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What is a Dongle? Unveiling the Purpose and Functionality of Tech's Handy Tool

Lisa Bigelow
Updated May 21, 2024
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What Is a Dongle?

In an age where connectivity is paramount, a dongle serves as a versatile tool for enhancing your digital experience. According to a report by Grand View Research, the global USB market size was valued at USD 30.19 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23.5% from 2022 to 2030. This small device, which plugs seamlessly into your computer's USB port, offers a range of functionalities tailored to modern needs. Whether it's providing on-the-go internet access, facilitating rapid data transfers, enabling the use of secured software, or connecting a suite of peripherals, understanding what is a dongle can unlock new levels of productivity and convenience. As technology evolves, dongles are becoming an indispensable component of the tech toolkit for both personal and professional users.

In short, the term “dongle” is defined as any small device that plugs into the Universal Serial Bus (USB) or other computer port, regardless of what it does. These devices are usually used to provide some function that is not built into the computer itself. This includes adding memory, supplying Bluetooth® and WiFi® connections, and adding adapters so that other devices can be plugged in. Commonly, mobile broadband USB modems are often referred to as "mobile dongles."

Within industries that frequently use secured software, the term is still used primarily for security devices.

Why is a dongle called a dongle?

No one knows where the word “dongle” originated. According to Oxford University Press, publisher of the famous English Dictionary, “dongle” is of uncertain, and anonymous, origin.

How does a security dongle work?

The software sends an encrypted request to the security dongle for a validation key, which is also encrypted.

This means that in order to crack the dongle, a hacker must first crack the encryption.

Early dongles were usually attached to a computer's serial port and used to secure software already loaded on the computer. While loading, the software would check for the presence of the dongle, and, if it didn’t find it, it wouldn't load. This system was vulnerable because a programmer could alter the software to not look for the dongle or to think it was present when it wasn't.

An even more secure approach stores encrypted bits of the software on the dongle itself, which the program calls for when it needs them. In this scenario, even if a hacker were to fool the software into thinking the device was present, the software would be unable to run because it would be missing key parts of its code.

Did You Know?

  • A dongle is any small device that plugs into a computer’s USB port.
  • Dongles can provide internet access, speed file transfer, secure software.
  • Some dongles connect multiple devices to a computer.
  • No one knows where the word “dongle” comes from.

How do other types of dongles work?

Non-security dongles work by including virtually all of the hardware and software needed within the device itself.

Make sure you’re buying the right kind of dongle for your needs, since there are so many types.

Can a dongle be used as wifi?

Yes. Wifi dongles, also called a USB wireless adapter or USB wifi adapter, include a network adapter that allows a computer to connect to the internet.

Although the computer must have the correct settings to make the broadband connection, the device contains the technology that allows the connection to be made.

What is a wireless sync dongle?

A wireless sync dongle is a dongle that communicates with a device, often a fitness device, and transfers its data to a computer.

What is a Bluetooth dongle?

A Bluetooth dongle connects a Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a mouse or keyboard, with a computer.

What problems do dongles have?

Common dongle problems relate to security and the use of locked software. They are also easily lost.

A few software companies have attempted to introduce dongle security with their consumer-oriented software without success, even though consumers are often familiar with USB technology.

As technology changes and new operating systems and hardware become more commonplace, older software that requires the device may no longer be usable.

Another common problem is that people may need to use more than one type of locked software at a time and the computer may not be able to accommodate all the different devices at once. Most dongles take up a port, and do not allow other devices to be plugged into them; a computer that only has two or three USB ports, for example, may already have a mouse, camera, or other device attached, leaving no room for anything else.

In addition, dongles are easily lost or damaged. Specialists such as video editors or audio engineers may be willing to put up with the inconvenience, but the average computer user is usually not.

To cope with these problems, some companies specialize in emulators that attempt to convince the computer that the dongle is present. These emulators are not always legal, however, as they are specifically designed to get around security issues.

When a person buys a piece of software, what he or she is really buying, most of the time, is a license to use the software. With that license, the user typically agrees to certain conditions, and using an emulator may break those rules.

If the person who purchased the software did so legally and does have the dongle, and/or if that piece of hardware no longer works correctly, it may be legal to use an emulator instead in some circumstances.

