If you want web access on the go, there are thousands of free, legal wi-fi hotspots around the UK. And for the more avid user, 3G mobile broadband packages give you access at a decent price (or possibly even free).
This is a detailed guide to getting internet access while out and about, including info on wireless hotspots and the cheapest mobile broadband packages.
In this guide
There are two kinds of al fresco web access: wireless internet and mobile broadband.
Wireless internet. Now more commonly known as wi-fi, this allows your computer to connect to a broadband connection through the air, without wires, provided you're within range of the access point. This is the most MoneySaving way to get online, as there are 100s of free hotspots.
Mobile broadband. This uses your network provider's 3G mobile signal in the air to connect you anywhere. It requires a special piece of hardware called a 'mobile broadband dongle'.
Here's a rundown of the different options, with solutions to suit you:
Occasional access, on the go?
Free Wi-fi hotspots
Reliable access, on the go?
Home access without a landline?
Contract mobile broadband
Wireless internet (or wi-fi) allows your computer to send and receive data through thin air, without being tied to a computer or a router.
Almost all new computers and laptops have wireless capability built-in, so you can access wi-fi hotspots and start browsing immediately. If they don't, most can be upgraded with a USB wireless network adaptor (which cost as little as £5 - find one using the MegaShopBot).
What is a wi-fi hotspot?
A wi-fi hotspot is simply an area in which you can get a wireless network signal. There are thousands spanning the country, many of which are free.
Hotspots are great because you'll get a decent, reliable signal, and you won't eat into your mobile broadband/phone download limit. In any built-up area, it's unlikely you'll be far from free wireless access.
Warning! Do check it's free wireless, and you're not just using someone's private connection (it's illegal to use non-public services without permission).
First off, if you're in town, you can find free, no-password-necessary wireless access at these high street mainstays (as well as local coffee shops, etc).
Though the wi-fi is free, you may have to buy something or sit and eat in the restaurants/pubs. Also, some may only give you access for a limited time.
O2 hosts thousands of wi-fi hotspots around the UK. You DON'T need to be an O2 customer to access them. It's the largest free wireless network, allowing free wi-fi access in many of the chains above.
Considering how large the network is, it's well worth registering in advance. Then set up your phone to automatically connect to the wi-fi and it'll pick up the signal when you're in an O2 area. Or use the O2 hotspot finder to find a free hotspot near you.
Depending who offers your home broadband and/or mobile phone service, you may be able to get free access to wireless hotspots around the UK. Here's some more info:
Anyone with BT broadband, or with an EE/T-Mobile/Orange mobile can get free, unlimited internet access to 5 million BT Wi-fi hotspots (depending on your tariff). BT Wi-fi and broadband customers can also access the Fon network (more info below).
To sign up you'll need your BT internet email and account password. Check BT Wi-fi hotspot coverage with the BT Wi-fi Directory.
One of the fastest growing wi-fi networks, The Cloud has thousands of hotspots all over the UK. The Cloud is owned by BSkyB, so Sky Broadband Unlimited, Sky Connect or Sky Fibre customers can get free, unlimited access to all hotspots (see Sky's website). The Cloud also has a deal with Nintendo to provide free wireless access to all 3DS users.
Most Cloud hotspots are free to use, and you'll always be told when you log in if it isn't. Some hotspots will only give 15 minutes free, and others may charge from the moment you log on (for these ones you'll need to set up an account).
If you download The Cloud's hotspot finder app, you'll be able to access the hotspot location map even when not online, as it stores a version of the map on your device.
Plan your route before you go. If you've web access and a few spare minutes at home, there's a host of sites which list wireless hotspots, and a few tools to help you find them. One of the most popular (and hence up-to-date), is JiWire, which allows you to type in a postcode or place name and search for local spots amongst the 186,000 or so on its database.
One way to seriously boost the number of wireless networks available to you is to sign up to the Fon scheme, which has over a million members worldwide.
The idea's simple. You buy a special wireless router (£34) which splits your connection in two - one secure part for you, and one open part for other members of the Fon community, or "Foneros". In exchange, they offer you use of the open part of their own wireless networks, wherever they are in the world.
To work out if you'll benefit from joining, check out Fon's maps, which show hotspot locations worldwide. Given the cost of roaming in some places, it may well be worth the one-off £34 spend for continuous access to Fon hotspots. Report your feedback and see what others say in the Fon discussion.
