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How much mobile data do I need?

Looking for the right mobile deal? Knowing your monthly data usage is essential. Find out how much data you need with this helpful guide, and make some savings too.

man using mobile data

Understanding how mobile data works and how much you use each month is key to getting the best mobile deal for you. With the right plan, you can save money and still have all the data you need for your online activities. Use the expert tips in this guide to work out what you need and stay within your data limit.

What is mobile data?

When Wi-Fi isn’t available, your smartphone uses mobile data to connect to the internet. Also known as cellular data, it allows you to get online while you’re out and about. Rather than relying on cables and wireless routers, mobile data uses signals transmitted from masts all over the country.

You may get a 3G, 4G or 5G connection depending on where you are. 5G is still being rolled out, so 4G is likely to be the fastest available option. 3G is being phased out over the next few years. You get access to mobile data through a network provider.

The ‘big four’ in the UK are EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. The quality of the signal you receive and how much it costs per month depends on who you’re with and the data plan you’ve chosen, as well as where you are. If there are obstacles between you and the nearest mast or you’re in a remote rural area, your signal could be affected.

Mobile data is measured in megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB). A gigabyte is 1,024 megabytes. To get the right mobile phone deal at the best price, you’ll need to know how much data you use each month. Most phone contracts include a minimum of 1GB of data, and many now offer unlimited data plans, although they tend to cost more.

How mobile data usage varies

Not everything you do on your phone uses the same amount of data. Sending messages is the most popular mobile phone activity and that doesn’t require much data at all. Other activities, like file sharing or watching 4K video, are very data hungry.

The average person used 8.0GB of data a month according to Ofcom’s 2023 Communications Market Report. The previous year, it was 5.6GB per month. Monthly usage has increased by about 20-30% every year since 2016.

Research suggests that around a quarter of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) products will include mobile connectivity by 2027. With 5G availability also increasing, it’s an opportunity for some exciting, immersive online experiences. It also means the demand for data will be even higher.

How much data is used for typical mobile phone activities:

Activity Rough estimate of data used
Browsing the web
About 50MB per hour (2.33MB per page)
Using social media
Between 2.05 and 6MB per minute
A one-hour Zoom call
"From 540MB to 2.5GB, depending on video used and number of people on the call"
Using Spotify
"About 115MB per hour, depending on sound quality"
Watching Netflix
"Up to 7GB per hour, depending on picture quality"
Watching YouTube
"Up to 9GB per hour, depending on picture quality"

Table showing some popular mobile phone activities and a rough estimate of the data they use

Understanding your mobile data needs

Depending on your typical online activities, you may be a low, medium, or high-data user.

Low data activities include:

  • Basic web browsing, no more than an hour a day
  • Checking social media feeds
  • Using Google maps
  • Watching the occasional video clip
  • Messaging apps e.g. WhatsApp or Signal
  • Using Siri or Google assistant

Medium data activities include:

  • Sending and receiving emails using a downloadable email client e.g. Outlook or Gmail
  • Uploading videos and photos to social media
  • Downloading a few games or applications a month
  • Video calling
  • Music streaming
  • Listening to podcasts

High data activities include:

  • Using your mobile as a hotspot for other devices, also known as tethering
  • Gaming, particularly real-time, multiplayer games
  • Streaming videos
  • Transferring large files

How to save mobile data

There are plenty of ways to reduce data consumption. Some involve changing the settings on your phone, others are about the way you use the phone itself.

Use Wi-Fi whenever you can

To avoid eating into your data allowance effectively, take advantage of Wi-Fi as often as possible.

  • Use your home Wi-Fi connection to download music and video before you go out.
  • Use public Wi-Fi when you’re on the go. But remember it may not be as secure as your home Wi-Fi.

Turn off background app refresh

Even when you’re not using them, apps constantly update - or refresh - and that uses data. It can also be a drain on your battery too.

The downside of turning off background app refresh is that your app won’t update unless you’ve got them open and loading times can be longer. To get around this, you can select specific apps that keep background app refresh running. For example, social media and email apps.

