What’s the Difference Between the 3G and WiFi Only iPad?

Now that both the WiFi and 3G iPad models are available, we’ve been getting a lot of questions asking the differences between the two iPads. Here are five things you need to know.

1.) The biggest difference between the two is the addition of 3G wireless capabilities which allow you to stay connected to the Internet while on the go. To use the 3G service you’ll need to sign up for one of two iPad data plans. One plan gives you 250MB for $14.99 while the other is an unlimited monthly plan for $29.99. Both plans are limited to domestic US coverage. You have the option to sign-up for international roaming if you need coverage while traveling abroad, but be careful as international roaming fees can be extremely expensive.

Having 3G wireless also leads to the need for two physical differences when compared to WiFi only models:

  • A.) To get a good wireless signal, Apple had to cut out part of the iPad’s aluminum case and replace it with black plastic to improve wireless reception. This change might not look as stylish but makes all the difference in getting a good signal.
  • B.) Like an iPhone, the 3G iPad needs a SIM card to identify the device and connect to a cellular network. The iPad has a small door on the side that pops out to reveal a SIM tray where you can insert the micro SIM.

3G Black Plastic Cover & 3G iPad’s micro SIM slot (image from iFixit’s 3G iPad teardown)

2.) Although both iPad versions support location services, only the 3G model has built-in GPS. Both units are able to determine your location based on WiFi triangulation but the 3G model adds a dedicated Broadcom GPS chip which provides a more accurate location fix.  The built-in GPS is also able to determine your location even when you are out of range of WiFi signals, for example when you are out in a field using your cool new iPad Star Walk app.

3G iPad’s GPS Chip (image from iFixit’s 3G iPad teardown)

3.) In addition to the physical differences, the 3G iPad also has some new software features.  The 3G iPad ads a set of wireless specific features in the iPad’s “Settings” app.  If you tap on “Settings” you’ll see a new item labeled “Cellular Data,” where you can setup your 3G wireless including data plans and enabling international roaming.
3G iPad Cellular Settings and Data Plan Opptions

4.) With 3G you’re able to connect from virtually anywhere but this convenience comes at a cost to the iPad’s battery life.  In our informal battery tests, using 3G had about a 20% impact to battery life.  Our usage went from just over 10 hours to roughly 7 hours and 30 minutes.  In our opinion this is still great battery life for a mobile device and a tradeoff we’re more than happy to make.

5.) The other place you’ll feel the difference between the 3G iPad and the WiFi iPad is in your wallet.  The 3G version will cost you $130 more than a comparably configured WiFi only model. You’ll also need to add the cost of a data plan if you plan to use the 3G option.

Regardless of which iPad you get, we think you’ll love it.  With the iPad’s great accessories and thousands of apps, you’re sure to find something you like and be able to customize it to fit your unique needs.

About Bill: Contact me via Twitter: @PadGadgetBill

  • Doug

    So for those that jumped on the bandwagon and got the wifi version, what options are available to use 3G. I understand sprint has a device you can use and are even marketing it with an ipad case. What other solutions are there?

    • Bill

      @Doug, you definitely have options. There are a number of personal WiFi / Cellular routers on the market from the major wireless carriers. These routers connect to the cellular network and then provide you a WiFi hotspot to connect your iPad. Some of these units even have built in batteries that allow you to stay connected while away from a power source. Check out our Mobile Internet post for a bit more detail.

  • GFL12

    @Doug – I have a Sprint Mifi and I still opted to wait for the 3G iPad. The problem with the Sprint & Verizon Mifi’s (and Sprint’s 4G Overdrive) is that they also have a battery, and therefore a limited run time, you have to remember to bring it with you, it’s one more device to carry, it takes longer to get online, and it more of a “hassle” (if I can say that – power on, wait, make sure the iPad connects to that wireless signal (should automatically if profile saved)), and it MORE EXPENSIVE. Those devices are about $60 to $70/month compared to $30/unlimited data on a 3G iPad. My advice – if it is just for the iPad, and you own a Wifi – dump that thing on eBay, take the very small loss, and buy yourself a 3G…you’ll save yourelf tons of money, and it is a helluva lot more convenient than a separate device!! (I only still have the Mifi because my company pays for it, and I need to bring my full sized laptop on trips where I need connectivity – although the iPad is replacing a lot of that for me as well!)

