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How Much Cell Phone Data Do I Need?

Smartphones are the world’s most pervasive tool for information-seeking and communicating. Our phones (and the apps we use on them) are essential, and are constantly and rapidly improving. Which means we need more and more data to keep using them. So it’s imperative that the data plans we choose are right for our needs.

Today, a tiered cell phone plan—with a data limit—is the norm. There are still unlimited plans available, but they can get really expensive. Still, paying for an unlimited plan is better than paying for data overages on a limited data plan.

Are you getting the most out of your current plan? Review the steps below to see if you might want to switch out for a better price or one that better meets your needs.

Step One: Understand How Data Plans Work
Most people have their phone or tablet tied to a data plan through a mobile carrier. Data plans allow you to do things on the internet while on the go. Things like messaging, reading a story or blog, watching videos, getting your emails, music or video games, etc.

Data Plan Caps

If you don’t get an unlimited plan, a carrier may impose a data cap–restricting your account. This is when a carrier either:

  1. Reduces your internet speeds (called throttling), or
  2. Requires payment of an overage fee

Caps will vary from company to company. Click here for more details.

Data transferred between your network and the internet is measured in gigabytes. When you use data through your plan, you can access the same content as you would on your home Wi-Fi network. However, it goes through your mobile carrier’s network, and it’s subject to the terms of your data plan. That means you might be charged for it.

Data plans are priced on the amount of data you use. Mobile data is expensive: According to research by the International Telecommunication Union, the average phone plan with 500MB of data costs $85 in the United States, compared to $24.10 in China and $8.80 in the United Kingdom. If you’ve heard scary stories of large mobile phone “overage fees,” (see sidebar) it’s usually because of a situation where someone used more data than their plan allotted.

Step Two: Monitor How Much Data You’re Currently Using
To figure out how much data you need, you first have to assess what you’re now using your phone for.

There are a couple of ways to find out how much data you’re using:

  1. Check your data history for the last few months in your carrier’s mobile account portal.
  2. Check your past phone bills and/or your phone’s settings to see a detailed readout of how much data you use on average.
  3. Use an app to track usage.

Step Three: Determine How Much Data You Need
If you just use your phone to make calls and texts, with an occasional e-mail here or there—you’ve got nothing to worry about. According to Reviewed.com, If you’re one of the “30 percent of Americans that use 500MB or less a month, there are lots of options out there for you—many under $20 a month.”

But most of us simply don’t have the luxury of not using our data. We need video streaming, Gmail, and numerous social media platforms just to keep up with our day, especially if sharing data on a family plan.

It’s tempting to get an unlimited plan. But before you sign up, make sure that you actually need that much data. For example, if you determined in Step Two that you consistently use 5GB each month, then it doesn’t make sense to pay more for a plan that gives you additional data that you won’t use.

So many go the route of a tiered monthly data plan. These are somewhat expensive too, so you’re going to want to come up with a solid estimate for how much data you’ll need to avoid over paying. One option is trial and error: Get a plan with more data than what you estimate you’ll need, and then check after a month to see how much data you’ve used. Then, adjust upward or downward, accordingly.

Step Four: Chose Your Carrier Wisely
There are three major cell phone carriers: AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile (which is what the combined Sprint and T-Mobile will be called). There can be big differences in prices, plans, and coverage among cell phone carriers.

The carrier’s network coverage is crucial—because no matter how good of a deal you might get on a data plan, if you can’t connect, you’re overpaying.

Many offer a trial period during which you can try out your phone and calling plan. Use trials to make and receive calls in as many different locations as you can—such as from home, school, work, on your commute—and other places you normally frequent. This way you can test if your service works where you need it. This is a surefire way to rule out specific carriers if you’re looking to make a change.

Besides the big three, there are other, smaller carriers to consider—known as mobile network virtual operators (MVNOs)—like Google’s Project Fi, Straight Talk, Boost Mobile, and Virgin Mobile. These providers that don’t own their own networks, but license the use of existing cell networks. Many MVNOs offer pre-paid plans, which allow you to simply buy your service up front without the need for a contract. This could save you a lot of money. Review the different carriers and what they offer.

Step Five: Simple Steps to Curb your Data Usage
Are you continually busting through your monthly data budget? Here are some tips to limit cell phone data usage:

  • Conserve by using data only when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network at both work and home.
  • Set a limit. Most wireless carriers will shoot you a quick text message once you’ve used 75 percent or more of your monthly data limit.
  • Instead of streaming everything, try downloading music, podcasts, audiobooks, and videos to your phone while connected to Wi-Fi so you don’t have to use data for music or video streaming later.
  • Check for data hogs. Use your phone’s settings to identify which apps use the most cellular data and only use them when connected to Wi-Fi, or delete any you don’t need.
  • Use standard definition instead of HD or 4k to watch or stream video.
  • Turn off video autoplay on social apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Resources: WhistleOut.com, Consumer Reports, Inc., Reviewed.com, Plug Things In, CNET, Reviews.org, CableAmerica, TechRepublic, ValuePenguin