How to connect to the internet on your mobile

The internet and mobile phones are two forms of technology that have grown up together, advancing at the same rapid pace, with broadband playing a huge role in the evolution of mobile phones. Here, we’ll acquaint you with how the two technologies interlink and reveal what you need to know about connecting your mobile phone to the internet.

Woman online on her mobile

How do mobile phones connect to the internet?

Connecting your phone to the internet is a bit different from connecting to it via a laptop or PC. First, there are various ways to do it, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The most common ways mobile phones connect to the internet is by using mobile data or Wi-Fi.

What is mobile data?

Whenever you use the internet, you’re uploading and downloading data. In the context of a mobile phone connection, using data refers specifically to using the data allowance provided by your network. Data is measured in bytes; megabytes (MB), which is around a thousand bytes; and gigabytes (GB), which is around a thousand megabytes. Watching videos and streaming music uses a lot of data, while checking email or reading web pages uses very little. 

UK mobile networks have mobile towers dotted across the country. When you connect to a mobile data network, your phone will search for and connect to the nearest tower. In more remote areas you might encounter what’s known as a mobile blackspot – a place that’s too far from a mobile tower to receive a signal.

Mobile data connection types 

There are different levels of network quality, and your phone will always attempt to connect to the most stable and speediest service available, but not every phone is compatible with the fastest networks. 5G, for instance, is only available with the very latest phones - even Apple’s current flagship, the iPhone 11, doesn’t support it. So, don’t assume you have bad coverage if you can't get 5G on your handset because it’s possible that your phone wasn’t designed to use it. 

GPRS

2G and 2.5G networks, now collectively known as GPRS, are the elder statesmen of the mobile data world. They provide a good enough connection for casual browsing, sending messages and other basic activities, but they can’t cope with data-heavy activities like watching videos or using GPS navigation. 

3G

3G was a game-changer. It emerged in the early 2000s just as mobile phones were transitioning from a luxury product to an everyday tool. Standard 3G networks have a maximum capable speed of 2Mb, which seems incredibly low nowadays, but it was a significant improvement at the time. 

4G

Launched in the UK in 2012, 4G helped usher in a new era of mobile technology. Smartphones were already the norm, and 3G simply couldn’t handle their data demands. 4G is now the standard and is widely available across the UK – although some rural areas may lack coverage. 

5G

Essentially, 5G is to mobile data what fibre optics is to broadband. 5G is the most recent and most advanced cellular network, and the improvement in speed between 5G and its predecessors is drastic. At the moment, 5G is still being rolled out across the UK, but it will eventually become the new normal – just in time for 6G to arrive. 

When you connect to the internet using mobile data, you will be connecting to one of these types of networks. 

The cost of data 

When you use data, you’re utilising your mobile provider’s network to get connected. This comes at a cost. When you sign up for a plan with a mobile network provider, you’ll choose your desired data allowance, and how much you choose to buy should depend on how you plan to use it. 

How to connect to the internet using mobile data

Your phone is configured to use mobile data by default. You can toggle it on and off whenever you want in your phone’s settings. Switching it off until you know you need it is usually a good idea because data may be being used even if you’re not actively using your phone and that can lead to you exceeding your data allowance, which could prove costly.

How to connect to the internet with your phone using Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is the ideal option for getting your phone connected. You don’t have to pay any additional fees to your provider to use Wi-Fi, and chances are you already have a home broadband Wi-Fi network established. When connecting via Wi-Fi, you can expect a more stable, speedier connection, as significantly fewer people will be trying to access the same network than with mobile data. For iPhone, Android and Windows phone users, it’s as simple as opening your phone’s connection settings, tapping Wi-Fi, turning it on, and selecting your desired network. Just like on a computer, you need to enter your router password (if you have one). 

What is public Wi-Fi? 

If you’re out and about and low on data, you might be able to take advantage of public Wi-Fi. There are countless public Wi-Fi hotspots available across the UK. Some of these hotspots may be available exclusively to customers of specific networks, while others are completely open for anyone to use. 

Free public Wi-Fi won’t provide the most stable or speedy connection – especially if it can be accessed by thousands of people at the same time – but it’s a great solution if you only need to hop online to check a web page or email account. These hotspots often offer a better connection than using mobile data, too. Many establishments, like cafes, restaurants, airports and shops will have a Wi-Fi network that customers can use. These types of connections are also classed as public Wi-Fi. 

Network-specific hotspots 

You may sometimes need to pay for public Wi-Fi, but if you sign up to a service like BT Openzone, for example, you’ll be able to access any of the provider’s public Wi-Fi hotspots as soon as you’re in range. If you’re a customer of Virgin Media, you can access Wi-Fi in 260 London Underground stations. It’s important to look into what public Wi-Fi options are available from each network provider –  it could make or break your decision to join one over another. 

Connecting to public Wi-Fi follows the same process as connecting to your home Wi-Fi, except in some cases you may need to enter some additional information through your browser, like your name and email address. 

What’s a personal hotspot?

If your phone or tablet has mobile data, then you may be able to set up a personal hotspot. This converts your device into a Wi-Fi network, of sorts, which other devices can connect to. Essentially, it’s a way of sharing the data allowance of one device with another. Also known as mobile tethering, this can be very handy if you need to get your laptop online but don’t have Wi-Fi access, or if you’ve run out of data but someone that you’re with has some to spare. 

Using the internet on your phone

After you’ve connected to the internet from your mobile once, it should be smooth sailing after that. 

Whenever you turn on or unlock your phone with Wi-Fi enabled, it will attempt to connect to an available Wi-Fi network that you’ve used recently. If it can’t find one, it will look for other networks. If you’ve got both Wi-Fi and mobile data switched on and your Wi-Fi connection drops or cannot be established, then your phone will automatically switch over to using mobile data. This is why it’s important to keep mobile data switched off when you don’t need it, so that you don’t end up paying for data that you didn’t realise you were using. 

On the other hand, you may find that your Wi-Fi connection dips in certain parts of your home – like if you’re in your garden or basement or simply too far from your router. In this case, you may be better served by switching off Wi-Fi and relying only on mobile data, assuming a stable connection is crucial and you have data to spare.