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Mobile Broadband

Get a cheap mobile broadband deal for data on the move

mobile broadband wi-fi subscriptionIf you want internet on the go and browsing on your phone just doesn't cut it for you, a dedicated mobile broadband subscription for your laptop or tablet may be the solution.

While it's often easy to find free wi-fi in most towns and cities, sometimes that won't suffice. For those who really need it, this guide explains what to consider when taking out a mobile broadband plan and where to find the best deals.

Do you really need mobile broadband?

mobile broadband wi-fi subscriptionThere are three ways to get internet access when you're out and about: via mobile broadband, wi-fi hotspots – which you can often find for free – or tethering through your mobile.

Mobile broadband

This uses your network provider's 3G or 4G mobile signal to get you online. It requires a Sim card which plugs directly into a tablet or laptop, or alternatively either a wireless hotspot device or a USB dongle - see more info below.

Much like a phone plan, you'll usually pay a monthly fee for a set allowance of data. Pay-as-you-go deals are also available, but they tend to be pricey.

Wi-fi hotspots

You'll find wi-fi hotspots for accessing the internet dotted around most towns and cities, at cafes and restaurants, bars, shopping centres and even some supermarkets. These tend to be public hotspots that anyone can join (under certain conditions) and are often free. See the Free Wi-fi guide for the full lowdown.

mobile broadband wi-fi hot-spots

Your best bet if you need to get online is to try to find one of these hotspots rather than pay for a mobile broadband subscription – but they have their drawbacks and may not meet everyone's needs:

  • You can't find them everywhere. Some places inevitably won't have a hotspot. Many trains don't, for example (or if they do, it's only in first class or can be very expensive). Also, if you're moving from place to place, you'll have to keep connecting to a new hotspot, which can be time consuming and disruptive.

  • Most require you to register. While access may be free, you'll still have to sign up to access most hotspots. This can be a faff, especially if you're in a hurry.

  • There are restrictions. Often hotspots will have restrictions on how long you can use them and what you can use them for. Certain websites may be blocked, for example, and downloading via one may prove difficult.

Tethering

There's also a third way to get online from your tablet or laptop – by sharing your phone's data to your laptop or tablet, a process known as 'tethering'. Consider this before stumping up extra for mobile broadband.

Remember free's always best, so use free wi-fi hotspots when you can. Even if you do have mobile broadband or plan to tether, try to use free hotspots where they're available to save your allowance for when you really need it.

House connect to the internet

Mobile broadband need-to-knows

Here's what to consider when you're looking at taking out a mobile broadband subscription.

  • You'll need the right hardware

    Depending on the type of device you want data on, you'll need different hardware. There are three ways to get mobile broadband:

    • mobile broadband data sims

      A data Sim – if you've already got a 3G- or 4G-enabled device. If your tablet or laptop has a Sim card slot (ie, it's 3G- or 4G-capable), you can buy what's known as a data Sim to pop in. "Cellular" iPads and Google Chromebooks, for example, have Sim card slots. Read more

    • mobile broadband data sims

      A mobile hotspot device – for connecting multiple devices at once. You'll need a device to create a wireless hotspot if you want to do this. These are known as mobile wi-fi, or Mi-Fi, devices, and they usually have a slot for putting a data Sim into. They tend to be slim and portable (hence "mobile") with rechargeable batteries. Read more

    • mobile broadband wi-fi subscription

      A USB dongle – if you just want internet on your laptop. It's also possible to get a USB dongle into which to put a Sim. While perhaps not as convenient as a wireless hotspot device, they tend to be a little cheaper and are perfect if you just want to surf on your laptop. Read more

    Quick question

    Can I use my phone's Sim card in my tablet/laptop/dongle and vice versa?

  • Your device may need to be unlocked to work

    Most tablets will come unlocked, meaning a Sim from any network will work in them. However, wireless hotspot devices and USB dongles are often locked to a specific network. As with smartphones, some of the networks may unlock the device for you at a cost, but this isn't a dead cert and it can be expensive.

    With some devices, and wireless hotspot devices in particular, you can buy a code that will allow you to unlock it. Search for your device's name on eBay alongside the term "unlock code" – for many you can buy a code for £1 or £2. When ordering, you'll usually be asked for the 15-digit 'IMEI' number, which can be found relatively easily.

    Depending on your hardware, you'll either be able to directly input the code, or you may have to do it via computer using specialist software. Follow the device-specific instructions that will be sent with your code.

    Again, this isn't possible with all devices, but it can be an inexpensive way to give you the freedom to choose your plan.

  • Check coverage before signing up

    To make sure you'll get decent coverage, before you take out a plan, consider where you're most likely to be using the service. It might even be worth getting a cheap pay-as-you-go Sim from the network so you can test the signal before committing.

