If you want web access on the go, there are thousands of free, legal wi-fi hotspots around the UK. And if that's not enough, there are mobile broadband packages giving you access without costing a fortune.
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 ways to get internet access when you're out and about: via wi-fi hotspots or mobile broadband.
Wi-fi hotspots. These allow your mobile, tablet or laptop to connect to a broadband signal through the air, without wires, if you're within range of the access point. You can sometimes connect for free at cafes, bars and restaurants. It's the same principle that applies when you're at home - you're just tapping into a much bigger signal this way.
There are 100s of free hotspots, so if you've free wi-fi access at work and in nearby cafes for lunch, don't pay for it.
Mobile broadband. This uses your network provider's 3G or 4G mobile signal to connect you. It requires one of two pieces of hardware - a dongle or Sim. A dongle is a wireless adapter that allows you access to wi-fi on your laptop, while a Sim allows you access to wi-fi on your smartphone or tablet.
Most mobile phone contracts offer a data allowance each month, meaning you can use your mobile to browse the web when you're out and about.
But if you want to use your tablet or laptop it might be worth getting a separate mobile broadband deal - there are plenty of cheap ones around to choose from. Remember free's always best, so always use free wi-fi hotspots when you can.
Wi-fi allows your mobile phone, tablet or laptop to send and receive data, without being tied to a specific router.
You can access free wi-fi at hundreds of free hotspots around the UK - in shopping malls, cafes and restaurants. Your employer may also have wi-fi you can use for free when you're at work.
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 1,000s spanning the country, many of which are free.
Hotspots are great because you won't eat into your mobile broadband/phone data limit. In any built-up area, it's unlikely you'll be far from free wireless access.
Almost all new computers and laptops have wi-fi capability built-in. 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).
Warning! Do check it's free wireless and you're not just using someone's private connection, as it's illegal to hijack someone's wi-fi without permission.
Where to find one?
There are several ways you can access free wi-fi when you're out and about.
1. Sign up to automatically access Wi-fi hotspots
Wi-fi hotspots are becoming more common - and some of them are free to use. O2 hosts thousands of wi-fi hotspots around the UK. You DON'T need to be an O2 customer to access them. O2 Wifi is free and available to use in over 10,000 locations around the UK including many leading high street retailers
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.
Sky's also got a network called Cloud. If you're a Sky customer you can use it for free for as long and as much you like, while other people can use it for free for the first hour. You'll have to register to access it though.
If you're in town, you can find free, no-password-necessary wireless access at the high street shops and eateries above.
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.
While a lot of the high street chains use the more established wi-fi hotspots, they may also have their own service you can use. To access it you might have to sign up or get a password from one of the staff. How long it's free depends on what deal the shop or restaurant is offering.
Depending on which company provides your home broadband and/or mobile phone service, you may be able to get free access to wi-fi 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 via five 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. EE customers (incl Orange and T-Mobile customers) have to get the EE app and the free wi-fi hotspots service has to be included in their plan to get BT openzone wi-fi. If they don’t have the app, they can login instead.
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 on if it isn't. Some hotspots will give you 15 minutes free, while 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.
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, other Fon members 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 be worth the one-off £34 for continuous access to Fon hotspots. Share feedback and see what others say in the Fon discussion.
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 up-to-date), is JiWire, which allows you to type in a postcode or place name and search for local spots amongst the 182,000 or so available on its database.
Warning! Beware cyber hacking and thieves. While the existence of wireless networks accessible to everybody is 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.
If you can't get free wi-fi on the go, the next best option is using your mobile's 3G or 4G signal for web access as long as you're happy browsing the web on your phone.
Most major networks such as Vodafone, O2 and Three have extensive signal coverage across the UK. So if your tariff's with any of these, and you're constantly travelling, you can use your mobile for browsing or sending emails in most areas.
Many mobile phone deals allow at least 1GB of data to use each month - equating to sending 1 million emails a month or visiting 10,000 simple sites. This means that many people will have enough data allowance from their phone contract without having to worry about paying extra.
But be wary of going over your data allowance. This is essentially the maximum web usage you can get through each month. Once you go over your tariff's limit, costs can mount up. For example, outside the monthly data amount, Vodafone charges £6.50 for every 250MB used and O2 charges £1 per day. Roughly, 250MB will allow you to send 500 emails with photos attached or visit 2,500 simple sites such as Twitter.
With some tariffs, networks send you alerts once you've used 80% and 90% of your allowance. If yours doesn't, ask your provider if you can start receiving them.
If you're a heavy user it could be worth considering a deal offering a bigger data allowance. Many mobile phone providers also offer deals with high data usage for an added cost.
If you'd rather use your tablet or laptop instead of your mobile and you can't get free wi-fi, mobile broadband is an option.
It allows you to get online wherever there's a mobile signal by connecting your device to the internet anywhere via a USB dongle (for computers), or separate Sim (for tablets or any other 3G-compatible device).
It's generally not as fast as home broadband, so not really suitable for streaming films, but it's fine for emails and general surfing. For most, coverage is the most important factor when choosing a mobile broadband package.
This section explains how to get the cheapest dongles and Sims but remember - only pay this way if free wi-fi spots aren't available.
There are a few crucial things to consider when deciding on a mobile broadband package:
Find the best deal for you
There are lots of Sim and dongle deals available so look around before you pick a deal. Costs range from £6 to £50 a month depending on how much data you want.
Your mobile phone or broadband provider may 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.
No matter how fast the package you choose is, or how big your data allowance, it ain't gonna work if the 3G or 4G (the faster version of 3G) signal's poor where you are. So, check each network's coverage maps, and then, if you or a friend have a 3G or 4G mobile phone handset, use that to check the actual reception.
