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Mobile Broadband

Mobile broadband is an internet connection delivered over the mobile phone network. It’s distinct from home broadband, which uses (or at least, in the case of full-fibre connections, runs parallel to) the in-ground landline telephone network, and also from your smartphone’s ‘data’ plan which can only connect your phone to the web (or sometimes, via tethering, create a WiFi network).

Mobile broadband allows you to connect any device—or several, depending on the type of mobile broadband you’re using—to the internet wherever you have 3G or 4G service. Because it’s cordless, it’s completely portable. And that portability is the great appeal of mobile broadband. No more straining over a tiny mobile phone screen during your commute. Crack open your laptop to answer emails on the train, or finish that last episode on Netflix. No more prying cafe WiFi passwords from disgruntled baristas or surrendering your email address to every airport in the world so you can keep update to date on work—or whatever your friends are doing on social media. You can simply create your own WiFi network, anywhere you have phone signal. Commutes, meetings, and conferences are all more productive, or at least entertaining, with a reliable internet service from your mobile broadband system. And not that you should be lugging your laptop on that hike or on holiday, but if you really wanted to you probably could surf the web from a mountainside.

But what you gain in near-omnipresence and flexibility with mobile broadband, you lose in connection speed and download allowances. Mobile broadband will almost always be slower than your home internet connection, unless you’re using standard ADSL for the latter, and strict download allowances—the ones on the market in the UK max out at 300 GB per month and between 15 GB and 30 GB is more standard—make mobile broadband impractical, or potentially exorbitantly expensive, for much video streaming and online gaming. For that reason mobile broadband generally isn’t a practical or economical replacement for a home broadband connection, particularly in a household with many potential users and devices all jockeying for bandwidth. But because it meets such different needs, mobile broadband can be a complementary service to home broadband for people who need internet on the go in addition to in their residences.

Let’s take a closer look at the types of mobile broadband systems on the market, from dongle deals to car WiFi to data-only SIMs; the speeds and download allowances you can expect and what cost; the providers offering mobile broadband in the UK; and ultimately whether a mobile broadband contract could be for you. We’ll discuss providers’ policies on capping and excessive use charges and on unlocking network-locked mobile broadband devices. We’ll also examine tethering, which is effectively recruiting your smartphone to act as a mobile broadband device, and whether you can take your mobile internet connection abroad.

Types and Equipment

1. Dongles

Dongles are thumb-sized devices that plug into the USB port of your computer to connect it to the internet via the mobile network. They’re also known as internet dongles (to distinguish them from digital media and streaming dongles like the Amazon Fire TV stick and Chromecast), USB modems, USB network adaptors, and internet sticks.

The main drawback of dongles is that they can only be used by one device at a time and only a device that has a USB port so won’t work for connecting tablets or iPads to the internet. However, because they run on the battery of your computer, they won’t ever need to be plugged in or charged.

The data allowances available with dongles are more limited than with portable WiFi hotspots, maxing out at 50 GB. The most lenient data allowances will come with the highest monthly bills. Both Vodafone and O2 offer dongles with 50 GB of 4G data for around £30 per month, with startup costs ranging between £0 and £60, depending on contract length. Dongles offering between 2 GB and 3 GB of 4G data can be purchased for around £10 per month, although some upfront costs may apply. Data allowances of between 15 GB and 30 GB are more generous and usually cost between £20 and £25 per month.

Mobile broadband via a dongle can be purchased on contracts ranging from 12 to 24 months and on a rolling, month-by-month basis. If you take out a contract, the dongle is often provided for free or at a steep discount. You’ll face higher upfront costs, including the entire cost of the dongle, if you opt for a ‘no contract’ or PAYG deal. Upfront costs can top £60 for one month, no contract and PAYG deals with the most generous data allowances, but are usually between £15 and £40.

Sometimes higher upfront costs, including for the dongle, are offset by lower monthly bills. It’s important to calculate the total cost of contracts, with setup fees included, when deciding between them.

In general the startup costs of dongle mobile broadband connections is cheaper than for mobile broadband with portable WiFi hotspots, reflecting the lower cost of dongles.

You can also buy a dongle on your own from another source; they generally run between £15 and £50. The benefit of purchasing your own dongle is that it will be unlocked, meaning it can be used on any network. If you already have the dongle, you can then buy a SIM-only mobile broadband deal from any provider, slip in the SIM, and get online, often for a cheaper monthly cost. For more information about SIM-only mobile broadband deals, see below.
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In contrast, almost all dongles provided with a mobile broadband contract will be locked, meaning they can only access your provider’s network. You may be able to unlock the dongle to use it with another network’s SIM however, say if you have a dongle from a previous contract and want to try another providers’ network. For more information about unlocking your dongle or portable hotspot, see the section about unlocking mobile broadband devices below.

2. Portable WiFi hotspot

A portable or mobile WiFi hotspot, also known as a MiFi, pocket hotspot, or mobile WiFi router, enables you to project your own secure WiFi network wherever you have mobile signal.

Unlike a dongle, a portable WiFi hotspot can be used by as many devices as you want. However, bandwidths are still limited and the more devices that hop onto your WiFi network, the slower speeds will be for all of them. With more devices using your mobile broadband, you’ll also burn through your monthly allowance quicker and possibly struggle to keep track of how much you’re using.

Also unlike a dongle, a portable WiFi hotspot will need to be charged. Providers generally advertise battery life of between 4 and 15 hours but, as you’ll know from your other devices, real world performance can vary.

Most mobile broadband providers offer a range of portable WiFi hotspots with different specs—and costs—depending on how many devices you want to hop onto the network, how much data you need, how much battery life you want, how portable you want your connection to be, and ultimately whether you’re using it on the go or as a substitute for a home broadband connection.

EE, for instance, offers three tiers of hotspots. The ultra portable 4GEE WiFi Mini boasts 8 hours of battery life and comes with data packages ranging from 5 GB to 50 GB; it costs £40 upfront on 30-day plans but is thrown in free if you sign up to a 24-month contract. The slightly larger 4GEE WiFI supports boasts 15 hours of battery life and data packages ranging from 5 GB to 50 GB, with upfront costs of £80 on 30-day plans. Both these portable hotspots can connect up to 20 devices and are designed to be lugged around in knapsacks, pulled out on trains and in meetings, settled on cafe tables and on your lap.

The 4GEE home router however is designed be more stationary and to serve as a replacement for a home broadband connection. It comes with data plans ranging from 50 GB to 300 GB and costs £100 when purchased without a standard 18-month contract. It also supports 32 connections. You may struggle to imagine a scenario when you need all 32 (when you invite 31 of your friends around for a dinner party and they spend the entire time on their phones and all have your WiFi password?) but when you consider the number of devices in your home that require an internet connection, from tablets to smart appliances, you could use them up quickly. However, with that many devices sharing a connection, even a 300 GB data plan could be restrictive…

Three has two types of MiFis. One is designed to be used on the go: it weighs just 75g. It comes with 4 hours of battery life and with data allowances ranging between 2GB and 40 GB. The HomeFi, in contrast, is designed to act as a router for a home-based mobile broadband connection. It’s not really portable and comes with Three’s maximum data allowance for mobile broadband: 40 GB per month.

