How to Get Wi-Fi in Your Car

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The Best Ways to Get Wi-Fi in Any Car

ways to get wi-fi in your car
Sharing mobile data from your phone via Wi-Fi is just the start. Tara Moore / The Image Bank / Getty

If it seems like the Internet is everywhere these days, that’s probably because it is. Advances in cellular technology have made it far easier, and more cost effective, to use the Internet on the road than it used to be, and there are more ways to get Wi-Fi in your car than ever before.

The easiest way to get Wi-Fi in your car is to leverage your existing smartphone as an ad hoc wireless hotspot, but you can also add a mobile data connection and wireless network to any car with a variety of different types of Wi-Fi adapters, have a permanent modem/router combo installed, or even upgrade to a true connected car if doing so fits in your budget.

While getting Wi-Fi connectivity in your car is much easier now than it was just a few years ago, there are expenses involved regardless of the method that you ultimately choose. Each option comes with both hardware and data plan costs, and there are also matters of convenience and connection quality to consider.

02
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Get Wi-Fi In Your Car From a Smartphone Hotspot

cell phone wi-fi in car
Most modern smartphones can share a mobile data connection wirelessly, which is the easiest way to get Wi-Fi in a car. Klaus Vedfelt / The Image Bank / Getty

 Price: Free to $600+ depending on if you have a smartphone and how much you want to spend.

The absolutely easiest, and cheapest, way to get Wi-Fi in your car is by turning your smartphone into a hotspot. This will involve a hardware cost if you don’t already have a smartphone, or if your smartphone isn’t capable of acting as a hotspot, but it may still be a cost effective option in that case, especially if you’re ready to upgrade anyway.

The way that smartphone hotspots work is by either downloading an appropriate app or by turning on an option in the phone settings. In any case, the basic idea is that the phone acts as both a modem and a router. The phone essentially allows other devices, like tablets, MP3 players, and even Wi-Fi-enabled head units, to connect to an ad hoc network. This basically lets you pipe the same data connection that allows you to browse the Internet and send email to on your phone to any Wi-Fi-enabled device you have in your car.

The drawback of using your phone to provide Wi-Fi connectivity in your car is that any device that connects to it will draw from your cellular data allotment for the month. So if you use your phone as a hotspot in your car to watch a bunch of videos on a long road trip, you may find that you don’t have anything left over to browse Facebook on your phone later in the month.

Virtually every cellular provider offers tethering in one fashion or another, either as an add-on service or included in the basic data package. In some cases, tethered data will be restricted to a slower download speed, or relegated to 3G data even if the phone is capable of 4G, so it’s important to read the fine print.

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Use a Dedicated Mobile Hotspot to Add Wi-Fi To Your Car

usb wi-fi dongle
You can also add Wi-Fi to any car via a dedicated device like a USB dongle or a self-contained Mi-Fi unit. Sean Gallup / Getty Images News

Price: $100 to 150 (dongles are typically less expensive than self-contained devices)

Another easy way to get Wi-Fi in your car is to use a dedicated mobile hotspot. These devices essentially include the same type of cellular data connection as a phone, and the same ability to create a wireless network, but you can’t use them to do anything else smartphones are capable of doing.

Most cellular companies that offer regular cell service also have a line of dedicated mobile hotspots, so you will typically have the option to either add one of these devices to your current cellular plan or to go with a totally different provider, based on your specific needs.

There are two main types of dedicated mobile hotspots: dongles and self-contained devices. Cellular dongles are USB devices that are typically designed to plug into computers and laptops and create a Wi-Fi network that provides access to a cellular data connection. However, some of these dongles, after being set up initially, can be plugged into any USB power source. That means if your head unit includes a USB connection, or you have added a powered USB connector to your car, you may be able to plug in one of these dongles to add Wi-Fi to your car.

Self-contained dedicated mobile hotspots, like Verizon’s MiFi, are more portable than dongles, but they also tend to be more expensive. These devices have built-in batteries, so while you can plug them into a 12v accessory socket for power, you can also take your Wi-Fi network away from your car—and any external power source—if you need to.

