Can I Keep Unlimited Data with iPhone Personal Hotspot?

Two young adults tethering iPad and iPhone in a field
image credit: Hoxton/Tom Merton/Getty Images

An unlimited data plan seems like the perfect match for the iPhone's Personal Hotspot feature. The key question is whether unlimited data includes hotspot. The answer is that it often does — but with some very important limitations.

Does Unlimited Data Include Personal Hotspot?

Tethering is the generic name for the feature that Apple calls Personal Hotspot. It lets you share your iPhone's cellular data connection with other devices to get them online. Most major phone companies include tethering in their monthly plans for no extra charge. Even better, most carriers offer at least some plans that include unlimited monthly data.

So, yes: unlimited data plans usually do include Personal Hotspot.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Like there must be a catch? Well, there is.

Those unlimited data plans are "unlimited" in that they let you use as much data as you want. But they aren't unlimited in giving you that data at the highest possible speed. These unlimited data plans have usage caps. That means that if you exceed your cap, your data speeds — including your hotspot speeds — to be reduced for the rest of the current billing period.

For example, let's say the monthly cap for high-speed data on your "unlimited" plan is 20GB of data per month. As long as you use less data than that, you'll get the fastest possible speeds, including when using the hotspot. However, once you use more than 20GB of data in a month, your speed will be reduced (often to something slower than 3G speeds).

Compare the monthly plans from the major U.S. phone companies by checking out Which Company Has the Best Monthly iPhone Plans?

The History of Unlimited Data and Hotspot on iPhone

The relationship between Personal Hotspot and unlimited data wasn't always like this.

When the iPhone debuted, AT&T provided unlimited data plans to iPhone users (it was the only phone company in the U.S. that offered the iPhone back then). Those plans may have been unlimited, but they didn't include Personal Hotspot. The feature didn't exist yet; it was introduced with iOS 4.

When hotspot did debut on the iPhone, AT&T let current users keep their unlimited data plans, as long as they didn't make any changes to them. New users could not purchase unlimited data plans.

Over time, AT&T and other phone companies made it harder and harder to keep both an unlimited data plan and hotspot. In those days, users paid for their data use by the gigabyte, so an unlimited plan wouldn't generate as much revenue for the phone companies.

Since then, phone companies have mostly switched to the system of unlimited data with usage caps described earlier. Since they no longer make money based on how much data a customer uses, hotspot has come back to unlimited data plans.