Ever since 3G networks became widespread in the UK mobile broadband has proven extremely useful and very popular. No worries about needing a telephone line or being tethered to a home router: just connect your dongle and you can get online wherever there’s a signal.
This freedom makes mobile broadband very appealing for travel, and while it is perfect within the confines of the UK mobile internet access is a little more troublesome when abroad. The moment you roam onto an international network you’ve got to consider other factors, particularly the extra cost.
We all know it costs extra to make calls and send texts, but often the price of accessing the internet abroad with a mobile broadband service is underestimated, and it results in those horror stories about people coming home from a holiday to be faced with a mobile bill reaching four figures because they downloaded a movie or watched a show on iPlayer.
Luckily, that shouldn’t happen often now thanks to some new rules imposed by the EU which places limits on the price operators can charge.
Currently, you can’t be hit for more than 69.9p per MB when using mobile internet in Europe. That price is set to fall further, too, until it reaches 20p per MB in July 2014. Networks must also cap your usage by default to ensure you can’t accidentally spend more than 50 Euros, or about £45.
But this still isn’t what you’d call cheap. Even at 20p per MB, an hour of low quality iPlayer video could cost £50. That’s an expensive way of catching up on Eastenders!
It gets a lot pricier when you leave Europe, too. Outside the safe blanket of the EU you enter the wild west of mobile roaming charges where a single MB of data could cost as much as £10. Thankfully providers do now cap all mobile internet bills, not just those in Europe, to stop the nasty surprises, but it’s a real pain if you just want to check your email or login to Facebook.
Top tips for using mobile broadband abroad
It’s not all doom and gloom. Networks are aware of the need for affordable international data access so you have options, and there are other alternatives to stay in touch on holiday.
Purchase an international data add-on
The data cap bundled with your mobile broadband service will not count when abroad, so everything you do online is racking up those per-MB costs. However you can often buy international data add-ons which offer a reasonable amount of internet time at a lower cost. For example, Vodafone’s Euro Traveller add-on gives 100MB for 24 hours for just £8. Note that in some cases you must use an add-on in order to use data roaming at all.
Disable background data services
Modern smartphones have all kinds of background activities which use data, such as downloading emails or syncing contacts and calendars. They generally use relatively small amounts of data but it can quickly add up, so you need to make sure this is disabled when abroad. Most phones will do that automatically, but do double check. It’s worth having a read on what sort of data usage certain activities will use online.
Use local Wi-Fi hotspots
Skip the mobile broadband entirely and save money by taking advantage of Wi-Fi hotspots. They’re everywhere and often free.
Purchase a local SIM
If you regularly travel to the same country it might be worth picking up a SIM for a local network so you benefit from their prices. To use your own dongle you just need to make sure it is unlocked (just like a mobile phone).
Use an international mobile broadband service
In recent years a number of companies, such as Cellhire and Globalgig, have sprung up offering mobile broadband specifically for international use. They give you all the kit needed to get online in a particular country and charge a set fee for a specific amount of data. Often you can get 1GB or more for a lot less than it’d cost to roam on your own network.
This is perfect if you’re a regular traveller or know you’ll need a large amount of data on a trip.
Mobile broadband abroad: frequently asked questions
Can I use a pay as you go dongle abroad?
Some networks, notably Three, do allow PAYG dongles to be used outside the UK, however in many cases this is not permitted, so if you wish to do this it could be necessary to sign up for a contract package.
How do I stop the kids from using my mobile broadband when we’re on holiday?
Hide the dongle! Or, you can enable a PIN lock using the dongle software which will prevent unauthorised access.
Can I use Skype/video chat/VPNs abroad?
Networks do not place any more restrictions on international data usage, so if you can use Skype or other services within the UK it should function normally when roaming.
How do I know my dongle will work in a particular country?
Providers have agreements between themselves to support roaming so you need to contact your network to find out if it’ll work in a specific country. This information should be listed online.
Can I check network coverage in another country?
You could try visiting the local network’s web page, but if you don’t understand the language then head to the GSMA coverage map page (http://maps.mobileworldlive.com/). This combines coverage maps from providers all over the world, though it can be patchy and outdated as it relies on the networks supplying the correct information.
Author Bio: Matt Powell is the editor for the broadband comparison site Broadband Genie, where you can find reviews, guides and the latest mobile broadband deals.