You can also buy your own unlocked mobile hotspot for between £70 and £150, depending on specs and battery power, and plug a data-only mobile broadband SIM from any provider into it and get online that way. Read on for more information about data-only SIM deals…

3. Data-only SIM

If you’ve bought a smartphone outright or unlocked a phone to use it on a different mobile provider, you’ll be familiar with SIM-only mobile deals. A data-only SIM for mobile broadband works similarly only it offers just juicy, juicy internet data and no call time.

SIMs can be used on their own on data-enabled tablets and iPads. (It’s important to remember that not all tablets can use mobile networks. All will offer Wifi connectivity but you’ll often have to pay more to get one that can connect to a mobile network. For example, a standard iPad with 32 GB of storage and WiFi connectivity runs at £319 whereas the same model with “cellular” capabilities costs £449.)

You can also plug the a mobile SIM into a dongle, car WiFi system or portable hotspot if you already have one. If your kit is network locked you’ll have to use a SIM from the network—or attempt to unlock it (see below for more information). If it’s unlocked, any data-only SIM from any provider will work.

Data-only SIMs come with data packages ranging from just 250 MB to 50 GB and can be purchased on a 30-day basis or on 12, 18, or 24-month contracts, depending on the provider. You can also purchase preloaded data-only SIMS from some providers, for PAYG mobile broadband. The four mobile networks—EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone—offer data-only standalone SIMs and you can also snag them from giffgaff, which operates over O2’s mobile network, and from the self-described “ethical” mobile phone provider, The People’s Operator, which uses Three’s Network.

You may be able plug a SIM that offers calling and texting in addition into a tablet or dongle or MiFi, provided it fits, but you won’t be able to use the call functionality and it will likely be cheaper to find a SIM that offers just data.

4. Data-only SIM and tablet bundles

If you don’t already have a data-enabled tablet or iPad you can buy one bundled with a data-only SIM on a contract from a mobile provider, much like you’d purchase a smartphone through a mobile phone contract. A tablet and SIM bundle could be an accessible way of purchasing a device tablet without needing to lay out £300 to £500 at once.

EE offers a range of iPads, Samsung Galaxy Tabs, Huawei MediaPads, Lenovo Tabs, and an Alcatel Pixi with various allowances on month to month, 12-month and 24-month contracts. Prices range from as little as £13 per month (with a £50 upfront fee) for an 8-inch Huawei Media Pad with 2 GB of data per month to more than £50 for iPads with 20 GB of data.

But much like with a smartphone, you’ll end up paying more for the tablet in the long term if you buy it via a contract than if you paid for it upfront. For example, EE offers a standard cellular enabled iPad with 2GB of data (a fairly tiny allowance!) for £34 per month for 24 months with £50 upfront. You’ll end up paying £900 for the tablet and its data over the course of 2 years, when purchasing the tablet upfront would have cost £449 and 24 months of 5 GB data via a SIM (EE seemingly doesn’t offer standalone SIMs with just 2 GB of data) would cost £12 per month or £288 over the year. That’s £737 over two years and you get more data. That said, if you desperately want a glitzy iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab and don’t have the savings, a tablet and mobile broadband SIM bundle could be a way of spreading the cost.

5. Car WiFi

Technically, you can use portable WiFi hotspots to create a WiFi network in your car but their batteries will dwindle over long trips. Traditional dongles will connect just one device and only one with a USB port. A designated car WiFi system is a dongle that plugs into a 12V adaptor and then directly into the dashboard of your vehicle, and creates a WiFi network, transforming your car into a roving internet cafe.

Obviously you shouldn’t use this connectivity to idly surf the web while behind the wheel but a reliable internet connection could entertain passengers on long (or short) rides—or at least ensure you internet radio doesn’t cut out. Imagine lulling a toddler to sleep with streamed episodes of Peppa Pig or passing a grouchy “are we there yet” teenager a tablet with a full internet connection. Imagine distracting a backseat driver just with the password to your car’s WiFi and then being able to download a fresh podcast while still barrelling down on the motorway.

EE seems to be the only provider currently offering a car dongle and data bundle. Their car WiFi device is the Buzzard 2. It plugs into the dashboard, lights up so it can be used at night, and also functions as a USB charger, so you don’t have to unplug the Buzzard to access your 12V connector and get juice on your phone. The device costs £59.99 upfront. You can then either get data via a SIM with an allowance you pay for monthly—with allowances ranging from 5 GB to 50 GB—or on a PAYG basis with preloaded SIMs: 2 GB to be used over 30 days or 10 GB or 20 GB to be used over 90 days. If you’re embarking on a long trip, a one-off preloaded SIM may be the ay to go. You just load up the Buzzard with data before a long car ride and enjoy the eerie silence of thoroughly distracted passengers.

You can also buy an unlocked car dongle—one from Huawei retails for £75—and plug a data-only SIM from any mobile broadband provider into it.

A specific car WiFi system can be more expensive than other types of mobile broadband. It’s also dependent on mobile service, which can be patchy on Britain’s roadways. Nearly half of Britain’s A and B roads have no 4G coverage, and an episode of Peppa Pig or Top Gear suddenly cutting out in the backseat when you’re miles from your destination could cause more problems than it’s worth…

Features of Mobile Broadband

Type Data Allowances Contracts PAYG available? Cost on contract Cost if purchased separately, unlocked Devices Multiple Users? Need to be charged? Additional equipment
Dongle 2 GB to 50 GB monthly, 12 month, 24 months Yes £8 to £30 per month £15 to £50 laptop with USB no no no
Mobile WiFi hotspot 2 GB to 300 GB monthly, 12 month, 24 months Yes £13 to £90 per month £70 to £150 any yes yes, generally 4 to 15 hours of battery life no
data-only SIM 250 MB to 50 GB monthly, 12 month, 24 months Yes £6 to £40 per month n/a data-enabled tablet (unless plugged into a dongle or Mobile WiFi hotspot) no no tablet, dongle, or portable hotspot
Car WiFi 2 GB to 20 GB no Yes see cost of data-only SIMs from EE around £75 any but needs to be plugged into a car via a 12V adaptor yes no 12V connector, car

Providers and the Types of Mobile Broadband Offered

Provider Dongles Mobile WiFi devices Data-only SIM Data-only SIM and Tablet Bundles Car WiFi
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Speeds

Connection speeds are more variable on mobile broadband than on fixed line broadband; that’s why mobile broadband generally won’t be advertised with “Mbps” (megabits per second) speeds. Providers will simply tout their 4G connections (and sometimes, 3G connections).