Are there dongle alternatives?

There are alternatives to using a dongle for security purposes, although they are not always as reliable.

Some programs have key codes that must be entered when the software is first installed; others only allow the program to be installed once.

In some cases, the computer running the software must have an internet connection so that it can regularly connect to the manufacturer's servers to confirm who is using the program. As with dongles, each of these security measures can cause problems for the user if they do not work correctly or if the software needs to be transferred to a new computer. In addition, nearly all such methods have been cracked.

What Is a Dongle?

The word "dongle" refers to a small piece of computer hardware that provides functionality to a smart phone, laptop, tablet, desktop computer, or other device by connecting to its port or enabling a passthrough to the device. Most dongles insert into a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port, but can also connect with any type of port.

While the exact origin of the term "dongle" is unknown, it is thought that it possibly originated as a corruption of the word "dangle" since these devices hang from PC ports. Originally, the word dongle referred to a type of security hardware that contained a piece of cryptographic protection that would only allow the software to operate when it was plugged in. Now, the term has been broadened to include a variety of devices of a similar "dangling" form with a wide range of uses.

What Is a Dongle Used For?

The purpose of a dongle is generally to add a functionality that the computer or other device does not have as a built-in feature, such as in the following instances.

  • Dongles can serve as adapters for other devices, allowing easy cable installation and removal with short cables that enable large jacks to connect to smaller plugs without the need for multiple connectors.
  • A memory USB dongle, also known as a memory stick, enables files to be passed easily between devices and increases a computer's storage capacity with an external storage option.
  • Dongle devices can supply Bluetooth connections to computers that lack that built-in capability. Bluetooth dongles connect computers with Bluetooth-capable devices, such as wireless keyboards.
  • A wireless sync dongle enables data transfer from a device, such as a fitness tracker, to a computer or storage device.
  • Functioning as a mobile broadband modem, which enables a personal computer or router to access wireless internet through a mobile broadband connection rather than telephone or cable lines.
  • Digital media players have adopted the dongle's stick-like form in products designed to plug into HDMI ports or AV receivers on televisions.
  • Security dongles are used to keep unauthorized users from accessing sensitive information, providing security through encryption software and validation key.
  • Dongles are widely used in the world of video games as they enable gaming consoles to gain features such as enhanced audio quality.

What Is a Dongle Cord?

A dongle cord is the wire that is part of a dongle device. Before USB became the standard for PC peripheral attachments, dongles came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The term "dongle" still applies to a variety of forms. Some have cords and some do not. Cords are more likely to be a part of a dongle that is used as an adapter, as the cord can enable more devices to plug in to the computer and allows the dongle to function as a sort of extension cord for the computer.

What Is Dongle WiFi?

WiFi dongles are also known as USB WiFi adapters, USB wireless adapters, USB modems, internet sticks, USB mobile broadband sticks, or USB network adapters. These pocket-sized devices connect a smartphone, laptop, or tablet to the internet with use of a network adapter. They are popular because of the flexibility that they offer compared to fixed-line connections. A simple plug-and-go enables WiFi connection regardless of location or available internet services.

A WiFi dongle is essentially a tiny piece of hardware that can be plugged into the USB port of a laptop or desktop computer. The device accesses the internet using the same method as a cell phone, through 3G, 4G, and 5G wireless networks. These are popular for several reasons:

  • Set up is easy with a mobile internet dongle and does not require a professional for installation.
  • Dongles are generally provided for free when you sign a mobile wireless contract.
  • The mobile broadband dongles charge on the laptop or computer battery, eliminating the need for additional chargers.
  • For those who travel and need remote access to the internet without relying on public WiFi in airport lounges or restaurants, mobile internet dongles offer a simple solution.
  • Dongles are extremely lightweight and portable, enabling you to easily carry them with you for use anywhere.
  • If your property does not have fibre broadband, you may be limited to slower broadband speeds. A mobile internet dongle can provide access to higher speeds for a lower price.
  • For remote workers, a WiFi dongle allows working from public places without the risks associated with using public internet networks, which are generally unsecured.
  • Mobile broadband technology has improved in recent years, making dongles sleek, small, and fast compared to older models.
EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Lisa Bigelow
By Lisa Bigelow
Lisa Bigelow writes for Bold and is an award-winning content creator, personal finance expert, and mom of three fantastic almost-adults. Lisa has contributed to MagnifyMoney, FinanceBuzz, Life and Money by Citi, Well + Good, Smarter With Gartner, and Popular Science. She lives with her family in Connecticut.

