Van Life Internet: How to Get WiFi on the Road
Want to work from the road? Learn about vanlife internet and how to stay connected while camping and traveling in remote areas.
One of the most common questions I get about working from the road is about van life internet. How do I get WiFi when traveling, and is it expensive? I usually spend more than half the year on the road living, traveling, and working out of my converted Sprinter van, so staying connected and getting internet on the road is essential to my ability to make money and maintain a career.
While getting off the grid and away from it all is one of the perks of van life and camping, if you’re planning to work from the road, then knowing how to get online when you need to is an absolute necessity. The internet is also a game-changer for easily being able to find parking, places to camp, water, dump stations, laundromats, and directions, as well as things to do.
Luckily, there are a lot of different options for van life internet – including the new Starlink satellite internet – and it’s not as difficult to stay connected as you might think. Whether you are a full-time or part-time van lifer or simply want to take a few weeks off to road trip, these tips for getting WiFi while traveling apply to you.
#1 campsite finder app
Try The Dyrt PRO free for 30 days
Get a FREE 30-Day membership to The Dyrt PRO, one of our favorite apps for finding campsites.
• 5,000+ free camping locations
• 1,000+ campground discount network
• $0 extra booking fees
• Get reservations at sold-out campgrounds, and more
Use the code BEARFOOT to get 30 days free!
Cell Phone Hotspot Options
- Pros: easy to use, requires no additional equipment, most affordable option
- Cons: slow speeds if connecting more than 1 device, drains your phone battery, only works where you have cell signal, speed can be throttled after a certain amount of use
The easiest and most cost-effective method for van life internet access is your cellphone data plan. Smartphones have a hotspot capability that allows you to tether devices to your phone, utilizing the phone’s data plan as the internet for your other devices including your laptop. It doesn’t cost you anything beyond what you normally pay each month and works anywhere you have cell signal.
Depending on your carrier, reception quality varies across the country. Download the OpenSignal app (one of our must-have van life apps!) to see the signal strength of wherever you’re heading. It’s an interactive map that shows you where your carrier has a signal and how strong it is. This is a great tool for remote workers that will help you plan ahead and find an office with a view.
To determine how big of a data plan you need and to find ways to cut back on data usage, you can use an app called My Data Manager to see how much data you use on a daily basis.
If you want a low-cost, reliable mobile carrier for van life, BFT Team Member (and full-time van lifer) Courtney has used Visible on the road for over 2 years and highly recommends their mobile plan. Visible is owned by Verizon and uses their towers, so anytime there is Verizon coverage, Visible should also have coverage. However, when the network is experiencing heavy traffic, your Visible data may be temporarily slowed. After traveling with others with Verizon service, she’s rarely noticed a difference between her cell service and Verizon cell service.
With Visible plans, you get unlimited data, talk, text, & mobile hotspot usage that is not capped. This is how Courtney hotspots to her laptop to work remotely, and she’s able to take occasional Zoom calls and do all computer work easily.
Visible currently offers two plans, both of which require no annual contract:
- Visible: $30/month, unlimited talk/text/data, 5G Nationwide & 4G LTE, unlimited mobile hotspot, unlimited talk & text to Mexico and Canada
- Visible+: $45/month, includes all of the above + their fastest 5G speeds, premium data, international calls & texts, and international data coverage in Mexico & Canada.
As a solo van lifer, switching to Visible was a no-brainer for their budget-friendly plans, and the reliable cell signal, good coverage, and unlimited hot spot is why Courtney has continued to use Visible.
Mobile Hotspot Devices
- Pros: sometimes faster speeds than phone hotspot, ability to have more than one carrier, can connect to multiple devices, some truly unlimited data plans, won’t drain your phone battery
- Cons: requires separate equipment, equipment and plans can be expensive, only works where you have cell signal
A second option for cellular data plans is to purchase a mobile hotspot device. These are small, external devices that work similarly to your phone’s hotspot and are a way to get WiFi when traveling. They can run off the same plan on your cell phone, or you can purchase a separate data plan, depending on your carrier.