Warning! Beware cyber hacking and thieves. While the existence of wireless networks accessible to everybody is undoubtedly a great thing, be wary of cyber hacking and thieves.
Don't enter any secure info when using public wi-fi spots, as there's a risk it can be intercepted by others on the network and used for identity theft.
Also, it's easy to get lost in the web. The presence of a few people focused on their laptops is a big draw for pickpockets and bag thieves, so keep an eye on your stuff at all times.
Mobile broadband lets you connect your laptop to the internet anywhere via a USB dongle, making use of the mobile phone networks to send data, so you can get online wherever there's a mobile signal.
Mobile broadband's generally not as fast as home broadband, so not really suitable for streaming music or films, but it's fine for emails and general surfing. For most, coverage is the most important factor when choosing a mobile broadband package.
There are a few crucial things to consider when deciding on a 3G package:
No matter how fast the package you choose is, or how big your data allowance, it ain't gonna work if the 3G signal's poor where you are. So, check each network's 3G coverage maps/coverage checker, and then, if you or a friend have a 3G mobile phone handset, use that to check actual reception where you use your computer.
Here's a list of coverage checkers for the main mobile broadband providers:
If coverage for the mobile broadband service you've signed up for is non-existent in your home, the provider will usually offer a money back guarantee (check before signing the contract).
Speak to your provider and return your dongle within the specified time and you should be free to cancel your contract without penalty.
There may be download limits
Like some home broadband tariffs, mobile broadband providers may limit the amount you're allowed to download each month. Go over this limit and you could be liable for extra charges (depending on provider).
The limits are measured in gigabytes (GB) - each GB consists of 1,024 megabytes (MB). In practical terms, 1GB should be enough if all you do is browse the web and check emails, but if you plan to download and/or stream music and video, it's likely you'll need more.
Speeds are slower than home broadband
Mobile broadband speeds are nowhere near as fast (or reliable) as home broadband services, making mobile broadband impratical for gaming and heavy downloading/streaming.
Because mobile broadband speeds are affected by a number of things, including your location and surroundings/environment, speeds can fluctuate massively. Because of this, providers do not advertise speeds as such.
As an example, Three says the maximum achievable speed with its mobile broadband service is 16Mb, but "due to real life conditions such as obstacles that get in the way like buildings and trees, and with other people using the network in the same area," you should expect speeds of 1-4Mb.
What can I do with these speeds? If you're getting speeds of 1Mb, a typical 4MB music track would take roughly 30 seconds to download, while a full-length film (about 1.5GB from iTunes for example) would take over three hours.
If you want a super-fast connection, take a look at our Cheap Broadband guide for more info.
You may pay upfront costs
Depending on the mobile broadband package you go for, and the length of the contract, you may have to pay some upfront costs.
Pay monthly deals usually come with an 18-month contract with free hardware. One-month rolling contracts are available but you'll probably have to pay for the hardware. And pay-as-you-go deals will have an upfront cost for the hardware (Sim or dongle). These can start from around £20.
Using it abroad can cost LARGE!
If you take your computer or laptop abroad, you need to be careful. Most mobile broadband packages can cost a fortune even for a small amount of data use.
So when abroad, if possible limit your use to just a few minor emails. If you want to do any hardcore work, connect via a web cafe or wireless hotspot, as it'll be cheaper.
See our Cheap Data Roaming guide for tips on how to get online for less when abroad.
Does your phone/broadband provider offer special deals?
A couple of companies offer special mobile broadband deals to existing customers.
If your mobile phone provider offers mobile broadband, and you're happy with its service, it's worth ringing and asking for a special deal.
Most network providers now offer mobile broadband tariffs, but service varies dramatically. If possible, ask to try a friend's dongle at home before investing in your own, as speeds and coverage can differ widely, even in small areas.
Three*: Top pick£8.89/month, 1GB monthly data allowance
If you use under 1GB/month, the basic Three* mobile broadband package should be more than enough. It costs £7.87/month on a 24-month contract.
Three claims to have 97% coverage for calls, texts and mobile internet - see its coverage checker to see if it's available near you.
- Monthly cost: £7.87/month
- Download allowance: 1GB/month
- Additional usage costs: 10.2p/MB
- Contract length: 24 months
- Modem and connection fee: Free
T-Mobile*: Good for high users £15/month, 5GB monthly data allowance
For £15/month, the Wireless Pointer from T-Mobile* gives you a whopping 5GB of data, on an 18-month contract.
