How to Save Mobile Data Usage When Tethering Android Tablet or Phone

This hidden setting saves mobile data

Man using tablet
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If there's no Wi-Fi network available for your Android tablet to access the internet, you can use your Android phone as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot to put it online. The problem is that it can be way too easy to use more data than your mobile data plan allows.

Most wireless carriers' tethering plans share an allotment of monthly mobile data when you tether devices together like this. To conserve your mobile data, there's a hidden Android setting you can enable from the device you're trying to get online. 

The Hidden Setting

Android devices running 4.1 and newer have a not-so-well-known option to mark Wi-Fi access points as "mobile access points." This tells installed apps that you're connected to a mobile hotspot (with limited data available) rather than a typical Wi-Fi network (which isn't limited), and that they should, therefore, limit the amount of traffic they use.

Your tablet or phone will treat the network as a mobile network instead of Wi-Fi, and this should limit the amount of background data that apps pull in when you're connected to that hotspot. With this setting enabled, you might also get warnings when there's a large download or other data-hogging activity (like large files or music downloads) going on that you should know about.

How to Change Your Settings to Save Data

If you're tethering one modern Android device (4.1+) to another, such as your tablet to your smartphone, the devices will automatically figure things out for you and handle the data access to minimize data usage so that you (hopefully) don't go over your mobile data plan allotment.

However, if you're not connecting two Android devices — maybe you're connecting a tablet to a Mifi or any other non-Android mobile hotspot like the iPhone — this hidden setting should come in handy:

Android data saver setting
  1. Open Settings from the all apps screen or by swiping down from the top of the screen and tapping the gear/settings icon.

  2. Go to Network & internet > Data usage.

    This section of the settings might be called something else instead — like Wireless & networks, Wireless and Networks, or Network connections — depending on your Android version.

  3. Do the following depending on the option you see (they differ between Android versions):

    • Tap Data Saver and then enable Use Data Saver. Skip to Step 5.
    • Open the Network restrictions or Restrict networks settings from the Wi-Fi section.
    • Select the three dots in the top right corner and then choose Mobile HotSpot or Mobile hotspots.
  4. Open the network that should have its setting changed, and choose Metered.

    This option might be a slider toggle or checkbox space in older versions of Android, and enabling it next to the network will turn the feature on.

  5. You can now exit the settings.

This should help you conserve more mobile data when you're sharing your wireless data with your tablet, phone, or another mobile gadget.

These tactics, while designed to minimize data usage on your wireless hotspot, could also help limit your data usage (most importantly, data roaming) when you're traveling. Just set any wireless network as a mobile hotspot to limit the kinds and amount of traffic that gets pulled.

More Tips on Saving Data When Tethered

You can also put a limit on how much data can be used so that the device will not use more than what you specifically allow. The limit can be set to whatever you like but would make sense to be set up to be the same amount of data you pay for, or even less if you share your plan with others.

This works great whether you're utilizing a hotspot or not, but is especially helpful when you are tethering since your connected devices might use more data than you anticipate. When this data limit is reached, all mobile data services on that device will be disabled until the month renews.

You should enable this limit on the device through which all the traffic is flowing — the one that's paying for the mobile data. For example, if your phone is being used as the hotspot for your Wi-Fi tablet so that it can get mobile data, you'd want to set up this limit on the phone since all the traffic is flowing through it.

Here's how to do it:

Android set data usage limit
  1. Complete Step 1 and Step 2 from above.

  2. Choose Data warning & limit and then enable Set data limit, and skip down to Step 5.

    If you're on a version of Android that isn't the current version, choose Cellular data usage or Mobile data usage.

    If you don't see one of those options, select Set mobile data limit instead, and then skip down to Step 5.

  3. Use the gear icon at the top right to open more settings, and then tap the button to the right of Set data limit or Limit mobile data usage, and confirm any prompts.

  4. Tap Data limit or Data usage limit just below it.

  5. Choose how much data the device is allowed to use during each billing cycle before all mobile data should be turned off.

    You might have to tap Data limit to get to the screen that lets you type numbers. Be sure to pay attention to whether the unit is GB or MB (GB are bigger and are normally how data plans are limited, such as 5 GB).

  6. You can now exit the settings.

There's also an option called Data warning that you can enable if you don't necessarily want data to be disabled but instead want to be told when you're reaching a specific amount. Some Android devices call this Alert me about data usage

Something else you can do is change settings in your biggest data-demanding apps, like Netflix and YouTube. Since these are video streaming apps that are commonly used on bigger screens like tablets, tethering that to a phone can use data pretty quickly. Adjust the quality of the videos to be low or of a lesser-than-HD quality so that they don't use as much data.

Another app that uses lots of data is your web browser. Consider using one that compresses data like Opera Mini, or enable Chrome's Data Saver option in the app's settings.

Of course, for a foolproof method of saving on data usage, you could always just turn everything off manually, without waiting for a data limit to be reached. From the Data usage settings page, toggle the Mobile data or Cellular data option to off so that your device only uses Wi-Fi. This, of course, means that the device can only connect to mobile hotspots and other Wi-Fi networks, but it will for sure prevent overage charges.