This tiny device gives your phone unfettered access to the internet, avoiding data roaming charges, although you’ll have to pay in advance. Rupert Parker tried it out in China
One of the occupational hazards of travelling abroad, particularly outside the EU, is the high cost of data roaming. It may be OK to miss the occasional email, but retrieving airline tickets, navigating with google maps and booking the next hotel, are all activities essential for the modern traveller.
One alternative is to buy a local SIM card and use local rates to your advantage, but it means changing your number and making you unavailable for those essential calls. They can also be tricky to setup, particularly if you don’t speak the language, and there’s always the danger of someone stealing your credit card details.
Now a UK company is offering a compact MiFi device for rent that enables multiple users to share a single mobile broadband connection while they are on the go. It taps into 3G or 4G mobile phone networks and uses this connection to create a mini wireless broadband cloud or hotspot. This can then be shared between mobile internet-enabled devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets that are within range of its signal.
I took one on a recent trip to China knowing data was going to be expensive and free Wi-Fi could be difficult to find. It’s tiny, smaller than a cigarette packet, and simple to set up. I just turned it on, waited until it showed that it had detected a signal, then just logged into it from my phone and laptop using the supplied password. My travelling companion did the same with no problem.
The device needs charging, just like a phone, and I worried that the battery might not last the day. In fact, on the days when I’d forgotten to put it on charge the night before, I still had enough juice to get me through. Range seemed good, although I tended to carry it close in my pocket, and both of us always managed to connect.
One problem in China that I hadn’t anticipated was that their Great Firewall blocked anything Google related. That meant I couldn’t access my Gmail and I began to panic. A colleague suggested I subscribe to a Virtual Private Network, (VPN), and that allowed me to break through the firewall. I was slightly nervous about doing something illegal, but the Chinese I met assured me that everyone does it, and I subsequently had no problems.
Travelling with the MiFi device worked well, although I did turn it off when there was Wi-Fi available in the hotel to save battery. It always found a signal immediately and the connection was fast enough for my purposes. I used less than 10GB in two weeks and had no worries about being surprised by a huge data bill on my return.
Cellhire provided the MiFi and data Sim card bundle and delivered it to my door. Cost varies depending on the country, but for China they charge £70 per 10GB for 30 days.