The 7 Best USB Wi-Fi Adapters of 2021

Get Wi-Fi connectivity easily with these wireless adapters

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The best USB Wi-Fi adapters are a really convenient way to get a desktop PC or older laptop online with the performance you need for smooth streaming and uninterrupted video calling. Not only will they let you easily add wireless capabilities to a desktop PC, but they can also breathe new life into a laptop that isn’t up to the latest Wi-Fi standards. 

As the name suggests, these plug-and-play devices connect to any free USB port on your computer, at which point they show up in Windows or macOS just like an internal network card. Unlike the wireless hardware built into older laptops, however, the best USB Wi-Fi adapters support the latest 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi 5, so you’ll get the best possible speeds and also be able to use the much faster 5GHz band. The best USB Wi-Fi adapters are the ideal solution for anybody who needs new or better network capabilities on a desktop PC or laptop.

The Rundown
Delivers top performance for online gaming and 4K streaming, plus an included magnetic cradle for easy placement.
Provides solid and reliable AC1200 speeds in an affordable package with a cool cobalt blue design.
A great choice for road warriors, with an ultra-compact design that lets you leave it plugged into your laptop's USB port.
The included cradle and four-foot cable offer versatile placement options.
Best Performance:
Linksys WUSB6300 at Amazon
A solid and reliable adapter that offers better speeds at a distance.
Four beamforming antennas offer extended range at the cost of some portability.
Best With Antenna:
EDUP EP-AC1635 at Amazon
A built-in antenna lets you get focus in on the strongest signal, with 360 degrees of rotation and 90 degrees of angle capability,

Best Overall: Netgear Nighthawk A7000 USB Wi-Fi Adapter

Netgear Nighthawk A7000 USB Wi-Fi Adapter
What We Like
  • High speeds

  • Great range

  • Versatile for both desktops and laptops

What We Don't Like
  • Bulky

  • Relatively expensive

Netgear's Nighthawk A7000 delivers the kind of top performance you need for today's demanding internet activities like 4K streaming and online gaming. Strong dual-band Wi-Fi provides maximum transfer speeds of up to 1.3Gbps on the 5GHz band and 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz side. Although you'll need to connect it to a USB 3.0 port to get the best possible speeds, it's fully compatible with USB 2.0 as well, where you can still get up to 400Mbps—more than enough for 4K streaming and online gaming. 

Setting up your Wi-Fi connection with the Nighthawk A7000 is straightforward, thanks to a simple installation CD and a WPS button that gives you one-click access to encrypted Wi-Fi networks—provided your router also supports it. Of course, you can also simply select your WI-Fi network and key in your password if you prefer. The included magnetic cradle offers versatile mounting and placement, and its beamforming technology will give you a solid and reliable signal no matter where you are in your home. The sleek, foldable design also means you can easily slip it into your laptop bag for travelling. 

Wireless Spec: 801.11ac | Speed: AC1900 | Bands: Dual-band

"If you’re an avid gamer who likes to slay hordes of undead zombies online, or if you simply want to catch up on Fortnite, this is the adapter for you." — Rebecca Isaacs, Product Tester

Netgear Nighthawk A7000

Rebecca Issacs

Best Value: Net-Dyn AC1200 USB Wi-Fi Adapter

Net-DYN AC1200 USB Wi-Fi Adapter
What We Like
  • 100-yard range

  • Plug-and-play functionality

  • Lifetime warranty

What We Don't Like
  • A bit bulky

The NET-DYN AC1200 proves that you don't need an expensive Wi-Fi card in your PC to get a fast and reliable connection. Simply plug this adapter into a USB 3.0 port for up to 867Mbps of throughput on a 5GHz Wi-Fi band, but it’s also backward-compatible with USB 2.0 of course, where the 400Mbps speeds are more than ample to stream movies or play games online without worrying about a sluggish connection. Plus, the 100-yard range means you can use it just about anywhere in your home that your router can reach, whether that's on your porch, your basement, your attic, or even out in your backyard.

What’s also great is that Windows users don’t need to install special drivers to get up and running—just plug it into your USB port and Windows will auto-detect it and have you ready to get online in a snap. It’s also compatible with Mac and Linux systems too, although you’ll need to grab the drivers for those platforms. Standard WPA/WPA2protocols encrypt your personal information, and it's backed by a lifetime warranty that covers both manufacturing defects and dead units.