4G has maximum theoretical connection speeds of 150 Mbps downstream and 50 Mpbs upstream, but under real conditions speeds average 20 Mbps downstream and 10 Mbps upstream. At these speeds, mobile broadband is faster than standard ADSL broadband (which has download speeds that average between 10 and 11 Mbps) but significantly slower than ‘superfast’ fibre connections, which start at speeds around 36 Mbps.

However, 4G still isn’t available everywhere on all networks in the UK, and if you can’t access 4G, your mobile broadband connection will be hampered by the even slower speeds of 3G.

The networks of different providers will boast different speeds for 4G and 3G as well, and different availability of 4G connections. EE currently offers both the fastest 4G and 3G speeds as well as the greatest 4G availability. Three’s connections keep pace, but its 4G availability significantly lags. Meanwhile, O2 has the slowest network speeds but 4G availability approaching 75%.

The following table shows average 4G and 3G download speeds achieved by the UK’s four mobile networks as well as the availability of 4G on the network between December 2017 and February 2018, data gathered by Open Signal.

Network 4G download speed Availability of 4G* 3G download speed
EE 29.02 Mbps 78.46% 7.78 Mbps
O2 15.16 Mbps 74.17% 4.76 Mbps
Three 22.55 Mbps 57.14% 6.95 Mbps
Vodafone 20.07 Mbps 71.35% 5.24 Mbps

*proportion of time users have the 4G network available to them, not a reflection of geographic or population coverage

A report from Speed Test on the speeds achieved by mobile networks in quarters 3 and 4 of 2017 found that nationwide leader EE offered the top 4G speeds in Belfast, Edinburgh, Leeds, London Manchester, and Sheffield but that Vodafone was ahead in Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, and Liverpool.

The speeds you attain on your mobile broadband connection will also be dependent on strength of signal, which will be influenced geographic location and also things like the local presence of tall buildings and thick walls; the time of day; and the contention ratio—the number of people in your area also using the network.

Most mobile broadband contracts today offer 4G data but Virgin continues to offer some discount deals that operate exclusively over the 3G network. If possible, seek out a 4G mobile broadband connection: it will guarantee you the best speeds wherever possible. Wherever 4G isn’t available, you’ll simply use the 3G network. If you have an older dongle or portable hotspot, it may only be capable of connecting to the 3G network and if you want to access 4G speeds you’ll have to upgrade your kit. Luckily, most multi-month mobile broadband contracts come with free or heavily discounted equipment.

The fifth-generation mobile network, or 5G, will someday provide speeds that lap in even those of today’s full-fibre fixed line connections. Estimates put the theoretical maximum download speed supported by 5G at between 1 Gigabit per second and 10 Gbps. British 5G pathfinder EE attained a sustained download speed of 2.8 Gbps in laboratory testing in the autumn of 2017. Unfortunately, mobile networks with those speeds only exist in labs. They won’t be coming to your home and local haunts during the term of your mobile broadband contract and even if they were, your 4G-enabled dongle or portable hotspot wouldn’t be able to tap into them.

5G, with faster speeds, fatter bandwidths, and less latency, may someday make mobile broadband a viable alternative to fixed line internet, but that’s all in the future. Check back in a few years.

For more information about internet speed, including how much speed you need to comfortably do your favourite activities on the web, including streaming HD video and gaming, and to determine whether 4G speeds will be sufficient for you, check out our comprehensive guide to broadband speeds.

Network Coverage

You can only connect to mobile broadband if you have signal, meaning network coverage—both overall and of 4G—is vitally important when deciding between providers. The UK has yet to attain full 4G or even mobile service from all providers in all places: Ofcom figures from June 2017 show that data services are available from all providers in just 85% of indoor premises, 63% of the landmass, just 58% of A and B roads (but on the bright side, 91% of motorways!). Coverage is more restricted in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales than in England. Geographic coverage for data in Scotland stands at just 31%, due to the challenges of and lack of economic incentives for providing service in remote, mountainous and sparsely populated areas.

O2 has the most comprehensive indoor data coverage in the UK, at 97%, while Vodafone and EE aren’t far behind, with 96% and 95% of premises served, respectively. Three lags significantly behind with just 89% of premises covered. EE, O2, and Vodafone all boast over three-quarters geographic coverage, while Three falls 5% behind.

Data Coverage by Network

Network Indoor coverage, % of premises Outdoor geographic coverage, % of landmass
EE 95% 77%
O2 97% 77%
Three 89% 72%
Vodafone 96% 77%

Source: Ofcom, data from June 2017

Remember that data coverage includes both 4G and 3G networks, the latter of which supports significantly slower connections.

Coverage by network will vary regionally and even within your neighbourhood. You should use a coverage map to see what signal strength you can expect from the various networks in your area before committing to a mobile broadband provider and deal.

However, as you know from your mobile phone and those pesky dead zones in your bathroom and local supermarket, connection strength and speeds can also be affected by other factors that a map can’t account for, including the thickness of walls and the presence of wires and appliances creating electromagnetic interference. If you have a mobile phone that uses the network you’re considering for a mobile broadband connection, you should be able to easily test signal strength in your favourite places: your home, along your commute, at your neighbourhood cafe. Even if you don’t have a mobile phone deal with one of the four main providers—EE, O2, Three and Vodafone—you’ll be using one of their networks. Your smartphone should tell you which network you’re using or you can consult a list showing which network your provider is ‘piggy backing’ onto. If you’re not already using the mobile network you’re considering for your mobile broadband, it might be worth checking with a friend who does: do they get good mobile signal in your house? At the pub down the road? Your closest train station?

It will be worth selecting the provider which boasts the best coverage in the places you expect you’ll use your mobile broadband device, even though it might not be the cheapest deal on the market. Why pay for a service you can’t use—or can only use at glacial speeds—when and where you want it?

Latency

Mobile broadband also has higher latency than fixed line broadband. Latency, also called ping, is a measure of time it takes a packet of data to travel to a third party server and back. In the UK, fixed line ADSL connections usually have latency below 30 milliseconds and fibre connections, below 20 ms.

The latency of mobile networks will be higher: between 40 ms and 50 ms for 4G and 65 ms to 80 ms for 3G. EE and Vodafone perform the best among the UK’s mobile networks, offering the lowest latency on both generations of network. Three’s 4G network has high latency and O2’s 3G network performs the worst.

The following chart shows the average latency of the 4G and 3G networks of UK’s mobile providers, data collected by Open Signal between December 2017 and February 2018.

Provider Latency of 4G Network Latency of 3G Network
EE 40.35 ms 65.8 ms
O2 42.84 ms 80.64 ms
Three 47.23 ms 71.91 ms
Vodafone 40.6 ms 66.81 ms

It’s just milliseconds, you say. I probably won’t even notice. It is true that any latency is generally only noticeable in internet browsing at levels above 150 ms.

However, latency has a significant impact on whether an internet connection is usable for online gaming, living video streaming, and video calling. For example, you generally need a latency of less than 60 ms to play online games comfortably and a latency below 20 ms would be ideal. Video calling will have an annoying lag with latency levels above 100 ms.