    • Jaime

      Why not save yourself some more money and get a smartphone that has a mobile hotspot feature. You already pay for the data connection on your smartphone, why not use it more? Verizon for example has the Palm Pre Plus with mobile hotspot for free. Windows based phones can always use WMwifirouter.

      • Benjamin

        With a Verizon phone that can act as a Hotspot, such as the Palm Pre Plus, you still can’t surf the internet and make phone calls at the same time. So iPad (WiFi) + Palm Pre Plus (Hotspot) + voice phone calls simultaneously is a no go.

  • John Hilker

    Does the iPad + 3G require a Data Plan to use its GPS functionality?

    • unknown


      • Christopher Cox

        No. Data signal is not required to use the GPS. The software that uses the GPS may use data. But there are apps that don’t get their maps wirelessly and stores them all on the internal storage. On my iPhone 3G I use Navigon which stores maps locally. I don’t need data to use gps and it’s same with iPad. GPS uses the broadcom chip to get a fix from satellites. Has absolutely nothing to do with your data plan.

        • John Hilker

          Thank you for that explanantion.

  • Thomas

    Concerning the higher power consumption vs. the WiFi version:
    On my iPhone 3GS I hardly ever use 3G. EDGE (available on the T-Mobile network here in Germany) quite often is nearly as fast as 3G browsing the web, especially when browsing pages designed for the iPhone or other mobile devices. And it is using much less power. The iPhone has an option to turn off 3G, leaving celular on. The iPad screen shots on this page do not show that option. Is it missing?

    Another question: I assume that the iPad 3G has the same stamina than the WiFi only model when cellular data is switched off completely. Or do the additional components (like the GPS chip) consume any noticable power?

  • Shehantha

    Lets say i buy my self a IPAD WiFi+3G, but if your not living in the USA, can i get it connected to another countries local 3G network i.e. is there a country lock on the IPAD 3G?

    • Bill

      nope. All the iPads sold by Apple are carrier unlocked.

      • http://www.padgadget.com dag

        Except in Japan 😉

  • john

    which one is better ipad wifi+3g or only wifi?
    can we use ipad wifi+3g like mobile in the all of conutery ?

    • Bill

      really depends on what you’re looking for. If you don’t need Internet service all the time, then the WiFi solution is probably your best bet. The WiFi + 3G iPads are not mobile phones so you can’t make calls like you can with an iPhone. You could install a Voice Over IP app on the iPad to make phone calls but this is not the same as a “normal” mobile phone.

  • denjjam

    what if i get the ipad 3G!!!! can i still use my home internet service.. insted of getting the at&t internet service?????

    • Bill

      The 3G still has built-in WiFi so if you have WiFi at home, your iPad can use it instead of AT&T’s 3G Internet service.

  • Ani

    so if I’m getting this right, if I live outside the US there’s not much point in getting the 3G since I will not be paying for the data plan because I tend to move a lot and therefore I use wireless connection when there’s a wifi hotspot or when at home (still outside the US). is there anything else the 3G might be more useful for? or could I purchase a limited plan that works worldwide?


  • http://www.mkvhelp.org/ mkvhelp

    No, wifi plus 3g is still not available in majority of area.

  • Pam Smith

    Ok,,,, I’m still not clear,,,,,so if i have ATT Fast Access wireless set up at home; I do not need 3G for when I’m out roaming around with my ipad or do I? I can use the wifi at ATT hotspots based on my plan at home, just not the 3g cellular network right? Sorry, I’m a newbie with all of this.

    • Bill

      Yes. If you have WiFi at home, the WiFi only iPad will work fine for you. If you are outside of your house you will then need to go someplace with WiFi (Starbucks, McDonalds, etc) in order to access the Internet. The 3G service is only important if you want to have Internet access at all times instead of relying on public WiFi.

  • Ash

    if i buy an ipad wifi-3g, can i turn it off when i am at home since i have wifi at home to save data? basically turning it on and off.

