Pay as you go mobile broadband explained
In this guide
- What is PAYG mobile broadband?
- Do I need PAYG mobile broadband?
- Coverage and data speeds
- Which providers offer PAYG mobile broadband?
- PAYG versus contract mobile broadband
- Frequently asked questions
Mobile broadband is as it sounds. Broadband you can take with you wherever you go. You can of course do exactly that on your mobile phone or tablet, but mobile broadband, as a term, is generally reserved for specialised devices such as dongles and MiFi boxes.
We have another entire page on contract mobile broadband. There, similarly to your phone contract, you get a dongle or MiFi device bundled into a contact of a certain length which entitles you to a monthly data usage amount. Pay as you go (PAYG) mobile broadband, then, is exactly that, only you pay for what you use and are not tied into a contract.
What is PAYG mobile broadband?
Simply put, it is a dongle or MiFi router device you will need to buy outright and upfront, with a SIM slot, into which you will put a data-only mobile broadband SIM. Unlike contract mobile broadband where you will pay a flat monthly fee for a set amount of usage, PAYG mobile broadband involves buying and owning the dongle or MiFi device, sticking a special dongle SIM in it that is pay as you go, and adding top-up (money) onto the SIM. As you use data, it will eat directly away at your top-up.
The advantage should be obvious to anyone who needs mobile broadband, but only needs it very rarely, or as a last-ditch backup when you can't get access to wifi, or leverage the data allowance of their mobile phone. There's more than one way to get mobile broadband on pay as you go, though. Several ways, in fact. They are:
- PAYG dongles – A dongle is a cigarette-lighter-sized, usually oblong, device with a USB plug at one and and space for a SIM card somewhere within it. It's used to plug directly into a laptop or desktop computer and deliver internet access via a one of the mobile phone networks. A PAYG dongle, then, is exactly as outlined, albeit containing a pay as you go data SIM, usually one supplied specifically for dongles
- PAYG MiFi devices – Exactly the same as above, but MiFi devices instead act as routers. Rather than plugging in via a USB and supplying just that one device with mobile data, MiFi devices can supply several at the same time
- Data only SIMs – Slightly different way of doing it, but with the same net result. Data-only SIMs are designed specifically for tablets (and the odd few laptops that have a SIM slot) and do not offer any form of calling or texting allowance. What you can do, then, if you possess a network-capable tablet, is switch its mobile hotspot mode on and use it as a mobile broadband router
- Mobile hotspots/tethering – Similarly to data-only SIMs, your mobile phone can be used as a mobile broadband hotspot in ninety nine out of a hundred cases. The need, then, for a mobile broadband solution, PAYG or otherwise, really should come down to the question of what you do when your existing mobile service fails, and is it that important that you need some sort of back-up
Do I need PAYG mobile broadband?
Specifically when it comes to PAYG mobile broadband, there are a few different scenarios where it may come in handy. Most of them, though, sit in the context of it forming some sort of backup or failsafe. After all, you can use your mobile phone as a mobile broadband hotspot in most cases. The need for PAYG mobile broadband in addition should be relatively rare.
That's also where the PAYG element is useful of course. A rarely used fallback service is not something you are going to want to be paying a flat monthly fee for. Those who might want PAYG mobile broadband will fall into one or more of the following categories:
- You travel for work – If you're up and down the country all week every week, mobile coverage on your existing mobile network may be spotty. Having a PAYG mobile broadband dongle or MiFi device as backup, signed up to a different network to your phone, will have you covered nine times out of ten where signal is poor
- No other options – This is going to be rare, but it is possible that your existing phone data isn't enough or lacks the coverage to ensure you stay online wherever you are, and that your credit rating means you can't get a pay-monthly mobile broadband deal
- You only need to use it once in a while – As mentioned previously, PAYG mobile broadband really should be viewed as backup rather than your primary means to get online when you're out and about. You should only need to use it once in a blue moon
Mobile broadband coverage and data speeds
As things stand, you'll only get PAYG mobile broadband from the UK's four network providers: Vodafone, O2, Three and EE. There are many other providers of phones and SIMs in the UK, of course, but they do not run on their own networks, instead piggybacking on one of these four.
These network providers (rather than the many virtual network providers) tend to offer a far wider range of services than anyone else. That's why when it comes to something as specific as PAYG mobile broadband, you will only find it available with these four. Here is how each of these networks fares in terms of speed and coverage.
EE claims the best 4G coverage. But there's not much in it, with all four providers claiming 99% or greater coverage by population. According to crowdsourced speed data from insight organisation Tutela, in January 2019 EE provided the fastest average data speeds of the four network providers with average 4G download speeds of around 27Mbps.
Vodafone also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 21Mbps.
Three also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 11Mbps, the slowest of the four.
O2 also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 16Mbps.
Which providers offer PAYG mobile broadband?
As outlined above, the only providers offering PAYG mobile broadband services are the four main UK network providers. Remember also, that for PAYG mobile broadband you will have to buy the device, either a dongle or MiFi router, outright, before putting a PAYG mobile broadband SIM into it. Depending on what level of functionality you need, this may cost you between £10 and £100.
- EE – Will sell you any one of five different MiFi routers and dongles. It's then simply a case of getting hold of a free PAYG mobile broadband SIM. These SIMs can be procured either for free or at cost with a pre-loaded amount of top-up
- Vodafone – Offers two devices, a mobile hotspot MiFi device and a straightforward laptop dongle. Either can be purchased and owned and then a PAYG mobile broadband SIM added either free or at cost with top-up preloaded
- Three – Three offers just one MiFi mobile broadband router device and no laptop dongles. It can be bought and a Three SIM added either free or loaded with top-up at extra cost
- O2 – Offers three devices – one dongle and two MiFi router devices of varying capability. You can buy these outright from Three, and add a Three 'dongle SIM' (Three calls them that) either free or at cost, preloaded with top-up
PAYG mobile broadband versus contract mobile broadband
The differences between PAYG mobile broadband and contract mobile broadband have little to do with the functionality. Both will get you online when you're out and about. It's the means of getting there and the reasons you may have for choosing one or the other that set them apart.
- PAYG is better for occasional use – If you're on a contracted mobile broadband plan you're going to be paying regular monthly instalments for a fixed amount of monthly data allowance. Great if you use your mobile broadband reliably each month. Not so great if you use mobile broadband as an emergency backup for when all else fails
- With PAYG you have to buy the device – Though you may want to save money by choosing not to pay monthly or tie yourself into a contract when choosing PAYG mobile broadband, it is worth bearing in mind that you will have to buy the device outright, which could make that saving redundant in part or in whole
- PAYG means carefully managing top-up – There's a fire-and-forget aspect to signing up to a contract mobile broadband deal and sticking within your monthly data allowance. And you won't get that with PAYG mobile broadband. Instead you'll have to always insure you have top-up when you need it. Top-up on PAYG mobile broadband has a long shelf life, though – usually 12 months
Want to learn more about broadband?
Our broadband guides contain a wealth of information on just about every aspect of current broadband packages.
Frequently asked questions
Can you get pay as you go mobile broadband?
Is PAYG mobile broadband expensive?
In cases where you were comparing like-for-like data usage with a contract mobile broadband deal, yes. It is. You get less data for your money. However, if your aim is only to use your mobile broadband once in a blue moon, a fallback in case of emergencies for example, you're going to be paying substantially less for a PAYG mobile broadband deal across the average year.
Who offers PAYG mobile broadband?
Does PAYG mobile broadband offer fast download speeds?
The speeds you will get from a specific provider will be the same 4G/LTE speeds you should expect were you to take out a mobile or SIM deal with that same provider.