    There are four core mobile networks in the UK: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. All other operators that offer 3G or 4G services 'piggyback' on one of these, essentially meaning they run off their network (ie, they don't provide their own signal). We've a full list of which firms piggyback on which providers – check the relevant network's coverage map before signing up.

    mobile broadband wi-fi subscription
    Network coverage checkers

    The networks can sometimes be generous with estimations of their coverage though, so it's worth checking Ofcom's coverage map too. Unfortunately the most recent one it has is from 2013, and annoyingly it doesn't cover 4G. Ofcom's more recent report into each network's mobile broadband speed in five major cities may also help.

  • Watch out for download limits

    mobile broadband wi-fi subscriptionLike most smartphone (and 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. Most networks will let you check your remaining allowance either online or through a smartphone/tablet app.

    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. Mobile broadband deals tend to offer up to around 5GB. You can get more but you'll pay for it – for example, EE's 30-day rolling 25GB Sim* is £30/mth.

  • If you don't commit to a contract, you'll usually pay more upfront

    As with smartphone Sim-only plans, if you take a rolling contract with only a 30-day commitment, your monthly payments may end up higher for the same allowance. Consider whether you're willing to sign up for longer for the saving – or try it out on a short-term basis at first before committing.

    If you go for a plan that comes with a wireless hotspot device or USB dongle, you'll very likely need to pay something upfront for the device if you take out a rolling contract. Often the device will be free, or at least much cheaper, on a 12-month contract.

  • Using it abroad can cost BIG

    mobile broadband wi-fi subscription

    If you use your tablet or laptop dongle abroad, you need to be careful. As with most smartphone plans, most mobile broadband packages can cost a fortune, even for a small amount of use abroad (see Cheap Data Roaming for full info).

    The EU's cap on roaming has gone a long way to reducing the cost of using data abroad in Europe, but it still costs 20p/MB on the major UK networks – that's just four emails without attachments! If you're outside the EU, the cost skyrockets, to as much as £8/MB in some cases.

    For this reason, be very wary of using your mobile broadband service when roaming. If you need to access data abroad, it's generally better to pick up a prepaid data Sim before you go.

  • Existing customers may be able to haggle

    mobile broadband wi-fi subscriptionExisting mobile phone or home broadband customers can sometimes get special deals on mobile broadband packages, by tacking them on to their existing plans.

    These types of discounts aren't an absolute certainty by any means, and where they do exist they tend to vary depending on your provider and what services you currently take.

    First find what deals are available for new customers online, and then call up your existing provider and see if it can beat the best (existing customer deals can't usually be found online). You may be able to blag yourself more data or shave a few pounds off the monthly cost – just give it a go and haggle your heart out.

  • Consider tethering through your smartphone

    mobile broadband wi-fi subscription

    Many mobile tariffs will let you share your data to use on other devices. This practice is known as tethering, and it effectively turns your smartphone into a mobile hotspot device or a USB dongle.

    On the iPhone, it's termed Personal Hotspot – there's a useful guide to using it on Apple's website. The process varies from model to model on Android, but for a basic step-by-step, see this wikiHow guide.

    For light data users, tethering can replace the need for a dedicated mobile broadband plan – but remember the data you use when tethering will count against your monthly allowance on your phone contract. What's more, if you're tethering to a larger-screened device or a laptop, you'll be viewing larger web pages with more data-heavy content, meaning you're likely to burn through your data allowance faster.

    Most major networks allow you to tether and use your data in the same way you can on your mobile, but some put restrictions or qualifications on its use:

    • Giffgaff doesn't allow tethering with 'goodybags' with unlimited data.
    • Three doesn't allow tethering on pay-as-you-go. If you're on an older contract (if you joined before 17 Mar 2014 on pay monthly or 15 July 2014 on Sim-only) you'll have to pay £5/mth for an add-on in order to tether. Also, 'unlimited' data tariffs have a 2GB/mth tethering limit on pay monthly and 4GB/mth limit on Sim-only.
    • Virgin says those on unlimited data plans who tether will have their speed throttled after 3.5GB of usage.
    Quick question

    What happens if I exceed my data allowance when tethering?

  • Minimise data usage

    Virtually all mobile broadband plans come with a limited data allowance, so it's important to conserve it where possible. Try to match your plan as closely as possible to your estimated usage.

    If you're on the go, your first port of call should be to use free wi-fi hotspots where possible. If you know you'll want to download a larger file in advance, do it through your home broadband connection instead before going out. When you don't have access to wi-fi or it's just not convenient to use, though, you can still reduce your data usage in other ways.