    • Bill

      Yes, you can turn off 3G at any time. The iPad is also smart enough to automatically connect to a known WiFi network instead of using its 3G capabilities when it’s in range of a WiFi network it has previously connected to.

      • Ash

        So then i dont need to turn it off to save data? or still do.

        • Bill

          Yup, you should not have to worry about turning it off. Your iPad will show if it is connected to WiFi so if you’re worried, just make sure the WiFi icon is on (its in the status bar on top of the iPad screen) and you should be good to go.

  • Ash

    Thank you for your time to answer my questions
    I will comeback if i have more, thank you so much.

  • Regina

    reading your 5 need to know on wifi only vs. 3G and all questioned asked by everyone are all very informative and clear. There is no need for me to ask any questions. Thank you…

  • Regina

    For me to be able to use my current service provider( T-mobile). The iPad must be unlock.


  • Bryan

    If I purchase the wi-fi + 3g and already have the At&t unlimited data plan for my iphone, will the Ipad 3g work off that existing plan or will I have to pay for an additional plan?

  • r0sa(:

    I’m still confuse,
    So can you use your i Phone’s chip to use the Internet when you are not near a Wi-Fi Connection??


  • Chris10

    If I buy a wi fi + 3g model ipad, must I subscribe to a data plan through AT&T or what ever co comes with the phone, in order to use the i-pad…. ?
    I have wireless in my home…could I use the 3 g model ipad without paying for any other dat plan services?
    I see you said you can turn off the 3 g at any time…will the wi-fi work within any hot spot, whether out or in the home… without signing up or paying for a 3 g data  plan… ??

  • Chris10

    If I buy a wi fi + 3g model ipad, must I subscribe to a data plan through AT&T or what ever co comes with the phone, in order to use the i-pad…. ?
    I have wireless in my home…could I use the 3 g model ipad without paying for any other dat plan services?
    I see you said you can turn off the 3 g at any time…will the wi-fi work within any hot spot, whether out or in the home… without signing up or paying for a 3 g data  plan… ??

  • Anonymous

    Keynote and Pages will open and display most Microsoft documents properly and with an VGA display adapter you’ll be able to hook your iPad up to most projectors. WE use this setup all the time when we do presentations.

  • mamo

    how can i know the difference in shape between ipad and ipad2
    do you advice to buy ipad2 insteed

  • Genalynn

    hi, can you please advise me of what ipad should i buy.. i want to have an ipad that has a wi-fi and can put a sim card in it like smart or globe? so that if there is no wi-fi i can still use internet,,, i am planning to buy one.. can you give advice? and how much do you think is the price? thank you…

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/55MLLSTK5A43HOQ4YU3IIQIE5A Allison

    I had the same problem with my new iPad, the wifi range was really poor. A friend suggested trying the “Forget This Network” reset method, which used to work on the older models, but this didn’t improve the wifi range at all. In the end though, I found a couple of reviews of Pong Research’s cases, that convinced me to give it a try. This case is built with an antenna in between layers of the back cover, which redirects and boosts the power of the signal and increases the range of the wifi antenna on the iPad. After getting one, I couldn’t be happier with my new toy! This finally fixes my problem with the new iPad 3 poor wifi reception . Besides that, this also comes with an improved version of the Apple Smart Cover which asides from retaining the sleep/wake function, because of its origami design, you can fold it and stand it in 5 different positions – very cool in my opinion!

  • http://www.facebook.com/nanul.harutyunyan Narine Harutyunyan

    Hi.If I buy an iPad with only wifi, can I anyhow connect or install or turn on 3g?

  • http://www.facebook.com/andreyis.acosta Andry A. Martinez

    Can you tell me how you did it?

  • Charles Biney

    The blootooth on my ipad 4 cannot pair with that of my Xperia solar phone although it can detect it. Does the ipad’s bluetooth only work with apple devices and not any other device?

  • techngorn

    I got one question. Can I make a phone call without WiFi.
    My iPad is 3g.

    • http://www.sacramaniacs.com/ Lory Gil

      Continuity on iOS 8 requires the your iPhone and iPad are on the same Wi-Fi network. It will not work if you are using cellular data on your iPad. That being said, there are apps that will allow you to make a phone call from your iPad without needing Continuity on iOS 8.