Does USB Tethering Use Hotspot Data? Understanding Mobile Data Sharing


With all the tech terms used in marketing cellular services, it gets confusing when you might run up a mobile bill. Two terms, USB Tethering and Hotspot Data, are cause their share of misunderstanding. For example, readers have asked: does USB tethering use hotspot data from your mobile internet plan?

Hotspot data is consumed whenever a connected device uses a smartphone’s internet connection. USB, Bluetooth, and WiFi can be used to tether devices to a mobile phone for internet access. Transfering locally-stored files between a cell phone and laptop over USB will not consume hotspot data quota.

Let’s unravel these and a few other terms. We’ll also clarify how your devices are connected when you want to use mobile data and give you some helpful tips.

Two girls using laptop using usb tethering for hotspot data

Understanding Tethering

Have you ever been in this situation: You’re using your smartphone and its mobile data plan when you need to also connect on another device like a laptop?

Sure, we’ve all been there, especially the on-the-go professional.

In this scenario, tethering comes to the rescue when you connect your laptop to your smartphone to use its mobile data. The tech and marketing guys will tell you that your phone acts as a portable hotspot, mobile hotspot, or WiFi hotspot.

Tethering can be done using a wired connection like a USB cable or wirelessly through Bluetooth or WiFi.

While most people find it easiest to use a Bluetooth or WiFi connection, privacy-conscious users should connect via USB.

What is USB tethering?

USB tethering involves plugging a smartphone into the USB port on another device like a laptop. The connected device can use the mobile phone’s cellular data connection to access the internet. A device driver or tethering app may be needed, but this connection is more secure than Wi-Fi tethering.

USB Tethering and Hotspot Data Usage

Now that you understand a bit more about tethering in general, we can dig into when hotspot data or mobile internet is used.

You can have various reasons for connecting your mobile device and laptop with a USB cable.

The following tasks will not use mobile hotspot data:

  1. Transferring media files between the two devices.
  2. For mobile app developers, USB debugging does not directly use your data plan’s quota.

Most other everyday computing tasks will consume mobile hotspot data. Sending emails, uploading photos to social media, and streaming begin to use your mobile hotspot’s capacity.

Keep in mind that since computers usually require more data than mobile tasks, it will consume a sizeable amount of your data plan.

Angry man at high smartphone bill because he used usb tethering

How to Save Mobile Data Usage When Tethering Your Tablet or Smartphone

Mac and Windows laptops tend to be data-hungry. They’re designed to be connected to a terrestrial Internet connection. When you are working on-the-go and tethered, you’ll be consuming your data plan. We’ll want to figure out how to save as much mobile data usage as possible.

Thankfully, it’s simple, regardless of your mobile carrier.

The best way to save on mobile data is to configure your laptop to use a metered connection.

Setting your computer to a metered connection tells the operating system to go easy on your data. It directs the OS to limit some features and background tasks to use the internet connection sparingly.

Here’s how to set your Windows PC to a metered connection

  1. Connect your laptop to your iPhone or Android phone via USB cable, WiFi hotspot, or a Bluetooth connection.
  2. Go to Settings.
  3. In the Network section and locate the currently connected active network.
  4. Scroll below and find “metered connection.”
  5. You may need to tap the active network to access advanced settings before you can find the “metered connection.”
  6. Toggle this setting to the on position.

Unfortunately, for Mac OSX laptops, there’s no inbuilt setting to limit the operating system’s data use. Mac users will need to employ a third-party app. Here are some of the solutions to check out:

  • LittleSnitch: Makes Internet connections visible and puts you back in control!
  • Radio Silence – See all network connections – block any app from going online.
  • TripMode: Easily control your Mac’s data usage on slow or expensive networks. Stop wasting money on limited data plans.

In this video (4m50s@2x) RightlyTV gives us a walk-through of TripMode.

Once connected, it’s a good idea to carefully consider each task and limit what you do with the internet connection. Consider waiting to binge-watch Netflix or YouTube with this setup. These services assume that since you’re watching using a laptop, they can serve you the full-sized content.

Benefits and Drawbacks of USB Tethering

There are both pros and cons to using USB tethering.

Battery Life

Wireless tethering methods like WiFi and Bluetooth can consume much of your mobile phone battery life. With USB tethering, you can enjoy the benefit of having your mobile phone charge while plugged into the laptop. Hence, there is no battery drainage for your smartphone.

Only One-To-One Connection

Regardless if you use an Android smartphone or iPhone, your device likely has only one USB or lightning port. Having a single port means that a USB tether can only serve an internet connection to one device.

On the other hand, a dedicated personal hotspot device or setting up your smart device as a Wi-Fi hotspot can connect multiple devices by creating a wireless network.

Some Requirements Affect Convenience

We often see a wireless connection as convenient because it gives you flexibility and eliminates the hassle of wires. To use a USB tether, you will need a USB cable. While it’s only a single cable and maybe no hassle at all to some people, others may feel differently.

Faster Internet Speed

For file transfers, USB tethering provides a faster connection between two devices. WiFi does a decent job, with Bluetooth tethering being the slowest of the three linking methods.

When it comes to internet connectivity, a USB connection is slightly faster because the data link is less prone to interference. But often, a slow cellular internet connection is the bottleneck. You can choose either USB or WiFi at your convenience.

What You Must Know

Tethering can be convenient when you need that urgent connection. Still, it’s essential to know that most mobile carriers dislike tethering.

Data tethering is annoying to carriers for a few reasons:

  • It violates terms of use at times based on the subscriber’s data plan.
  • Uninformed users consume mobile bandwidth on data-hungry laptop tasks.
  • Subscribers are not paying for all their connected devices using mobile internet.

At a minimum, tethering may cause data overage fees. In severe cases, it can attract fines from your carrier.

The good news is that since tethering is quite common, most carriers now accommodate subscribers with data plans that support USB tethering option. Go ahead! Connect your computer or iPad, or use your smartphone as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot to share your mobile network connection. Just keep in mind what tasks you’re doing on-the-go.

Mike Chu

Mike is a web developer and content writer living as a digital nomad. With more than 20 years of devops experience, he brings his "programmer with people skills" approach to help explain technology to the average user. Check out his full author bio by clicking here.

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