How Does Car Wi-Fi Work?

Cars with Wi-Fi allow you to connect to the internet, similar to a smartphone. Learn more about this feature to see if a car with Wi-Fi is right for you.

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Cars with Wi-Fi are highly connected vehicles capable of staying on the internet in a similar way to an Apple iPhone or an Android device. That's because cars with Wi-Fi contain the same kind of antenna as a mobile phone. Plus they offer some unique capabilities, including the potential for in-car internet access.

Just like in a home, office, or coffee shop, a car can broadcast a Wi-Fi signal that enables passengers to connect their devices to access all the internet has to offer — from web browsing, to streaming movies and music on tablets and laptops. In short, cars with Wi-Fi are mobile hot spots.

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about how car Wi-Fi works.

How Does Car Wi-Fi Work?

Cars with built-in Wi-Fi antennas link to the same data networks as major cell phone carriers, albeit with the same signal limitations you may find from your smartphone. Each carrier has its own network, which tends to be broader and faster in highly populated areas than in rural areas where there are fewer potential users.

The service car manufacturers offer varies by mobile wireless technology, so it's worth comparing what kind of antenna is built into your car versus the antenna your cell phone carrier offers. That said, a car's integrated antenna can be larger and thus able to bring in a stronger signal in a fringe area.

Like your home internet, you can select the name of your Wi-Fi network and set your own password to ensure a high level of security.

How Does Car Wi-Fi Work While You're Moving?

From the driver's seat, you won't see any benefit to your car's Wi-Fi antenna once you're underway. This perk is for everyone else since the Wi-Fi hot spot can operate at speed or while at a stop. Passengers can connect their tablets and laptops to surf the internet or even watch streaming programming while out and about.

If you have a cell phone plan with expensive or limited data access, or if you use an employer-provided phone, it can be especially helpful to have Wi-Fi access. You'll be drawing data from your car's plan, rather than from your phone's.

What Other Features Does Car Wi-Fi Include?

Some newer vehicles can connect to your home network to enable you to download software updates and various applications. Those software updates can range from additional infotainment system features to, in some more advanced cars, even more vehicle functions.

Over-the-air updates such as these don't usually cost extra, unless they involve adding extra-cost applications or vehicle features.

Is Car Wi-Fi Expensive?

While some automakers will periodically include Wi-Fi access for an initial trial period, you'll have to pay a monthly fee to access the internet while on-the-go. It's worth asking the car manufacturer's customer service line about any special programs it might currently offer, as sometimes it can be less expensive over the long run to buy a subscription compared to a month-by-month program.

Some automakers even offer single-day or week-by-week access, which is perfect for shorter periods when you know you'll need it. Activating Wi-Fi access for a road trip can keep back-seat passengers entertained. Signing up for a single-day plan when you know you have important meetings outside the office can also allow you to easily stay connected from a parking lot.

When it comes to deciding whether you want a car with Wi-Fi, consider how much you'll use the data. In-car Wi-Fi can be expensive, but it can also be a must-have if you value connectivity while out and about.

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.