Wireless Spec: 801.11ac | Speed: AC1200 | Bands: Dual-band

"Up close to the router and on a new machine, YouTube played without any pixelation, Spotify was seamless, and online games didn’t rubber band. It was a truly magical experience." — Rebecca Isaacs, Product Tester

NET-DYN USB Wireless Wi-Fi Adapter

Lifewire / Rebecca Isaacs

Best for Travel: Glam Hobby Ourlink U631 AC600 Dual Band USB Wi-Fi Adapter

Glam Hobby OurLink U631 USB Wi-Fi Adapter
What We Like
  • Very affordable

  • Ultra-compact

  • Windows, Linux, and Mac compatible

What We Don't Like
  • Some lag for heavy gamers

  • Poor range

  • Linux setup can be tricky

Glam Hobby's Ourlink U631 is the perfect choice for road warriors, thanks to an ultra-compact design that lets you stick it into your laptop's USB port and basically forget about it. The low-profile means you can leave it plugged in all the time without worrying about it breaking off or getting damaged, and it doesn't block other ports on your laptop either.

Offering a plug-and-play setup with Windows, Mac, and Linux laptops, the U631 also has a "soft AP" function that lets you create a Wi-Fi hotspot from your laptop, so you can effectively use your laptop as a travel router to get your mobile devices online without using up your cellular data. The U631 delivers surprisingly great dual-band wireless performance for such a small adapter, with speeds of up to 150Mbps on the 2.4GHz band or up to 433Mbps over a 5GHz channel, automatically choosing the best band for maximum performance and range.

Wireless Spec: 801.11ac | Speed: AC600 | Bands: Dual-band

"If you're planning on gaming far from the router, find another adapter for your long-distance needs." — Rebecca Isaacs, Product Tester

Glam Hobby OURLINK

Rebecca Issacs

Best Budget: Edimax EW-7811UAC AC600 Wi-Fi Dual-Band High-Gain USB Adapter

Edimax EW-7811UAC
What We Like
  • Included cradle offers versatile placement for best signal

  • Very affordable

  • High-gain antennas

What We Don't Like
  • Basic driver options only

Edimax's EW-7811UAC offers a very affordable way to get maximum range from a USB Wi-Fi adapter, thanks to its high-gain antenna and versatile placement options. The included four-foot cable and cradle allows you to position the USB Wi-Fi adapter and its accompanying antennas away from your computer or any other devices that might introduce interference, while also letting you align the high-gain antenna for optimal performance. 

While the AC600 rating means it's not the fastest adapter you'll find, it's still more than fast enough to stream Netflix in 4K to a single laptop or desktop PC—even over a slower 802.11n connection. The 6dBi antenna powers transfer speeds of up to 433Mbps on the 5GHz band and 150Mbps on the 2.4GHz side to ensure you'll get sustained performance even when farther away from your router.

Wireless Spec: 801.11ac | Speed: AC600 | Bands: Dual-band

Best Performance: Linksys WUSB6300 Dual-Band AC1200 USB Wi-Fi Adapter

Linksys WUSB6300
What We Like
  • Solid performance at longer ranges

  • Easy to install

  • Beamforming technology

What We Don't Like
  • A little bulky

  • Middling speeds at closer ranges

As one of the best-known names in wireless routers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Linksys’ WUSB6300 was one of the first 802.11ac USB Wi-Fi adapters to arrive on the market a few years ago, and it remains one of the best options in terms of general performance, especially at longer ranges. 

The AC1200 speeds will deliver more than enough bandwidth for even the most demanding online activities, with speeds of up to 867Mbps on the 5GHz band. While it doesn't lead the pack in performance at closer ranges, the WUSB6300 excels at providing more consistent speeds as you move further away from the router. Just keep in mind that while the performance is more than sufficient for web surfing, streaming, and video calling, its higher latency makes it a less than ideal choice for gamers.

Wireless Spec: 801.11ac | Speed: AC1200 | Bands: Dual-band

Best Splurge: Trendnet TEW-809UB AC1900 High Power Dual Band USB Wi-Fi Adapter

Trendnet TEW-809UB USB Wi-Fi Adapter
What We Like
  • Fast performance

  • Solid connection

  • USB 3.0 and type A

  • Mac and Windows compatible

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

  • Designed for stationary setups

Trendnet's TEW-809UB is designed for those who want to add Wi-Fi support to a desktop PC or a relatively stationary laptop without compromising on range or performance. While it's certainly not the most portable USB Wi-Fi Adapter out there, the four large high-gain antennas deliver strong dual-band Wi-Fi performance.

