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  • What is a Mi-Fi dongle?

What is a Mi-Fi dongle?

Written by Max Beckett, Broadband Expert

19 June 2020

The internet powers just about everything we do nowadays, from using apps on mobile data to gaming at home, but how can you get your laptop online when you’re out and about? That’s where dongles come in.

Mi-Fi dongle plugged into computer

What is a dongle?

To look at, a dongle looks very similar to a standard USB stick, and plugs into your devices in the same way. An internet dongle isn’t made to store your files, however, it’s designed to let your devices tap into mobile broadband, as provided by a data-only SIM card. 

What is Mi-Fi?

We all know what Wi-Fi is, but you may see the term Mi-Fi used when researching dongles. Mi-Fi is a mobile Wi-Fi connection, meaning it’s Wi-Fi you can carry with you. A dongle is just one Mi-Fi device you can use. If you live an area with poor broadband connections via traditional fibre optic or ADSL options, then you can also tap into Mi-Fi via a Mi-Fi router. These routers are plug-in options that let your whole home enjoy Mi-Fi.

What’s the difference between Wi-Fi and Mi-Fi?

Wi-Fi requires a wired broadband connection and physical socket in the wall to connect to the router, which then creates a wireless network that all other Wi-Fi enabled devices can connect to.

Mi-Fi requires a SIM card and a Mi-Fi device to create a wireless network that other Wi-Fi enabled devices can connect to. Not all dongles create Mi-Fi networks, some can only connect to one device at a time.

What’s the difference between Mi-Fi and a dongle?

A dongle itself is no more than a SIM holder, sometimes with extra features that can also make it a router, but it’s the SIM card that gives it connectivity. Mi-Fi is the name of that connection, and if you have a dongle that can create a wireless network for multiple devices, that resulting network is known as Mi-Fi. 

Are Mi-Fi and mobile internet the same thing?

Mi-Fi is mobile internet but mobile internet is not always Mi-Fi. In the same way, your laptop connected to home broadband with a cable is broadband and not Wi-Fi, but your home Wi-Fi is still a type of broadband. 

When do I need a dongle?

A dongle itself is no more than a SIM holder, it’s the SIM card that gives it connectivity. So, if your device already has a SIM card slot then you may not need a dongle at all. The following devices commonly feature a SIM card slot:

  • Tablets

  • Compact laptops that don’t have USB slots

Of course, dongles are easy to find and usually cheap to purchase, so there’s no harm in having one to hand in case your latest laptop doesn’t have a SIM slot or your home PC needs to get online during a drop in home broadband speeds. 

How do I use a Mi-Fi dongle?

Dongles are easy to use – just plug them in. On first use, your dongle should launch an installation screen that is easy enough to complete. After this, many internet dongles will have a control panel that will let you switch your Mi-Fi on and off so you don’t end up wasting data when you don’t need it. You can also check how much data you have left from this screen. You do, of course, need a SIM card to use a dongle. 

What other Mi-Fi devices are there?

You can enjoy a Mi-Fi or mobile broadband connection through a dongle, smartphone or mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, sometimes known as ‘Pocket Wi-Fi’:

Dongles

Dongles plug into a USB so they don’t require charging. In their most basic form, dongles connect only one device at a time – the one they are plugged into.

Smartphones

Smartphones can be used to create a Mi-Fi network. This is essentially what you do when you tether. If you have a dual SIM phone you can use a second data-only SIM purely for Mi-Fi.

Pocket Wi-Fi/Mobile hotspot/Mobile Wi-Fi

Mobile hotspots are like dongles but they are standalone Mi-Fi devices. You may see them advertised as any of the above three names. These devices don’t need to be plugged into anything, and often you can use them right out of the box. They still need a SIM card and they will require charging, just like a phone. Mobile hotspot devices will create a Mi-Fi network that multiple devices can connect to.

Which network has the best Mi-Fi dongle deals?

Dongle deals can be looked at in two ways – first as the original purchase of a dongle and data-only SIM, and then as data-only SIM deals alone which you can use in your dongle once your original SIM data has been used up. The dongles themselves are very similar across the board, with Huawei being the most common brand. 