These activities are data-intensive and you shouldn’t be doing them very frequently via mobile broadband, unless you want to exhaust your allowance, but the high latencies of the 4G and especially 3G networks could make them frustrating and glitchy.

Download Allowances

Today with nearly all home broadband deals coming with unlimited data and Three and Virgin offering unlimited data for smartphones, data allowances are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. However, they’re very much in force in the mobile broadband market. There are currently no mobile broadband deals offering unlimited data in the UK. The most generous—with mobile WiFi routers from EE—offer 300 GB of data and can cost up to £90 per month with startup costs exceeding £100.

Allowances between 15 GB and 30 GB are more standard. These can support 1 to 2 hours of web browsing every day, 1 to 2 hour of video streaming a week, and downloading 1 to 2 standard definition films a month.

Provider Minimum Mobile Broadband Data Allowance Maximum Mobile Broadband Data Allowance
EE 200 MB 300 GB
O2 300 MB 50 GB
Three 2 GB 40 GB
Virgin Mobile 500 GB 3 GB
Vodafone 2 GB 50 GB

It’s important to note that mobile broadband allowances are not necessarily caps. Your provider will alert you, generally via SMS or email, as you near and as you exceed your monthly data allowance; some dongles even come with lights that flash to warn you.

However, your provider won’t necessarily cut you off and you can face steep charges for data use outside of your allowance. Vodafone, for instance, offers voluntary capping but if you don’t instate it and you exceed your allowance, you’ll be charge £6.50 per 250 MB used. For context: just one hour of watching standard definition YouTube videos uses 350 MB of data—and could cost you more than £6.50 in extra fees from Vodafone.

You can use your provider’s online customer portal or mobile app to keep track of your data consumption so you can avoid these charges and ensure you have enough data to last all month long.

If you’ve run out of data before the month is up and your service is capped, you’re not necessarily disconnected until your allowance resets. Most providers allow pay monthly mobile broadband subscribers to top up their data allowances with ‘bolt ons.’ However, data per GB will be more expensive on these PAYG bolt-ons. If you’re regularly exhausting your allowance you should examine your internet use and see where you can save gigabytes—such as by disabling video autoplay on social media sites, limiting streaming or only streaming video in standard definition—or look into upgrading to a mobile broadband contract with a more generous allowance.

The table below shows the capping policies and excessive use fees levied by the main mobile broadband providers.

Provider Capped? Excessive Use Charge Alerts
EE Yes n/a texts when you’ve used 80% and then 100% of your allowance
O2 Yes n/a texts when you’ve used 80% and then 100% of your allowance
Three capped for MiFi, not for HomeFi 1p per MB with default £75 cap on extra charges per month text to device when at 100% of your allowance
Virgin Mobile No £1 per GB outside of allowance texts when you’ve reached 75%, 90%, and 100% of your allowance
Vodafone voluntary capping, customer discretion £6.50 per 250 MB outside of allowance text when you “near the end of your allowance and again when you’ve reached your allowance”

Out of Allowance Policies and Charges by Provider

For more information about data allowances, including how much browsing, streaming, and gaming certain allowances will accommodate how much data is eaten by typical online activities, and to determine how much data you should budget for your mobile broadband package, and how to minimise your data usage to stay within that budget, check out our full guide to download allowances.

Cost

The cost of a mobile broadband connection varies widely, depending on what equipment you’re using and how much data you’re allowed. The cheapest data-only SIMs, offering 2 GB or less, start for as little as £6 to £10 per month with no upfront costs. You can also buy preloaded SIMs with data allowances for as little as £1—for 200 MB via EE. On the other end of the spectrum, mobile broadband via hotspots that are supposed to replace home routers can cost as much as £90 per month, with startup costs around £100.

Ultimately, the cost of mobile broadband will depend on whether you already own the mobile equipment or tablet and are simply feeding SIMs of data (either pay monthly with data allowances or PAYG) into it or you’re paying for it via the contract. Paying for the device will be more expensive than simply taking out a contract for data via a SIM.

In general, mobile broadband on multi-month contracts and even on 30-day, rolling contracts will be cheaper per GB of data than PAYG mobile broadband.

Contract Length

Unlike home broadband, a market where multi-month contracts predominate, mobile broadband can be purchased from any provider on rolling, 30-day basis and from most on pa ay as you go basis. In fact, the lack of contract and easy exits is one of mobile broadband’s great appeals. That flexibility makes mobile broadband particularly attractive to people who don’t want to commit to 12 or 24 months of bills, either because they aren’t planning on staying in their current residence long, because they’re only searching for for internet for a holiday home they only visit a few months a year, or simply because they don’t like the commitment.

However, you’ll often save money, both monthly and in upfront costs, by opting for a multi-month contract, particularly if you’re purchasing a dongle, mobile hotspot, or car WIFI system from the provider. Even data-on SIMS can be cheaper when purchased on contracts: EE’s 50 GB SIM, its most generous, costs £45 per month when purchased on a month-to-month basis but just £40 per month when bought on a 12-month contract or £39 per month when purchased with a commitment of 24 months.

However, because speeds are more variable and connections less reliable with mobile broadband than with fixed line broadband and also dependent on local network coverage, you may want to experiment with a 30-day contract before committing to a longer, cheaper deal.

Access to WiFi Hotspots

Many mobile providers offer mobile broadband customers free access to WiFi hotspots in city centres, shops, and transport hubs. Turning off your dongle and hopping onto a WiFi hotspot can be a way of limiting your data use and staying within your mobile broadband allowance.

EE: BT recently bought EE so EE mobile broadband packages generally include access to BT OpenZone’s 5,000,000 hotspots. There’s a 3 GB monthly limit on your use of the hotspots but that’s completely separate from your monthly mobile broadband allowance.

O2: Customers have access to thousands of high-speed O2 WiFi hotspots, which are usually based in high street shops and restaurants.

Vodafone: Some Vodafone plans offer access to BT’s WiFi hotspots, although with a data limit.

Providers

1. EE

EE boasts the fastest, most reliable and wide-reaching 4G network in Britain and the widest menu of mobile broadband options, offering portable hotspots, car WiFi dongles, and data-only SIMs with allowances ranging from 200 MB to 300 GB and prices from £1 upfront to £90 per month.

Mobile broadband via EE, branded 4GEE WiFI, can be bought on contract—either 12 or 24 month or 30-day, rolling—with monthly allowances ranging from 5 GB (with data-only SIMs) to 300 GB (with EE’s home router).

Just like with EE’s smartphones, there are two tiers of pay monthly plans, based on data allowance size: Max and Essentials. Mobile broadband Max plans, which start with data allowances exceeding 30 GB for £28 per month, guarantee you access to the full speed potential of the fastest 4G network in the UK. Speeds on Essentials plans are capped at 60 Mbps on 4G. Max plans also offer free roaming in more destinations around the world. For more information, see the section about using mobile broadband abroad.