Discussion Comments

By anon992082 — On Aug 12, 2015

Actually, the basic function of mostly dongle is for software protection, so if you lost your dongle, your software cannot run, if you want to run it again, you need to purchase another one from the software company.

By anon949368 — On May 05, 2014

Can a dongle be used by a person to spy on other people cellphone calls out of state?

By anon349445 — On Sep 26, 2013

I see a lot of questions in previous contributions, but few answers. Most of your answers are to be found on the website of the maker of the equipment or software you are using

And for those of you who want the internet access for your portable computers, all I know is that my iPad has a thing called cellular data, which I purchase from a cellular provider, like AT&T, Verizon, or some other cell phone service. I can't use it to make phone calls, but I do get internet. Most laptops from 2003 on come with a built-in device that permits a connection, if you have subscribed to a cellular service with which to connect to the internet. You just need to check your computer's features to see if it's built in, and learn how to turn it on.

Talk to the people who sold you the computer, go to the manufacturer's website, or maybe even take it with you when you ask about such services at the cell phone store. But your best info is the technical support from whoever sold you the laptop. Jabbahdah.

By anon289382 — On Sep 04, 2012

I would love to know how to make my laptop work by just connecting the dongle. I tried it, but it keeps telling me there is no server page? This is my first laptop. If it doesn't work soon, I will throw it in the sea.

By anon278791 — On Jul 09, 2012

I have video project and I want a dongle for it.

By anon255489 — On Mar 17, 2012

Why is it that I struggle to get online with a dongle? Sometimes I am in the middle of writing an email, and then I cannot send it as I have lost the connection, yet I have done nothing to cause this infuriating problem. It is a constant source of frustration for me!

By anon254423 — On Mar 13, 2012

I just had to look it up. Mike Greenburg on Mike and Mike in the morning on ESPN called it a Dongle, but I'd never heard of it before.

By anon251028 — On Feb 28, 2012

A dongle is a piece of attachable hardware, which provides some functionality. It is a general term, not about security devices only. It can be a mass storage device, USB modem, Bluetooth, etc., etc., etc.

Sorry authors, but in how you defined dongle, you could could define "hand is a piece of human body to hold a spoon, fork, knife and cup during mealtime" and "The head is a piece of the human body which contains the mouth where a person eats."

By anon247146 — On Feb 13, 2012

My friend has a dongle and she has these dell games on her dell laptop - desktop games. Will it take off her data?

By anon135722 — On Dec 20, 2010

I want to take my laptop on holiday with me next year (camping). what type of dongle do I need. I want to use the internet and read emails while away. thanks

By cathars1209 — On Oct 16, 2010

Thanks for the comprehensive explanation. Needed to know definition of a dongle and why it was needed for certain embroidery machine software.

By anon96274 — On Jul 15, 2010

there is a real time clock dongle-Unikey Time, with a real time clock inside.

By anon93408 — On Jul 03, 2010

is a dongle the same with a flash drive?

By anon93406 — On Jul 03, 2010

I always thought a dongle was to receive illegal satellite transmissions so that a person could watch Dish Network TV without a subscription.

By anon79811 — On Apr 24, 2010

I have a dongle key. It still works on a older laptop purchased in 2003. Can I get a new laptop computer with a serial port so as to use that same dongle again today? Is there a USB key adapter, where I can plug the dongle into?

By anon71831 — On Mar 20, 2010

What is the use of Dongle in microwave communication in MUX and how does it work?

By anon60398 — On Jan 13, 2010

Is it possible to use a dongle to watch baseball games on a TV set via a computer? If so, how?

