Ask the Genie: Unlocked MiFi dongles and mobile broadband abroad

We are often inundated with queries relating to mobile broadband, smartphones, tablets and the like, but if you’ve never ventured in there before you may not be aware of the vast amounts of useful information provided by all our lovely visitors over the years.

There’s a good chance that if you’ve got a question about something we cover here on Broadband Genie it has been asked and answered in the forum, so in this new feature we’ll be picking out questions and publishing them on the blog, not only to provide an expanded in-depth answer to the question but also highlight information which could be useful to everyone.

Here’s our first conundrum to kick things off:

“I have been looking into purchasing a MiFi but I am still unsure about a few things. I am basically looking for something that I can use when I am travelling abroad (mainly Europe). Do I buy an unlocked one and insert the SIM? Do I still have to pay as with a dongle? Also is it usable with basic Tablet PCs? Will it give me internet abroad?
Thanks, Sue”

Let’s just summarise what a MiFi is for the benefit of those who have no idea of the difference between a standard dongle and a MiFi dongle.

Your typical mobile broadband dongle (shown right) looks like a Flash memory drive and plugs into a USB port on a laptop or desktop computer. It provides internet access via a mobile phone network to a single computer at a time.

A MiFi dongle (pictured above) is a slightly different beast. It too has a SIM card slot and uses mobile networks to provide internet-on-the-go, but it is not restricted to giving access to a single system at a time. Instead it creates a local Wi-Fi hotspot so multiple devices can connect at once (typically a maximum of five at a time).

While this sharing feature is undoubtedly useful, the best thing about a MiFi is that because it uses wireless networking you can connect to it with any device which supports Wi-Fi: laptops, desktops, smartphones, tablets, games consoles..whatever. This is particularly useful for tablets as very few of these support USB dongles, or even have USB ports.

We should also note that from here on we’re going to refer to MiFi’s as mobile Wi-Fi, because MiFi is a brand name used by Three. It’s become something of a generic term for this hardware but other networks will call it things like mobile Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi dongle or mobile broadband pocket hotspot. Click here for a more in depth guide to MiFi

Now that’s cleared up, onto Sue’s question.

Mobile Wi-Fi abroad

Yes, a mobile Wi-Fi device will generally work abroad. But there are caveats and warnings.

If your planned usage of any dongle includes international access then an unlocked model is a good idea so you can use local mobile networks. While roaming on UK providers has gotten cheaper it’s still quite pricey for anything other than brief bursts of web browsing.

Should you decide to do this anyway you’ll want to choose a network which both supports roaming mobile broadband and offers cheaper data bundles specifically for international use; see our mobile broadband abroad guide for detailed roaming costs.

You can purchase an unlocked dongle very easily online. Some of these will be network-branded and will have been unlocked by another user, others will just be SIM-free devices with only the original manufacturer’s branding.

However you may find that this is more expensive than buying a Wi-Fi dongle deal from a network, because then the hardware is subsidised and you’ll get some data allowance to use when you’re in the UK. While those will come locked to a network you can easily get them unlocked; networks will do it for a fee or you can try Googling for guides to that specific model. You may well have a local independent mobile phone store that can handle it as well.

Check out our mobile Wi-Fi page to see a listing of the latest deals.

Once you’ve got an unlocked dongle it’s simply a case of inserting a SIM for whichever network you need at the time. How you pay for the data on that SIM will vary depending on the provider, but pre-paid data bundles are very common and cost-effective in Europe.

There’s just a couple of things to watch out for though.

First is that you may need to manually change the Access Point Name (APN) details to match the network because otherwise the Wi-Fi dongle software will not be able to connect.

This is generally quite obvious in the dongle settings but you could find that with unlocked network branded dongles you need to download the generic driver software from the original manufacturer as these options may not be accessible.

In order to find the APN settings for the network you’re using you could ask in a local store or simply Google the network name - there are sites which list this information.

The other important point is to check that the Wi-Fi dongle supports the frequencies used in the country you’re visiting. All modern dongles support multiple frequencies but there is still a chance you could run into an unsupported network. Just something to be aware of.

And yes, your Wi-Fi dongle will work with a tablet...provided it has Wi-Fi (and if it doesn’t you should switch to a better model).