PAYG Mobile Broadband Dongles

The rise in popularity of netbooks and highly portable laptop computers paired with mobile broadband mean it’s an ideal gift for Internet users on the move. The advantage of a pay-as-you-go package is that there’s no ongoing contract cost for the recipient to pay.

They simply top-up whenever they want to go online, just as they would do for their PAYG mobile phone. Initial equipment costs are paid for by the person giving the gift.

What is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband allows computers to access the Internet at high speeds wherever there is a good 3G mobile signal. It is typically provided using a USB dongle and SIM card. When plugged in to a spare USB port, any required software is installed and the Internet can be accessed via the mobile operator’s network.

Some providers offer data cards instead, potentially offering faster speeds, though they are generally more expensive and are only available on contract.

How does ‘Pay As You Go’ mobile broadband work?

Once you sign up for pay-as-you-go mobile broadband, and provide basic contact and payment information, you may need to purchase the USB dongle and then top-up a minimum amount in order to start using the service. Generally, each amount credited to your account lasts for a set period of time before it expires, regardless of whether or not you’ve used that much data. You must then either top-up again or risk additional charges for each extra megabyte or gigabyte of data used.

Pay As You Go mobile broadband providers

The six main UK networks (3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone) provide a range of mobile broadband packages. Four (3, O2, T-Mobile and Vodafone) offer true contract-free “pay as you go” allowing you to connect via their network without having to sign up to a lengthy contract, while Orange offers one-month deals. Virgin Media offers a two-month minimum contract.

When choosing a provider, the following must be considered.

Network coverage

It’s essential to check that mobile broadband is available in the areas you expect to use it. The coverage areas are similar to that of 3G, but you need to check each company’s web site for specific details. Even in good coverage areas, both environmental factors and the number of users connecting to the service can limit the maximum attainable speed. A recent study suggests that the speed of UK broadband is worse than that of Mongolia, though networks are gradually being upgraded to offer faster speeds.

In some areas, it may be difficult to use mobile broadband indoors, and signal strength can fluctuate from room to room. This is an important consideration particularly if mobile broadband will be used extensively at home.

Network Coverage Coverage Checker
3 Mobile Broadband 3 Mobile Broadband Three’s high speed network covers a large proportion of mainland England and Wales, though coverage in Scotland is patchy. 3 Coverage Checker
O2 Mobile Broadband O2 Mobile Broadband Traditionally, O2 has had one of the patchier high-speed networks, with its area limited to the southeast of England and large cities, although the situation is improving. O2 Coverage Checker
Vodafone Mobile Broadband Vodafone Mobile Broadband Many cities and larger towns have high-speed network access, but only the slower 2G network is available in many rural areas of England, Wales and Scotland. Vodafone Coverage Checker
Orange Mobile BroadbandT-Mobile Mobile Broadband Orange / T-Mobile Mobile Broadband A large proportion of the United Kingdom is covered by the Orange and T-Mobile networks, and since the companies have merged, customers can use both networks. Orange / T-Mobile Coverage Checker
Virgin Media Mobile Broadband Virgin Media Mobile Broadband Virgin Mobile uses the T-Mobile network, so coverage should be similar. The company claims 85% of the UK population can access the 3G network. Virgin Mobile Coverage Checker

Connection speed

Most packages are offered with connection speeds ‘up to’ a certain speed, typically 7.2Mbps. It is rare to achieve anything close to this advertised speed.

Several providers are upfront about the speed you can realistically hope to attain on their networks. T-Mobile claims that “most people will get speeds between 1 and 2Mbps”. The same is true of Vodafone when in a strong 3G signal area. The other networks don’t make it obvious what speeds to expect but 1-2Mbps is typically the best most people achieve. This compares to an average of 4.5Mbps for fixed broadband services across the UK.

Read more about mobile broadband coverage.

Data allowance

Most mobile broadband packages offer a fixed data allowance, with cheaper packages offering a lower cap than more expensive ones. This works in a similar way to cheaper home broadband packages. Exceeding the data allowance may result in high additional charges, either per gigabyte or per megabyte. Some operators have a fair use policy that allows you to continue to use low-bandwidth applications like email while barring things like audio and video streaming.

It can be difficult to know exactly how much data is being consumed. As a rule of thumb, each gigabyte (GB) is enough for:

  • 1,000 emails (including some with attachments)
  • 60 hours of standard web browsing
  • 3 hours of video content
  • 150 music track downloads
  • 6.5 hours of Internet radio streaming

though these are just estimates.

It’s important to note that the data allowance includes both data received and sent from your computer, so if you send emails or upload photos or video to web sites, that’s also counted. The software that comes with the USB dongle should include information on how much data you’ve used in a given time period, but you can also download other software that will monitor your Internet usage.

Most data top-ups come with an expiry date. Often this is one month (or 30 days) after purchase or activation. This must be considered if you want to gift additional data, because if you buy it all at once it could possibly expire before it can be used.

Read more about mobile broadband download limits.

Using mobile broadband abroad

As with most mobile services, using the mobile Internet while abroad can be extremely expensive. Here’s what each provider charges for international data:

3 EU: £1.25 per MB

T-Mobile £10 per day, unlimited subject to fair use policy

Orange EU: £3 per MB; elsewhere: £8 per MB

Vodafone EU: £9.99 per day for 50MB; elsewhere: £29.99 per day for 50MB

O2 Service generally not enabled, but can buy ‘bolt on’ £50 for 50MB in one month then additionally EU: £3 per MB; Elsewhere: £6 per MB

Advantages of PAYG mobile broadband

No contract
You can simply top-up your balance whenever you need to and are not tied to a contract, so you don’t have ongoing costs when you’re not using it.

