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How much data do I need/use? How to monitor and manage your mobile data usage

How much mobile data do I use each month, what apps use data and what happens if I exceed my data allowance? As national data usage climbs, we show you how to monitor your smartphone activities and take a look at higher data plans.

When choosing a new mobile phone contract, you will need to work out how much data you are likely to use on a monthly basis. After all, a contract with too much data means unnecessary expense, as data is the most pricey part of any contract. On the flip side of course, if you choose too little, you could be lumbered with horrendous excess data charges.

Don't stress though, because our complete guide to data usage will help you to work out how much data you really need each month.

What is data usage?

Data is basically the information that you send and receive on your mobile device, using your chosen phone network. You don’t use data to make calls or send text messages, but you use it to check emails, browse the internet, upload photos or download apps, whenever you aren't connected to a WiFi network.

Different applications require different amounts of data. For example, sending a plain text email is far less data intensive than watching YouTube videos. Similarly, the frequency at which your phone is set to check for updates - whether that means new emails, social network updates or weather information - also contributes to data use. The more frequently you get online, the more data you'll use.

If you don't keep an eye on your data use, it can easily get out of control, which can lead to expensive phone bills. That's why it's important to manage your data usage and choose the right contract to suit your needs.

Mobile data vs WiFi, what's the difference?

WiFi and mobile data are very different beasts. Browsing over an open WiFi network or your home WiFi network doesn't use up your smartphone's data allowance, so you can browse and download to your heart's content with no worry about big bills. In fact, you can even access the internet and emails over a WiFi network when you don't have mobile signal, which makes them particularly handy when you're on the London Underground, for instance.

Of course, you should always make sure that you're only connecting to safe WiFi networks on the move. Thankfully that's quite easy these days, with free WiFi readily available for the likes of BT Mobile customers. Check our guide on dodgy public WiFi networks, and how they could be stealing your private info.

Data connection speeds explained

Smartphones can connect to the internet using a variety of different methods over a mobile network. The indicator at the top of your phone tells you what type of connection you are using. The faster the connection type, the quicker you can download (or upload) information.

Check out our complete guide to data connection speeds to learn more about 3G, 4G and the upcoming 5G.

How to work out your monthly data usage

On any modern mobile you can quickly and easily monitor how much data you've been using over a set period, including a full month. For full instructions and more info, check out our complete guide to monitoring your data usage.

How can I check my data usage on an iPhone?

To monitor your data use on an iPhone, head to the Settings menu and then Cellular. In here you'll find a section called 'Cellular Data Usage'. This shows you exactly how much data you've burned through since the last reset.

If you want to see how much data you use in a set period, simply scroll to the bottom of this menu and tap 'Reset Statistics'. Make a note of the day and then check back again a month later (for example) to see how much data you've eaten up in the Cellular Data Usage section.

How can I check my data usage on an Android phone?

To monitor your data use on an Android phone, head to your mobile's settings menu and then tap 'Data Usage'. Note that on some Android phones, this may be called something different like Data. 

In here you'll see a graph displaying your data usage over the past month. You can adjust this period if required,by changing the dates. You can also see exactly what apps have been the biggest data hogs.

Why is my data usage so high, or going up?

If you stream any kind of media, be it music or video, then chances are you'll eat up a lot of data each month. This includes using apps such as Spotify, YouTube, Netflix and Skype. When using these apps you'll want to connect to a WiFi network, to avoid a massive data bill.

Use our guide above to check which apps are using the most data, and then try and restrict your use of these apps when away from WiFi.

When will my mobile data allowance reset?

Your mobile data usage will be reset to zero every month on the same date. This is the date that you originally signed up for your mobile contract.

For instance, if you signed up for an account on the 17th day of the month, then your data allowance will be reset on the 17th of every month.

Which apps help you to monitor data usage?

There are also a number of Android and iOS apps that allow you to monitor or minimise how much data your phone is using, which helps you to avoid any unwanted excess charges.

On both iPhone and Android, try My Data Manager. This handy data app can track your exact use, warn you if you're about to go over your limit, and give you tips on how to cut how much data you're burning though. It's free to download and use too, which is nice.

How much data do I need each month?

Every mobile network offers a selection of data packages, so you can choose exactly which one is best for you and avoid paying too much per month.

But if you don't already have a smartphone, how are you supposed to know how much data you're likely to use each month?

Well, to give you a rough idea of what you can do with each amount of data, here's our handy guide to the data usage for watching video, sending emails and browsing the web.

  • 100MB of data equals: eight short YouTube videos or 400 emails or 360 web pages
  • 250MB of data equals: 20 short YouTube videos, 1000 emails, 900 web pages
  • 500MB of data equals: 40 short YouTube videos, 2000 emails, 1800 web pages
  • 1GB of data equals: 80 short YouTube videos, 4000 emails, 3600 web pages

Before you sign up for a contract, think about how often you use your phone.

Are you a commuter who will be using your phone for two hours a day, five days a week, for email, browsing the internet and a spot of social media? If so, opt for a minimum of 1GB ideally.

If you're going to be streaming music from the likes of Spotify or video on YouTube all the time, you'll need a few extra GB to cover it.

How much will it cost me for a large data allowance?

If you already have a smartphone and therefore only need a SIM with lots of data to use each month, you'll find some really good SIM-only deals out there.

For instance, BT Mobile offers a range of SIM-only contracts, to suit all budgets and data needs. The basic 'Great Value Starter Plan' contract (£10 per month for non-BT customers) gives you 500MB of data to use per month, which is definitely aimed at those who only wish to check emails and occasionally browse the web.

However, bump up your budget to just £16 per month and you'll get a much more palatable 4GB of data to use each month. That's good for plenty of media streaming on the move, so should suit the majority of users. Even the most demanding of streamers are catered for, with a 12GB 'Perfect All Rounder' plan available from £21 per month for non-BT customers.

Best of all, if you have a family you can get discounts on additional SIMs for your other half and the kiddiewinks, using the BT Mobile Family SIM plan.

What happens if I exceed my data allowance?

From time to time, you might exceed your monthly data allowance, in which case you’ll accrue extra charges.

Different networks treat excess data usage differently and the cost of extra data can vary. Some networks offer data bundles on PAYG, which are worth checking out too. Check out your provider's website to see exactly what charges to expect.

 

How can I reduce the amount of mobile data my phone uses?

If you're worried that you use too much data and can't afford a higher data plan, try some of the following tips and tricks to cut your data usage each month.

  • Emailing and web browsing tends not to use much data, but downloading apps, streaming music and watching online videos will all eat through your allowance in no time at all. Wait until you're on WiFi to do these things, and try downloading media to your phone to enjoy offline rather than streaming it on the move. The likes of Spotify and Netflix allow you to download tracks and shows when connected to WiFi; check out our guide to downloading video to your phone for more info.
  • Regularly check your data use using our complete guide. This can help prevent any nasty surprises.
  • Some apps will automatically sync in the background, which often uses data. Try turning off syncing to prevent this, which can be done in your phone's settings menu. On iPhones, go to the settings and then General > Background App Refresh and turn this off. On Android, head to the settings and then Accounts, and you can turn off syncing for each account you have.
  • Consider an unlimited data package if you're regularly going over your limit. If you are already on a tariff and you don't have enough data, then contact your network operator. You may need to upgrade your tariff or buy a bolt-on package.
  • Jump onto a WiFi network whenever possible, to limit data use. You can use free WiFi networks across the UK, provided by businesses and mobile operators such as BT Mobile.
  • Use Google Maps a lot? You can now download maps of specific areas, to use offline and not eat into your data usage.

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