What is a mobile broadband dongle?
Mobile broadband dongles are devices which provide 3G or 4G internet connectivity over mobile networks.
If you took a mobile phone and stripped out the keyboard and display what you'd be left with is essentially a dongle. It has the hardware necessary to communicate with a network but without the ability to place calls.
There are two different types of dongle: USB dongles and Wi-Fi dongles.
What is a USB dongle?
USB dongles are the cheapest and most common type of mobile broadband dongle. They look like memory sticks, and simply slot into a USB port on desktops and laptops.
USB dongle pros
- Easy to install and use
USB dongle cons
- Only meant for use with one computer at a time
- Compatible with specific operating systems, may not work on Linux or tablet computers
What is a mobile Wi-Fi dongle?
Mobile Wi-Fi dongles (also called pocket Wi-Fi or MiFi) broadcast a local wireless network signal which allows multiple devices to connect to the mobile broadband. Some Wi-Fi dongles are also specifically designed for use in vehicles - as well as a battery allowing for portability they can plug into the charging socket of a car.
Mobile Wi-Fi dongle pros
- Can be used with any device supporting Wi-Fi, including games consoles and tablets
- Effortlessly shares the connection between multiple users
Mobile Wi-Fi dongle cons
- Pricier than USB dongles
- Limited battery life when used wirelessly
Should I get a USB dongle or a Wi-Fi dongle?
Wi-Fi dongles are very flexible as anything which supports Wi-Fi (such as tablets, iPads and games consoles) can connect to them. They’re designed to share the connection, so a single SIM can provide internet access to multiple people. Choose a Wi-Fi dongle if you need mobile broadband on devices which don’t support USB dongles, and/or you wish to be able to share the connection.
If you only need mobile broadband access on a single desktop or laptop computer and have no intention of sharing the connection, a USB dongle is perfectly sufficient.
Should I get a 3G or 4G dongle?
4G is recommended. It is significantly faster than 3G, and 4G coverage is improving all the time. Even if you can’t get 4G right now, the dongle will work with 3G signals too, and you’ll be future-proof when it does arrive...
Is there 3G or 4G mobile broadband coverage in my area?
Check network coverage before buying mobile broadband. You can do this using the official network coverage check tools, which will show signal strength and the type of network (3G or 4G) across the UK. Click the network logos to access these tools:
Can I use a mobile broadband dongle abroad?
Mobile broadband can work abroad, but the cost may be high. Within the EU you will not be charged any extra for roaming, but elsewhere there may be a very expensive per-MB fee. Our mobile roaming tool shows roaming costs around the world, but you should also check with the provider to confirm pricing. In some cases it might be necessary to ask for roaming to be enabled, or pre-purchase a roaming data package.
What should I look out for when comparing mobile broadband dongle deals?
Scroll to the top of this page and you’ll see our comparison tables displaying the various mobile broadband offers. At any one time there’s a dizzying array of deals, so here’s a few key points to consider before you buy:
The up-front cost of the dongle package. Many contract deals are free, but pay-as-you-go and rolling monthly options will generally involve some kind of initial cost to cover the equipment. In the case of PAYG this will also include some data to get started.
The base cost per month for contract mobile broadband. If you stay within the limits of the contract there should be no extra charges.
The length of the contract, cancelling before this time will incur a charge. 24 months is normal now, but you can find 12 month deals as well as one month rolling contracts which allow you to cancel with just 30 days notice.
The estimated speed of the connection. This information is supplied by the network and highly dependent on factors such as signal strength and network congestion, so your actual speed will be very different. Consider this a best possible scenario and prepare for it to be much slower.
This is how much data you can use per month before hitting any restrictions or extra charges. Web browsing and email use very little data, but downloading files and streaming video can use it up much faster. Unlimited usage is not available for dongles so you need to choose the right data package. See our guide to mobile broadband data usage for more information.