It's our top pick because it gives you the most GB for your pound, though if you're a low data user there are cheaper packages.
T-Mobile says its mobile broadband signal covers 80% of the UK - see its coverage checker. You won't be able to use the Wireless Pointer abroad unless you pay for an internet roaming add-on.
- Monthly cost: £15/month
- Download allowance: 5GB/month
- Contract length: 18 months
- Modem and connection fee: Free
- Additional usage costs: No additional costs, but usage will be restricted
Vodafone*: Fast, reliable provider£15/month, 2GB monthly data allowance
If you're looking for a mobile broadband deal on the Vodafone* network, you can get 2GB of monthly download allowance for £15/month with a 12-month contract.
You'll also get BT Wi-fi wireless usage, which you can use for free access to BT Openzone hotspots while out and about.
Ofcom's research into mobile broadband speeds in 2011 found Vodafone was one of the faster providers, alongside O2.
If you're considering a Vodafone mobile broadband package, use its coverage checker first to check you can get a decent signal in your area.
- Monthly cost: £15/month
- Download allowance: 2GB/month
- Contract length: 12 months
- Modem and connection fee: Free
- Additional usage costs: £6 for 250MB
If you're not a heavy downloader and you only need occasional access to mobile broadband, for example while travelling, then it makes no sense to pay monthly. Instead, get a pay-as-you-go service. Bear in mind these usually come with some kind of upfront cost for the hardware.
Giffgaff*: Sim-only1GB to use in 30 days for £7.50 - Sim only
If you've an old unlocked dongle, the best option is Giffgaff's* 1GB Gigabag. For £7.50 you'll get 1GB of data to use in a month.
If you run out before the month's up, Giffgaff will notify you and give you a 50MB buffer for free. If you exceed that you'll be charged 2p/MB.
There's no monthly contract, so no credit checks when you sign up, and you can get a standard Sim for a dongle or a micro Sim for an iPad.
As mobile broadband is a lot more expensive than home broadband, you should try to minimise your data usage wherever possible. It's also worth installing a free bandwidth monitor like tbbMeter, Rokario or Netmeter to be doubly sure you don't go over the limit. Here are a few tricks:
Turn off automatic updates. This is probably the most important way to save your precious download allowance, and the easiest way to get caught out. Many programs, as well as operating systems themselves, routinely check for available updates and download them. Downloads can run to hundreds of megabytes; not ideal if that's all you have to play with. Turn them back on when you have the bandwidth though, or you might leave security holes open on your machine.
Turn off images when you use the web. If you're content to do without pictures when browsing (even just temporarily) then it's usually easy to disable them. In Internet Explorer, click Tools, then the 'advanced' tab, and scroll down the list to Multimedia. In that section, uncheck the 'show pictures' box and while you're there, the 'Play animations in webpages' box. The procedure's similar in all browsers.
Change your email settings. If you manage your emails with a program such as Outlook or Thunderbird, you may save data by signing up to a web-based service such as Yahoo! Mail or Gmail. Redirect some emails to the web-based account, and if a friend decides to send you party pictures when you're away, you can choose not to download them till you get back. (see Martin's blog for a data roaming horror story).
You could also change your settings to download headers only, or else set up filters which cut out less important or larger emails. How to do so will depend on the software you favour, but most offer detailed guides.
Get rid of ad/spyware. Adware and spyware programs, which usually manage to sneak onto your machine without you noticing, can use up your valuable allowance by talking to their leaders out in cyberspace. They can also leave your computer prone to attack by all manner of other nasties, so it's worth downloading a free tool to get rid of them (on another connection if possible). Find one in the Free Antivirus guide.
It's often possible to grab extra cashback on top when you sign up for a mobile broadband package, though this isn't done directly via the network provider.
To get it you need to sign up via a specialist cashback websites like Topcashback. These use affiliate links to generate revenue, and if they get paid when you get it, they give some or all of it to you.
Always check that what you're about to buy is an identical product, clear any cookies if you've already clicked through, and remember as the cashback isn't coming from the product provider, it's never 100% guaranteed. You're playing the system to an extent, and there can be problems.
With this in mind, it's generally best to pick the right product first and view the cashback as an added extra. For more information, pros and cons, and to find which cashback providers pay most for any product, see the Top Cashback Sites guide.
Sometimes there are special higher rates negotiated for the short term. These tend to have a higher payout reliability. When they happen we'll list them below and include info in the weekly email.