speed internet connection for online gaming, films and TV programmes – ideal if you’re on a long journey with kids or teens
  • Stream music on the go
  • Get destination information, navigation routes and weather reports using voice control
  • Connect multiple devices at the same time – laptops, mobile phones and tablets
  • Save on mobile phone data.
  • Access faster 4G and 5G mobile data connections.
  • Avoid the potential security risks of traffic-heavy public WiFi hotspots
  • Park up and work on the go.

Is car WiFi better than a mobile hotspot?

If you don’t have a car with built-in WiFi, creating a mobile hotspot (or tethering) is a simple way to get online. It’s often the cheaper option, too. Depending how often you want to use it, or for how long, you won’t necessarily have to pay extra on top of your monthly mobile phone payments.

A mobile hotspot turns your smartphone into a portable car WiFi router and it’s easy to set up. Go to your mobile phone settings and turn on the Personal/Mobile Hotspot. You can then share your data with any laptops and tablets you’ve got with you by selecting your phone from the WiFi options that appear on your devices. You also have the option to connect using Bluetooth and USB.

If you’ve got mobile data to spare, or you don’t need to get online very often, or with any degree of work-related urgency, a mobile hotspot may fit the bill.

However, there are some downsides to consider if you’re looking for unlimited car WiFi or a connection you can rely on.

  • It can drain your mobile phone battery very quickly, so you’ll need an in-car charger for long journeys, or if you’re on the road a lot.
  • Unless you’ve got a 5G phone, a tethered internet connection is unlikely to be faster or more reliable than standard WiFi.
  • Some networks may not allow it, so you’ll need to check with your provider.
  • Tethering may not be included in your monthly data allowance, so you’ll be paying more for the privilege of having WiFi in your car. Even if it is included, it’s very data-hungry and with regular car journeys, you’re likely to chew through your allowance faster than with normal smartphone usage.

This is when a getting a third-party car MiFi (mobile WiFi) device might be a more effective and efficient way of creating your own car hotspot.

This handy device plugs directly into the 12V power socket of your car – the cigarette lighter – or a USB socket, and keeps you connected, as long as you’ve got the SIM in and have network coverage.

Because you plug it in, you don’t need to worry about charging a battery and if you look for the 4G LTE option, you’ve also got the potential for a fast 4G internet connection.

Car WiFi routers also:

  • Work with most makes and models of car
  • Support eight to 10 devices at any one time, depending on the brand (although the recommended number may be less).
  • Charge your mobile phone at the same time if a USB adapter is included.
  • Offer unlimited data, depending on the plan you choose.

The downsides of car WiFi include:

  • A lack of widespread availability through mobile networks
  • It’s often more expensive than internet access through a conventional dongle which plugs directly into your devices
  • The consistency of your connection depends on network coverage.
  • There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the fastest speeds advertised.

How much does car WiFi cost?

A dedicated car WiFi device comes with a cost attached. For the mobile hotspot itself, expect to pay at least £30, but as with all gadgets, you can spend a lot more. Data and subscription charges will also apply. There are plenty of car WiFi deals available, and prices start from around £10 a month.

You also have the option of getting a normal mobile WiFi hotspot and buying a 12V adapter to plug it into your car. This gives you the advantage of being able to use it elsewhere, but then there’s the extra cost for the adapter.

If your car has built-in WiFi, costs vary depending on the car manufacturer and how they choose to integrate the router.

When you buy a car with WiFi, you’ll need to pay a monthly or annual subscription, but often get the benefit of one to three months of free data. After that, a monthly data allowance usually applies.

Alternatively, you may be able to use your own phone or tablet data-SIM to get online.

Is built-in car WiFi better than a portable hotspot?

Most manufacturers now offer one or more models that include in-built WiFi, which comes with SIM and an app to use with it. With this set up, you’re likely to get more functionality than you would with a portable car hotspot.

With the focus on integration, a car with built-in WiFi is also more likely to support specialised services including:

  • Route guidance
  • Stolen vehicle assistance
  • Roadside assistance
  • Hands-free calling

The WiFi signal will probably be stronger and you’ll be able to run software updates and diagnostics automatically, so you don’t have to keep track of what needs doing.

One of the main downsides, however, is that you may be locked to a specific data plan and, depending on the car, the features that come with your built-in WiFi system may be limited.

Frequently asked questions

Is in-car WiFi legal?

Yes – vehicle WiFi is legal. What isn’t necessarily legal is the way you use it.

It’s illegal to use a mobile phone on the go unless you have a hands-free set. The same applies to sending emails, watching films or playing online games – anything that takes your eyes off the road or could cause an accident

Is car WiFi faster or slower than normal WiFi?

Car WiFi speeds depend on three things:

  • Your internet provider
  • How you’re getting the signal into your car
  • Where you are and the network coverage available

You need to be in an area with a strong and stable signal, but given the fact you’re on the move, the chances of dipping in and out of coverage are higher.

Does car WiFi work abroad?

You need to check the terms and conditions of the car WiFi plan you’re using, whether that’s for a third-party WiFi box or you’ve opted to use the data included with your smartphone.

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