    Tips to minimise data usage

  • Mobile broadband is no replacement for home broadband

    mobile broadband wi-fi subscription

    Mobile broadband's great if you're out and about, but you'll struggle to use it to replace your home broadband, unless you only use it very sparingly. In part, this is down to the strict download limits these plans have, but also because speeds can vary so much.

    Although some networks claim top 4G speeds of 60Mb/sec, in the majority of locations speeds are likely to be much lower. Equally, some (mainly piggybacking) networks offer only 3G services. This means that for many people, mobile broadband won't be as fast as home broadband.

    These days you can typically get an unlimited home broadband tariff for around £14/month, and often less – see our Cheap Broadband guide for the latest deals.

Best buysData Sims

Data Sims are ideal if you've already got a device with a Sim card slot (such as 3G/4G-capable tablets). They're the mobile broadband equivalent of a smartphone Sim-only plan – no upfront cost, just pop it in and go.

Contracts tend to give more bang for your buck than pay-as-you-go deals. It's worth knowing that you'll be credit-checked, though, as with any rolling contract.

If you take out a contract, you'll have to keep it for the minimum term, too. Currently there are one-month plans available for around the same price as 12-month ones, so we'd recommend going for the shorter of the two – although bear in mind you'll still have to give 30 days' notice to end it.

mobidata

1GB allowance for £4.94/mth, plus 100MB free to try*

MobiData – Cheap for low users

New and existing customers can bag a free Sim from MobiData*, which runs off the Three network. If you want to try it out before you commit, it offers a trial with 100MB/mth of free 4G data in the UK for three months with no contract.

MobiData's basic plan gives a 1GB monthly allowance for £4.94/mth – the cheapest we found for any mobile broadband plan when we checked. A gigabyte's not a huge amount, though. MobiData offers plans with bigger allowances, but these are less competitive.

Delivery is free and the Sim should arrive within three days of ordering.

Key info
  • Monthly cost: £4.94
  • Data allowance: 1GB, enough to download 115 songs and browse the internet for 30 hours.
  • Additional usage costs: 2.5p/MB
  • Contract length: One-month rolling
  • Sim compatibility: Works in smartphones, tablets, hotspot devices and dongles.
Barclaycard Platinum 34 months

10GB allowance for £15/mth*

Three – good for heavy users

This 10GB/mth plan from Three* is the cheapest we've spotted on the market at the time of writing. It's £15/mth, and on a 30-day rolling contract – just give one month's notice if you want to opt out.

If that sounds like more than you'll need, Three (and other providers) offer plans which give only 5GB – but given they're the same price as this tariff, you might as well get this one.

Key info
  • Monthly cost: £15
  • Data allowance: 10GB, enough to download over 1,000 songs and browse the internet for 300 hours.
  • Additional usage costs: 10.2p/MB
  • Contract length: One-month rolling
  • Sim compatibility: Works only in tablets, hotspot devices and dongles.

There aren't as many pay-as-you-go options out there, and they tend to be pricier. However, you won't be credit-checked, and you won't have to give any notice if you don't want to continue service.

Plus, once you run out of data, you won't be charged any more if you've no credit left, making it ideal for those who want to keep to a budget.

Barclaycard Platinum 34 months

500MB allowance for £5/mth*

GiffGaff – if you don't want to be credit-checked

Especially if you're surfing on a laptop or tablet, 500MB won't go far, but this Giffgaff gigabag* is the cheapest pay-as-you-go data Sim we found when we checked.

It's a touch more expensive that the MobiData plan above but only gives half the allowance. Therefore, we'd recommend this deal only if the flexibility of not having a contract is highly important to you.

There is a 1GB/mth gigabag available for £7.50/mth – but again, this is more expensive than other options at the same level.

Key info
  • Monthly cost: £5
  • Data allowance: 500MB, enough to download 60 songs and browse the internet for 15 hours.
  • Additional usage costs: 2p/MB
  • Contract length: Pay-as-you-go – bundles last 30 days.
  • Sim compatibility: Works in smartphones, tablets, hotspot devices and dongles.

Best buysMobile wi-fi device plans

Mobile wi-fi devices are useful for connecting several devices to the internet at once. They take a data Sim and create a wireless hotspot out of it, sharing the allowance on the Sim's plan with anything connected to it.

Contracts that bundle devices with a Sim tend to be longer-term – 12 months or 24 months, usually. There are rolling contracts out there, but you expect to pay more for the device upfront then, and more overall.

Barclaycard Platinum 34 months

1GB allowance for £10/mth and no upfront cost*

Vodafone – cheap plan on a 12-month contract

This 1GB/mth plan from Vodafone* (click the "Mobile Wi-Fi" tab and it's the first one down) comes with a fair-ish allowance, no upfront cost and a not-too-lengthy contract.