EE offers three mobile broadband hotspots, two designed for portable use and one designed to replace a router for a home connection, with data plans ranging from 50 GB to 300 GB. EE is also currently the only provider offering a car WiFi dongle, the Buzzard, which costs £59.99 upfront.

EE also offers tablet and SIM contract bundles, including on iPads and Samsung Galaxy tablets. Prices start as low as £13 per month but can exceed £50 per month for iPads on healthy 20 GB data allowances.

For PAYG customers, EE offers preloaded data-only SIMS, with packages ranging from 200 MB (for just £1) to 20 GB (for £60), which you then have either 30 or 90 days to use.

2. O2

O2 offers dongles, mobile hotspots, and data-only SIMs and on a network that’s reliable, connecting to 4G three-quarters of the time, but only half the speed of EE’s.

O2 offers two dongles, both made by Huawei and with 4G capabilities. Pay a little extra upfront on contract deals (£13 instead of £12) and you can get a dongle that also creates a WiFi network, overcoming the single-user limitation of the dongle. O2 also offers mobile hotspots. All their dongles and almost all of their hotspots can be purchased on pay-monthly contracts or upfront and then loaded with PAYG data.

You can buy preloaded SIMs for as little as £3 a pop (for 300 MB you have to eat within 24 hours, add an extra £2 and you have all month). You an also buy 12 GB and 20 GB preloaded SIMs you have a year to use, for £60 and £75 respectively, but at between £5 and £3.75 per GB of data, it’s an expensive way to juice up your device. (In contract, O2’s mid-range pay-monthly SIM offers 18 GB of data for £21 per month, or £1.17 per GB.)

O2 offers pay-monthly SIMs with allowances ranging from 6 GB to 50 GB and prices from £12 to £32 a month. You can bundle these pay-monthly SIMs with tablets, including iPads and Samsung Galaxy Tabs.

O2 throws in some appealing freebies for new customers, including six months of Netflix on all mobile broadband tariffs with more than 18 GB of data (and you’ll need that much data—and then some—to stream Netflix). They also throw in a 12-month subscription to Microsoft Office 365 for anyone purchasing a mobile broadband device or tablet with more than 3 GB of data, so you really can use your dongle to make that PowerPoint for work on the train.

3. Three

Three has the most limited network coverage in the UK, particularly for 4G, but if you live in an area with a strong Three signal, the 4G speeds you get will nearly rival those offered by EE. Three is known for its unlimited smartphone data packages; unfortunately, mobile broadband data allowances from the provider are more limited, topping out at just 40 GB, the lowest maximum allowance of the four main providers.

Three’s mobile broadband offerings include mobile hotspots, data SIMs, and tablet and SIM bundles. Its Huawei-made mobile WiFi device can be purchased for as little as £10 per month, with £39 in upfront fees for the equipment. You can get up to 20 GB of data on 30-day rolling contracts and up to 40 GB on 12- or 24-month contracts. The HomeFi system is designed to serve an entire household, offering 40 GB of data—significantly less than EE’s mobile home router, which can offer 300 GB, but for only between £27 to £29 per month, depending on contract length.

Three offers standalone SIMs, both on a pay-monthly and PAYG basis. You can buy between 2GB and 40 GB of data on 30-day, 12- and 24-month contracts. Three’s data allowances are limited so these SIM plans won’t be good for heavy data users but other users can snag great bargains, including 10 GB for just £8 per month.

You can buy preloaded SIMs with a maximum of 24 GB of data and a minimum of 1 GB. You’ll have between 30 days and 24 months, depending on package size, to use that data. You can also bundle pay-monthly SIMs with a range of tablets, including iPads and Samsung Galaxy Tabs.

As a bonus, all Three’s mobile broadband devices are automatically unlocked, meaning you can easily swap a SIM from another provider into it.

4. Virgin

Virgin is unique in mobile broadband providers in that it’s not a main mobile player with its own network but instead piggybacks off EE’s network. That means a Virgin Media mobile broadband deal will give you the zippy 4G speeds of EE and EE’s great coverage and 4G availability.

Virgin offers mobile broadband through dongles. Download allowances are particularly strict but prices are low to match. Virgin offers two tiers of mobile broadband via dongle: with download allowances of 1 GB for £8.17 per month and with download allowances of 3 GB or £12.26. These deals can be bought on 2-month, rolling contracts, with an additional upfront fee of £24.99 for Virgin’s dongle (or ‘USB modem’ as they call it) or on 18-month contracts with the dongle thrown in for free.

Existing Virgin customers will rack up a 20% discount, meaning Virgin mobile broadband could be a handy complement to your Virgin home connection and for just around an extra tenner a month.

Be wary of those tiny download allowances, however. Just an hour of watching Netflix can eat 1 GB of data, or 3 GB if you plump for HD. That’s your entire mobile broadband usage gone in an hour—and you paid £8 to £12 for it. At that price, you could have gone to the cinema to see that film—the whole thing too—rather than watching it on your laptop on the train.

Virgin itself says that its 1 GB packages support 30 hours of web browsing, sending 700 emails, downloading 36 music tracks and 30 two minute videos. The 3 GB packages allowances 100 hours of web browsing, sending 2,000 emails, downloading 200 music tracks and 100 two minute videos. Exceed those limits, however, and it could be costly. Usage that exceeds your monthly allowance will be charged Virgin’s “out-of-bundle rate” of £1 per GB.

Virgin offers some of these deal as 3G only; they may be cheaper but you’ll be stuck on the 3G network. Even on EE’s network, download speeds on 3G lag below 8 Mbps. At that pace, it can take 40 seconds to download a YouTube video.

Virgin doesn’t offer data-only SIMS but you may be able to use SIMs with data and calling in tablets and mobile broadband devices, provided they fit. You just you won’t actually be able to call on the tablet or dongle. Data allowances on Virgin Mobile SIMs range from just 500 MB (for just £6 per month) to 40 GB a month for £23 per month and can be purchased on 12-month contracts. Virgin also offers pay as you go SIMs with 3G data, along with calling and texting. You’ll pay £10 for 2 GB of data, £15 for 6 GB, and £20 for 10 GB.

5. Vodafone

Vodafone has been venturing into the home broadband market lately but they haven’t neglected their mobile broadband offers in the race to provide fibre. Vodafone offers dongles, mobile WiFi devices, data-only SIMs, and SIM and tablet bundles. All can be purchased either via a pay-monthly tariff or on a pay as you go basis. Data allowances range from 2 GB to 50 GB and Vodafone usually throws the device in for free if you’re taking out a contract.

Two of Vodafone’s dongles only support 3G data: they’re slightly cheaper per month than the 4G dongle (starting at £11 rather than £15) but speeds on 3G will be significantly slower.

Vodafone offers the cheapest and most expansive roaming for mobile broadband, giving you access to your data allowance in 152 countries—48 of them for free and an additional 102 for just £6 extra per day.

