How Do You Get Bluetooth for a Car?

Add hands-free calling and streaming music to your ride

Automotive technology tends to lag behind the tech in most consumer electronics. People replace their cars at a glacial pace compared to how often they update their phones, so it's common to encounter a situation where your phone supports a technology such as Bluetooth and your car just doesn't.

While Bluetooth connectivity is widely available in new cars, it's easy to add at least some level of the same functionality to any car with any head unit. Depending on the route you go, you may be able to gain access to useful features such as hands-free calling or music streaming. You may even be able to control your car radio using your smartphone.

Man in car with bluetooth earpiece
Natalie Young / Getty Images

Three Ways You Can Get Bluetooth for a Car

If your current vehicle doesn't have Bluetooth connectivity but your smartphone or tablet does, you can add the technology to any car using one of three methods.

Install a Universal Bluetooth car kit. The advantages of this method include:

  • It is the least expensive option
  • Universal kits are platform agnostic
  • Different kits offer different functionality

Install a vehicle-specific Bluetooth adapter. Advantages and limitations are:

  • This method is only available if your head unit is "Bluetooth-ready"
  • You can keep your factory radio
  • The adapter offers better integration and more features than a universal kit

Upgrade to a Bluetooth car stereo. Advantages and disadvantages include:

  • This is the only way to get full Bluetooth functionality in any car
  • Replacing your stereo is more expensive than buying a Bluetooth car kit
  • Upgrading requires you to replace your existing radio completely

The best way for you to get Bluetooth in your car depends largely on your budget and the kind of stereo you have in your car. If you have a Bluetooth-ready aftermarket car stereo, then the best and usually the cheapest way forward is to buy the appropriate stereo-specific adapter. In other cases, a Bluetooth car kit is the cheapest, easiest way to get Bluetooth in your car. The most expensive option is to replace your car stereo.

Adding a Bluetooth Radio Adapter

Some head units are Bluetooth ready in that while they don’t have built-in Bluetooth functionality, you can add it later with a separate peripheral device. These devices typically consist of a small box that contains a Bluetooth radio and other electronics and a wire or wires that you plug into your car's head unit. Installation tends to be a relatively simple operation, although you usually have to remove the head unit to access the adapter port.

Since these Bluetooth radio adapters aren't universal, you buy the device that was designed specifically for your car stereo. If your car's head unit wasn’t designed with a Bluetooth adapter in mind, you have to add Bluetooth to your car in some other way.

Hands-Free Calling and Streaming Music With a Bluetooth Car Kit

If there isn’t a Bluetooth adapter explicitly designed for your head unit, then a universal Bluetooth car kit is another easy, low-cost way you can add Bluetooth connectivity to your car. Plenty of options are out there, so it’s important to understand the different choices that are available to you. The main types of Bluetooth car kits include:

  • Speakerphones
  • Hands-free calling kits
  • Music-streaming kits
  • Combination units

Bluetooth speakerphones tend to be relatively simple devices that don’t interface with your car radio. You pair your cell phone to the speakerphone and then use it like a headset that you don’t wear in your ear. That makes the installation quick and easy, but you miss out on a lot of neat Bluetooth features.

The two main features to look for in a Bluetooth car kit are hands-free calling and music streaming. A good Bluetooth car kit can turn down or mute your radio during calls, which is a useful safety feature. The ability to wirelessly stream music from your phone, including internet streaming radio services like Pandora and Last.FM is also a nice touch.

Upgrading to a Bluetooth Car Stereo

While upgrading to a Bluetooth car stereo isn't a cheap option, it is the only way to add total Bluetooth functionality and connectivity to any vehicle. If you’re on the verge of a sound system overhaul anyway, and you're interested in Bluetooth, you’ll want to zero in on head units that include that functionality out of the box.

Full Bluetooth integration means that your head unit will be able to display caller information and song data when you’re streaming music, and may even be able to dial your phone or control apps via a touch-screen interface.

Aside from the price, the only other downside of upgrading to a Bluetooth car stereo is that it requires you to remove your existing radio. If you want to keep your factory look or any special functionality unique to your car, then it's worth checking into whether a Bluetooth adapter is available.

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