What is a dongle?

A WiFi dongle is a small device that slots into a computer’s USB drive. It acts as a modem, giving your computer mobile internet access or enhancing your existing connection. A dongle is a lifeline for digital nomads, frequent travellers and anyone with a poor internet signal.

How does a dongle work?

A dongle is essentially a portable USB device that behaves like a small modem. You might hear it called other names, like internet stick, USB modem or USB network adapter. They all mean the same thing. Just plug a dongle into your computer’s USB port and you’ll get instant internet access, no software necessary.

Wi-Fi dongles contain a built-in network adapter, which allow devices to connect to the internet. What it does is connect you to the mobile networks that your smartphone uses, whether that’s 3G, 4G or 5G.

This makes a dongle an incredibly useful bit of kit. When you need an internet connection on the move, or you live in a poor reception area, a dongle’s got you covered.

You might want a WiFi dongle if...

You travel a lot

Carry a USB dongle around in your pocket and you’ll never be out of reach of the internet. Whether you’re commuting to work on buses and trains or hanging around in an airport, just plug in your dongle and you’re good to go. With a dongle, you never again have to hunt for a WiFi hotspot or password.

You use shared workspaces

If you’re a digital nomad, you’ll often be using shared workspaces like hotels, coffee shops or internet cafés. A dongle here can be a real bonus, giving you instant internet access without fighting for bandwidth on the available WiFi.

You can’t get fibre broadband at home

Fibre broadband is spreading superfast internet speeds around the world, but it hasn’t reached everyone yet. If you live in an area where fibre broadband isn’t yet connected, a dongle could be just the thing for you.


How fast is the internet on a dongle?

What internet speed you can achieve with a WiFi dongle depends on three main factors:

● The mobile device you’re using
● The network it’s connected to
● How strong the coverage is in your location

If you’re using an up-to-date device, you’re connected to a network with 4G or 5G and you have excellent coverage, your internet speed should be fast enough to suit all your needs. The opposite is also true. If you want to transfer big files or watch 4K movies using an old device with poor network coverage, then you’re going to be struggling.

What are the advantages of WiFi dongles?

The big advantage of a WiFi dongle is its simplicity: just plug it in and away you go. No engineers, no wires, no hassle. They can’t yet replace a good home broadband connection, but dongles are highly functional for anyone needing to boost their signal.

Dongles are also ideal for people on the move. You can get online from anywhere with a mobile phone signal. They’re portable and don’t require charging since they use the power of your own computer.

What are the drawbacks of WiFi dongles?

Until 5G is fully rolled out, the most widely available signal is still 4G. This isn’t adequate for streaming or uploading big files with a dongle, so it’s best to keep your online tasks pretty basic.

The stability of your internet connection will also depend on your mobile provider’s reception in the area: as poor reception means poor internet connection.

Another thing to consider is download limits. You probably don’t have any with your home broadband package, but mobile broadband usually does. You’ll need to get the right package for your needs from your service provider, but until 5G achieves solid nationwide coverage, a WiFi dongle probably won’t cut it.

Are WiFi dongles as fast as home broadband?

In a word: no. Dongles are great when you’re on the move, but are not yet able to match your home broadband. They’re just not fast enough for the web’s best applications, like HD streaming, video conferencing, web chats or online gaming.

Virgin Media delivers superfast broadband speeds, which makes using the internet a real joy. The good news is: we don’t use BT’s copper wire or phone lines, we deliver superfast broadband thanks to our lightning-quick fibre broadband piped direct into your home.

Use our postcode checker today to make sure we’re in your area.

What are the alternatives to dongles?

A mobile broadband dongle is brilliant if you just want to get online quickly. No need for WiFi hotspots or passwords – just plug in and go.

However, if you want to run multiple electronic devices on your computer at the same time, then you need something with a bit more oomph such as a Mobile WiFi or MiFi dongle.

What is a MiFi dongle?

A MiFi dongle is another compact, wireless device that you can carry around to stay connected. The main difference between this and a WiFi dongle is that MiFi dongles enable multiple users to share a single mobile broadband connection. You may hear them being called ‘mobile broadband routers’ because they behave in much the same way as the routers you have at home.

MiFi dongles find 3G, 4G or 5G networks and create a mini WiFi hotspot. As with WiFi dongles, you can usually get them on monthly, yearly or pay-as-you-go tariffs. If you have roaming enabled, you can also use them abroad.

What are the advantages of a MiFi dongle?

MiFi works using wireless signals. Once it’s connected to a mobile network, a MiFi dongle can broadcast its signal wirelessly to multiple devices. All you must do to connect to the internet is to find the wireless network and enter the password. This also gives you more options when you’re on the move.

MiFi dongles don’t use USB ports. This is especially important for newer laptops or iPads, which no longer have any USB ports.

MiFi devices come with a small rechargeable battery, so they don’t need to be always plugged in. When fully charged, a MiFi device has a typical battery life between 4 and 8 hours, depending on usage.

What are the drawbacks of a MiFi dongle?

MiFi dongles don’t have much range, around 10 metres is the typical range to expect from a MiFi device. This doesn’t matter much when you’re out and about, but could make it hard to use multiple devices in different rooms.

Also, you’ll only be able to connect 10 other devices, such as a smartphone, tablet, console, PC, laptop, etc – at any one time.

If you do share your MiFi signal like this it will slow down your speed and gobble up your data allowance.

Article Updated: 25th January 2023

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