Unlocking Dongles and Portable Hotspots and Switching Mobile Broadband Networks

Say you have a dongle or portable hotspot from a previous mobile broadband tariff but you want to switch providers, possibly to take advantage of faster 4G speeds or better coverage in your area. It will be cheaper to simply buy data-only SIMs from a provider—either pay-monthly with an allowance or preloaded—than to take out a contract with a dongle or portable hotspot included. However, your dongle or portable hotspot will often be locked to the network of the provider that supplied it, meaning you can only use their mobile network and buy data from them.

Luckily, you can unlock network-locked mobile broadband devices much like you unlock smartphones. It’s perfectly legal; some mobile providers will even do it for you, although they may charge a fee. High street phone repair shops can also unlock devices for you. Techies can also go the DIY route. There are plenty of tutorials and codes online for unlocking devices, but tread with caution. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can easily mess up the device.

Additionally, your mobile broadband device may not actually be locked to the network that provided it. None of Three’s mobile broadband devices are locked, for instance. How do you tell? Plug in a SIM from a different provider—EE provides preloaded SIMs with 250 MB of data for just £1, if you don’t have one handy—and see if it works. You can also contact the network and simply ask if the device is unlocked. Make sure you actually can use a different network before signing up to a 24-month contract for data-only SIMs with another provider, however.

You can always purchase unlocked dongles and portable hotspots from retailers like Amazon and Currys and dodge the mobile operators and the unlocking problem all together.

Below is a table of the unlocking policies of the major mobile networks in the UK. It’s important to note that these policies are for smartphones. The policies for mobile broadband devices are harder to find and may not be the same.

Provider Devices Locked? Cost to Unlock Time Requirements
EE Yes £8.99 for pay monthly customers in contract, free if out of contract or for PAYG customers Pay monthly customers an unlock devices only having it for after 6 months; PAYG customers can unlock devices immediately
O2 Yes free for pay monthly and PAYG customers none
Three No n/a n/a
Virgin Mobile Pay monthly devices unlocked; PAYG devices locked £15.32; free if you’ve owned the device for 12 months Unlocked for free if you’ve had the device for 12 months
Vodafone Yes free, if you meet requirements PAYG customers can unlock it only after having it for 30 days; pay monthly customers need to have paid three monthly bills

Tethering with a Mobile Phone

If you only occasionally need internet on the go, you may be able to share your smartphone’s mobile internet connection with another device, a process called tethering. It can serve as an ad hoc mobile broadband network, in a pinch.

Almost all smartphones, including all Apple and Android phones, have the ability to host WiFi networks that other devices can then hop onto. However, not all providers and networks allow tethering. If they do, they will most likely cap the amount of data you can use when tethering, either by assigning a specific limit to data consumed by tethering or by including tethering in your monthly allowance.

Until very recently there was no unlimited tethering options available in the UK, likely to keep users from using it as a replacement for a home broadband connection. The only provider of unlimited mobile data, Three, caps customers on its “all you can eat” tariffs to 30 GB of tethering per month.

However, as of April 2018, Virgin is allowing tethering on its plans, including on its Truly Unlimited tariff with unlimited data. Unfortunately, only Virgin broadband customers can buy the plan, so you can’t really substitute tethering for a home broadband connection.

Giffgaff allows tethering on its unlimited data plans but speeds are restricted to a dial up-worthy 384kbps after 9 GB a month.

Below we’ve collected a list of the tethering policies and data allowances from the UK’s mobile providers.

Mobile Provider Tethering Allowed? Policy Maximum Tethering Allowance for Pay Monthly with Phone Maximum Tethering Allowance, SIM-only pay monthly PAYG Tethering Available?
BT Mobile Yes Tethering included in data allowance 40 GB

(maximum monthly data allowance)

40 GB

(maximum monthly data allowance on pay monthly SIMs)

No
EE Yes Tethering included in monthly data allowance 100 GB

(maximum monthly data allowance)

40 GB

(maximum monthly data allowance on pay monthly SIMs)

Yes, on PAYG sims. bundles are 16 GB
Giffgaff Yes Tethering included in monthly data allowance; on ‘always on’ plans speeds reduced to 384kbps once you reach 9GB per month 20 GB or unlimited on ‘always’ on plans but at very reduced speeds after 9GB 20 GB or unlimited on ‘always’ on plans but at very reduced speeds after 9GB yes 5p per MB
O2 Yes Tethering included in monthly data allowance. They actively discourage it and warns that it will suck down your data allowance but can’t do anything to stop you within the allowance 50 GB (maximum monthly data allowance) 40 GB (maximum monthly data allowance on pay monthly SIMs) yes, on preloaded SIMs with 20 GB or classic PAYG or 1p per MB
Plusnet Mobile Yes Tethering included in monthly data allowance 4 GB (8GB for Plusnet broadband customers) 4 GB (8GB for Plusnet broadband customers) No
Sky Mobile Yes Tethering included in monthly data allowance 10 GB (maximum monthly data allowance) 10 GB (maximum monthly data allowance on pay monthly SIMs) No
Tesco Mobile Yes Tethering included in monthly data allowance 50 GB

(maximum monthly data allowance)

50 GB Yes, maximum data bundle 8GB
Three Yes Tethering included in monthly data allowance; separate tethering allowance for ‘all you can eat’ customers on unlimited data plans 30 GB tethering on unlimited data plans 30 GB tethering on unlimited data plans No
Virgin Mobile Yes Allowed again after April 2018. Tethering included in monthly data allowance unlimited on Virgin Truly Unlimited plan but only for Virgin broadband customers unlimited on Virgin Truly Unlimited plan but only for Virgin broadband customers Yes, maximum bundles 10 GB. Outside of allowances, £2 for 200MB of 3G data per day and above that £2 per every additional 200 MB.
Vodafone Yes Tethering included in monthly data allowance 60 GB

(maximum monthly data allowance)

40 GB

(maximum monthly data allowance on pay monthly SIMs)

Theoretically. Classic PAYG for 20p per 5 MB of data within first 500 MB; preloaded SIMs with maximum of 24 B

Be aware of mobile data allowances. They’re easy to burn through when you’re connecting one or more devices to them, including laptops which are loading more data-heavy desktop version of websites and are more appealing to stream video on. Your provider will usually charge you standard excessive usage fees for data consumed outside of your allowance via tethering.

Additionally, using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot will drain its battery quickly. Make sure you have your charger handy if you’re planning on using it to tether for more than an hour or two.

Can I Use Mobile Broadband as a Substitute for Home Broadband?

Due to the slower and less reliable speeds, strict data allowances, and higher cost per GB of data, mobile broadband generally isn’t an economical or sensible substitute for fixed line broadband in your home, except in special circumstances. Slow speeds and limited bandwidths will make it especially impractical for households with many people, or devices, sharing an internet connection. Mobile broadband data allowances can generally support very little video streaming or gaming, making mobile broadband unserviceable—or with excessive usage charges, potentially very costly—for people who rely on their internet rather than a TV or gaming console for entertainment.