A gigabyte isn't a huge amount, though, and it's costly if you exceed the allowance, so consider taking the heavy users' top pick below if you think it won't be enough.

It costs £10/mth and comes bundled with Vodafone's R207 mobile wi-fi unit – this is only 3G-compatible, unfortunately, so you won't get 4G speeds. It'll allow you to connect up to five devices at any one time.

Key info
  • Monthly cost: £10
  • Upfront cost: None
  • Bundled device: R207 Mobile Wi-Fi (locked to Vodafone).
  • Data allowance: 1GB, enough to download 115 songs and browse the internet for 30 hours.
  • Additional usage costs: £15/GB
  • Contract length: 12 months
  • Sim compatibility: Works in smartphones, tablets, hotspot devices and dongles.
Barclaycard Platinum 34 months

15GB for £20/mth and no upfront cost*

EE - Great for heavy users, plus a 1-month contract

This plan with EE from Carphone Warehouse* is a really good deal if you're looking for a plan with a lot of data, a short contract, and a bundled device.

It's £20/mth and comes bundled with the Huawei 4G Mi-Fi, which is 4G-capable so will emit wi-fi at top speeds – perfect for fast surfing. Plus it's unlocked, so whenever you cancel the contract (with 30 days' notice), any data Sim should work in it.

You can get the same device with the same allowance for £15/mth, but on a 24-month contract, from Carphone Warehouse* with its own (new) network iD Mobile. This is the cheaper option if you know you'll want it for that long.

Key info
  • Monthly cost: £20
  • Upfront cost: None
  • Bundled device: Huawei 4G Mi-Fi (unlocked)
  • Data allowance: 15GB, enough to download 1,700 songs and browse the internet for 450 hours.
  • Additional usage costs: from £3/100MB up to £30/10GB
  • Contract length: One-month rolling
  • Sim compatibility: Works in smartphones, tablets, dongles and hotspot devices.

Best buysUSB dongle plans

USB dongles are designed to be plugged directly into your laptop. The plans below come bundled with a USB dongle and a Sim, but once they run their course, you can always get your own Sim to put into the dongle (so long as it's unlocked).

Barclaycard Platinum 34 months

1GB allowance for £10/mth and no upfront cost*

Vodafone – cheap plan on a 12-month contract

This is exactly the same plan as the Vodafone plan above, but this one comes with a USB dongle rather than a wireless hotspot device. It's £10/mth* on a 12-month contract with no upfront cost, and gives you 1GB a month.

This one's also bundled with a Vodafone-branded device – the K4203-Z – but it's 4G-compatible (it'll work with a 4G-capable Sim and will transmit data to connected devices at 4G speeds).

Key info
  • Monthly cost: £10
  • Upfront cost: None
  • Bundled device: K4203-Z dongle (locked to Vodafone)
  • Data allowance: 1GB, enough to download 115 songs and browse the internet for 30 hours.
  • Additional usage costs: £15/GB
  • Contract length: 12 months
  • Sim compatibility: Works in smartphones, tablets, dongles and hotspot devices.
Barclaycard Platinum 34 months

5GB for £15.99/mth, £4.99 upfront*

Three – decent allowance on a short-term contract

This plan from Three* (click "See plans" on the right and it's the second one down) is perfect if you want a little more data to play with. It comes with 5GB and costs £15.99/mth – conveniently, it's a one-month rolling contract – and the upfront cost is just £4.99.

This one comes with Three's ZTE MF730M dongle, which is only 3G-compatible. If you want to surf at 4G speeds, Three has its ZTE MF823* 4G dongle on the same plan for the same monthly price, but you'll need to stump up £39.99 upfront for the privilege.

Key info
  • Monthly cost: £15.99
  • Upfront cost: £4.99
  • Bundled device: ZTE MF730M (locked to Three)
  • Data allowance: 5GB, enough to download 575 songs and browse the internet for 150 hours.
  • Additional usage costs: 10.2p/MB
  • Contract length: One-month rolling
  • Sim compatibility: Works in tablets, hotspot devices and dongles.

How to complain about your mobile provider

The mobile industry doesn't have the best customer service reputation and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common problems include limited network coverage, slow data speeds, unexpected charges and more. It’s always worth trying to call your provider first, but if not then…

Free tool if you’re having a problem

This tool helps you draft your complaint and manage it too. It’s totally free, and offered by a firm called Resolver which we like so much we work with it to help people get complaints justice.

If the complaint isn't resolved, Resolver will escalate it to the free Ombudsman Services (or CISAS if you're complaining about EE or Virgin Mobile).

Important: if your issue is about a voucher or incentive that was part of an MSE Blagged deal, then instead just let us know by emailing voucherhelp@moneysavingexpert.com as that’s usually quicker.