Can I get Wi-Fi on the train?

Woman on a train

I have a five-hour train journey this week, and I’d like to keep occupied by doing some work - but can I use the internet on the train?

Charlie H, via email

You're in luck, Charlie. It may not always be reliable, but there certainly are ways to get online when you're on the train.

On-board Wi-Fi

Firstly, there may be some free Wi-Fi ready and waiting for you to use, courtesy of the train itself.

Exactly what you can get, however, depends on the train company. Some offer it free with data limits, some only have free Wi-Fi for first class passengers, and some aren't able to offer it at all.

Here's the situation for a few major UK train operators.

Train service Wi-Fi policy
Arriva Trains Wales Wi-Fi Free Wi-Fi for all, with 70MB download/30MB upload limit
C2C Rail Wi-Fi Free Wi-Fi for all, with 50MB data limit outside stations
Chiltern Railways Wi-Fi Free Wi-Fi for all, with 125MB data limit
CrossCountry Trains Wi-Fi Paid Wi-Fi for standard class, free for first class.
First Great Western Trains Wi-Fi Free Wi-Fi for all, with data limits
First ScotRail Wi-Fi Free Wi-Fi for all, with data and speed limits, available on certain services
First TransPennine Express Wi-Fi Free Wi-Fi for all, with 20MB data limit (per journey)
London Midland Wi-Fi Paid Wi-Fi for standard class, free for first class, available on certain services to and from London St Pancras
Virgin Trains Wi-Fi Paid Wi-Fi for standard class, free for first class

So, yeah. There's a chance you can get online, but the in-train Wi-Fi may not be reliable, it'll probably have slow speeds and restrictive download limits, and web traffic will likely be managed or slowed down. It's especially risky if you're travelling standard class.

If getting online while you travel is absolutely vital, or if you just want to make sure you have enough data and speed to watch a movie, I'd recommend a different solution: mobile broadband.

Mobile broadband

Mobile broadband works by connecting to 4G or 3G mobile networks - so it's perfect for getting online when you're on the move. It won't be perfect, as mobile networks don't tend to cover the entirety of national train lines, but at least you've a chance of getting better speeds and higher data allowances than the on-board Wi-Fi.

Mobile broadband comes in a few different forms:

  • Mobile Wi-Fi devices, which emit a Wi-Fi signal that you can connect all your gadgets up to
  • Dongles, which plug into the USB port of your laptop to get it online
  • Data-only SIMs, which you can slip into the SD card slot of your iPad or tablet, just like a smartphone

Have a look at some mobile broadband deals here.

If you know you'll be travelling a lot over the next few months, it could be worth getting a long-term contract on a plan - it'll certainly work out better value if you know you'll use it.

For just a one-off trip, on the other hand, it may be better to buy a device upfront or get a 30-day plan. You'll be able to pick it up again whenever you like.

Another option is to tether from your smartphone - that is, turn your mobile into a Wi-Fi hotspot using your data allowance. Bring your charger if you do this though, as it's a bit of a battery drain, and remember to look up your network's policy on tethering first.

Hope that's useful, Charlie - and I hope your journey isn't too dull.

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