What is SIM-only mobile broadband?
SIM only deals are mobile broadband packages which give you just a SIM card and a bundle of data without any additional equipment, so you’re free to use the SIM in any compatible device.
If you already own a mobile Wi-Fi or USB dongle, or a tablet or laptop with SIM card slot, a SIM only mobile broadband deal may be exactly what you're looking for. Because why pay again for a dongle when you already have one?
How do I use a SIM-only mobile broadband deal?
Using a SIM-only deal is easy - just slot the SIM card into whatever gadget you want to get online!
However, you do need to first check that you have the right size SIM, and that your device is compatible with the network. Most new devices will use either a MicroSIM or nano SIM card. It is common for providers to supply a "combiSIM" which can adapt to different sizes, but do check with the network first. If you get the wrong size it's easy to swap it (though in that situation it helps if the provider has a high street presence rather than sorting it out via the post).
What devices can use a SIM-only mobile broadband deal?
A SIM-only mobile broadband deal will work with any device that accepts a SIM card for accessing mobile internet.
If you already own a USB dongle, Wi-Fi dongle or in-car dongle you can purchase a SIM-only deal and use it with existing hardware.
Many tablets - including Android devices and the Apple iPad - support mobile broadband. A SIM only deal allows you to pick and choose your own tablet then just drop in the SIM.
All modern laptops have Wi-Fi, but some also include mobile data capabilities. Often this is an optional extra so check before buying if you want this on your system.
Mobile broadband routers
You can buy wireless routers which accept mobile broadband SIMs. These are great for using mobile internet at home, and sharing the connection with multiple users or devices, or as a backup to your fixed line broadband.
What size SIM card do I need?
There are three different size SIM cards. As well as the standard SIM there is also the smaller microSIM cards, and even smaller nano SIMs.
To find out which SIM size you need, consult the technical specifications for your device.
Most devices made in the last few years will use either microSIM or nano SIM cards. To make life easier many SIM-only deals will provide you with a “combi-SIM” which converts between sizes.
Can I use a SIM-only mobile broadband deal if my device is locked to a network?
Like mobile phones, tablets and dongles can be locked to a network. This means that a SIM-only deal from another network will not function without first removing the network lock.
Tablets and dongles can be unlocked. You can ask the network to do this, although there may be a charge. If it’s going to cost money it might be worth searching online for a solution as there may be a way to do it for free.
Which is better - pay as you go or contract mobile broadband?
When browsing the comparison table above you’ll notice that mobile broadband SIM only deals are available on both contract and pay as you go (PAYG).
PAYG mobile broadband has the obvious advantage of not forcing you into any kind of commitment - if you don’t want to use it just don’t buy a top-up. This makes it best for infrequent or light use, and provides much greater control over the financial side of things.
But PAYG can be poor value for certain types of users. If you require a mobile broadband service on a regular basis and tend to use a fair amount of data you will find that PAYG top-ups are not cheap compared to a contract.
Contract mobile internet tends to offer better value for money in the long term for medium to heavy usage, as the prices for the equivalent data allowance will be lower. But you are committing to paying the monthly price for the entire length of the contract.
Many SIM only deals are rolling monthly contracts, so you aren’t signing your life away for a long period. This gives you some freedom to try out a contract deal for a short period and later cancel or switch to PAYG if it’s not the right fit for you. If you’d prefer a long contract, there are also options for contracts up to 12 months.
Contract SIM only does not require a set-up fee either so is the cheapest to get started, though in fairness the up-front cost for PAYG deals does include data.
Which is the fastest or best mobile network?
The best mobile network is whichever has the strongest signal in your area. Signal strength has the biggest impact on mobile internet speeds, which is why it’s very important to always check coverage before buying.
Use the official network coverage tools to view signal strength and service availability at any location in the UK. These can be accessed by clicking the network logos below:
How do I find the best SIM-only mobile broadband deal?
Once you’ve identified the network(s) with the best signal in the areas where the mobile broadband service will be used, it’s time to compare deals. Here are three key points to consider.
Contract or PAYG?
Choose PAYG for occasional use (but be aware that credit expires and SIM cards become inactive if not used regularly). One month (aka no contract or rolling monthly) deals if it’s only required in the short term. And longer contracts if the service is going to be used frequently.
Contract SIM-only deals have a monthly data usage cap - go over this and you could be charged extra, but get too much and you’re paying for something that’s not being used. Select a data limit appropriate to your usage needs. Not sure how to decide? Read our guide to mobile broadband data limits for more help.
If you’ve opted for a contract deal you’re agreeing to pay this amount for the length of the deal. The price includes the stated monthly data limit and will not change provided you stay within the cap. PAYG mobile broadband SIMs obviously don’t have a monthly price as you simply top-up as and when it’s needed, but it’s worth checking the cost of top-ups before committing to a network.