Vodafone data-only SIM and dongle deals

  • Pay as you go or pay monthly

  • Trial of Secure Net included

  • Roaming destinations included

  • 4G models available

Vodafone offers both a dongle and a 4G enabled Mi-Fi hotspot, available on pay monthly or pay as you go plans. The Mi-Fi hotspot can support up to ten devices and the dongle can also hold an SD card to add extra storage to your device as well. Both make use of Vodafone’s 4G network. Vodafone also offers the Gigacube, a home broadband solution that taps into 4G and 5G to bring mobile internet to your whole home as Wi-Fi. The Gigacube is available on a one month or 18 month contract.

Vodafone’s data-only SIM cards can also include free roaming to up to 81 destinations depending on your plan and a trial of Secure Net security program. You can get SIM cards for one to 12 months.

Three dongles and data-only SIMs

  • 1, 12 or 24 month contracts

  • Option to add data-free streaming with Go Binge

  • 4G models available 

Three offers a range of mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, including a 4G model. At present, there is also a small discount for those who pay by direct debit. For any contracts longer than a year, prices will be fixed for inflation, so expect a small increase. You can purchase your Three Mi-Fi device with a range of plans, including unlimited data and the handy Go Binge add-on, which means you can stream video all you like without denting your data allowance. 

O2 dongles and mobile internet

  • Wi-Fi dongle options

  • Pay as you go or pay monthly

  • Highly customisable pay monthly plans

O2 offers two types of dongles, one that only connects the device it’s plugged into, and another that creates a Wi-Fi network. Both are compatible with 4G. Two pocket Wi-Fi hotspots are also available, with the most advanced model able to accommodate up to 20 devices at a time and offering parental controls like a standard broadband router. 

Depending on your chosen device, you may be able to pay for it upfront and top up as you see fit, though all of them are available on pay monthly plans that – just like O2’s phone contracts – are highly customisable. Choose from between one to 36 months. As an O2 customer you’ll also be able to take advantage of O2 priority and O2 public Wi-Fi.

EE Mi-Fi and dongles 

  • Wide selection of Mi-Fi devices

  • 4G and 5G options

  • Pay monthly and pay as you go

EE has one of the widest range of Mi-Fi devices available, including those from Huawei, BT and its own brand options, it also boasts several 5G devices, though the usefulness of these will obviously depend on your location and network coverage. Monthly plans can last for one, 12 or 18 months. Prices on longer contracts will be adjusted for inflation in February/March of each year. Currently, EE doesn’t appear to stock any traditional USB dongles, though given the small size and price of its most affordable Wi-Fi hotspot, this shouldn’t be an issue. 

Data only SIM cards can be PAYG or pay monthly. Contracts run for one month or one year. EE is also notable for providing data gifting, so you can share your data allowance with others. 

Virgin Media mobile broadband

  • 1 – 12 month contracts

  • Roaming included

Virgin Media offers a Wi-Fi hotspot option that can support up to ten devices. It’s also unlocked which makes it ideal for taking on holiday, although as roaming is included on Virgin’s SIMs you can continue using your UK plan too. 

Virgin Media Broadband or TV customers will enjoy discounts on SIM cards.

Third party dongles and routers

You can buy dongles and Mi-Fi routers from other retailers too, but in doing so, you might miss out on some great value deals that throw in customer perks, extra savings or bonus data. 

Frequently asked questions

Can I use my phone SIM in a tablet or dongle?

Yes, you can, but this is hardly the best value option. Dongles won’t let you use calls and texts, so you won’t be able to use these two services you are paying for. What you want is a data-only SIM so you’re only paying for what you need. 

Are dongles locked?

This depends on your network. If your chosen provider has locked your dongle, this means, much like a locked phone, they can’t be used with other network SIM cards. To unlock a dongle you should get in touch with your network, as some will agree to unlock it for free.

Can I use a data-only SIM without a dongle?

Yes, as mentioned, if your device has a SIM card slot, you don’t need a dongle at all. If you have a dual SIM phone, or are willing to switch out your SIM, you can also use your smartphone as a Mi-Fi device, tethering other devices to your SIM card’s data. 

Do I need a home broadband contract to use Mi-Fi?

No, Mi-Fi is provided through a SIM. That means you don’t need a home broadband contract to use mobile broadband, just like you don’t need a mobile contract to use home broadband. If you’re looking for both, however, you can get some great home broadband and mobile deals from networks like Virgin Media and Sky Mobile.