Guide to pay as you go mobile broadband and how to top-up

With mobile broadband pay as you go (PAYG) tariffs you are charged a set rate for each GB of data you download, or for a specific period of time spent online (such as per day). Once the credit has expired you can purchase more, using vouchers, credit cards and even cash machines.

Mobile internet PAYG deals are generally similar to the mobile phone deals of the same name, so if you've had a PAYG mobile handset you'll be on familiar ground.

Is PAYG mobile broadband right for me?

Pay as you go mobile broadband deals are pretty flexible, so are good for people who don't download that much, or who are irregular internet users. PAYG is also an excellent option for those who don't want to commit themselves to lengthy contracts.

But if you are going to use the mobile broadband very frequently then a contract deal may be better value as you'll generally find that they provide more data for the money.

Choose pre-paid deals for fuss-free mobile broadband

If you want to avoid messing around with mobile broadband top-ups for a little longer when buying your dongle, look out for mobile broadband starter kits (often listed as deals with "+ data"). These come loaded with data allowance so you can use the mobile broadband dongle right away without having to first top-up.

How do I use PAYG mobile broadband?

To get up and running with PAYG you'll first need a new mobile broadband PAYG SIM card (you cannot use a mobile phone SIM). For most people this will come with a mobile broadband dongle, but they are also supplied 'SIM only' from most mobile networks. Just be aware that it isn't always straightforward to put a SIM from one network into a branded dongle of another: just like mobile phones, dongles can be locked to a network, so check before ordering. Once you have this sorted out, you can 'top-up' your account with credit as and when you need it.

How do I top-up mobile broadband?

Gone are the days when you had to trudge around looking for an open newsagents that sold top-up cards before you could get back up to speed – it's now far more convenient to get a mobile broadband top-up. All the PAYG mobile broadband providers have an online system where you can add credit simply by logging in with a username and password. You can always access this via your dongle, even when you are out of credit, so it doesn't matter if you run out of data in the middle of nowhere.

For some services you can still buy a voucher from your provider’s high street store, or look out for the 'top-up' logo in the windows of retail outlets like supermarkets, newsagents and off licences. Using an E Top-Up card given to you by your provider, you can add credit by passing this card over to the vendor.

When you're close to using up your initial PAYG credit you'll need to top-up before you can keep surfing. The SIM card you insert into your dongle or laptop comes with its own mobile broadband number; it's a good idea to jot this number down somewhere safe so you have access to it, even when you're on the move. The easiest way to do this might be to add it as a 'My Mobile Broadband' entry in your mobile phone contacts.

How to top-up EE mobile broadband

EE lets you top-up online, either by buying data with existing credit or paying via credit/debit card (£5-£50, in £5 increments). If you're out of credit and try to get online with your dongle, you'll be redirected to the right place to do this automatically. If you're not on your dongle at the time, you can top-up by logging into the EE website.

Alternatively, when you get your mobile broadband device or SIM from EE, you'll be sent an E top-up card that can be used to buy credit in more than 100,000 stores in the UK.

How to top-up O2 mobile broadband

O2 now has a much better selection of top-up options available than in the past, with everything from automatic/web/phone top-ups to more innovative ideas such as using cash machines and Facebook - plus standard card and voucher schemes. For full details, head to the O2 top-up page.

How to top-up Three mobile broadband

Three mobile broadband can be topped up in a similar fashion to Three mobile phones, by purchasing a voucher in shops or paying online with a credit/debit card. If it's the former you'll need to buy the voucher to the value you need, then go to your My3 account online and follow the instructions. If you're using the credit or debit card method you'll also need to go to your My3 account and in the 'Top-up your account' area simply select a data allowance option. After this, follow the instructions: this usually involves restarting your connection by disconnecting and reconnecting your device.

How to top-up Vodafone mobile broadband

Vodafone users can top up by popping into a Vodafone store, or purchasing a PAYG voucher. Vouchers are available in a variety of increments (£5-50). The number on the voucher can be entered via the Vodafone software on your desktop, if this doesn't work you can call customer services (191) who can apply the voucher for you.

Alternatively, you can pay with credit or debit card through the account page at the Vodafone web site once you've registered. Going down this route also allows you to top up your friends' and family's numbers too.

Does my top-up credit expire?

All providers specify your credit must be used within a set limit (often 30 days), otherwise it expires and is no longer available, so if you put £20 on and come back months later it's likely you'll have to spend more money to get online again. You will also find that PAYG SIM cards become inactive if not used on a regular basis.

PAYG mobile broadband credit expiry and SIM card cancellation times

Want to know when your mobile broadband credit may expire, or which network is best if you're only using the SIM occasionally? Consult this table for a quick reference. The SIM credit expiry time is how long you have to use the credit, and the SIM card expiry time is how long the SIM will remain active since it was last used.

Network
PAYG credit expiry time
SIM card expiry time
EE 180 days 180 days
O2 6 months 6 months
Three 6 months 6 months
Vodafone 270 days 270 days
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