The advantage of a separate hotspot is that multiple people can use the hotspot connection at the same time and they don’t drain your phone battery. Here are the most common mobile hot spots:
If your traveling companion is on a different carrier with a weak signal but you both need to get online, a WiFi hotspot will come in handy. Both you and your friend/partner can use the mobile hotspot at the same time, even if they aren’t a customer of the same carrier as you. All you have to do is share the hotspot password, and they can get online with your data plan.
Trying to use your phone as a hotspot for more than one device at a time really slows your signal down – and plans only allow you to connect 1 device via phone hotspot. Using your phone as a hotspot also drains your phone battery pretty quickly. That might not seems like a big deal for sporadic usage, but over time, the more your drain and charge your phone battery, the worse your overall battery life becomes.
*Hotspot trick: Consider buying a mobile hotspot from a different carrier than your phone plan so you can toggle between which carrier has better internet. For example, if you have a Verizon phone plan, buy an AT&T hotspot so you are covered in more places. Sometimes one carrier will have signal and the others won’t.
Starlink Satellite Internet
- Pros: works in areas with zero cell signal, incredibly fast internet speeds, unlimited data, works in Canada and Mexico
- Cons: expensive investment, bulky equipment to store, pulls a lot of power, can’t be used in tree-covered areas, can’t be used while driving
Starlink has opened up a world of possibilities when it comes to remote work for van lifers. Unlike cell phone boosters which require some sort of signal, Starlink allows you to get a fast internet connection in places where you have zero signal on your cell phone. That means you can do Zoom meetings, upload and download large files, or even make WiFi calls far off the grid.
So far in my experience, it is faster than other mobile WiFi options with download speeds over 100mbps. I have the RV plan which isn’t tied to a service address, giving me the flexibility to take the Starlink wherever I want on my travels. I took my Starlink up to Canada, where I’d normally have very limited international data on my phone with my Verizon plan, and was able to get unlimited WiFi using the Starlink all along the Icefields Parkway.
With the RV plan, you can also easily pause your monthly service plan if you aren’t going to be using Starlink for a month or longer. As of October 2022, the RV plan is $135 per month, not including the $600 start-up cost of the Dishy (the satellite dish) and router. It’s definitely the most expensive van life internet option out there, but if you’re someone who relies on fast, reliable internet (or works a 9-5 on the road), Starlink is the way to go and it seems to only be getting better.
A couple things to note about Starlink:
- It requires an AC power source and a decent amount of juice. The power draw averages between 60-70 watts. If you have a really robust power system, you probably won’t notice it much, but if you’re already needing to be careful with your consumption, Starlink might not be your best option, or you’ll need to beef up your power system.
- Starlink doesn’t work if you are surrounded by a lot of trees. The Dishy needs a clear view of the sky without a lot of surrounding obstructions in order to find the satellites. Down in areas like Moab, this isn’t an issue, but if you typically camp deep in the woods, you might be frustrated with Starlink’s performance.
WiFi Signal Boosters
When using your cell phone data plan or a mobile hotspot for van life internet, the thing to keep in mind is that you still need a 3G connection at a minimum in order for it to work. If you have less than 3G, you are pretty much out of luck.
For added signal strength, there are cell signal boosters available for RVs, vans, and cars that boost an existing 1x, 3G, or LTE cell signal. These do not create a signal from nothing, though, so if you’re in a No Signal zone, it won’t do anything for you. It only works if there is some signal, and it will take that signal and boost it a bar or two. So if you are at 3G, it might turn the signal into LTE.
These boosters are a bit pricey, and if you think you’ll need one in order to get better WiFi when traveling, plan in advance, as some require drilling holes through your van or RV roof.
WeBoost by Wilson Electronics is the most popular signal booster that many people have success with. If you’re interested, I suggest you contact the companies directly to ask about which product would be best for your rig before purchasing. Again, some of them require more advanced installs, so you’ll want to consider this as you are building out your van. WiFi Boosters typically cost between $400-600 but have no monthly fees.
Other Options for Van Life Internet Access
Here are a few additional ways to find free WiFi on the road, but keep in mind that public WiFi options are usually much slower and unreliable if you need to do video calls or download/upload large files.
