Always-On Internet, Everywhere: The MiFi

Huawei Ultra-Fast 4G/LTE Unlocked 150 Mbps E5577s-321 Portable Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot
Huawei Ultra-Fast 4G/LTE Unlocked 150 Mbps E5577s-321 Portable Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot

Ju and I like having Internet access, everywhere. It’s not just blogging, which we’ve done on-the-ground from hundreds of places across 31 European and North African countries. It’s the ability to read about where we are, to search for places to stay or find LPG, to do admin, to stay in touch with friends and family back home and even, shock, horror, to do some work from time to time. For the past six months we’ve been using a MiFi device, which we’re impressed enough with to recommend it here.

There are basically three ways to stay connected:

  1. WiFi – which is generally cheap and allows unlimited use of the Internet, but not always easy to find or connect to
  2. Satellite – which costs a bomb to install – forget it unless you’re using it for your job or cost is not a consideration
  3. Cellular – which means using the mobile phone system – which is where the MiFi comes in – which is relatively cheap, but is normally metered, unlike WiFi

The MiFi (pictured above) is a small black box which lets you share you a single cellular Internet connection between up to ten devices. To use it, you buy the MiFi and a suitable SIM card (more about that below). You then turn the MiFi on, and it connects to the Internet and creates a private WiFi network. You then connect your laptop, tablet, phone and so on to this private WiFi network, and voila, they’re all connected to the Internet.

What’s so great about that? This is why we like this device and feel we can recommend it to fellow travellers:

  • It makes it possible for both of us to browse t’Interweb at the same time, so no scowling from the one of us missing out!
  • We used to use a USB dongle, but that meant having the laptop on. No need for that with the MiFi
  • In remote places the USB dongle would have to be taped to a selfie-stick and stuck out a window to get a signal. Our MiFi is attached to a specialised, permanent roof-mounted antenna from motorhomewifi.com (this is the kit). With this, we always get a good signal (install instructions here), no matter where we are
  • Our MiFi is charged from the van’s 12V system, so is always on, whether we’re driving or parked up
  • It works with the latest 4G networks, which means when it has a 4G SIM in it, it’s stupidly fast, twice as fast as our broadband was at home. On older 3G networks it’s easily fast enough for our needs
  • We rarely bother doing this, but if we need to we can take the MiFi with us when we go out so we have Internet access everywhere – just pop it in your bag or pocket
  • It’s more secure than using public WiFi networks, so we feel at-ease using it for banking

You need an unlocked device (not limited to any one network) so you can switch SIM cards as you need to. There’s a link to the 4G MiFi device we have below.

As mentioned above, you’ll need a suitable (full-sized) SIM card for the MiFi to work. This is where the fun starts… At the moment you can’t buy a SIM in the UK which roams across all countries in the world without paying high roaming charges. About the best you can get is Three UK’s Feel at Home package, but there are various limitations: it only connects to 3G networks, can’t be used full-time aboard (check the terms and conditions), only works in a handful of countries and it isn’t particularly cheap.

The other option is to buy a prepaid SIM card in each country you visit. Depending on the country you visit, this can be as simple as grabbing a package in a supermarket or post office, or as complex as standing in a foreign shop trying to explain what you need, showing your passport, signing a bunch of forms and having to translate foreign messages sent by the network. This website’s useful for getting info on local SIMs – more useful free websites here. We’ve always managed to buy a local prepaid Internet SIM with no local address or bank account – although we’ve had to try more than one shop on occasion…

Also, before you buy a SIM, check it allows you to tether to other devices. We were caught out by this once. When we tried to use the SIM in the MiFi a screen popped up saying we were trying to tether and didn’t allow Internet access. There are some deals coming out about now (Jun 2016) in the UK which look like great cross-country roaming SIMs, but they don’t allow tethering, so won’t work in a MiFi.

