Get a cheap mobile broadband deal for data on the move
If you want internet on the go and Wi-Fi browsing on your phone just won't cut it, a dedicated mobile broadband subscription for your laptop or tablet may be the solution. This guide explains what to consider if you're thinking of making that move – and where to find the best deals.
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Do you really need mobile broadband?
There 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.
This uses your network provider's 3G or 4G mobile signal to get you online. It requires a Sim card which commonly plugs directly into a tablet, 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.
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.
These hotspots might be free but they have their drawbacks:
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 likely to be 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.
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.
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.
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.
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10 mobile broadband need-to-knows
Here's what to consider when you're looking at taking out a mobile broadband subscription.
Depending on the type of device you want data on, you'll need different hardware. There are three ways to get mobile broadband:
- 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.
A data Sim is all you'll need if you've got a particular device you want internet on (though for sharing your connection with other devices, you'll also need a wireless hotspot device to put the Sim into).
Many networks offer these Sims – just select the plan that's most appropriate for you, much like you would with a mobile phone tariff. For the best deals, see our Data Sim top picks.
Networks often bundle these devices with mobile broadband plans (see Wi-Fi device best buys), whereby you'll be provided with a Sim to slot in. These plans can make them more affordable – although on shorter-term rolling contracts you'll usually have to pay extra for one.
Alternatively, sometimes it can be cheaper to buy one standalone from a retailer and combine it with your own Sim – just make sure it's 4G-enabled if you get 4G on your plan, as some are only 3G-ready.
- 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.
Dongles also run off your laptop's battery. While this might drain your laptop's battery a little more, as you won't need Wi-Fi switched on to use it, it should save a little juice compared with connecting via a hotspot.
Smartphone Sims have a mobile number attached to them – they aren't technically intended for other devices, but sometimes they will still work in them. Equally, sometimes a data Sim won't work in a smartphone.
O2 and Three have told us their Sims aren't cross-compatible, so you won't be able to switch them between tablet/dongles and smartphones. Vodafone, EE, Smarty and Giffgaff, on the other hand, say their Sims will work across multiple devices, but you may need to change the Access Point Name (APN) settings – check with your network how to do this.
If you want to share the data on your mobile plan with another device and you can't switch the Sim over, you can tether them to each other (which is often easier anyway).
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.
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.
Like 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 (see table at point 8). 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.
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.
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 Mobile 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 up to 4.4p/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.
If you need to access data abroad, it's generally better to pick up a prepaid data Sim before you go.
Existing 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.
Many mobile tariffs will let you share your data to use on other devices. This practice is known as tethering, and in effect it 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.
Going over your monthly data limit has the same impact whether you're tethering or just using your phone – in order to use more data you'll either have to pay a per-MB rate or purchase an add-on or bundle of additional data.
To curb any unexpected spending, you can ask your provider to set a bill cap over your usual monthly amount, essentially a limit you're prepared to pay for an extras – these usually range from £0 to £30.
EE* Internet access disabled until you buy an add-on* (from £1.50 for 100MB) Giffgaff* 5p/MB (or you can purchase a new Goodybag) O2* Maximum charge of £1/day + 50Mb. Internet access is then disabled until you buy a Bolt-on* (from £3.50 for 100MB) Tesco Mobile* You can buy a data bundle from £2.50 for 500MB Three* Internet access is disabled until you buy an add-on (from £2.50 for 250MB) Virgin Mobile* £3/day per GB Vodafone* You can buy a data extra £6/mth for 1GB. Table last updated January 2019.
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
Turn off automatic updates. Many programs, as well as operating systems themselves, routinely check for available updates and download them, sometimes gobbling up hundreds of megabytes.
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.
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.
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 use, 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.
Use an app to compress data. If you're using an iOS or Android tablet (or smartphone, incidentally – sadly there's no equivalent for PC or Mac), the free app Onavo Extend compresses data when web browsing and using certain apps.
