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An introduction to UK broadband for tourists and immigrants

Deck chairs on Brighton beachWhether you’re staying in the United Kingdom for a holiday or business trip or moving for a longer period, you’re probably going to want internet access while you’re here. But how does broadband in the UK work, what could it cost, and which type of broadband might be best for you?

In this guide, we’ll explore what options there are for home and mobile broadband in the UK from the perspective of visitors and newly arrived immigrants, and explain the best (and cheapest) ways of getting online.

What kind of broadband is available in the UK?

While the UK may not lead the world when it comes to broadband technology, we do still have access to a variety of broadband services offering speeds which should suit most people.

Home broadband

There are several different types of home broadband services available across the UK.

ADSL

ADSL is the most common, and cheapest, type of fixed-line home broadband. Almost every home in the country can get an ADSL connection, and prices start from under £20 per month. It isn't particularly fast by today's standards, but it's entirely sufficient for anything most people are likely to do online.

ADSL requires an active telephone line (using the national BT Openreach phone network), and most packages include line rental in the price.

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Fibre optic

Fibre optic broadband is widely available, and more than 95% of the UK can now get a fibre connection. Fibre is much faster than ADSL yet not much more expensive.

There are a few different kinds of fibre optic broadband found in the UK. The majority of fibre optic broadband providers use FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet) technology, where fibre lines run to cabinets on the street, and the connection into homes lengthy with a standard phone line. Like ADSL, line rental for the phone line is almost always included.

Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) - where fibre optic cable runs into homes - is also available and can provide very high speeds. But full-fibre connectivity is not as common as either ADSL or FTTC fibre; fewer than 10% of homes have access to this at present. Often, this type of fibre is found in new build homes and blocks of flats.

There is also fibre available from Virgin Media. Virgin operates a network separate from the Openreach telephone lines used by almost all other fixed-line broadband services. It is available to just over 60% of homes and can currently offer speeds up to 518Mb, making it the fastest broadband many of us can get. Virgin also offers broadband and TV bundles and can provide broadband without a phone line.

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4G and 5G

Some mobile networks - notably Three and EE - offer home broadband packages using their 4G or 5G signal. These are an excellent alternative to fixed-line home broadband for short term use, or for anyone whose future living arrangements are uncertain; it has coverage across the country, doesn’t require access to a fixed-line and the commitments that come with that, and is available on flexible rolling monthly contracts.

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Wireless broadband

Some areas of the UK have the option of Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband. It can offer speeds comparable to some fibre services and doesn't need a phone line. But this is a niche service which is generally intended to fill gaps in the fixed-line network and it is unlikely to be available outside of rural areas.

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Satellite broadband

Satellite broadband works anywhere in the UK, and the only requirement is that you need to be able to mount a dish with a clear view of the sky. But it suffers from very high latency and is relatively expensive. This is a solution for rural communities where no other type of broadband is available.

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Public Wi-Fi hotspots

The UK has thousands of public Wi-Fi access points. You’ll find these in hotels, restaurants, pubs, bars, cafes, banks, and many other locations. Public Wi-Fi is very often free, too.

Many Wi-Fi hotspots are run by individual businesses which will freely provide the password and not ask for any payment or registration. There are also Wi-Fi hotspot networks, some of which require payment, and others which only ask you to register to get online.

If you’re trying to keep costs low, then making liberal use of public Wi-Fi is an excellent way to save money on internet access. However, you may find that public Wi-Fi isn’t always that fast, and in busy locations, it can be very unreliable due to the sheer number of users trying to connect at the same time.

Mobile broadband

Mobile - or cellular - networks have coverage across the country. You can access mobile broadband using either a smartphone or a mobile broadband dongle or router. Mobile broadband is an extremely flexible way of getting internet access because you can choose from a wide variety of different payment options. As well as long contracts of 12, 18 or 24-months, each network also offers pre-paid and pay-as-you-go access. Topping up a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) SIM card can be done via mobile app, convenience stores, and even at cashpoints (ATMs).

4G access is widespread and can offer respectable speeds. 5G is very new in the UK and generally only found in cities, but when available it is fast. If neither 4G or 5G is available, you’ll fall back on 3G, which now feels very slow but is still usable for web browsing and email.

Mobile network operators

There are four major network operators: EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone. The coverage for each varies depending on location. In urban and suburban areas it’s usually possible to get a signal from all four networks but in some places, there may only be one or two networks available.

As well as the four operators there is also a wide choice of ‘Mobile Virtual Network Operators’ (MVNOs) which resell access to the major operators with their own plans and deals.

