Mobile data usage: the basics
By now almost everyone knows that each time they download a movie or open an email on their phone over 3G or 4G, they’re eating into their monthly mobile data allowance.
But most smartphone users are a lot less certain when it comes to how much data they’re really using. For that reason, too many of us are overpaying for data that goes unused at the end of each month.
Nowhere is that more evident than in research from Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey 2016, which found that UK consumers use on average less than half of their data allowance every month.
In this guide we take a look at how you can easily work out how much data you really need and make sure you're on the right contract with the right allowances.
We'll also look at some of the terminology around data allowances, so you won't be fazed by some of the specialist vocabulary favoured by mobile phone networks.
How is data measured? What do MB and GB stand for?
Before we get into working out how much data you need, we should probably get you up to speed with the terminology for measuring units of data, which in turn is used by networks to tell you how much data you get with a contract.
This stands for megabyte and is made up of approximately 1000 kilobytes.
This stands for a Gigabyte. About 1000 megabytes makes up one GB.
The amount of data you get with your contract differs hugely. Some offer as little as 500MB (0.5GB) per month and start from under £10 per month.
At the other end of the scale, there are costlier data plans that offer comparatively vast allowances of 20GB or as much as 30GB.
Got that? Good news. Let's move on to quick and easy ways to assess your data usage.
How can I check how much data I'm using right now?
Checking exactly how much data you're getting through is easy. All you need to do is log-in to your account on your computer by visiting your network's website.
Or if you're with one of the larger networks, you can log-in to your network's customer-account app on your phone.
Once you're logged-in, you'll be able to see how much data you've used so far this month, as well as in previous months.
If you're often left with lots of unused data, you’re probably paying for a data allowance that's too generous for your needs.
Accessing your account on your computer is just a case of visiting your network's website and logging-in. Then simply navigate to the section of the app that covers your data allowance.
However, using an app to check your data usage isn't quite so simple. That's because networks don't usually pre-install their customer-account apps on phones at the point of purchase, so you may need to download the app first.
Handily, here are links from major network where you can get their customer-account apps:
What constitutes a heavy data user? Or a light one?
A less precise but quicker way to get an idea what sort of data allowance you need is to check which of these user profiles you match.
Low data user - 'I'll use it every so often, to keep up with friends and interesting news'
You like to look at web pages, or check your email.
You check your Facebook or Twitter online reasonably often.
You don't play a lot of games on your phone or download music directly on the phone.
You may occasionally use your mobile for chatting online or watch the odd video clip.
You're unlikely to use your internet for more than an hour a day.
Sound like you? If so, you're low data user and you’ll find that a data allowance of 1GB will cover you.
Medium data user- 'I need it for my email, social media and for entertainment’
You download email daily to your phone, via an on-board or downloadable email client such as Gmail.
You spend quite a bit of time browsing the internet, and download a few games or applications a month.
You like to watch video on online streaming sites such as YouTube every so often and perhaps download a few songs now and then too.
Sound familiar? That means you're classified as a medium data user. You'll require a data allowance of 3GB per month at least.
Heavy data user -'I rely on my phone for both entertainment and work'
You send and receive quite a few emails daily, often with attachments.
You watch videos online several times a week and are likely to download a lot of applications and games as well as music for your phone.
You also make extensive use of music streaming services, such as Spotify or Apple Music.
You rely on your mobile internet for work as well as communication with friends and family and need to use your phone for internet access several hours daily.
Does that match your usage habits? Yes? That means you're classified as a heavy user. You’ll need a monthly data allowance of 5GB or more.
I think I need more data. How do I work out how much?
Calculating exactly how much data you'll need isn't easy. But you can get a very good idea if you know how much data you use up every time you check your emails and browse web pages or download a movie and stream a song.
In case you're not familiar with data first thing you need to
Below you'll find a list of common things you'll use the mobile internet for and how much data they'll use up.
- Watching a 2hr movie in standard defintion 1.9GB
- Watching a 2hr movie in high-definition 4.2GB
- Streaming 1hr of video on Netflix or iPlayer 644MB
- Gaming online for 1hr 43MB
- Streaming music for 1hr 80MB
- 60 web pages 140MB
- Download one song 4-8MB
- Download one film trailer 60-100MB
With this information and an honest assessment of how you use your phone (for instance, how often do you stream music?), you should be able to make a pretty good guess at how much data you'll get through.
I often run low on data before the end of the month. Are there any data-saving tips to help me make the most out of my monthly allowance?
Running low on data is a familiar problem for many of us. And when the alternative is forking out for a costly add-on on top of your monthly phone bill, lots of users opt to struggle by with the allowance they’ve got rather than buy more.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Below we’ve compiled a list of tips to help you get more out of your monthly data allowance without costing you more money.
Download services over Wi-Fi so you can use apps offline
Watching TV and movies on streaming services, such as Netflix, BBC iPlayer and Google Maps, uses up a lot of data. But you can get around that problem and use them data-free by downloading films, TV shows and maps using Wi-Fi before you leave the house.
Netflix, Amazon Prime and iPlayer all have options to download content so you can watch your favourites on the go without eating into your data. Just bear in mind that you’ll need enough storage space to stash your favourite shows on your phone.
Google Maps also lets you download routes and maps for specific locations. So, if you’re going to Paris, for example, all you need to do is download Paris maps and you’ll be able to use your phone as a sat nav without using up any of your data.
Find out how to use Google Maps offline.
