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How much data do I need? How to choose the best mobile contract for you

How much data do I need when choosing a new mobile phone contract? Here's how to work out the best data deal for you, including some of the best data contracts in the UK.

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. But 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 work out how much data you really need each month.

How much data do I need: What is data?

Data is basically the information that you send and recieve 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. But there are ways to minimise how much data you use, which we'll cover later.

How much data do I need: Data vs WiFi

WiFi and Data are different beasts. Browsing over an open WiFi network or your home WiFi network doesn't use up your data allowance and you can access the internet and emails over a WiFi network even if you don't have mobile signal.

That's why it's a good idea to connect to safe WiFi networks whenever possible. Thankfully that's quite easy these days, with free O2 WiFi readily available.

How much data do I need: Data connections 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 much data do I need: How to work out how much data you're using

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.

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.

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.

How much data do I need: Apps to monitor or cut how much data you use

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: How to work out which data bundle is best for you

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:

  • 100MB of data equals: eight YouTube videos or 400 emails or 360 web pages
  • 250MB of data equals: 20 YouTube videos, 1000 emails, 900 web pages
  • 500MB of data equals: 40 YouTube videos, 2000 emails, 1800 web pages
  • 1GB of data equals: 80 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. However, if you'll only use your phone to occasionally check your messages, you might get away with 250MB.

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.

If you are still unsure about how much data you need, T-Mobile US has a very useful data calculator.

If you know you'll be using a lot of data, check out our guide to the cheapest UK contracts with unlimited data bundles. You can get some surprisingly good deals these days as data drops in price.

How much data do I need: Exceeding your 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 much data do I need: Tips to cut how much data you use

  • 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 listen to offline rather than streaming it on the move.
  • Regularly check your data use using our guide above. 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 O2 WiFi across the UK even if you're not an O2 customer.

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