How to Choose Wi-Fi Only or Wi-Fi + Cellular for Your iPad

By Jesse Feiler

You use Wi-Fi to connect your iPad to a wireless network at home or at locations such as an Internet cafe, a library, a grocery store, or a bus, train, plane, or airport that offers Wi-Fi. This type of network uses short-range radio to connect to the Internet; its range is reasonably limited, so if you leave home or walk out of the coffee shop, you can’t use it anymore. (These limitations may change, however, as some towns are installing community-wide Wi-Fi networks.)

The 3G and 4G-LTE cellular technologies allow an iPad to connect to the Internet via a widespread cellular-phone network. You use it in much the same way that you make calls from just about anywhere with your cellphone. 4G-LTE may not always be available in every location. You can still connect to the Internet via 3G when 4G-LTE service isn’t available, but without the advantage of the super-fast 4G technology.

A Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad costs an additional $130 when compared to the basic Wi-Fi only model, but it also includes GPS (Global Positioning System) service, which pinpoints your location so that you can get more accurate driving directions.

Also, to use your 3G/4G network in the United States, you must pay a monthly fee. The good news is that no carrier requires a long-term contract, which you probably had to have when you bought your cellphone and its service plan. You can pay for a connection during the month you visit your grandkids, for example, and get rid of it when you arrive home.

Features, data allowance (which relates to accessing email or downloading items from the Internet, for example), and prices vary by carrier and could change at any time, so visit each carrier’s website (see the following tip) to see what it offers. Note that if you intend to stream videos (watch them on your iPad from the Internet), you can eat through your data plan allowance quickly.

Go to these links for more information about iPad data plans: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

How do you choose? If you want to wander around the woods or town — or take long drives with your iPad continually connected to the Internet to get step-by-step navigation info from the Maps app — get Wi-Fi + Cellular and pay the price. If you’ll use your iPad mainly at home or via a Wi-Fi hotspot (a location where Wi-Fi access to the Internet is available, such as an Internet cafe), don’t bother with 3G/4G-LTE. Frankly, you can find lots of hotspots at libraries, restaurants, hotels, airports, and more.

If you have a Wi-Fi–only iPad, you can use the hotspot feature on a smartphone, which allows the iPad to use your phone’s 3G or 4G connection to go online if you have a data-use plan that supports hotspot use with your phone service carrier. Check out the features of your phone to turn on the hotspot feature.

If you have CarPlay, chances are you have a mobile hotspot: It’s called your car. Not all car dealers talk about technology in the same way that other people do: You may have to do a bit of poking around to find out what technology is behind “Super Duper Feature” in your car’s advertising and documentation, but chances are you’ve got a mobile hotspot that you can use with your iPad.

If you get a new car with a 2- or 3-month trial period for the built-in car Wi-Fi, use that time to monitor your usage per the instructions from your car dealer. See how much data you’re using and, more important, keep track of what you’ve been doing.

Because 3G and 4G-LTE iPads are also GPS devices, they know where you are and can act as a navigation system to get you from here to there. The Wi-Fi–only model uses a digital compass and triangulation method for locating your current position, which is less accurate; with no constant Internet connection, it won’t help you get around town. If getting accurate directions is one iPad feature that excites you, get 3G/4G-LTE.