For iPhones:

  • Go to Settings > General > Background App Refresh
  • Toggle off for all apps or individual apps

For Samsung phones:

  • Go to Settings > About phone
  • Tap on the Build number four times to activate Developer options
  • Return to Settings
  • Go to System > Developer options > Background process limit
  • Select No background process

For Motorola phones:

  • Go to Settings > Apps & Notifications > See All Apps
  • Select the app you want to disable refresh for
  • Select Mobile Data & Wi-Fi
  • Turn off Background Data

For other Android phones (process may vary depending on model):

  • Go to Settings > Connections > Data usage
  • Go to Mobile and select Mobile data usage
  • Select and app and turn off Allow background data usage

Set a data limit

iPhones don’t have a data cap option, but Android phones do. It’s a useful way of staying within your allowance, although you may also get notifications from your provider.

Once you reach your limit, mobile data will be turned off until you reach your reset date.

The process may vary slightly depending on your phone model:

  • Go to Settings > Network & internet and tap on the gear icon beside your network provider’s name
  • Select Data warning & limit > Mobile data usage cycle - this allows you to set the day your data count starts
  • Tap Set
  • Toggle Set data warning to ‘on’ and enter the data limit for your phone

Switch to Low Data / Data Saver Mode

This restricts background data usage, such as apps sending or receiving data. It can also pause or reduce updates and impact the quality of streaming content. For example, high-quality streaming might be turned off. However, if you’re nearing your allowance, or wanting to save data, it’s an easy way to do it.

For iPhones:

  • Go to Settings > Mobile Service or Mobile Data or Cellular Data > Mobile Data Options
  • Turn on Low Data Mode.

For Android phones:

  • Go to Settings > Network & internet > Data Saver
  • Toggle to ‘on’

Disable data on your phone

This prevents any background or unintentional data usage. However, you won’t be able to access the internet, update apps, make video calls or download images or videos unless you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

For iPhones:

  • Go to Settings > Mobile Service or Mobile Data or Cellular Data > Mobile Data Options
  • Toggle Mobile Data to the off position

For Android phones:

  • Go to Settings > Network & internet > Internet
  • Tap the gear icon
  • Turn Mobile data off

Monitor and track your data usage

Unless you have a mobile phone deal with unlimited data, it makes sense to keep an eye on how much you’re using.

If you have an Android phone, you can set a cap on your data usage. You can also download a third-party app. There’s plenty of choice - for example, Check Internet Data Usage, My Data Manager VPN, Traffic Monitor with Widget, and GlassWire (Android phones only).

Look out for features such as blocking individual apps from using data, setting data limits for individual apps, and graphs showing usage.

How to save data on streaming services

If you like to stream video on the go, set aside some time before you go out to download movies, videos and music using Wi-Fi.

If that’s not an option or you don’t have enough phone storage space, you can change the quality settings. High quality, high-res files like 4K videos use more data.

  • On Spotify, Extreme Quality is the highest setting. You can switch to Normal Quality. Swipe left or tap your profile picture. Go to Settings and privacy. Choose your preferred settings under Audio quality.
  • On Netflix, go to My Netflix > Settings > Playback playback > Mobile data usage to select Wi-Fi Only. You can also select Wi-Fi Only for Downloads and change Video Quality from Higher to Standard.
  • On YouTube, go to Settings > General > Limit mobile data usage. You’ll still be able to watch videos, just not the high-definition versions. You can also go to Settings > Playback and select I have a slow connection. This ensures you never see high quality video.

You can also select Play HD on Wi-Fi only. You can also limit the time you spend on the streaming apps. For example, music streaming doesn’t require a lot of data, unless you’re doing it for hours. The same with video streaming. The time online adds up. It can hit your data allowance - and your monthly bill.

The alternative is to stream using Wi-Fi hotspots only and disable mobile data for your streaming apps.

How to save data on web browsing

  • Make sure you’re looking at the mobile rather than desktop version of the website.
  • Don’t clear your cache of pages you often go back to. It saves having to download them again.
  • Some browsers, such as Google Chrome, allow you to choose data saver mode which compresses the webpages you’re looking at.
  • Choose browsers like Opera Mini which are designed to compress data.
  • Download webpages for offline viewing.
  • If you’re travelling abroad, work out your data roaming options before you go.

Managing data-intensive apps

Some apps are particularly data hungry. This includes streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube, but other apps also apply. For example, social media apps which are designed to keep you scrolling with a feed of high-quality images and high-res videos set to autoplay.

Here are some quick ways to cut data usage:


  • Open the app and go to Menu > Settings (the gear at the top right of the screen).
  • Go to Media and you can change Video Quality to Data saver mode and Autoplay to Never autoplay videos or On Wi-Fi only

X (formerly Twitter)

  • Open the app and tap profile picture.
  • Under Settings and Support, go to Settings and privacy
  • Go to Accessibility, display and languages > Data usage
  • Activate Data saver or reduce image and video quality, and choose whether you want videos to auto play.