Make the most of data-free services
Some networks now allow customers on select plans to use a selection of popular messaging and entertainment apps without eating into their data allowance. So whether you’re addicted to WhatsApp or constantly streaming Netflix, there’s a good chance that there’s a plan out there that will let you use your favourite apps without using your data.
Three’s Go Binge lets you stream Netflix, TVPlayer, SoundCloud and Deezer without eating into your monthly data allowance. So you can watch your favourite shows and listen to music without using any data or having to download anything.
Vodafone Passes give you data-free services on a number of apps, such as Netflix, Amazon Video, as well as Twitter and Facebook. Choose between the Chat Pass, Music Pass, Social Media Pass and Video Pass. Or you can opt to have the lot by getting the Combi Pass.
Virgin Media customers on select plans can use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter without eating into their monthly data allowance.
Voxi lets you use Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter and Viber without eating into your data allowance. Voxi customers can also buy video passes and music passes to give them unlimited data-free streaming.
Want to find out more? Here’s everything you need to know about data-free streaming.
Data rollover plans
Many of us end up paying for more data than we actually use and then lose that data at the end of each month when our contracts reset.
Not so if you’ve got a data rollover plan. Now offered by a range of networks, these plans let you roll over your unused data to the next month or even longer, so you don’t end up losing what you’ve already paid for.
Sky Mobile is the best example of this, as it allows you to rollover any unused data at the end of each month and store it in an online ‘piggybank’. That data will be there whenever you want to use it for up to three years at no extra cost.
iD Mobile lets you roll on one month’s worth of unused data, which stops you building up a huge trove of unused data. But because any rolled over data from the previous month is used first, any data that’s left at the end of month can then be rolled over again.
Virgin Media also lets customers rollover one month’s worth of data at a time. But, just like iD Mobile, you use any rolled over data before your regular monthly allowance.
Vodafone customers on a pay as you go Big Value plan can rollover any unused data at the end of the month. But you can only rollover one month’s leftovers at a time, so you can’t stockpile endless data.
O2 customers can rollover any unused data to use the following month. But this only applies to additional data purchased on one of O2’s bolt-ons.
For more information, take a look at our guide to data rollover.
Use Datally to control your data usage
Google’s new app, Datally, helps you monitor your data usage and control the amount you use on a day–to–day basis.
Available exclusively on Google’s Android platform, Datally shows your hourly, weekly and monthly data usage stats and delivers personalised tips about how to get the most out of your data plan.
Download Datally for free.
If your data usage varies a lot month to month, a flexible contract might be the perfect solution. Rather than tying yourself into a set monthly allowance for the next two years, you can now choose a tariff that lets you change it up every month.
So if you know you’re going to be using your phone a lot over the next month, you can choose to up your data allowance. Or if you’re paying for more data than you’re using, you can downgrade your monthly contract to a cheaper one with a smaller allowance.
O2, for example, offers a range of flexible contracts to help you manage your monthly allowances.
Sky Mobile also lets you increase or decrease your data allowance whenever you want, so you’ll always have the amount that suits your needs.
For more data-saving tips, check out our guide on how to limit your data usage.
I’m going abroad for a few weeks. How can I use my phone while I’m away without running up a huge bill?
With horror stories of holiday-makers receiving huge bills for using their phones abroad, it’s easy to see why people are wary of switching on their devices when they’re out of the country.
But there are lots of ways you can use your mobile wherever you are in the world without it costing you a fortune.
Thanks to EU legislation passed in June 2016, you can now use your mobile phone data anywhere in the European Union without it costing you any extra.
And if you’re going outside the EU, there are lots of networks that give you the option to use your phone without it costing you a fortune.
Three lets you use your monthly allowance for no extra cost in 71 locations worldwide, including USA, Australia and New Zealand.
EE customers on a 4GEE Max plan get inclusive roaming in 52 locations worldwide. These include EU countries as well as the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. According to EE, this covers over 80% of time EE customers spend overseas.
O2 customers get inclusive roaming in 47 European destinations. And if you’re travelling further afield, you can buy a travel add-on, so you can use your phone without worrying about running up a huge bill.
Vodafone customers can use their monthly allowance of calls, texts and data from 50 European countries at no extra cost. Vodafone's Roam Further allows you to use your monthly allowance for an additional £5 per day in 60 countries outside the EU, including the United States, Canada, Australia and China.
If you want to find out more before you fly, check out our complete guide to data roaming.
How much does it cost if you go over your mobile phone internet limit?
If you're regularly exceeding your monthly data limit right now, you're more than likely paying out for data add-ons.
As you'll probably realise, the data you buy outside your contract generally works out more expensive than the price you pay for data with your contract.
So if you are paying out for add-ons, it's a very good idea to upgrade to contract with a higher data usage allowance.
How much it's likely to cost you for going over your allotted mobile phone internet limit varies, depending on which tariff you have chosen and which network you are with.
However, in some cases it gets very expensive when you exceed your mobile data limit. So it’s important to find a tariff that matches your needs.
Some mobile networks can charge £5 for an extra 500MB of internet allowance; whilst others can charge £2-£3 per MB you go over.
What is a fair use policy?
Some mobile networks simply limit your internet usage rather than charge extra when you exceed the data you've paid for. This is called a 'fair use' policy.
So what does that mean for you? It means that you may not incur an extra charge when you use up your monthly allowance, but you may be penalised if you go over by what the network decides is 'fair'- often around 500MB.
But that's not all. Some networks that favour fair usage policies will reduce your internet speed until your monthly allowance renews, so you will not be able to stream long videos or download large applications.
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