Coffee shops almost always have free WiFi, and it can be fun to check out local coffee shops as you travel through new cities. Chains like Starbucks always have free WiFi and we’ve found their signal strength to be pretty good. However, if you’re frequenting coffee shops for WiFi, the cost adds up pretty quickly so you need to weigh the options between upgrading your data plan and coffee shop expenses.
Libraries are our favorite public option for a reliable, fast, and free connection. You don’t need to be a library card holder in order to use the WiFi, but some have donation boxes if you’d like to support the library. Plus, you might meet some locals from the community which is half the fun of traveling through new places.
Many large big box stores like Walmart, Target, McDonald’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and some grocery stores offer free WiFi for customers. However, the radius can be small (WiFi only IN the store or right by the entrance), and the quality and speed of the internet can be unreliable.
If you use a Planet Fitness membership for showering on the road, most locations also have WiFi.
Tips for Reducing Your Data Usage
Here are a few tips for slowing your data usage and making your high-speed data last longer:
- Turn off the background refresh on your apps. What is background refresh? Let’s take Instagram. If you have background refresh turned ON, even when the app isn’t actively running on your screen, Instagram will be fetching status updates, so as soon as you open the app, you see the latest news. This constant pulling of the latest posts eats through your data. On the iPhone, you can turn off background refresh by going to your general settings.
- Turn on the “Use Less Data” setting on Instagram. Instagram preloads videos and photos before you scroll down, which means you’re consuming data for videos that you might not even want to watch. To prevent this from happening, go to your Instagram settings on your profile page, then scroll down to “Cellular Data Use” and turn on the “Use Less Data” setting.
- Download music and movies only when you’re on WiFi. That means waiting until you’re at a friend’s house, a coffee shop, or the library to download that new Netflix series you’ve been wanting to see.
- Wait to get on WiFi to upload large files online, like a new YouTube video or a bunch of high-res photos to your website. That will help you avoid quickly plowing through your data plan.
- Turn cellular data off on all the apps that you don’t use all the time. You can always turn cellular data on for each app as you use them.
Related blog posts:
- Remote Jobs for Van Lifers
- Visible Wireless Review: Best Cell Phone Carrier for Van Life
- Van Life 101: How To Guide for Living on the Road
- Must-Have Van Life Apps
Got questions about van life internet and how to stay connected while road-tripping? Leave your comments and questions below, and make sure to sign up for our van life newsletter here.
Thank you, Kristen. Excellent information!
T Mobile One is only $75/mo and is truly unlimited (no fine print like Verizon on caps/throttling). Coverage is really good too.
I concur. T Mobile has stepped up in recent years.
Thanks so much for the info! Perfect timing. Heading out in ~ week and trying to figure out my Internet plans. I’m confused about not needing a plan for the Jetpack. Does it use your Unlimited plan? And you don’t have to pay anything extra per month for it or the data?
The jetpack runs off the unlimited plan and doesn’t cost anything extra beyond the cost of the device.
Thanks, this was really helpful, especially the tips at the end! We have one phone on Verizon and one on AT&T and we agree Verizon is the best option. 🙂
Visible wireless – $40 / month with no data limit, no throttling. In my area I get between 8 and 20 Mbps. They use the Verizon network. I’ve not used it outside with ConUS.
Thanks for the tip Tyler! Hey, BTW for some reason I can’t access the original article. I only get the comments. I’d love to see the post itself. Is there a mis-link (I know, made-up word)?
Patti – are you using an ad blocker? For some reason, people with ad blockers have been having that issue. Perhaps you can try turning it off on my website?
Hi Kirsten! Are you using the Data Manager app to track data usage on your phone or you computer? What is your average data usage per day and per month? What types of things do you do on your computer when you’re using data? Thank you!
I have unlimited data on my phone, so I don’t really track usage. I mainly using data to work while I’m on the road.
Elon Musk’s new ISP company, Starlink Wireless might effectively raise the bar to a new apex.
His system is designed with its own blanket of lower-orbit satellites which Elon states will provide a better internet signal, basically anywhere on the planet. It’s $499 for the modem and tripod, then $99/month but if your vanlife travels brought you to a mountain in Tibet, having your own WiFi network would be really, really cool.