However, if you live alone and only use the internet on one device and rarely stream video or music or download files, a mobile broadband deal could be a substitute for home broadband. But with standard ADSL fixed-line broadband packages starting at just £18 per month from budget providers, mobile broadband packages are unlikely to be cheaper, unless you opt for a very strict data budget.

Of course, cost isn’t the only consideration, and the rolling, one-month or even PAYG connections available with mobile broadband may be attractive to people who have less stable lifestyles, move frequently, are afraid a bad credit score will disqualify them from contract broadband (although this isn’t necessarily the case and you should read our guide to getting broadband with bad credit), or simply don’t want the commitment of a broadband contract.

Additionally, in some very rural areas where in ground phone infrastructure is lacking or speeds on ADSL and FTTC broadband eroded by too much by the distance of homes from street cabinets, mobile broadband can be a viable alternative to home broadband, provided your mobile coverage is good. For more information see our guide to getting broadband in rural areas.

If you do want to use mobile broadband as your home internet connection, consider one of the tariffs and devices designed for this use. EE offers a 4G home router that’s less portable than its other hotspots, needs to be plugged in, and can be connected to 32 devices at once. It comes with data allowances ranging from 50 GB for £45 per month to 300 GB for £90 per month. It offers EE’s superfast 4G speeds so could feasibly rival a fibre home connection but at one and a half to three times the monthly price. A 4GEE antenna attached to your home could boast the speeds and reliability of the connection. It costs an extra £100 and needs to be installed but could be a great option if you’re relying on mobile broadband and have great 4G signal outdoors but variable service indoors—such as if you live in a stone cottage.

Three also offers a mobile device designed for home use, the HomeFi, for cheaper than EE does but with significantly lower data allowances: just 40 GB, although Three emphasises that you can buy add-ons to boost it for a given month.

If you’re still considering cutting your landline and going fully mobile at home, see our article comparing and contrasting fixed line and mobile broadband connections.

“Home” Mobile Broadband through Relish

If you live in Central London or Swindon you can possibly get online with wireless internet start-up Relish’s paradoxical-sounding home mobile broadband. That’s right: this a home broadband system with a router and a WiFi network, for your personal residence, but that uses the mobile phone network and not in-ground wires and cables. It’s not portable but Relish still comes with many of the other perks of mobile broadband, including no line rental, no installation, and same day activation. But like the vast majority of home broadband connections—and unlike any true mobile broadband deals available in the UK—it gives you unlimited downloads.

Relish connections boast speeds that average 20 Mbps downstream in London and 30 Mbps downstream in Swindon—not quite or just barely ‘superfast’ (defined as greater than 24 Mbps) but faster than standard ADSL connections (which average speeds of 10 or 11 Mbps). At £22 per month, the price is always right between ADSL and entry level fibre connections from budget home broadband providers like TalkTalk and Plusnet. And like mobile broadband, Relish’s ‘home mobile broadband’ can be purchased on a rolling, month-to-month basis although you’ll pay more upfront for the privilege: £50, compared to zero setup charges for customers on 12-month contracts. Ensure you get good mobile phone service in all rooms of your home before signing up, however.

Using Mobile Broadband Abroad

When you’re travelling abroad and turn on your mobile broadband device, be it your dongle, portable hotspot, or data-enabled tablet, if roaming is enabled on the device it will automatically connect to the strongest local network. However in most of the world, you could be charged steep roaming charges for any data burned on this connection.

You may still want to take your mobile broadband device along on your trip, at least to entertain you in the airport, if not to guiltily log into your work email. Hotels and resorts will generally offer WiFi for guests, although you may have to pay, and many tourist attractions such as museums offer WiFi too, so you won’t be completely off the digital map while on holiday. But public hotspots have their limitations and sometimes you just need to binge an entire TV series and upload 500 photos of your meals and sun-tanned legs to social media and it would be inappropriate to do so in the Louvre.

As of June 2017, mobile roaming charges have been abolished for the 28 countries of the EU and the three additional countries in the European Economic Area—Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway—following an agreement between the EU and the EEA. You can therefore generally use your mobile broadband device when travelling in Europe much as you use it in the UK, drawing from the same data allowance.

There are a few catches, however, enabled by the ‘fair use’ clause in the law. Customers with unlimited or generous data allowances may only be allowed to use part of their allowance while in the EU and need to pay fees to use the rest. For example, EE only allows customers to use 15 GB of their UK data for no extra charge. Blow past that and you’ll have to purchase an expensive roaming bolt-on, 1 GB for £6. So it probably won’t be a great idea to take your 4GEE home router with its 300 GB per month data allowance to Spain with you.

The following table lists the limits and extra charges mobile providers which offer mobile broadband are imposing on this ‘free’ EU roaming. It’s important to note that these are the limits for smartphone mobile data; providers may have different policies for mobile data consumed using a mobile broadband device. When it doubt, contract the provider.

EU ‘Free’ Roaming Policies by Mobile Provider

When you’re travelling abroad and turn on your mobile broadband device, be it your dongle, portable hotspot, or data-enabled tablet, if roaming is enabled on the device it will automatically connect to the strongest local network. However in most of the world, you could be charged steep roaming charges for any data burned on this connection.

You may still want to take your mobile broadband device along on your trip, at least to entertain you in the airport, if not to guiltily log into your work email. Hotels and resorts will generally offer WiFi for guests, although you may have to pay, and many tourist attractions such as museums offer WiFi too, so you won’t be completely off the digital map while on holiday. But public hotspots have their limitations and sometimes you just need to binge an entire TV series and upload 500 photos of your meals and sun-tanned legs to social media and it would be inappropriate to do so in the Louvre.

As of June 2017, mobile roaming charges have been abolished for the 28 countries of the EU and the three additional countries in the European Economic Area—Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway—following an agreement between the EU and the EEA. You can therefore generally use your mobile broadband device when travelling in Europe much as you use it in the UK, drawing from the same data allowance.

There are a few catches, however, enabled by the ‘fair use’ clause in the law. Customers with unlimited or generous data allowances may only be allowed to use part of their allowance while in the EU and need to pay fees to use the rest. For example, EE only allows customers to use 15 GB of their UK data for no extra charge. Blow past that and you’ll have to purchase an expensive roaming bolt-on, 1 GB for £6. So it probably won’t be a great idea to take your 4GEE home router with its 300 GB per month data allowance to Spain with you.

The following table lists the limits and extra charges mobile providers which offer mobile broadband are imposing on this ‘free’ EU roaming. It’s important to note that these are the limits for smartphone mobile data; providers may have different policies for mobile data consumed using a mobile broadband device. When it doubt, contract the provider.

