What is a 3G dongle?
A 3G dongle is a device which provides internet access via 3G mobile networks, so you can get broadband anywhere (signal allowing) without the need for a phone or fibre line.
Which is better: USB dongles or Wi-Fi dongles?
Take a look at the comparison table above and you’ll see two different types of dongles - USB and Wi-Fi. But what are they, and which is best for you?
USB dongles are compact and cheap devices which provide internet access to a single device at a time. Because they plug into a full-size USB port and require drivers they are limited to computers running supported versions of Windows and Mac OS.
Wi-Fi dongles (also called mobile Wi-Fi or MiFi) create a Wi-Fi network that any nearby device can connect to (with the correct password, of course) to get broadband access. This means they’ll work with anything that supports Wi-Fi. They’re great for sharing the connection too as Wi-Fi dongles typically support 10-20 users at once. But Wi-Fi dongles are more expensive, and have a limited battery life and need to be charged regularly via USB.
How fast is a 3G dongle?
Most networks quote a top speed of 21Mb for 3G mobile broadband. But this is a theoretical maximum and in reality the connection is unlikely to reach such dizzy heights.
But it can still provide a reasonably quick connection. OpenSignal recorded an average 3G download speed of 5.45Mbps in September 2017. That’s fast enough for web browsing and streaming video, and even large downloads won’t take too long.
However, upload speed is much lower so transferring large files could take a long time on 3G.
Should I get a 4G dongle instead?
4G is significantly quicker than 3G and is available in many parts of the UK. There’s also no big difference in cost - while up-front fees may be higher the monthly price is the same. When 4G first launched it was more expensive but now the networks do not differentiate pricing in terms of 3G vs 4G. The only thing that impacts whether you can get 4G is if your device supports it.
If you only want basic internet access and aren’t worried about getting the best possible performance, then a 3G dongle is perfectly sufficient. But 4G is not expensive, and it is future-proof so the dongle should last you many years.
How much data do I need?
This depends on how you’re planning to use the dongle. If the bulk of your time is spent browsing the web - including social media - then your data usage is probably quite low.
Streaming video and music, downloading files and sending files (such as pictures and videos) to the internet consumes a lot more data.
Our guide to mobile broadband data usage goes into more detail, and includes a breakdown of the amount of data used by popular services and apps. Use this to come to a rough estimate of your monthly data usage, then add on a little extra. Alternatively, use a data traffic monitor (either a third party app or the utility built into smartphones) to record your internet activity for a few days.
Can I use a 3G dongle instead of home broadband?
Mobile broadband can be used anywhere there’s a signal, so it’s certainly possible to use it at home. But it’s not necessarily an ideal replacement for home broadband.
For starters, there’s a good chance that the home broadband services in your area are going to be much faster and more stable than a mobile connection. And most home broadband packages are also completely unlimited, and significantly cheaper than mobile broadband deals with large data usage limits.
On the plus side, mobile broadband doesn’t need a phone line and the connection can follow wherever you go.
If your average data usage is quite low then mobile broadband may indeed be a more suitable choice for home use; read our guide to using mobile broadband at home for further help.
What should I look for when comparing 3G dongle deals?
There are a wide choice of mobile broadband deals out there. Here’s what to look out for when comparing the offers to ensure you get the best package.
Decide whether you want a USB or Wi-Fi dongle. We prefer Wi-Fi dongles as they’re far more flexible, but if you’re never planning on sharing the connection or using it with anything other than a laptop or desktop computer a USB dongle will suffice.
There are plenty of mobile broadband deals with free setup, but you’ll need to sign on for a longer contract. If you’d rather not commit to that then pay-as-you-go or short term contracts are available with relatively cheap setup fees.
You’re committed to paying this for the length of the contract so consider carefully before signing up to long deals. While this is a fixed cost you may be charged extra for exceeding the monthly data limit. The best value for money-per-GB is usually found on deals with 24 month contracts.
Mobile broadband is available on short term 1 month contracts and 12 and 24 month deals. There’s also pay-as-you-go mobile broadband which does not require a fixed monthly payment.
Along with price this is the most important thing to consider when comparing 3G dongle deals. Choose a data limit that comfortably accommodates your usage, otherwise you might end up paying extra.