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 - but do check before signing any contract.
Watch out for 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. Mobile broadband deals typically offer 1GB per month, but there are companies that offer more than that.
Remember speeds will be slower than home broadband
Mobile broadband speeds are nowhere near as fast (or reliable) as home broadband services, making mobile broadband impratical for playing games 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 such as 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 typically come with an 24 month contract but a free Sim or dongle. One-month rolling contracts are available but you'll probably have to pay for the Sim or dongle. You'll also have to pay for the hardware if you opt for a pay-as-you-go a deal. The cost is typically from around £20.
Using it abroad can cost LARGE!
If you use your tablet or laptop dongle abroad, you need to be careful. Most mobile broadband packages can cost a fortune even for a small amount of data use. For example, Vodafone charges 45.9p per MB in France - that's just four emails without attachments! If you're in Brazil that cost would rise to £3 per MB.
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.
Most network providers now offer mobile broadband tariffs, but service varies dramatically. We've picked out best buys below for regular phone contracts with a focus on the data allowance, mobile broadband contracts and pay-as-you-go deals and dongles.
Best contracts for browsing on your phone
If you're always glued to your mobile, and want to use only one Sim, you can get unlimited minutes, texts and data on Virgin Mobile's Unlimited VIP Plus Tariff but it's only available for users already with Virgin Media.
If this isn't you, it's still available with unlimited texts and calls and 2GB data fpr £15/mth. Just select "No I don't" when asked "Do you already have Virgin Broadband, TV or home phone?" in the sign-up process.
It's £15/mth tariff on a 30-day rolling contract - handy if you'd rather not be locked in for a year. The deal includes a fair usage policy set at 3.5GB/mth - after this it'll slow down, but you can still use more.
Very few use this much though, so really consider if it's worth paying for. Again, it's available on standard, micro and nano Sims. There's a 99p delivery charge for the Sim, though this is free if you've got Virgin Media Cable.
Best mobile broadband contracts (Sim)
MobiData*: 'Free' Sim incl 100MB dataOr upgrade to 1GB/mth for £4.94/mth
New and existing customers can bag a free Sim from Mobidata*. It gives you 100MB/mth of free 3G data in the UK, for three months with no contract. You can get nano and micro Sims and you’ll need an unlocked handset.
Mobidata says 100MB equates to roughly three to four hours of web browsing. After 100MB, it's 15p/MB, so costs can mount up. You'll get alerts when you've used 50%, 85% and 100% of the free data.
When you register the Sim, MobiData takes a £1 card authorisation (to verify who you are) but it won’t actually take the money from your account. The Sim should be delivered within three days of ordering.
Need more data?
After ordering, you can log in to your account online and choose one of three options for a larger allowance.
- Pay £4.94/mth for 1GB/mth.
- Pay £14.94/mth for 5GB/mth.
- Pay £19.70/mth for 10GB/mth.
These are all on 30-day rolling contracts. With each option, you get 100MB/mth of free roaming data in 39 countries, including the US and Australia. After 100MB, it's 15p/MB in all 39 countries.
If you opt for a three month contract, you can get double your data for the same monthly price. For example, you could pay £4.94/mth for 2GB/mth.
Is it any good?
For a freebie, 100MB's not bad. If you're willing to pay, 1GB/mth for £4.94/mth is a good deal - it was the cheapest we could find for this allowance. Plus, outside the free roaming data, roaming prices beat many networks' costs. Vodafone's Data Traveller is £5/day for 25MB/day, for example.
Mobidata says it has 97% coverage and piggybacks on Three's network. See if it's available near you using its coverage checker. We've little feedback on Mobidata - let us know how you get on in the Mobidata feedback thread.
Quick questions on Mobidata
What devices can I use the Sim with? Unlocked smartphones, iPads and tablets.
Can I get it on 4G? No. Mobidata hopes to make it 4G ready soon. Customers will be migrated to 4G when that happens, if they're using the Sim.
- Monthly cost: 100MB free
- Download allowance: 100MB
- Additional usage costs: 15p/MB
- Contract length: None
- Modem and connection fee: Free
Giffgaff*: Sim-only1GB to use in 30 days for £7.50 - Sim only
If you have an unlocked 3G-enabled device, you can get Giffgaff's* 1GB goody-bag. 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.
It works on a rolling contract basis so there are no credit checks when you sign up, and you can choose from a standard Sim or a micro Sim.
If you're a heavy user, it can be pricey using a dongle. If possible, ask to try out a friend's dongle at home before investing in your own, as speeds and coverage can differ widely too, even in small areas. These are the best we found.
Vodafone*: Top pick£7.50/month, 1GB monthly data allowance
If you're looking for a mobile broadband deal on Vodafone's* network, you can get a 1GB/mth download limit for £7.50/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.
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: £7.50/month
- Download allowance: 1GB/month
- Contract length: 12 months
- Modem and connection fee: Free
- Additional usage costs: £6.50 for 250MB
Three*: Best for heavy users£15.99/month, 5GB monthly data allowance
If you're constantly watching films, downloading music, sending emails and web browsing every month, this Three* deal could be your best bet.
It's £15.99/mth for a hefty 5GB/mth on a 24-month contract. Three estimates that 5GB will be enough to surf the web for 50 hours and download 160, four-minute songs each month. To get it, click the link above and scroll down for the 5GB dongle.
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: £15.99/month
- Download allowance: 5GB/month
- Additional usage costs: 10.2p/MB
- Contract length: 24 months
- Modem and connection fee: Free
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.