Finding the best PAYG mobile broadband deal

Pay as you go internet dongles have been around for a long time, giving computer users the opportunity to log on to the internet while they're away from home or away from the office. With several different mobile internet options available, internet dongles can be forgotten, but they are incredibly useful for some.

Using the comparison tool on this page, you can search for pay as you go internet dongles from the biggest networks in the UK to find the deal that's right for you. See at a glance which dongles are available from each network and sort by lowest price or data allowance to find your perfect fit.

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What are pay as you go internet dongles?

An internet dongle is a small device shaped like a USB stick which fits into the USB port on a computer and allows it to receive internet services. As the name suggests, a pay as you go dongle is one that is not on a monthly contract and so has more flexibility for customers.

Internet dongles are designed to offer internet access to a single computer or laptop, and they can be used by people away from home or as a backup option for home use. When a pay as you go dongle is first purchased, it generally comes with a set amount of data pre-loaded onto it which can then be refreshed by purchasing data direct from the network and adding it to the dongle.

In this way, pay as you go dongles operate on the same principles as pay as you go mobiles. It's worth remembering that, just like PAYG mobiles, purchasing a dongle outright makes the upfront costs slightly more than if you were taking it on a pay monthly basis. If regular use of a dongle is expected, compare PAYG options with pay monthly ones to see which offer the best deals.

What are the differences between mobile dongles and mobile hotspots?

Mobile dongles and mobile hotspots are similar devices, but they have differences and it's important to be aware of them before you choose a mobile internet device.

The major difference is that a traditional dongle plugs into one computer and provides internet access for that computer whereas mobile hotspots (also called a mi-fi or personal hotspot) can provide multiple devices with mobile internet services. This means a PAYG dongle is limited to one device with a USB port, but this might be what you're looking for. If you want to hook your mobile devices up to mobile internet, you'll need a mobile hotspot. However, if you simply want access on one computer, a mobile dongle may suffice.

This rule isn't absolute - there are some internet dongles that advertise themselves as having wi-fi included, so look out for those.

Some people, particularly those travelling for business purposes, prefer internet dongles over mobile hotspots because there's no wi-fi between the computer and the device. This eliminates the small possibility of their data being accessed by someone intercepting data from the mi-fi device.

From a price perspective, the upfront costs of pay as you go dongles are lower than mobile hotspots. This is primarily due to the increased capabilities of adding multiple devices to one hotspot, but if this isn't a feature you're looking for, a pay as you go dongle is cheaper upfront and may suffice.

What are the benefits of pay as you go internet dongles?

Mobile internet dongles allow internet access to be taken with you and your computer. As well as this, pay as you go dongle options offer payment flexibility too. If you're looking for a mobile internet option for a short period or to keep as a backup home internet device, a pay as you go internet dongle can provide that - and it's often cheaper than a mobile hotspot as we've already discussed above.

Unlike mobile hotspots, internet dongles run on the battery of your computer, so they don't need to be charged to be used. This makes them a genuine "plug and play" option which can be used as long as there is mobile network coverage.

Pay as you go dongles are easy to set up and don't require expert assistance to set up, making them a useful and flexible internet option for those who may not be as technologically savvy as other internet users.

Are there any disadvantages to internet dongles?

PAYG internet dongles aren't generally a good replacement for fixed line broadband, although there are exceptions and we cover this in more detail in the next section. The price of PAYG data for a mobile dongle can be expensive in comparison to fixed line broadband, but they remain useful options as home back ups and for travelling around with a computer.

It's also important to remember that dongles come with lower speeds than fixed line broadband and many personal hotspot devices. This means that data-heavy activities may be difficult on a mobile dongle, even if you've got enough data on your dongle to cover it.

Beware, too, of coverage limitations. Because comparatively few mobile networks offer dongles, the options for customers who live in remote areas or signal blackspots can be limited. Be sure to check the network coverage of a mobile provider in the areas you plan on using the dongle regularly, whether that's at home, work, on the train or in your favourite cafe.