It’s not officially launched, beta testing is still happening but with that new tech, imagine a rolling hotspot that never lost coverage, even getting signal where a cell phone, normally would not.
Wow!! The future is bright!!!
Wow, that sounds amazing!
So far you have to be stationary to use it but hopefully they’ll have a mountable unit for RVs and van life.
Per the FAQs at Starlink, the service is assigned to a geographic cell and will not receive internet if the device is moved out of that geographic cell location. Not a mobile service unfortunately.
I signed up for Starlink in January. Paid dn payment. Have received nothing. No way to talk with company in Any firm. Many upset about unfulfilled promises.
Is the MIFI good enough for watching Netflix / HBO etc…?
Hi Brad, Kristen doesn’t use MIFI to stream Netflix because it consumes a lot of data. She downloads Netflix (phone/tablet app) at libraries or other places with free wifi and then she doesn’t need to use her data to watch them
Hey there! I’m currently in a work situation where I have to be on zoom calls for about 6 hours per day. Starting van life, I learned quickly that I go through Verizon’s 15GB on the MiFI within 1 day… wild. Then the slower speed doesn’t support video calls.
Any recommendations on other things to use? Really hoping I can figure this out so I can maintain the job on the road!
You can check out some our other Internet tips in this post https://bearfoottheory.com/van-life-internet-access/. You may find that using public wifi might be your best bet, though.
HI! My question is less about Wifi and more about charging your devices. How do you charge your laptop when not connected to shore power? Thanks!
If you have solar power, you can charge electronics off of your battery bank. You can also charge devices while the vehicle is running.
Pick up a cheap 200 watt “INVERTER” anywhere from an auto supply store like auto zone to Walmart. They plug into you cigarette lighter plug and convert it to a 110v household outlet.
This would be the easiest and simplest way if you’re only looking to charge a tablet cell phone or laptop.
Later on if you find your needle more power, throughout the day you can look into a separate battery and a larger inverter. A larger inverter and a separate battery Bank ( especially with solar ) can power multiple items without the car or generator running.
I saw one Commenter mention Elon’s Sat-based internet that isn’t out yet, but I think there are some currently-available solutions that way worth exploring and mentioning. If you’re in the middle of nowhere with no cell service/library/Starbux and need internet access then Satellite is really only way to get it!
I’ve been using Starlink for over a year. I’ve permanently mounted the dish tripod on the roof of my Sprinter, have a convenient wall mount to store the dish in the van and access the tripod easily through the nearby boat hatch. I recently used it during a three month trip PA to Alaska and return. While eventually Starlink will be available everywhere, that availability is depended upon two factors; 1) Starlink having airwave licensing in each country you visit, and 2) Satellite availability in the area of the sky your dish is able to ‘see’. Today, Starlinmk is licensed in most of Canada, USA, Mexico, Europe, Australia, Chile, and a portion of Brazil. (See map https://www.starlink.com/map). HOWEVER, it is NOT available anywhere above the 57th parallel (which means not currently available in most of Alaska) towards both poles… Over time as coverage of 1) and 2) increases, there will be more availability. A couple of corrections to this Bearfoot Theory article are in order. First, there are folks that use Starlink while their van is in motion. The Tuck’s Truck blog has superb information (google ‘Tuck’s Truck Starlink’ for multiple articles.) Second, I’ve had surprisingly good coverage in areas with lots of big trees around. It simply depends on where the satellites are relative to the dish. Other times, the trees blocked all signal. That said, Starlink has an excellent capability of automatically providing intermittent coverage. So if you are in an area with obstructions, but a satellite periodically comes into the area of the sky you can access, you have coverage at those times. It’s way better than you would think. At $135 a month for roving coverage, it is superior to cell phone coverage, and you can use an Internet-based phone service and potentially ditch your cell phone. (I have photos of my installation that Bearfoot Theory could publish if you would like. email me)
Hi Markus, thanks so much for sharing your Starlink experience with us! It’s really great to hear experience from other users. We would test the Starlink in tree-covered areas and put it away after it had no signal. Good to know that it could have intermittent signal based on the satellites’ position – not great for working, but still good if you just need to check-in. I appreciate you taking the time to leave us a comment – I know this will help our other readers as well.