With AC1900 speeds, you’ll get up to 1.3Gbps throughput on the 5GHz band, plus 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz side. It also supports beamforming technology to give you maximum signal strength by aiming your wireless signals in the direction of your router, rather than letting them bounce around the house, and you can even manually position the antennas individually for the best performance. An included three-foot USB cable lets you place the TEW-809UB away from your computer to reduce interference, and like most USB adapters it’s pretty much plug-and-play, with your operating system handling most of the heavy lifting. 

Wireless Spec: 801.11ac | Speed: AC1900 | Bands: Dual-band

Best With Antenna: EDUP EP-AC1635 USB WiFi Adapter

EP-AC1635 USB WiFi Adapter
What We Like
  • Small and compact

  • Excellent speed and range

  • Includes driver disc

What We Don't Like
  • Incompatible with Linux

  • External antenna might be a drawback for some

The EDUP-1635 adapter uses a USB 2.0 connection and your router's dual-band Wi-Fi to deliver the performance you need for surfing the web, playing games, or streaming video, with 433Mbps over the 5GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5 band, plus 150Mbps on the 2.4GHz side.

The built-in antenna also helps you maximize your range, with 360 degrees of rotation and 90 degrees of angle. This lets you get the best signal reception no matter where your desktop or laptop is in the house. The EDUP-1365 has a one-key encryption function to protect your personal information while you use the internet, and it's quick and easy to set up with the included CD or downloaded drivers so you can start surfing the web almost immediately.

Wireless Spec: 801.11ac | Speed: AC600 | Bands: Dual-band

"During our stress test, the EDUP EP-AC1635 performed incredibly well." — Imad Khan, Product Tester

EDUP EP-AC1635 USB Wi-Fi Adapter

 Lifewire / Imad Khan

Final Verdict

Netgear's Nighthawk A7000 is the best choice for anybody who needs maximum performance for streaming and gaming, but for anybody who just needs something portable and affordable to say connected on the go, the Ourlink U631 is hard to beat.

About Our Trusted Experts

Jesse Hollington is a freelance writer with over 10 years of experience writing about technology and three decades of experience in information technology and networking. He's installed, tested, and configured just about every type and brand of router, firewall, wireless access point, and network extender in places ranging from single-family dwellings to office buildings. university campuses, and even coast-to-coast wide-area network (WAN) deployments.

Rebecca Isaacs has teamed up with Lifewire since January 2019. An avid lover of all things computer-related, she frequently uses Wi-Fi adapters for all of her gaming and work needs as she battles to get the best internet in the Midwest. She has personally tested many of the adapters on this list.

Imad Khan has written for Washington Post, ESPN, Tom's Guide, Engadget, Digital Trends, Variety, Men's Health, VICE, and more. His areas of expertise include computers and laptops, and he reviewed EDUP's EP-AC1635 on this list.

FAQ
  • What does a USB Wi-Fi adapter do?

    As the name suggests, a USB Wi-Fi adapter plugs into any free USB port on a PC or laptop, allowing you to wirelessly connect to any nearby Wi-Fi router or access point, whether that's in your home, your office, or using public hotspots out on the road. USB Wi-Fi adapters can even be used with laptops that already have built-in Wi-Fi to provide a faster and stronger wireless connection. 

  • Is a USB Wi-Fi adapter better than using an internal one?

    If you have a free USB port that supports at least USB 2.0 speeds, a USB Wi-Fi offers quite a few advantages over an internal Wi-Fi card. Not only can you much more easily share it between multiple computers and take it with you on the go, but it also helps to get your Wi-Fi antennas away from any interference that may be generated by the electronics in your PC or laptop, and you can even use a USB extension cable to place it in the best position for maximum range and performance. 

  • What kind of USB Wi-Fi adapter do you need?

    Just about any inexpensive USB Wi-Fi adapter will get the job done if all you need to do is stay connected for less demanding activities like email, surfing, and social media. If you need to stream video, participate in Zoom calls, or plan to do serious online gaming, you'll want to get an adapter that offers maximum performance and range. Since antenna size is important in this case, you'll need to give up some portability, but you can still get some pretty pocketable USB Wi-Fi adapters that offer top speeds—you'll just need to be prepared to spend a little bit more.

The Ultimate USB Wi-Fi Adapter Buying Guide

A USB Wi-Fi adapter is one of the easiest ways to add wireless network connectivity to a PC, laptop, or even a game console, and even if your device already includes built-in Wi-Fi, the right use Wi-Fi adapter can give you a nice performance upgrade. 