Who might use an internet dongle?

Pay as you go dongles are particularly useful for people who want to access the internet while away from home (although there are caveats relating to international costs which we cover below). Anyone travelling for business who wants a reliable device to access the internet may opt for a dongle, as well as those who occasionally work from cafes and other public locations where using the public wi-fi isn't secure enough for them.

PAYG dongles are useful back up internet options for the home, plus they could be provided to family members who don't often use the internet and therefore don't need much data, i.e. elderly relatives. A further benefit of a PAYG dongle for older people comes from the fact they are easy to use and those who are less tech savvy may find a "plug and play" device easier than a mobile hotspot.

Many people keep a pay as you go internet dongle as a general back-up option in case their home broadband goes down. If you're in a location where this frequently happens or you would like a fallback option just in case, investing in a PAYG dongle and purchasing credit when necessary could be a good choice.

How to compare pay as you go internet dongles

The first thing to check when looking at a pay as you go dongle is the coverage offered by the mobile network provider. While 4G mobile coverage is now almost comprehensive across the UK, some providers are still lacking in remote areas. If you're choosing a dongle to make up for poor home internet in rural areas, be sure to check the coverage of a mobile provider in your area.

You can compare internet dongles by looking at the upfront cost of the device, along with how much data it comes with. It might be worth choosing one with a higher upfront cost and a higher data amount if you think you'll use it before it expires.

Another consideration when choosing a pay as you go internet dongle is the ongoing cost of data and whether it's economical to choose one PAYG provider over another. Check too, whether a pay monthly dongle option would be more cost effective.

Note that some dongles are only on 3G networks rather than 4G or 5G which means they will be comparatively slow. If speed isn't an issue, though, these can be excellent back-up options.

How much do pay as you go internet dongles and data cost?

The lowest priced dongles start at around £15 but bear in mind this will only come with a limited amount of data and are on 3G networks rather than 4G so they'll be slower. 4G pay as you go dongles start from around £30.

There are extras to look out for too. As we've already mentioned, some dongles come with wi-fi access for multiple users to hook up to the device and use it more like a mi-fi. There may also be an option to hook up to public wi-fi hotspots as part of the deal.

PAYG data packs are often purchased with a 30-day limit on them, so the data you don't use within that timeframe will be lost. It's worth checking your chosen network's packages to see if they offer a data package that suits your needs.

Which mobile networks offer internet dongles?

As mobile hotspots have grown in popularity, the number of pay as you go internet dongles on the market has decreased. However, you can still get them from at least two major operators (O2 and Vodafone), and others may be available depending on the demand.

The benefits of mobile dongles we've already discussed are popular with users and choosing a "plug and play" device which feeds directly into a computer's USB socket is preferable with some users. So, we may see more dongles on the market as mobile operators give customers more choice about their mobile broadband usage.

Can I use my internet dongle as a replacement for home broadband?

Unless you're a light internet user, it's unlikely a pay as you go internet dongle will be a viable alternative to fixed line home broadband. The cost of data is high in comparison to home broadband options, so it's worth looking at other options if you're struggling to find suitable home internet.

However, if a PAYG dongle is used by a very light internet user to check emails and occasionally browse news and similar websites, it could be an economical investment. In addition, if there's a location you spend weekends like a caravan or a camp site, taking a mobile dongle along could be useful.

Can I use my internet dongle while travelling?

One thing to remember when thinking about using your pay as you go dongle while travelling is that the data costs can soon mount up. This is the case whether you're travelling in the UK or further afield, but it can be particularly problematic when you're abroad.

If using your PAYG mobile dongle abroad is a primary reason for purchasing, visit your prospective network's website and look at the data costs in the countries you'd expect to visit. Compare with pay monthly data charges and look seriously at the possibility that it might be cheaper to sign up for a mobile dongle pay monthly contract.

As for UK travel, if there are certain locations you wish to visit with your PAYG internet dongle, check there's effective coverage with your chosen network.