Use any machine
With a USB dongle, you can plug it in to any laptop and you can access the Internet.

Easy to switch networks and plans
With no contract in place, it’s easy to switch if a better deal comes along or your circumstances change.

Disadvantages of PAYG mobile broadband

Mobile broadband is currently a lot slower than most fixed broadband services and so is not well-suited to streaming video content.

Access to mobile Internet in many locations is not possible, or is very slow, because the mobile network is not fast enough to support it.

Just like your mobile phone signal, mobile broadband service reliability may fluctuate depending upon your location. This problem can be exacerbated while travelling at high speeds. Therefore it’s not ideal for running applications that require a constant connection.

The price of pay-as-you-go mobile broadband is typically high. Heavy mobile Internet users may be better signing up to a contract.

Current PAYG deals

The following deals were correct at the beginning of December 2010, but it’s always worth checking individual web sites or price comparison sites to find the latest deals.

Note: Strictly speaking, Orange doesn’t offer pay-as-you-go mobile broadband, but we have included the one month contract-free plans here. Virgin Mobile has rolling two-month contracts, so isn’t shown here.


Plan Name

Initial Cost

Initial data and usage period

Top up

Max speed


3 Mobile Broadband Pay As You Go +12 £79.99 12GB/year £2 for 500MB, £10 for 1GB, £15 for 3GB, £25 for 7GB 7.2Mb Free access to The Times web sites
Pay As You Go +3 £29.99 3GB/3mo 7.2Mb
Pay As You Go +1 £19.99 1GB/1mo 7.2Mb
O2 Mobile Broadband Starter Kit 2GB £34.99 2GB/1mo £2 for 200MB/day, £10 for 1GB/mo, £15 for 2GB/mo 7.2Mb Free unlimited Wi-Fi
Starter Kit 1GB £29.99 1GB/1mo 7.2Mb
Dongle £19.99 None 7.2Mb
Vodafone Mobile Broadband Top-up and go £25.00 3GB/1mo £15 for 3GB/mo 7.2Mb


Dongle only £19.99 None 7.2Mb
Orange Mobile Broadband Racoon 500MB £39.00 500MB/1mo £5 for 500MB/mo + £5 for 500MB / £10 for 1GB 7.2Mb
Dolphin £30.00 1GB/1mo £15 for 1GB/mo + £5 for 500MB / £10 for 1GB 7.2Mb
Racoon £34.00 None 5p per MB or £5 for 500MB / £10 for 1GB 7.2Mb
T-Mobile Mobile Broadband Pay per day £29.99 (inc. £10 top up) 500MB/day, 1GB/wk, 2GB/mo £2 per day / £7 per week / £15 per month 7.2Mb No charge for over limit but includes 'fair use' policy. includes space for 4GB memory card
Up front £39.99 6GB/3mo £2 per day 7.2Mb

The Annual Cost Of PAYG Mobile Broadband

The following table shows the total cost of using PAYG mobile broadband on each plan detailed above.

It includes the initial cost of purchasing the dongle and takes into account any included data. It also accounts for top-up expiry dates. For example, if a user needed to use 12GB over the course of a year, and top-up purchases expired after a month, he would have to buy a minimum of twelve 1GB top-ups. He could not buy four 3GB monthly top-ups (even if available) expecting them to last three months each.

All data is based upon the current price plans, top-up prices and fair usage policies. Always check the mobile operator web sites for the latest details.


Plan Name

Total Cost* for annual data usage of...






3 Mobile Broadband Pay As You Go +12 £79.99 £199.99 £259.99 £259.99 £379.99
Pay As You Go +3 £119.99 £194.99 £209.99 £329.99 £329.99
Pay As You Go +1 £139.99 £199.99 £199.99 £319.99 £319.99
O2 Mobile Broadband Starter Kit 2GB £154.99 £214.99 £334.99 £394.99 £394.99
Starter Kit 1GB £144.99 £204.99 £324.99 £384.99 £444.99
Dongle £139.99 £199.99 £319.99 £379.99 £499.99
Vodafone Mobile Broadband Top-up and go £190.00 £190.00 £190.00 £355.00 £355.00
Dongle only £199.99 £199.99 £199.99 £379.99 £379.99
Orange Mobile Broadband Racoon 500MB £149.99 £209.99 £329.99 £449.99 £569.99
Dolphin £195.00 £300.00 £420.00 £480.00 £600.00
Racoon £209.00 £329.00 £449.00 £569.00 £689.00
T-Mobile Broadband Pay per day*** £199.99 £199.99 £199.99** £199.99** £199.99**
Up front £174.99 £174.99 £174.99** £174.99** £174.99**

* Includes initial dongle cost, and is based on equal monthly data usage of 1/12th total annual data.
** This amount of data downloaded per year would exceed T-Mobile’s fair usage policy of 2GB per month.
*** Paying monthly.


It’s difficult to make a single recommendation that will suit all, because everyone has different requirements and network availability.

T-Mobile currently offers a very good deal and fair use policy, coupled with generally decent network coverage. Anyone planning to use less than 1GB of data per month might get a cheaper deal with the other networks. Those needing to use significant monthly data might do best with a plan from Vodafone as T-Mobile’s fair usage policy will kick in above usage of 2GB per month.

All networks have decent offerings if you are in a strong coverage area. As well as knowing how much data the end user is likely to need, it’s worth checking to see if any deals or special offers are available.

Last updated: 02 December 2010