How much data do I need?

Is your monthly mobile data allowance working for you? Are you overpaying for data you don’t need? Or are you running out each month?

Read our guide to find out how much data you need so you can make sure you’re on the right plan. And if you’re not, compare deals with us to find the best mobile plan for your data usage.  

Is your monthly mobile data allowance working for you? Are you overpaying for data you don’t need? Or are you running out each month?

Read our guide to find out how much data you need so you can make sure you’re on the right plan. And if you’re not, compare deals with us to find the best mobile plan for your data usage.  

Written by
Sajni Shah
Consumer expert on utilities and money
9 min read
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What is mobile data?

Every time you’re not connected to WiFi and you use the internet on your phone, you’re using your mobile data allowance. So, every time you open an email, send a message over WhatsApp, scroll through your Instagram feed, download an album to listen to, or stream a movie, you’re using data. But how much data are you using exactly?

It’s not always clear, and that means you could end up overpaying for data you don’t need. If you’re not sure how much data you need, it’s tempting to estimate highly to make sure you don’t run out, but with mobile data it’s usually a use it or lose it situation.

On the other hand, if your monthly data allowance isn’t big enough, you could end up paying over the odds, either incurring an eye-watering charge per MB, or paying for expensive add-ons each month. Or you might end up so worried about going over your mobile plan and incurring a huge bill that you don’t use your phone outside of your home’s WiFi, and therefore aren’t getting the most out of your smartphone.

To make sure your mobile phone deal suits your lifestyle, you’ll first have to find out how much data you need and see how that weighs up against what you’re currently paying for.

How is mobile data measured?

Every time you use the internet on your phone, data is transferred onto your device. Some tasks, like checking your email, only require a small transfer of data. But more complicated tasks, like streaming a movie or playing an online game, will require much more data.

When people talk about data, it’s normally measured in either KBs, MBs or GBs:

  • KB stands for kilobyte. A kilobyte is made up of 1,024 bytes
  • MB stands for Megabyte. A megabyte is made up of 1,024 kilobytes.
  • GB stands for Gigabyte. A gigabyte is made up of 1,024 megabytes.

Not only will different tasks online use varying amounts of data, the higher the quality of the videos and music you want to stream, the greater the cost in terms of data.

Here’s a rough guide of how much you’ll need to perform common internet tasks:

  • Sending one email (without attachments) = 100KB
  • Sending one email with a photo attached = 500KB
  • One hour of browsing the internet = 10-25MB
  • One hour on instant messaging = 50MB
  • Video calling for one hour = 180MB
  • Using social media for one hour = 100MB+
  • Streaming one hour of SD video = 700MG-1GB
  • Streaming one hour of HD video = 2-2.5GB
  • Downloading one song = 4MB
  • Streaming music for one hour = 70-100MB
  • Gaming online for one hour = 40-50MB
  • Using Google Maps for one hour of navigation = 5MB

The amount of data included in mobile phone deals can vary greatly, from 500MB up to 20GB a month. You can also find unlimited data deals if your usage is very high. Generally, you’ll pay more for a bigger data allowance, so it’s important to have a good idea of exactly how much you’ll need to avoid overpaying. Once you know, it’s worth shopping around to see how deals stack up against each other.

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How much data do you need?

According to Ofcom, we used an average of 3.6GB of mobile data each month in the UK throughout 2019. That was a 22% increase in data usage from the previous year.

When it comes to your individual mobile data usage, you’ll likely fall into one of three camps. Which of the following sounds most like you?

  • Occasional data user: outside of your home WiFi network, you use your phone data for things like periodically checking your email or social media, browsing the web and using online messaging services like WhatsApp or Signal. You use internet on your phone for less than an hour a day and you don’t stream videos or music. You’re likely to need between 1-5GB of data per month.
  • Average data user: you check your email regularly, browse the internet or social media for several hours a day and occasionally watch videos on YouTube and stream music or podcasts on Spotify. You’re likely to need between 5-10GB of data per month.
  • Heavy data user: you rely on your mobile to keep you connected throughout the day, either for work – sending large attachments with emails and file-sharing online – or entertainment, spending several hours a day streaming videos or music, or playing online games. You’ll need a plan with at least 10-20GB or even an unlimited data allowance.

The most accurate way of seeing how much data you need is to check how much data you are currently using.

How much data am I using?

If you have a smartphone, you should be able to check how much data you’ve used so far that month and how much data you currently have left on your phone. Go to your settings and look for a menu titled something like Mobile Data or Data Usage. It should tell you how much data you’ve used so far that month, and normally it will show the split of your data usage per app, so you can see exactly where it went.