04
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Use an OBD-II Device to Add Wi-Fi To Your Car

OBD2 wi-fi connection in car
OBD-II Wi-Fi devices are typically designed to interface with a smartphone app in addition to providing a Wi-Fi network. Jamie Grill / Getty

Price: $50 to 200 depending on device, carrier, contract, and other details.

Less portable than a smartphone or dedicated hotspot, but more portable than a built-in router, OBD-II Wi-Fi devices also offer functionality that other options lack. These devices plug into your vehicle’s OBD-II port, which is the same connector that technicians use to perform computer diagnostic work.

The main benefit that you see from this type of device is that in addition to creating a local Wi-Fi network, and providing cellular data access to various devices in your car, you also get similar functionality to what you’d expect from an ELM 327 scanner.

Delphi Connect, which is an example of this class of device, allows you to access diagnostic information via a smartphone app, and also provides vehicle tracking data. This allows you to track the location of your vehicle in real time, and to see historic data about where your car has been in the past.

05
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Permanently Install a Wireless Modem and Router Unit In Your Car

autonet car router
Products like the Autonet mobile router are designed for permanent, or semi-permanent, installation. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News

Price: $200 to $600, not including installation.

The most expensive, most reliable, and least portable way to get Wi-Fi in your car is to permanently install a wireless modem and router device. These automotive wireless routers are typically much more expensive than portable dongles and MiFi devices, and they also require some installation work that may or may not fall outside your comfort zone.

Some automotive routers do have a degree of portability, in that you permanently wire a cradle into your vehicle, and the modem/router device itself can easily be removed and placed in another cradle in a different car or truck. Other devices are hard-wired though, in which case they are only as portable as your vehicle itself.

The main benefit to this type of device is that the cellular radio will often be stronger than what you typically find in a mobile hotspot, and the Wi-Fi signal may also be stronger. The other benefit is that some permanently-installed automotive modem/router combos include USB or ethernet ports. These units still create a Wi-Fi network, which you can hook up to with your phone, tablet, laptop, or another other Wi-Fi-enabled device, but they also provide the option to connect a laptop or other device via USB or ethernet.

06
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Trading Up To a Connected Car

connected car wi-fi-network
Connected cars often come with the ability to create a Wi-Fi network baked right in. Paul Bradbury / Caiaimage / Getty

If you’re thinking that it’s time for a new vehicle anyway, and you’re interested in the idea of having Wi-Fi in your car, then it’s worth considering that as an option when you start shopping around. Most manufacturers offer at least one or more models that include a built-in cellular data connection and are also capable of creating Wi-Fi networks.

True connected cars typically provide more functionality than you are likely to attain from using a cellphone or mobile hotspot, since the cellular connection is built right in. The head unit will often include functionality, like Internet radio, or connectivity to a service like OnStar, that makes use of the mobile data, which is above and beyond the basic functionality of creating a Wi-Fi network that you can connect to with your tablet or other device.

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Considering Data Costs and Network Coverage When Adding Wi-Fi To Your Car

car wi-fi bandwidth and coverage
Bandwidth and coverage are both important factors to look at when deciding how to add Wi-Fi to your car. Jan Franz / The Image Bank / Getty

When you buy a brand new connected car, you may receive a free data allotment for a limited amount of time. However, data isn’t free outside of that very limited circumstance, which means that you need to consider both the cost of data and availability of the network when deciding how to add Wi-Fi connectivity to your car.

Data cost essentially just means how much the available data plans cost versus how much bandwidth they provide. Depending on the way you choose to add Wi-Fi to your car, you may go with a major cellular provider, a smaller provider, or even a reseller, and each one has its own plans that you should examine before making a final decision.

One important factor to consider is that some companies advertise a large, or even unlimited, amount of hotspot data, but only a small amount will be available at the fastest possible speed. These plans are often metered and provide a slower service, either 3G or even 2G, after you have eaten through your monthly allotment of high speed data.

The other important factor to look at is network availability, which essentially just means where the provider has service and where it doesn’t. Some providers advertise very large networks, but the fastest data speeds are only available in specific markets. Other providers have relatively large high speed networks but have huge holes where no service is available. This is an especially big deal if you’re looking to add Wi-Fi to your car before a long road trip, or if you live—and drive—in a rural area where some providers don’t have their high speed networks built out yet.