Onavo says it can reduce data usage by 80%. Apps it works with include Facebook, Twitter and Maps, as well as when downloading emails and attachments. This means the same amount of use will only consume a fraction of your data allowance, avoiding any hefty fees.
Although top 4G speeds in theory can reach 300Mb/sec, in the majority of locations speeds are likely to be much lower. This means that for many people, mobile broadband won't be as fast as home broadband. (5G is an alternative but is expensive and currently limited in the UK).
For standard speed broadband – with average speeds of about 10Mb – expect to pay an equivalent £15/mth or less, while faster fibre deals are often around £20/mth when factoring in all costs and subtracting the value of rewards.
Our Broadband Unbundled tool makes it easy as it compares all the major providers' deals, plus deals we've handpicked, often including our own blagged deals and exclusive deals via other sites.
It's personal to you as it searches your postcode, and even checks if using two or even three providers is cheaper. We've full switching info in Cheap Broadband too.
Best buys: Data 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, it's better value to go for a 12-month plan but you won't have the flexibility of cancelling with 30-days' notice as you do with a 30-day contract.
Monthly cost: £14
Data allowance: 10GB, enough to download over 2,600 songs and browse for 1,100 hours
Additional usage costs: 1p/MB
Contract length: 12 months
Sim compatibility: Works in smartphones, tablets, hotspot devices and dongles
There aren't as many pay-as-you-go options out there, and can be pricier. However, if you don't want to commit to a long contract, it can offer some of the best deals – and you won't be credit-checked.
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.
This pay-upfront deal from Smarty* lets you add more data if you need it – each extra 1GB costs £1.25/mth. You're also credited for any data you don't use, paid at the same rate and used to discount your next month.
It also offers 2GB, 4GB and 8GB plans if you need a different allowance as standard.
Monthly Cost: £6.25
Data allowance: 1GB. Each plan lasts 30 days
Additional usage costs: £1.25/GB
Network: Smarty (owned by and uses the Three network)
Sim compatibility: Works in smartphones, tablets and Wi-Fi routers
Anything else? You pay upfront each month. You're credited for any data you haven't used at the end of the month, so you'll never pay for more than you use
Best buys: Mobile 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.
This 10GB/mth plan from Three* comes with a decent allowance and no upfront cost.
It costs £15/mth and comes bundled with the Huawei E5573 4G Mobile Wi-Fi unit. It's 4G-capable so will emit Wi-Fi at top speeds – perfect for fast surfing – and will allow you to connect up to 10 devices at any one time.
- Monthly cost: £15
- Upfront cost: None
- Bundled device: Huawei E5573 4G Mobile Wi-Fi unit (locked to Three)
- Data allowance: 10GB, enough to download over 2,600 songs and browse for 1,100 hours
- Additional usage costs: 1p/MB
- Contract length: 24 months
- Sim compatibility: Works only in tablets, hotspot devices and dongles
This 4G EE Wi-Fi mini unit from EE* comes with 15GB/mth with £40 upfront fees.
It costs £25/mth on a one-month rolling contract.
- Monthly cost: £25
- Upfront cost: £40
- Bundled device: EE Wi-Fi Mini (locked to EE)
- Data allowance: 15GB, enough to download 3,900 songs and browse for 1,650 hours
- Additional usage costs: 1p/MB
- Contract length: One month
- Sim compatibility: Works in smartphones, tablets, hotspot devices and dongles
Best buys: USB 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).
This 24-month USB dongle plan from O2* has no upfront cost, and gives you 2GB/mth.
It comes with an O2-branded device – the Huawei 4G dongle. The plan is £10/mth for the data and £1/mth for the hardware.
- Monthly cost: £11
- Upfront cost: None
- Bundled device: Huawei (locked to O2)
- Data allowance: 2GB, enough to download 400 songs and browse the internet for 180 hours
- Additional usage costs: N/A
- Contract length: 24 months