A few other bits of information we’ve learned with the MiFi over the past few months:

  • Read the instructions on the MiFi when you get it, which explain how to secure it so only you can change its configuration, and use it to access the Internet. Don’t forget which administration password you set!
  • SIM card packages almost always provide limited amounts of data. The MiFi lets you track how much you’ve used. Keep a close eye on it, and be careful not to accidentally use the MiFi instead of campsite WiFi, if you’re downloading video or making video calls home (maybe turn the MiFi off when you have WiFi access)
  • The 4G antenna we have isn’t cheap, but if you’re serious about having Internet access everywhere, we’d seriously recommend getting one
  • Sometimes you need to change the APN setting on the MiFi to get it to work with a particular SIM. This isn’t normally necessary, but worth looking into if you can’t get it to work (or take the MiFi with you when you buy the SIM, and get a shop assistant to set it up for you)
  • Also, you may sometimes need to manually select the network to use. Again this is unusual, but check the MiFi manual for how to do this if it’s refusing to connect

Cheers, Jay

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14 Comments

  1. We love our MiFi. We even managed to use it for 4 months last year before the French authorites relised and cut us off!! We have decided now to carry a spare sim in case they catch up with us again.
    Currently enjoying a 2 week jaunt in the Pyrenees, staying on aires or discreet wild spots. It is so easy in France isn’t it? The trouble is I don’t get the same sense of adventure when it is easy…..
    Bruce has recovered, but becoming increasingly frail and demented….suspect not long now, although the vet told us last week that he isn’t ready to leave us yet and more importantly, he isn’t suffering.
    Still love the blog!!

    • Ah, Larry, good old SIM fun, can’t beat it. One day someone will sort the lot out and we’ll be able to travel across a national boundary without worrying about needing a new SIM to stay solvent, much like we can get diesel without swapping fuel tanks! One day. :-) I love having Internet access though. We’re in a forest in Estonia at the moment and are able to sit in comfort and read all about the place, how wonderful.

      Sounds like you’re having fun around the mountains. Give Bruce a treat from us. Charlie’s enjoying some unidentifiable black dog treat stuff I got him in Estonia. We have no idea what it is, but it doesn’t half stink and he eats it like a dog possessed. Reminds me of some similar ill-sniffing stuff we got for him in Ukraine. He’s only allowed to eat it outside, for obvious reasons.

      Yeah man. No challenge = no adventure. Tough though, to keep on with relentless challenges. Sometimes good to just enjoy being relaxed for a while!

      Cheers, Jay

    • Nah, the MiFi is perfectly legal. On the other hand, some SIMs come with terms and conditions around roaming use, like the Three Feel at Home SIM limits how long you can be outside the UK with it in any one year. If Three pick up on the fact you’ve exceeded the limit, they can warn you or cut you off, according to their terms. We have a number of Three SIMs to help avoid this, which again is perfectly OK to the best of my knowledge. It pays to check out the small print if you’re intending to roam between countries. Cheers! Jay

      • when I phoned Three to complain about being cut off (didn’t realise at that point about the 2 month thingy),they said it wasn’t them that did the cutting off, it was the French networks.

  2. Just a simple thanks Ju and Jay for all the technical and advice articles you write for the benefit of others. Must take forever to prepare and post but you just keep turning them out, heros!

  3. Thanks for the info. We’ve managed OK on free wifi in Poland, but very limited in Germany. Hence not caught up on your blog. We’re now sat outside a chateau nr Namur, Belgium. Dog booked into the vet tomorrow and back on the Tunnel Monday. A few adventures on the way. Front of our van smashed in on a campsite in Germany. No one hurt luckily & able to drive home, but left a nasty taste for few days. Overal had a great time, and sad it’s over. Ready to plan the next one: Greece, Scandanavia & The Baltic states on the list. Keep the blogs coming & you never know our paths may cross again.

    • Blimey, it sounds like you have had an adventure since we met you. Good to hear that you are all OK, vans can be fixed – people and pooches not so easily. Have a safe trip home and hope to catch up with you again on another adventure x

  4. Greetings. Apropos satellite dishes. Do you know if it is possible to get internet reception via satellite?

    Regards

    David

  5. Hi Jason thanks for the really informative article. Have you tried any of the local sim cards in France or do you just use Three network sims all the time?

    • Hi guys. We’ve used Orange France in the past, but these days we’re finding Three Feel at Home SIMs work well enough in France for a what we need. Cheers, take it easy, Jay

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