Although every year Apple launches several different models of iPads, we can generally divide them into two major categories: Wi-Fi-only or cellular-enabled.
A cellular-enabled iPad means the iPad has either a SIM slot or an embedded SIM (eSIM) just like the iPhone, and so it can connect to the internet via the cellular data network when no Wi-Fi is available and requires a data plan. On the other hand, a Wi-Fi-only iPad can only connect to the internet when there’s a Wi-Fi network available.
Thus, if you plan to travel a lot with your iPad, then getting a cellular iPad can provide more convenience.
However, if you are using a cellular-enabled iPad, you’ll also need a special data plan for iPad to ensure cost-efficiency and maximize its use, and here we will discuss how to choose between different iPad data plans available in the market.
Why do you need a data plan on your iPad?
First, even if you own a cellular-enabled iPad, you won’t be able to connect to the cellular network without a proper data plan in place.
The main benefit here is fairly obvious: you can always connect to the internet with your cellular data plan even when there’s no Wi-Fi network available. The downside? Obviously, you’ll need to pay the monthly fee of the iPad data plan, and you’ll also need to consider the fact that a cellular-enabled iPad costs roughly $130 more than a Wi-Fi-only iPad.
It’s worth noting, however, that there are reliable iPad data plans that are also affordable. Truphone’s iPad data plans, for example, have global coverage in more than 48 countries while only costing as low as $5/month for 1GB of data.
However, there’s a key question to answer here: most of us who own an iPad also own at least one smartphone with an active data plan, and we can easily tether the internet connection from the phone to the iPad. On an iPhone, for example, we can do this via the Personal Hotspot feature. So, do you still need a dedicated iPad data plan?
In such scenarios, there are two things you might want to consider:
First, is that tethering an internet connection via a mobile hotspot will cause a battery drain and will often cause the device to run hot. So, it might not be a viable long-term option for both your devices if you plan to do this often (i.e. if you travel a lot to areas without reliable Wi-Fi).
Second, is that without a proper data plan, the cellular iPad won’t be able to make accurate GPS triangulation and instead will use Wi-Fi trilateration to estimate the current location of the iPad, which is less accurate than actual GPS. So, you won’t be able to make the most of the cellular iPad’s A-GPS chip for features like Find My iPad, Google Maps, and others.
So, the key question for you is whether these advantages can justify the price difference of a cellular iPad and the monthly fee of your iPad data plan.
How to choose between different iPad data plans?
With various different iPad data plans available in the market, choosing one that can fit your exact needs and budget can be quite difficult. Yet, there are some key factors to consider that will help you choose one carrier over the other:
This one is fairly obvious: how much data you need in any given month. Remember that this is not your primary phone so it’s likely you won’t need as much data on your iPad unless you have very specific needs. If you only need, for example, 1GB of data per month on your iPad, then don’t spend too much on an ‘unlimited’ data plan.
As a general rule of thumb, you can watch about 6.5 hours worth of streaming video on a 1GB plan.
Also, consider the following:
- Personal hotspot allowance: different plans might limit tethering your connection to other devices, so if you plan to use this feature a lot, you should choose one with enough allowance.
- Wi-Fi availability: you will typically use Wi-Fi in areas with one, so consider how often you will use your iPad in areas without Wi-Fi to figure out your exact needs for data.
The details of your contract
Check every detail on the contract. Some iPad data plans will claim to offer an unlimited data plan while in truth it will rate-limit/throttle the data after you consume a certain amount of data.
Some others might offer a ‘free’ international roaming but will only provide very slow connection speed while you are abroad so you’ll need to pay more (basically pay the roaming fee) to get the normal speed.
So, check the fine print carefully, including whether there’s an early termination penalty for the data plan preventing you from canceling from this iPad data plan.
Data coverage area
You should check whether the iPad data plan provides reliable coverage in your area (and the area you frequent). Typically the network provider will provide a coverage map so you can check whether there’s any coverage in your area and whether it’s reliable.
Setting up and buying a data plan for your cellular iPad is fairly simple, but before anything else, you might want to check which iPad model you have to check whether you’d need to purchase a physical SIM card before you can use the iPad data plans.
Newer cellular data iPads feature integrated Apple SIM or eSIM, which allows us to switch between different carriers without swapping out any physical SIM card. This is useful if you like to travel abroad, so you don’t have to switch to different prepaid cards when you move between countries.