To see your previous months’ usage, depending on what network you’re on, you’ll need to either log in to your account on your network provider’s website, or you may be able to download a network-specific app onto your smartphone. You will be able to see how much of your allowance you have used so far this month, and how much of your allowance you used in previous months. By taking an average, you’ll be able to tell how many GBs of data you need each month.

For more information, read our guide to checking your data usage.

How can I use less data?

With a few easy hacks, you could make a substantial cut to your monthly data usage:

  • Choose Data Saver in your mobile data settings and turn off push notifications. This will restrict certain apps from using mobile data in the background.
  • Wherever possible, only download apps when you’re connected to WiFi and check your device settings to make sure apps only update over WiFi.
  • Download music and podcasts over WiFi to listen to when you’re out and about so you don’t have to stream them.
  • Likewise, if you like to watch TV on your commute or longer journeys, download shows and movies to your device on WiFi before you go.
  • If you’re going to a new place and you think you’ll need navigation, you can download offline maps for whole cities and regions on Google maps. This can be especially useful for travelling abroad, to avoid getting hit with data roaming charges.
  • If you know you’re going to be doing a lot of browsing on a particular site or topic, you can use the app Pocket to download web pages when you’re connected to WiFi, so you can read them offline.
  • Consider choosing a lower quality when streaming videos on your phone. On a small screen like your mobile, it’s not always worth choosing the highest quality and it could save you a considerable amount in data. You could also look at the quality level you’re using to stream music and podcasts too.
  • Look out for free public WiFi offered by businesses like restaurants or shops, or in places like airports and train stations. Bear in mind, though, that these public networks are not secure, so you should avoid using them to send any confidential information.
  • Keep track of your daily data usage on Android phones with reminders that warn you when you’ve reached a specified limit, so you can make sure you’re not going to go over your allowance before the end of the month.
  • Avoid tethering. Using your device as a hotspot to connect to other devices can really eat up your data, so avoid wherever possible.

How can I change my mobile data plan?

If your current data plan is not working for you, and you’re either overpaying for data you don’t need or consistently going over your data allowance, you may be able to switch onto a different monthly plan that better suits your needs.

Depending on your network provider and plan, you may be able to change your plan online by logging in to your account on your mobile network provider’s website or app. Alternatively, you may need to call and speak to someone directly who will be able to advise you on how to go about switching plans.

If you’re not tied into a contract, it’s a good idea to compare what’s out there first, so you can make sure you’re getting the best deal with your current provider. That’s where we can help.

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What else should I consider when comparing mobile data plans?

These days, mobile data is just as important as calls and minutes when it comes to choosing our mobile phone deals. That’s why savvy network providers are starting to offer special deals that benefit mobile data users.

Some network providers have introduced plans that allow customers to use certain apps or services without it eating into their monthly data allowance. For example, Virgin Media 4G customers currently get data-free messaging on apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter.

Other networks offer data rollover plans that allow you to add any unused data from your monthly allowance onto the next month or beyond. Or, in some cases, they’ll reimburse you for data you don’t use. Sky mobile customers can hold onto their unused data for up to three years, and if you have multiple SIMs on one account, you’ll all be able to access extra data from the ‘piggybank’.

Other network providers like giffgaff offer flexible SIM-only plans that allow you to change your plan by the month to reflect your needs, so you can increase or decrease your data allowance depending on how much you’re expecting to use.

It’s worth noting that some network providers have fair usage policies in place for data allowances, which means that they put a cap on the amount of data an individual can use each month, even when you have unlimited mobile data. But in most cases the caps are so high that it’s highly unlikely that you’d exceed it, unless you’re streaming HD video all day, every day.

Frequently asked questions

Does internet speed affect how much data I use?

Technically no, it doesn’t matter if you’re downloading a movie at 4G or 5G speeds, it will use up the same amount of data. However, having a faster connection may mean you’re naturally more inclined to choose higher-quality options when streaming, which will cost you more in data.

Can I switch to a mobile deal with a better data allowance from another provider?

Yes, it’s easier than ever to switch mobile providers. Ofcom rules mean that you can now switch providers by simply sending a text, and they’ve made it easy to keep your old mobile number too. Be aware, though, that if you’re still in contract, you may have to pay a charge to cancel your contract early and this may outweigh any savings you could make by switching to a new deal.

What’s the difference between a bit and a byte?

We use bytes to measure the size of data. So, for example, the larger the file we are trying to download, the more bytes it will cost us in data. Bits are technically a division of bytes – there are eight megabits (Mb) in one megabyte (MB). But we use megabits to measure the speed of a data connection, in megabits per second (Mbps). So if you know the size of a file in MBs and the speed of your connection in Mbps, you know how quickly that file will download.

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Sajni Shah - Consumer expert on utilities and money

Sajni is passionate about building products, allowing Compare the Market to help you make great financial decisions. She keeps track of the latest trends and evolving markets to find new ways to help you save money.

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