Provider Amount of your data allowance you can use with no extra charge/‘Fair Use’ limit Charges for use beyond that
EE 15 GB (no roaming on 4GEE Home plans) £6 per GB
O2 all of your allowance, no fair use limit n/a
Three 13 GB for pay monthly customers, 12 GB for PAYG 1 p per MB
Virgin Mobile* Varies depending on tariff. Virgin Mobile says it’s a “simple calculation”: “twice your monthly airtime cost (before VAT) divided by the current EU data wholesale capped rate.” EU data wholesale capped rate is currently £5.28. Feel free to figure that out! £6.30 per GB
Vodafone all of your allowance, no fair use limit n/a

If you want to take your dongle or MiFi elsewhere in the world, you’ll likely have to pay extra. Providers often offer temporarily roaming data packages that can defray some of these costs.

Here are the outside of EU roaming policies and charges from the mobile broadband providers:

1. EE

If you’re on a 4GEE Max plan—generally mobile broadband with data allowances above 30 GB—you get free, up to speed roaming (under the 15 GB fair use limit) in five countries in addition to those in the EU and EEA: Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United States.

All customers can buy Travel Data Passes to use in the 125 networks in 76 countries EE is partnered with.

  • daily allowance of 500 MB for £4.80 a day in the US and Canada
  • daily allowance of 500 MB of data for £6 a day in nine countries: Australia, China, India, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
  • daily allowance of 150 MB of data for £6 a day in 45 countries including Hong Kong, Jamaica, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, and Singapore.

You generally can’t roam on EE outside of your free roaming destinations without buying one of these passes.

4GEE Home customers are excluded from all roaming privileges. Presumably because EE has managed to class the service as home broadband, although it uses a mobile network, and you’re not supposed to lug the router around the world.

2. O2

O2 used to not allow mobile broadband consumers to use their data allowances outside of the UK. That’s changed and O2 now has one of the most generous policies for EU roaming: you can use your full monthly data allowance in Europe, for no extra cost.

Data roaming costs outside of the EU vary by country but can be up to £7.20 per MB, but you can buy bolt-ons for travel to select countries to defray the cost.

O2 apparently doesn’t allow roaming for PAYG mobile broadband customers.

3. Three

Use a Three mobile broadband device outside of the EU and your use won’t come out of your UK data allowance. You’ll be charged standard roaming rates, which range from £3 to £6 per MB, unless you’re in one of Three’s 71 “Go Roam” destinations. In these destinations, which range from Australia to Uruguay to Vietnam, you get the first 12 GB of your allowance to use just like you do at home—for no extra cost.

Even if you’re outside of the “Go Roam” destination and eating data at £6 per MB, you don’t have to be too concerned about shock bills. Three has set a worldwide data roaming limit of £42.50 per month, so you won’t obliviously use thousands of pounds of data overseas. They’ll text you when you’ve reached 80% and 95% of this limit.

4. Virgin Mobile

Use a Three mobile broadband device outside of the EU and your use won’t come out of your UK data allowance. You’ll be charged standard roaming rates, which range from £3 to £6 per MB, unless you’re in one of Three’s 71 “Go Roam” destinations. In these destinations, which range from Australia to Uruguay to Vietnam, you get the first 12 GB of your allowance to use just like you do at home—for no extra cost.

Even if you’re outside of the “Go Roam” destination and eating data at £6 per MB, you don’t have to be too concerned about shock bills. Three has set a worldwide data roaming limit of £42.50 per month, so you won’t obliviously use thousands of pounds of data overseas. They’ll text you when you’ve reached 80% and 95% of this limit.

5. Vodafone

Pay monthly customers can access Vodafone’s extra generous Global Roaming plan, which lets you use your home data allowance to 152 countries—48 of them for no extra charge and an additional 104 for just £6 per day. Go further and you’ll pay standard roaming rates.

PAYG mobile broadband customers are out of luck, unfortunately, and won’t be able to use their devices abroad.

These policies evolve and are often dependent on your tariff so make sure to double check your specific provider’s roaming terms and charges carefully before you throw your MiFi into your hand luggage or start streaming Netflix in Nepal. It’s not unheard of for Brits to unknowingly rack up thousands of pounds of data charges while travelling abroad, and it’s even easier to do that on a dongle than a smartphone.

To prevent you from inadvertently blowing hundreds of pounds while refreshing Facebook abroad, some mobile broadband devices have roaming disabled. This is true in the case of Three’s Mobile WiFi devices; you’ll have to manually activate roaming on the device to use it abroad.

Roaming speeds will often be much slower than those you get via the mobile network in the UK, which may help you consume less data and spend less money.

Important note: not all mobile broadband devices from the UK will be able to connect to mobile networks abroad because the mobile networks operate on different frequencies than the ones in the UK. This is often the case in the US, unfortunately. If you want internet during a long trip in the United States, you might want to consider buying a dongle or portable hotspot and data on a 30-day contract from a local provider.

Pros and Cons Mobile Broadband

Pros of Mobile Broadband

  • portability: get online wherever you have mobile signal
  • flexibility: short-term contracts widely available, some PAYG deals also available
  • doesn’t require a phone line and associated line rental charges
  • no installation required: can be used the same day it’s purchased, with little setup and no engineering visit
  • can be taken almost anywhere, including the EU, for no extra charge. For an additional fee, can provide you internet all the world.
  • generally low upfront costs, particularly if you’re using a dongle
  • mobile broadband and tablet bundles can be a way of spreading out the cost of an iPad or tablet over a contract term
  • may be available at decent speeds in some rural areas where in-ground telephone line infrastructure is lacking or your home is so far from a telephone exchange speeds of standard home broadband are too slow
  • no line rental charges, no need to maintain a landline

Cons of Mobile Broadband

  • slow internet speeds, especially if you have to rely on 3G; less reliable internet
  • strict download allowances, making it unusable for much video streaming and gaming; costly fees for use outside of the allowance
  • high latency makes it impractical for online gaming and live streaming
  • higher cost per GB of data than fixed line broadband
  • dongles can only be used by one device (and it needs to have a USB port); the WiFi networks created by portable hotspots can be used by multiple devices but already slow speeds will slow even further as more devices hop onboard a mobile connection
  • portable WiFi hotspots need to be charged

Bottom Line on Mobile Broadband Providers

If you want hefty data allowances go with EE.
If you want fast mobile broadband… EE.
If you want a dongle… O2.
If you want access to WiFi hotspots…. EE.
If you want a dongle…. O2 or Vodafone
If you want freebies or bonuses with your mobile broadband… O2.
If you want pay-monthly SIMs with average data allowance… Three.
If you want preloaded SIMs… EE.
If you want to use different providers’ SIMs in your device… Three.
If you want to use tethering…. EE or Vodafone; Virgin Mobile if you have Virgin home broadband
If you want to take your mobile broadband device on holiday in the EU … O2 or Vodafone
If you want to take your mobile broadband on holiday elsewhere… Vodafone
If you want ‘home’ mobile broadband… EE or Relish, if you live in Central London or Swindon.