  • Open app and tap profile picture.
  • Go to Settings > Account > Data usage
  • Toggle Use less mobile data to ‘on’.
  • Toggle Upload at highest quality to ‘off’.


  • Open app and tap profile picture.
  • Go to Settings and privacy > Cache & mobile
  • Select Data saver and toggle to ‘on’.

Navigation apps

Finding your way around can be a data-heavy exercise. You usually have the option to download area maps in advance. For example, in Google Maps you can search for the area and download an offline map from the menu options at the bottom. You need to have the storage for it though. Downloads may take up to 20MB of your free space.

How much data have I used?

Getting data savvy can help you plan your online time and split it between data and Wi-Fi. This data usage calculator shows you what you can do with 100MB up to 10GB. Or read What does 1GB get you? Mobile internet explained.

You can also check your current data usage on your phone in the settings.

If you have an iPhone:

  • Go to Settings > Mobile Service or Mobile Data or Cellular Data
  • This may vary depending on the model, iOS version and region.
  • You’ll see usage for the ‘Current Period’ as well as for apps that used data while you were roaming, which usually costs more. There’s also a list of the apps, ordered by data used, with the most at the top.
  • If you don’t want an app to use mobile data, use the toggle switch to turn it off and use Wi-Fi only.
  • If you have an iPhone with a dual SIM, you can also see how much mobile data you’ve used with your selected mobile data number.

If you have an Android phone:

  • This applies to most Android devices: Go to Settings > Network & internet > SIMs > App data usage or
  • Go to Settings > Mobile network > Data usage
  • You can see the total data consumption for that period (current billable month) and the amount used per app.

For Samsung phones:

  • Go to Settings > Connections > Data usage
  • By default, your data usage will be tracked from the start to the end of the month before being reset. You can change the start date so it matches the date your allowance refreshes.

How much data do I have left?

First, you need to know what’s included in your mobile plan. Then, by checking your current usage, you can work out how much data you have left. Many providers also send reminders if you’re nearing your limit. If you don’t know how much data your mobile phone plan includes, speak to your network provider.

You can either call them or drop into one of their stores. You can also check your account online to see the terms of your agreement.

How to choose the right data plan

There’s no point in paying for data you don’t need. While unlimited data plans can make life easier, you might end up paying over the odds for data you don’t need.

First, work out how much data you use a month. This data calculator can help.

You can also track your data usage with a third-party app or with the built-in features of your phone. Then compare mobile phone deals to find the best one for you. You’ve also got the option of choosing a SIM only deal if you want to keep your current handset. Plus, there’s the option of pay as you go.

How much does it cost if you go over your data limit?

It depends on your provider, your plan, and how far you’ve gone over your limit.

In some cases, once you’ve used up your monthly allowance, data simply stops working. This is the case for Vodafone’s Pay as you go Plus plan. You have to pay to add more, or wait until the next month’s allowance begins. It’s a simple way to prevent expensive charges.

Topping up your account is often the most cost-effective way to stay online if it looks like you’re approaching your limit. For example, SMARTY offers six different data add-on options, ranging from 1GB to 15GB. They also have an unlimited UK data pass that allows you to boost your plan for up to 30 days within the UK.

Another option is to choose a pay as you go plan that automatically renews, although that doesn’t necessarily stop you going over budget. If you buy a data add-on to top up your monthly bill, don’t forget to cancel it at the end of the month.

Some providers add it to your plan. If you notice that you’re frequently exceeding your allowance, it might make sense to upgrade your data package to fit your usage. Unless you have an unlimited data plan, it makes sense to keep track of how much data you chew through. Data caps can also help you avoid overspending.

Can you use your data abroad?

Some data plans include international roaming, usually within the EU but sometimes further afield too. This allows you to use your data abroad at no extra cost, although there’s usually a fair usage cap.

If data roaming isn’t included, extra charges are likely to apply. Turn off data roaming before you reach your destination and take advantage of Wi-Fi. Alternatively, you may have the option to buy a data add-on to cover your trip. This provides a certain amount of data per day and is charged on a daily basis or as a package.

It’s worth talking to your mobile provider before you travel.

For extra advice to help you manage your data, read: Best SIM card and network for roaming 2024.

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