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If you need reliable Internet when you’re traveling, relying on shared Wi-Fi networks isn’t the best approach. Instead, especially if you’ve got multiple devices or a locked smartphone, take a connection wherever you go with a mobile hotspot.
Mobile hotspots, also known as pocket Wi-Fi’s or Mifi devices, typically come in the form of a small gadget that connects to a local cell network in whatever country you’re in. It shares its data connection over a private Wi-fi network, letting you connect several of your other devices to the Internet at the same time.
Many companies rent or sell cheap mobile hotspots, typically at a high daily cost for international use. Just like smartphones, though, you can also buy these devices unlocked, which lets you pop in a local SIM card wherever you are to take advantage of much-cheaper data rates.
Here are our top unlocked mobile hotspot choices for 2018, complete with their best and worst features.
Note: We recommend carefully checking the regions supported by any mobile hotspot you plan to purchase. Not every device supports the cellular frequencies used in every region or country, which means you may get slower speeds, or no data at all, in some parts of the world.
Best If You Want to Keep Things Simple: ZTE Velocity MF923
Want something that just works, with a minimum of fuss? The ZTE Velocity MF923is easy to set up and manage, and doesn’t complicate things with too many menus and options. This makes it a good choice for travelers unfamiliar with mobile hotspots, or those who crave simplicity.
- Up to 10 hours of battery life
- Supports 4G/LTE, 3G and 2G networks
- Supports up to 10 devices
- Setup is simple. Just turn it on, and let it create the Wifi network with a default password that you can change later
- There’s an intuitive, touchscreen interface. You can operate it like you would a smartphone, with all relevant information easily visible
- Price is reasonable, typically well under $100
- You should get at least 3G coverage in most countries
- While compact, it’s a bit bulky — you’ll definitely notice it in your pocket
- Given how simple it is, battery life could be better
Best for Frequent Travelers: GlocalMe G3
The GlocalMe G3 is one of the best mobile hotspots we’ve come across, with a killer feature: letting you roam with the inbuilt data plans, or use a local SIM to slash costs, whichever you prefer. We published a full review of the device in early 2018.
- 15 hours of battery life
- Runs on 4G/LTE, with 3G and 2G supported
- Up to 150Mbps download and 50Mbps upload
- Supports up to 5 devices
- Includes 1GB of global data, more can be purchased later
- Has a “cloud” (ie, internal) SIM built in, and two slots for local nano-sized SIM cards
- Good coverage. It works in over 100 countries, letting you use the internal SIM to get connected as soon as you arrive, with data package pricing that’s often surprisingly reasonable
- Data packages can either be global, working anywhere the device has coverage, or for a single country or region at a lower cost
- The device also supports nano SIMs from local companies in the countries where it offers coverage. You can switch between the internal and local SIM(s) with a couple of taps
- Simple touch-screen interface
- Can also be used as a portable battery to charge other devices
- Its “unlimited” cloud data plans aren’t really — they’re capped at 2GB, after which the download speed drops significantly
- Connects fewer devices than other mobile hotspots. That’s fine if you’re traveling alone or as a couple, less so if you’re in a big group
- The device is a bit bulkier and heavier than some of the competition
- The companion app isn’t great, and since it drains the battery, is best left uninstalled
Best for Fast Downloads: Huawei E5786S
The best feature of Huawei’s E5786S is its speed: working on 4G/LTE, it offers downloads that are at least twice as quick as the competition, with a sleek and light design that makes it easy to slip in a pocket.
- 10 hours of battery life
- 4G/LTE, supports 3G and 2G
- Up to 300Mbps download and 50Mbps upload
- Supports up to 10 devices
- Unbeatable speed when downloading, with a max of 300Mbps vs 150Mbps (or less) on most other devices
- Double the bands. Unlike most other devices, E5786 offers both 2.4GHz and 5GHz options for its Wi-fi network, and dual-band LTE
- Battery life remains decent despite increased power: 10 hours, plus 500 in standby
- You can charge your phone or other USB devices from it in a pinch
- Super easy to travel with: at 0.6 inches and 5 ounces, it’s one of the smallest MiFis on the market
- It’s not cheap. At around $200, this device isn’t something you’ll pick up on a whim
- At this price, we’d like longer battery life
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Best for All-Day Use: Netgear United Explore 815S
Many Mifi devices have poor battery life, often struggling to give more than a few hours between charges. If you’ll be out and about all day, you’ll need something better. That’s where Netgear’s United Explore 815S comes in.
- 22 hours of battery life
- 4G/LTE, 3G or 2G
- Supports up to 15 devices
- Micro SIM slot
- Reasonably priced: you should be able to pick it up well under $150
- Works in 100+ countries
- Lightweight and compact, and can be transported in your pocket
- Great battery life
- Can connect an external antenna for better range in low-signal areas
- You’ll need an adapter to use a nano SIM
Best on a Budget: Huawei E5330Bs
On a budget? If you’re just after a simple, no-frills device to help you stay connected, the Huawei E5220s-6 is an affordable option — albeit with a few limitations.
- 5-6 hours of battery life
- Runs on 3G and 2G
- Up to 21Mbps download, 5Mbps upload
- Supports up to 8 users
- Noticeably cheaper than most other unlocked mobile hotspots
- Small and light, fitting easily into a pocket
- It’s slow, with no support for 4G/LTE. Don’t expect great speeds.
- It doesn’t work in most parts of the Americas, including the USA. If that’s where you’re heading, consider the E5577Cs-321 model instead — it’s more expensive, but still typically under $100.
- Battery life isn’t great. If you plan to use it all day, you’ll need a portable battery pack as well
Main image via rawpixel, other images via manufacturers.