Since USB is a universal standard, a USB Wi-Fi adapter can work with just about anything that has a USB port, and is often as simple as just plugging it in, making them a much better option than installing a traditional network card. 

While USB Wi-Fi adapters are available in a wide variety of designs from ultra-portable dongles that aren't much bigger than your USB port to larger devices that sit on your desk, they all basically have the same goal: to give you better wireless connectivity.

Netgear Nighthawk A7000 WiFi USB adapter

Lifewire / Rebecca Isaacs

Why Buy a USB Wi-Fi Adapter?

Since most laptops already have Wi-Fi built-in, you may wonder what the point is of a USB Wi-Fi adapter. The truth is, if your computer already provides good and reliable Wi-Fi, there's almost certainly no need to add an external adapter. However, for users of laptops with poor Wi-Fi hardware or PCs that typically don't include Wi-Fi support at all, a USB Wi-Fi adapter will help to bridge that gap. 

For example, you might have an older laptop that doesn't offer dual-band Wi-Fi or faster 802.11ac speeds. In this case, a USB Wi-Fi adapter may give your computer a new lease on life, especially if you're hoping to stream 4K videos or do any serious online gaming. Further, even computers that have modern Wi-Fi specs can be hampered by poor internal antenna placement, so an external USB Wi-Fi adapter can improve your range and performance. 

Range

Most USB Wi-Fi adapters work reasonably well when you're close to your router, but if you're sitting right beside your router anyway, you could probably just as easily plug in an Ethernet cable and get even better performance. The point of a USB Wi-Fi adapter is to give you the freedom to move around your home, so you're going to want one that offers the kind of range you need. 

To be fair, this is something of a double-edge sword. It’s also up to your router to provide the coverage that you need, and a USB Wi-Fi adapter isn't going to work magic if your router can't get a signal out to it in the first place. It's a cooperative effort, and if you have a larger home, you should definitely start by making sure you have a good long-range router.

Even if you have a powerful router or mesh Wi-Fi system that provides solid coverage for your home, the USB Wi-Fi adapter still has to do its part, and not all adapters are equal in this regard. Adapters that sit farther away from your computer's USB port—either by protruding out, offering external antennas, or using an extension cable—will generally provide better range, all other things being equal, since they have less interference from your computer to contend with.

Single-Band or Dual-Band Wi-Fi?

A single-band Wi-Fi adapter operates on only one frequency—normally 2.4GHz—which offers basic compatibility with almost every Wi-Fi network on the planet, but also means you'll be stuck using the same frequencies that most other devices are using. By contrast, a dual-band Wi-Fi adapter can make connections on the higher-frequency 5GHz band, providing your router supports it, giving you faster speeds and fewer devices competing for bandwidth. 

Whether to choose a single-band or dual-band USB Wi-Fi adapter will largely depend on what your home router supports. If you're purchasing an adapter for a laptop that you're going to travel with, however, you'll want to go with a dual-band adapter for maximum compatibility.

Also keep in mind that most laptops today already offer at least single-band Wi-Fi built right in. This means there's not much point in even considering a single-band Wi-Fi adapter, and these days even the most affordable ones provide dual-band W-Fi support.

What about tri-band Wi-Fi? Well, that’s not something you’ll find in a USB Wi-Fi adapter, as it’s a feature exclusive to routers that need to support a larger number of devices. Tri-band routers offer an extra 5GHz frequency band to divvy up devices for maximum performance. Since a single device can only connect to one frequency band at a time, there's no such thing as a tri-band Wi-Fi adapter. 

Net-Dyn AC1900

Rebecca Issacs

Speed and Wi-Fi Standards

How fast you need your USB Wi-Fi adapter to be depends largely on what you plan to do with it, although modern dual-band adapters should be more than adequate for most online activities. Even the most affordable USB Wi-Fi adapters support at least AC600 speeds, which generally works out to 433Mbps on the 5GHz band and 150Mbps on the 2.4GHz side. By contrast, streaming a Netflix movie in 4K UHD only requires 25Mbps of bandwidth. 

One important thing to keep in mind, however, is that as with all Wi-Fi devices, speeds will drop off as you move farther away from your router, and not all USB Wi-Fi adapters offer the same range. If you plan to work at a distance from your router, you'll want to make sure your chosen adapter offers good performance at a distance.

If you’re a gamer, you'll have to consider more than just speed. In this case, make sure you pick an update up that has low latency for maximum lag-free performance. On the flip side, however, there's no need to worry about buying a high-speed adapter if you're only planning to connect to public hotspots at airports, hotels, and coffee shops, as these usually don't offer particularly speedy internet performance in the first place.

