What is pay-as-you-go mobile broadband?
A pay as you go (PAYG) mobile broadband deal gives you internet access via mobile networks, and rather than signing up for a contract and having to pay a set amount each month you can simply top up with data whenever it is needed.
What’s good about pay as you go deals?
Being able to top-up whenever you like means you can add to the data limit as needed, useful if you need to extend your cap unexpectedly, but it also avoids wasting money on unnecessarily high download limits. Many PAYG mobile broadband services will also allow you to ‘pay-per-day’ using top-ups with a 24 hour expiry, which is very useful if you only need it occasionally.
- No commitment
Not having a contract is the big attraction of any PAYG service. There are no cancellation fees or notice periods - just stop buying top-ups. The only thing to watch out for is that the SIM may be de-activated after a while, but you can easily get another one or have it re-enabled.
- Control your spending
No danger of racking up unexpectedly high bills with PAYG. This makes it particularly suitable for parents who want to give their kids a mobile broadband package, or anyone who just wants the cheapest mobile internet.
Are there any downsides to a pay as you go mobile internet package?
- Value for money
For those requiring a lot of data contract deals generally give higher usage caps for the same amount of money. And there is often no up-front charge for the dongle itself, whereas a PAYG dongle package will require you to pay for the hardware when you sign up.
- No roaming
Some networks do not allow you to use a PAYG dongle outside the UK. Sacrebleu!
- Top-ups required
If you exceed the usage limit on a contract deal you’ll either have your service slightly restricted or be charged extra, but if the credit runs out on PAYG you’ll have to stop what you’re doing and top it up again. That can be annoying for heavy users.
Pay as you go vs contract mobile broadband - which is best for me?
Contract deals are good value if the service is going to be used regularly, since you’re committing to the monthly payment but getting more data for the money. If you only need mobile broadband temporarily or for occasional use, then PAYG is the best choice.
Should I choose a 3G or 4G mobile broadband deal?
4G mobile broadband is much faster than 3G, and the network coverage is getting better all the time. If you want the cheapest deal and don’t mind not having the best possible speed then 3G is suitable, but we would usually recommend 4G as it can provide a significantly more enjoyable internet experience.
Is it better to get a USB dongle or mobile Wi-Fi dongle?
When comparing pay as you go mobile broadband deals you’ll find there are two different types of hardware. USB dongles plug into a compatible desktop or laptop computer and provide internet access to one device at a time. Wi-Fi dongles create a portable Wi-Fi network to share the connection.
Choose a USB dongle if you only need to use the mobile broadband with a single computer. Select a Wi-Fi dongle if the connection needs to be shared, or you need to provide internet access to devices (such as tablets and iPads) which are not compatible with USB dongles.
How can I check mobile internet coverage in my area?
The speed of a mobile broadband service very heavily depends on signal strength. And of course you’re not going to get any internet at all if there’s no signal. So before buying always check coverage in the location where the mobile broadband will be used.
Use the official network coverage check tools to view signal strength and service availability anywhere in the UK. Click the logos below to access these:
How do I top up my pay-as-you-go mobile broadband?
There’s a question which pops up time and time again on Broadband Genie: how do I top-up a mobile broadband dongle? Unlike mobile phones you can’t always buy a voucher from a shop, and the top-up method varies with each network.
If you’re confused about the top-up method for your service, click these links to visit each network’s guide to topping up mobile broadband:
You'll find more information in our guide to topping up mobile broadband.
Does mobile broadband credit expire?
Almost all PAYG mobile broadband services have an expiry limit on the credit, which means you have to use it within that period or it’s gone. Most of the time this is 30 days, but pay-per-day top-ups (obviously) last for 24 hours, and pre-paid PAYG dongle packages can include bundled credit which stays active for up to 90 days. That is a one-off, though, and normal top-ups must be used once the 90 day credit is expired.
Can I use pay as you go mobile broadband outside the UK?
Not every pay as you go mobile broadband service works outside the UK. Here’s the rundown for each major network:
- Three: yes, roaming is enabled by default, no notification required
- EE: not supported
- O2: not supported
- Vodafone: not supported
For a lot more about mobile broadband roaming, including some incredibly important pricing details, please visit our handy guide to using mobile broadband abroad.
What should I look for when comparing pay as you go deals?
Our extensive comparison tables contain a whole bunch of information to help you find the best deal. We’ve broken the offers down to highlight the important things - don’t forget that you can click headings in the comparison table to sort the listings for the areas most important to you.
The initial cost of the dongle package. Unlike contract mobile broadband, PAYG deals are not free, but you can find some very cheap offers. Though generally paying more up-front will give you a better dongle.
Do you want a USB or Wi-Fi dongle, or perhaps you just need a SIM-only deal to use with existing hardware? Use the device type filters to quickly find matching deals.
You need to pay careful attention to this section for two reasons. First, some deals require you to buy a minimum top-up (usually £10 or £15) to begin, so factor that in when working out prices. But with some PAYG packages you’ll receive a bundle of data to kick things off, and this can make the pricier options better value as they may include a hefty data allowance alongside the dongle.
The estimated speed of your dongle. This is an estimate supplied by the network and it will vary depending on network congestion and signal strength.
Just underneath the main details of each deal we’ll include any important extras you should know about, such as special offers or bonuses like free Wi-Fi (using wireless internet whenever possible is a great way to save money on top-ups).