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Wireless Data Access via a Phone, Dongle or Mobile Hotspot

Written by Jessica on May 9, 2011

World wide dataIf you’re working while traveling you may need a reliable Internet connection. It’s hard to bank on the single Internet cafe that may or may not be open when you arrive in the middle of nowhere. Or you may just want the convenience of being able to check emails without having to spend half a day waiting for a free computer terminal at your hostel. Even worse, some countries have been know to lose Internet access completely when fiber optic cables under the ocean are severed.

Fortunately, there are a lot of options for mobile data access. First, you have three decisions to make: What type of device do you need? Subscription plan or pay-as-you-go? And international subscription plan or a new SIM in every country you visit? Here are some pointers to help you decide.

Phone vs. Dongle vs. Hotspot?

There are three types of devices available for wireless data access; phones, dongles and hotspots. Dongles and mobile hotspots are (at the time of writing), very new technology and like phones, new models and upgrades are released constantly.


Smart phone


  • It can do other neat things, like make phone calls.
  • It’s easy to replace and upgrade.
  • There’s hundreds of models in lots wide price range. By simple, or fancy.


  • Most phone with a data plan require a voice plan as well. If you’re on a contract, costs will add up quickly.
  • If you are going to use international SIM you have to make sure to get an unlocked phone.

DongleWireless dongel


  • It’s small.
  • It connects directly to your laptop.


  • Laptops generally use more data- and may auto download updates without your permission. Pay-as-you-go stat rates can go through the roof easily.
  • As with phones, you may require an unlocked dongle if you wish to change SIM cards.

HotspotMobile HotSpots


  • Multiple laptops can connect to one device.
  • It has the same features as a wireless router.


  • Battery life for current models is less than a few hours.
  • When charging, most devices can only connect to the machine they are plugged into.
  • Relatively new technology, lots of bugs and resets necessary to get the device working properly.
  • As with phones and dongles, the device must be unlocked to use different SIMs.

Subscription or Pay as you Go?

There are two types of data plans. Subscription, where you pay a fixed amount per month for a fixed number of megabytes (or sometimes an unlimited amount). Or pay-as-you-go, where you pay for each kilobyte you use. If you can find them, unlimited international data plans are generally the best deal. Unfortunately they are disappearing quickly.

In the U.S., before January 2010, every major cell phone provider offered an unlimited international data plan for less than $70/month. Now, there are NONE. Some plans are still available in the UK and other parts of the world. We can only hope they come back to the States soon.

The most common method is to pay per MB. You’ll usually get a better rate if you also have a voice subscription plan. However, that would require that you pay a monthly fee even if you don’t use the phone to make calls.

Thankfully there are also stand-alone pay-as-you-go data plans. Prices range from $1 a MB up to $21. It’s worth shopping around and reading the fine print carefully. Some plans charge more for certain countries, some plans require that you use your prepaid MB in less than a week.

Local or International?

Whether you are signing up for a plan or buying pay-as-you-go minutes, you have two options. You can buy a phone in your home country and take it with when you travel. Or you can take an unlocked phone and pick up SIM cards and prepaid data in your destination country. There are pros and cons to both, but your speed of travel and budget will make the decision simple.

Buying in your destination:


  • The cost per MB is usually a lot less.


  • You have to find a new SIM in every country.
  • Adding more data may not be simple.

Bringing your current phone:


  • You don’t have find a SIM in every new country
  • If you’re on a subscription plan, costs are known and easier to budget.


  • Costs will certainly be higher, unless you have an unlimited plan and use a huge amount of data.
  • If your phone is lost, it is much harder to replace.
  • If you go over your allotted amount, overage fees are very painful, and there is usually very little warning.


#2 Kobus 2012-01-06 22:25
Hey Guy, we will publish a full report on the Wifi in a few days. We have a article on cellphone plans we used in Mexico Prepaid Phone and Internet in Mexico it is called "Prepaid Phone and Internet in Mexico" currently in the What's new tab
#1 Guy 2012-01-06 22:20
I'm curious about Mexico. Which way did you go?

I was going to cancel my phone/data service when I crossed the border but mobile data access is awfully tantalizing.

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