By anon56009 — On Dec 11, 2009

Isn't a dongle also the wireless connection between a computer and some other device? (like a wireless printer, or wireless slate)

By anon54233 — On Nov 28, 2009

There is a new use for the word "dongle." It is a short adapter interfacing a generic laptop power cord connector to the Laptop power Jack, usually about 3" in length. HP uses this idea for their "Smart" AC power adaptor.


By anon45381 — On Sep 16, 2009

I have an iomega screenplay pro and just received a gift of a dongle for it. Can anyone tell me what the hell does it do?

By anon35074 — On Jul 02, 2009

suzmck - a dongle is only for hardware meets software application

strategies to prevent hacking and piracy ...so, no, it won't help you

unless your isp in spain needs you to have one to access the internet.

in that highly unlikely circumstance the isp will provide you with

one for their service. and for everybody else, each dongle is

localized to what software or groups of software they can use ....for

the most part ...you can't just have a dongle for Arturia and use it

for SynReg Donmac you heard incorrectly Yes to giddavr the dongle and

hardware and software are completely separate from things like RAM and

chipsets and motherboards. reinstall your OS and run the dongle

specific programs and contact the manufacturer for further details.

By suzmck1 — On Jun 05, 2009

I am moving to Spain and wonder if a dongle will enable me to get internet connection to my laptop?

By larz — On Nov 29, 2008

i bought an infinity box last month and the dongle is corrupt what happened, please solve for me.

By jasly — On Sep 15, 2008

hello there. I was using a small software (about 18MB) for shop maintenance, which need a dongle or hasp that should b attached to the printer port (old type) in order the software should run. Now i lost that hasp and the software cannot b run. Although program can be installed and uninstalled but does not run. can a dongle eliminator or any other software can make it run again?

By donmac — On Mar 15, 2008

Apparently "dongle" has been expanded in meaning by usage. I have heard it used to describe a flexible plug in device for a USB flashcard.

By eistot — On Mar 02, 2008

i have a bluetooth headset. I work and use bluetooth for calls coming in at home. I would like to use this bluetooth to be able to hear my rca HDtv. I can do this on my cellphone by listening to music and then the call comes in. i am getting hard of hearing and would like to be able to listen to tv without running my family out of the room. I am getting older, Yes the older generation is interested in bluetooth. (62 years old female LOL) I have a bluetooth adapter usb and what i bought was called a dongle. i have usb port on the side of my tv.

By anon8462 — On Feb 14, 2008

I have a camera that holds 4GB of internal memory and you must use all of the 4GB in order to put in a memory stick. On different sites, it says that the dongle will be able to remove the pictures. I have the Sony DSC-T2 and i'm not sure what the sites are talking about/


By alattas — On Jan 31, 2008

Is that any dongle can work with any software or its each dongle come with the software which we bought as key to protect the software piracy.


By giddavr — On Dec 21, 2007

I have an ultrasound machine which uses windows xp.

The unit consists of a PCI card which acts as the interface between the computer and the ultrasound module and related hardware along with the software program, which is protected by a pass through parallel port dongle from Rainbow.

I find the processor and memory are slowing the performance of the ultrasound module.

Can I change the motherboard, CPU and the Memory and still be able to use the setup with the orogonal Dongle?


By anon3859 — On Sep 20, 2007

I use my IOgear bluetooth dongle to copy my address book and calendar as well as music files to my Nokia 6126. Use Nokia's free PC Suite, and all works well.

By anon2874 — On Jul 29, 2007

Depending on the driver software of your Bluetooth dongle, you should see an entry in your Send To context menu like "Bluetooth" or the Bluetooth display name of your mobile. The mobile then automatically detects the type of file being transferred and saves it to the appropriate location. Bluetooth on the mobile should be turned on.

By anon835 — On May 06, 2007

I use dongle to transfer data, like photos, music, videos, etc. from my mobile to my PC using bluetooth. How can I transfer music from my PC to my mobile using the same technology. My mobile is 6151 - Nokia


Lisa Bigelow

Lisa Bigelow

Lisa Bigelow writes for Bold and is an award-winning content creator, personal finance expert, and mom of three fantastic almost-adults. Lisa has contributed to MagnifyMoney, FinanceBuzz, Life and Money by Citi, Well + Good, Smarter With Gartner, and Popular Science. She lives with her family in Connecticut.
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