While many routers are offering support for the very newest Wi-Fi 6 802.11ax standard, Wi-Fi 6 compatible USB Wi-Fi adapters aren't yet widely available—but they're coming soon.

Size and Design

There are many styles of USB Wi-Fi adapters available, so it's easy to find an option that suits your specific needs. However, you'll want to make sure that you look beyond just the physical design, since there are some important tradeoffs here.

As a rule, the smaller the USB Wi-Fi adapter, the less range and performance it's likely to offer. Little dongles that barely protrude from your USB port may be great at close range, but it's not realistic to expect them to provide good Wi-Fi performance on the other side of your house (unless you have a mesh Wi-Fi system, of course). 

Adapters that extend further out from your computer's USB port or connect separately via a cable will avoid being affected by interference from the electronics in your computer. Your mileage will vary here depending on what type of PC or laptop you're using, though, as some are better than others in this regard.

Ourlink AC600 USB Wi-Fi Adapter

Lifewire / Rebecca Isaacs

Antennas

Larger USB Wi-Fi adapters may be bulkier, but they also offer more room for internal antennas—or even external ones, in some cases—that ensure you get the best range and performance.

If you're looking for maximum speeds at the edges of your Wi-Fi coverage, you’ll want an adapter with separate antennas that can be positioned and offer beamforming to maximize signal strength and focus your signal back to the router. Of course, an adapter with external antennas will sacrifice some portability. 

Compatibility

Most modern USB Wi-Fi adapters are pretty much plug-and-play for Windows users, but if you're using a Mac or a Linux system, your options may be more limited. You’ll want to check the specs before buying a USB Wi-Fi adapter to make sure it's not only compatible with your operating system, but also the specific version of your operating system.

This is even more important if it's from a lesser-known brand, as you may need to install custom drivers even on Windows, and the manufacturer may not offer those drivers for other operating systems. 

If you're looking for a USB Wi-Fi adapter for a game console, your options will be even more limited. Don't expect a standard USB Wi-Fi adapter to work with a PS3 or Xbox unless it specifically lists compatibility with those devices.

EDUP-1635

Iman Khan

USB 3.0 Support

Your USB Wi-Fi adapter can only offer speeds that are as fast as the USB port on your computer. Since older USB 2.0 ports max out at 480Mbps, you're going to need a USB 3.0 port if you want to benefit from the speeds offered by an AC1200 or better USB Wi-Fi adapter.

Of course, even if you don't have USB 3.0 available on your computer, this doesn't mean you can't buy a faster USB Wi-Fi adapter, as they're all backward compatible with older USB standards; you simply won't get the advertised speeds, however 480Mbps is still perfectly respectable for streaming movies and even gaming—as long as the adapter offers low enough latency to keep your games moving fast. 

Top Brands

Netgear

While Netgear is best known for its Nighthawk series of wireless routers, it also makes USB Wi-Fi adapters to complement them, bearing the same Nighthawk branding. Naturally, Netgear brings its years of networking expertise to bear in producing quality USB Wi-Fi adapters, and while they tend to be pricey, as with the company's extensive lineup of routers, you're getting what you're paying for. 

Linksys

Linksys is also a household name in Wi-Fi gear, having been in the business for over three decades, and having passed from independence to being a division of Cisco and later Belkin, however it still produces iconic routers under its own branding, while also offering a small lineup of USB Wi-Fi adapters that deliver solid performance at more affordable prices. 

Net-Dyn

Net-Dyn is a small American family-owned business that does one thing, and does it quite well—making USB Wi-Fi adapters. While the company has branched out into a few other small products, USB Wi-Fi adapters are still its core business, and they not only offer impressive performance for the price, but they're also backed by a lifetime warranty.

Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Wi-Fi Adapter

Lifewire / Rebecca Isaacs 

Conclusion

While it may seem like there's a lot to consider when buying a USB Wi-Fi adapter, it's important to keep in mind that it all boils down to one thing: Getting better wireless connectivity for your PC, laptop, or console. 

While you'll still almost always get better performance by plugging into your router directly, a USB Wi-Fi adapter can give you more flexibility to move around your home and save you from running Ethernet cables, and can be a great way to equip an older laptop with the latest Wi-Fi standards for when you're on the road. 

That said, if you're simply looking to equip a stationary PC or game console with internet access, you may want to consider a Powerline adapter instead, which can extend a wired network connection to other parts of your home using the electrical wiring in your walls.

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