If you’re visiting a specific area, you’ll want to check coverage and choose the network which offers the strongest signal. If you’re travelling around the country, select the network which provides the best package for your needs.

Using your smartphone and other mobile devices in the UK

If you are bringing your own smartphone, tablet, or mobile broadband dongle and plan to use it in the UK, check that it supports the correct frequencies and standards. The UK uses GSM networks, which means that those of you coming from mainland Europe or many other countries will be able to use your own devices and roam on UK mobile signals. However, if you are visiting from North America or Asia you may have a CDMA device, which might not be compatible; some newer CDMA phones can support both but check first.

If you’re planning on roaming - using your SIM card from home in the UK - always confirm costs with your network provider before travelling. If you’re staying for an extended period (more than a typical holiday of a couple of weeks), you may find it is cheaper to pick up a PAYG SIM card here.

How fast is broadband in the UK?

Home broadband packages in the UK are advertised with an average speed, which is the rate achieved by 50% of the provider’s customers. This means that your actual broadband speed could be either slower or faster than the advertised figure. When signing up for a standard ADSL or fibre optic broadband service, the provider should give you an accurate estimate.

ADSL broadband has an average speed of 10-11Mbps. Fibre optic broadband varies, but most services offer an average speed of either 35Mbps or 65Mbps, while a full-fibre connection can deliver up to 1Gbps. Virgin Media has a choice of speeds from 50Mbps up to 518Mbps.

The national average home broadband speed according to Ofcom (the UK’s telecom regulator) is 50.4Mbps.

For 4G mobile broadband, speeds are advertised with an “up to” figure, typically between 15-30Mbps. 5G can be much faster but it’s still very early days for this technology and many networks are not even quoting speeds.

How to check broadband availability

It’s important to check broadband coverage before committing to any service because providers, type of broadband, and speeds vary across the country.

You can see home broadband coverage at any location by searching by postcode. You’ll find a postcode check on any of our comparison tables, or you can enter a postcode right here:

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Broadband contracts

Many broadband services will require you sign up to an agreement which commits you to paying for the service for a minimum term. Breaking the contract will mean paying a fee, so ideally you’ll want to avoid signing up for anything long term if your living situation may change in the near future.

The vast majority of home broadband services will require a minimum contract period of 12, 18 or 24-months. There are a few short term contract deals, but these are typically more expensive.

Mobile broadband and mobile phone services are a lot more flexible. As well as long term deals there are also 30-day contracts and pre-pay or pay-as-you-go services. Mobile broadband and phone packages are also available with either a device (smartphone, dongle, or tablet) included, or as a SIM-only deal where you provide the hardware.

What’s the best type of broadband for me?

Broadband for tourists and business trips

If you’re here on holiday or for business, your best bet is going to be a mobile connection. It’s generally fast enough for most tasks, you’ll find signal in most locations, and it offers flexible payment options without the need for lengthy contracts. In many cases, you’ll be able to use your own device and SIM card and roam on UK networks.

You can also make use of public Wi-Fi hotspots to save money on the mobile service. Your accommodation - be it a hotel, bed and breakfast or Airbnb - will almost certainly provide a Wi-Fi connection.

Broadband for international students

International students staying with a host family can expect broadband to be included with the accommodation, so you shouldn’t need to worry about access at home. Outside the home, use a mobile connection; either roaming with your home network, or with a locally purchased SIM card. You can also jump on public Wi-Fi hotspots, and make use of your school’s connection.

If your accommodation does not include broadband, a mobile broadband dongle with either a pay-monthly or PAYG SIM card would be a suitable alternative and can be used everywhere you go.

Broadband for immigrants or long term stays

If you’re moving to the UK permanently and you’re settled in a home for the foreseeable future, get a fixed-line ADSL or fibre optic home broadband connection on a minimum 12-month contract; this will give you fast internet access for the best price.

For those of you staying for longer than a holiday, but not planning on making it a permanent trip, the options will depend on your living arrangements. If you’ve got a home for at least 12 months, get a regular home broadband connection with a contract term that fits. If you’re in one place for more than a couple of months but less than 12, a short term (rolling monthly, or no contract) broadband package may suit.

If you’re moving around regularly, a mobile connection is the best fit. Just be aware that mobile broadband services often have fairly low data usage limits and can be expensive if you exceed the caps. Instead, consider a 4G or 5G home broadband service as these can include much higher usage limits, and are available on monthly contracts.

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