USB vs. Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi: The best way to tether to your iPhone or iPad!

Tethering lets you share the data connection from your iPhone or cellular iPad with your Mac, PC, Wi-Fi tablet, and other devices. There are three ways to tether to your iPhone or iPad and they are USB (via Lightning or Dock cable), Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi (personal hotspot). But which one gives you the fastest speed? Which one gives you the most reliable connection? Which one saves you the most battery life? Which is the best way to tether to your iPhone and iPad?

Note: Some carriers require an additional data plan for tethering. Also, data speeds can and will vary by carrier and location.

iPhone and iPad tethering test methodology

I spent the last few days testing out all three tethering methods in different locations and on two different Macs. I used my iPhone 5s and my iPad Air running on AT&T LTE in order to perform all my tests.

iPhone and iPad tethering speed tests

I used Speedtest.net on my Macs at least three times during each type of tethering. Here are the average speeds I got using each of the three different tethering methods.

  • Wi-Fi tethering - 13.62 mbps download, 2.56 mbps upload, with an average ping of 115 ms
  • USB tethering - 20 mbps download, 4.76 mbps upload, with an average ping of 95 ms
  • Bluetooth tethering - 1.6 mbps download, 0.65 mbps download, with an average ping of 152 ms

As you can see from the numbers above, there are some pretty big differences. But don't go drawing conclusions just yet as we have to take battery life into account too. Typically Bluetooth eats the least amount of battery while Wi-Fi tethering eats the most. USB tethering doesn't eat any since you can charge your device through your computer while tethering.

Who should use USB tethering?

USB tethering is not only the fastest method, it's the most reliable and results in zero battery drain on your iPhone or iPad. It does, however, drain your Mac or PC battery to keep it charged. You'll also only be able to tether one device at a time with USB tethering, and you'll need your Lightning (or Dock) cable.

If you only need to tether one device and you want the fastest, most reliable connection possible, then you want USB tethering.

Who should use Bluetooth tethering?

Running your Bluetooth radio is technically less of a battery drain then running your Wi-Fi radio, however "race-to-sleep" (how fast data can be transferred and the radio shut down to conserve power) means the slower speed often cancels out the battery savings. Also, BT tethering is also only one device at a time.

If you forgot your Lightning (or Dock) cable and you can't use Wi-Fi, then Bluetooth tethering is there for you.

Who should use Wi-Fi tethering?

Wi-Fi tethering (personal hotspot) is convenient and works with multiple devices at once, up to ten for some carriers. Just turn on Personal Hotspot and start connecting. It may not be as fast or reliable as USB tethering, but if you have good, solid service you may not notice much of a difference. It does, however, drain battery faster so you'll have to keep that in mind.

If your Lightning (or Dock) cable is unavailable or inconvenient, or if you want to tether multiple devices, you want Wi-Fi tethering.

What's your favorite method to tether from the iPhone or iPad?

If you tether your Mac or PC to your iPhone or iPad regularly, what tethering methods do you prefer and why? Are your speeds worse, better, or similar to mine? Let me know in the comments!

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Allyson Kazmucha

Senior editor for iMore. I can take apart an iPhone in less than 6 minutes. I also like coffee and Harry Potter more than anyone really should.

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Reader comments

USB vs. Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi: The best way to tether to your iPhone or iPad!

12 Comments

Good article but it doesn't solve any problems for me as, like most folks who use tethering, I only use it to tether my iPad to my iPhone so "USB tethering" is not available. I have wished for a long time now that Apple made a double ended lightning cable that would work this way but ...

My experience as someone who has tethered their iPad to the iPhone for years now, is that Wi-fi does give you a faster speed, but it is unreliable and awkward to connect. I see dozens of people on the bus or the train every day, like myself, holding the iPad in one hand and the iPhone in the other, fiddling with the settings for literally minutes before they will eventually connect, even though they have connected hundreds of times before and it really should be auto-discovery by now.

I find that keeping Bluetooth on however makes the connection happen faster and more reliably, even though the actual tethering is being done over Wi-Fi. The bluetooth seems (anecdotally of course) to make the connection happen sooner and for the devices to more likely be aware of each other.

Overall though, if I had that double ended lightning cable and if it worked, I would use that. I know it's old-school, but the horrible truth is that the wireless tethering, despite the miracle it is, simply doesn't work reliably enough or quickly enough.

I always tether iPad to iPhone via Bluetooth. I do it because the connection doesn't time out. The only time I use wifi tethering is if I need a faster connection for downloading a large file.

This comparison would benefit from a battery usage test. Compare tethering battery vs. performance when browsing web, watching Netflix, idling, file transfers etc. In my own experience, race to sleep doesn't even come close to making up the gap in power consumption. WiFi tethering chews through battery way faster than BT.

I tether my AT&T iPhone 5 on a regular basis to both my iPad 4 and my 2011 MacBook Air. I agree with all of your statements except one. While tethering to my MacBook over USB I also have the option of tethering to my iPad over WiFi. AT&T limits tethering to a total of 5 devices using any or all methods. The one big annoyance that USB tethering seems to eliminate is having to be in the Personal Hotspot Settings screen to establish a connection as is required when using WiFi. When returning to my computer after leaving with my phone all I have to so is plug the phone in to the lightning connector to immediately reconnect computer.

A great case for USB or Bluetooth is also when you're in an institution that employs hotspot blocking. My wife's school district's wifi network actively searches for "unauthorized" hotspots and will render them useless. Connecting via USB or Bluetooth skirts this issue.

Why is it NOT possible to tether an iPhone 5S to a cellular iPad 3 via Bluetooth, unlike Wi-Fi? Why does the same iPad tether to the same iPhone either via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth?

An important difference for me is that I can use bluetooth tethering of my laptop to my phone without taking the phone out of my pocket. I used to do WiFi until someone pointed that out to me. I use tethering a lot while on public transport, and being able to set it up in 5 seconds instead of 35 makes a difference. The slower network speed can be a feature too: it gives me time to switch off dropbox and google drive syncing before my monthly cap has been reached.

When I used to have only my phone before cable internet I used to have my wife's computer plugged in via USB then use the bluetooth to connect to my computer so we could both share the connection, it wasn't bad, basically high speed DSL. And did I mention this was on an iphone 4?

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Between iDevices, I prefer BT.
Wifi is way to power consuming.
I use an "old" iPhone 4 with an int'l data plan for my data needs on trips abroad and it works fine and connects way quicker.

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I did prefer to share my data plan between my iPhone, iPad and a usb that connects to internet to my Mac. So they are connected to the same 3GB plan (it would use the same if I tether it) and my battery stays okay.

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