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These days, having reliable internet access is pretty essential, and that includes while you’re in a car. Fortunately, car Wi-Fi is becoming more common, but it’s not always clear how it works, how fast it is, or whether you (and your passengers) can use it when the car is off.

Many new vehicles come with in-car Wi-Fi, but it’s usually just a free trial to show owners how great the feature is. Once the trial expires, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth keeping. Plus, most electric vehicles rely on that connection for software updates, fancy features, and more. It’s not just for streaming Netflix on a kids tablet.

So whether you’re considering enabling Car Wi-Fi on your new ride, or just looking for more information, here’s a brief explanation of how Car Wi-Fi works.

How does car Wi-Fi work?

A phone connected to the vehicle's Wi-Fi
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If your new car has Wi-Fi or you recently added Internet to your vehicle, you’re probably wondering how it works. Contrary to popular belief, car Wi-Fi systems use the same connections as your phone, which is cellular connectivity.

Even OnStar, which uses global positioning systems (GPS) satellite technology to track your vehicle, relies on cell phone carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon for in-car Wi-Fi. Maps and navigation often use GPS, while streaming movies, TV, or music relies on a 3G or 4G LTE mobile data connection. Whether you’ve added Wi-Fi yourself or the car has included it, you’ll connect to the internet the same way your phone does.

Your car essentially has a chip set similar to what’s inside a smartphone, and that modem chip communicates and interacts with cell phone towers across the United States. You or your passengers can connect to car Wi-Fi the same way you connect to Wi-Fi at home, a hotel, or a nearby coffee shop.

You likely use a dedicated Internet Service Provider (ISP) at home, often with hardwired cables and a Wi-Fi router. Your laptop connects to that signal. A vehicle connects to the Internet through a mobile data connection and then transmits the mobile data signal to nearby devices using your car as a mobile hotspot. See the difference?

On a smartphone, tablet, or infotainment system, search for and find the name of your vehicle’s Wi-Fi network, enter a password, and you’re all set. Your car’s dashboard needs to be connected independently, but you’ll need to connect other devices, such as a tablet or laptop, manually.

Many newer Ford and Tesla vehicles have cellular connectivity for Wi-Fi, but can also connect to nearby hotspots around town from AT&T, Comcast, or other partners and providers. But that’s your vehicle connecting to nearby wireless hotspots without using its built-in connection.

Does Wi-Fi work when your car is off?

A vehicle dashboard that offers updates via Wi-Fi
Chesky /

If you’re wondering if in-car Wi-Fi works when the car is off, we’ve got you covered, too. This question can be misleading as it varies by vehicle manufacturer. For the most part, though, the car’s Wi-Fi works as long as you have the key in the position IN position.

Your car doesn’t have to be on with the engine running to have access to the Internet, just like it doesn’t have to be on for the radio to turn on. Wi-Fi modems in the car will turn on when you turn the key and use battery power.

Remember that you don’t want to sit for a long time and use a car radio or Wi-Fi when the vehicle isn’t running, as it will eventually drain the battery.

How far away does the Wi-Fi work from the car?

Tesla interior and display

Another myth is that car Wi-Fi works anywhere, even in the wild, where a smartphone won’t be able to connect or make phone calls. A member of my family recently bought a new Chevy truck and hoped it would have Internet access while we were out camping, but for most embedded systems, that’s not the case.

While you they can buy a fancy satellite internet plan for your vehicle, almost every automaker in the United States provides Wi-Fi (connectivity for cars) through AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, or other mobile internet providers and their cell towers . This means that if you’re in a place where a phone doesn’t work, your car’s internet won’t work either.

How about using your car’s Wi-Fi from a distance, like in the park? You can get the Internet from your vehicle while sitting in the back seat or on a nearby park bench, as long as it’s not too far away. Most car internet systems can transmit a Wi-Fi signal up to 30 feet away.

Think of it this way. You can probably access your home Wi-Fi from the backyard or garage, but connectivity drops if you stray too far. Many car Wi-Fi systems with hotspot functionality work the same way. If the car is on and you’ve activated the hotspot, you can connect even when you’re not in the car, just don’t stray too far from the car.

If you’ve been debating whether or not you should get in-car Wi-Fi, know that it’s worth it. Once you realize how useful it can be for everyday driving, road trips, transmission, scheduling service appointments, or maintenance, you’ll never want to be without it.

As long as you know what to expect and where the car’s Wi-Fi and hotspots will work, you’ll be fine.