How much data does YouTube use?

happy couple sitting on couch in trendy room surrounded by plants while watching tv
Pictured: A very happy couple watching YouTube. Maybe a little too happy...
// YouTube, YouPay. Don't let your cat video addiction get the better of your data allowance.
Alex Kidman
Nov 28, 2023
bullet7 min read

Published on November 27, 2023

With billions of online viewers and millions of Aussies tuning into the wide and wonderful world of user-generated content on YouTube, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the world’s most popular web sites and services.

It’s often said that you can find anything on YouTube, whether it’s cats riding robot vacuum cleaners, tips on how to fix cracks in plaster walls or weird Japan-only toy-driven Godzilla series – and that’s just from my own personal YouTube history of late! The variety here is very much the point, and it’s also why it’s so easy to binge hours of YouTube content every single day.

With that usage comes a problem, however. If you’re watching YouTube on your phone (or SIM-ready Tablet or Laptop), you’re chewing through mobile data.

How much mobile data? In this guide, I’ll walk you through what you need to know about checking mobile data YouTube usage, controlling that usage and finding the right mobile phone plan to match your YouTube obsessions.

In this guide:
  • YouTube Mobile Data Usage
  • How to check YouTube mobile usage on your iPhone
  • How to check YouTube mobile usage on your Android phone
  • How to save on data usage while using YouTube
  • Best mobile phone plans for heavy YouTube users

YouTube Mobile Data Usage

Determining precise YouTube data usage is a tricky business, because it relies on a couple of metrics that can, quite literally, change on the go.

Fundamentally it’s all about the quality of the YouTube video you’re watching. If it’s a much older video, or if it’s been recorded with a camera of lower quality, it might drop as low as 144p, your classic “YouTube Video that looks like it was rendered on an Atari 2600” kind of quality. As you might expect, there’s a bit of a difference between that level of quality and the data needs of a 4K UHD stream.

As a rough guide – I’ll explain why it has to be rough afterwards – here’s some basic expected data rates for a variety of YouTube stream quality settings:

Data used per minute
Data used per hour
480p (or lower)8-11MB0.48-0.68GB
720p (HD)20-45MB1.2-2.7GB
1080p (Full HD)50-68MB2.5-4.1GB
4K (Ultra HD)95-385MB5.5-23GB

You might be looking at that table and wondering why fixed resolutions can vary so much in terms of data usage. This is typically down to the bitrate that the original uploader uses when creating their video file; a higher bit rate can lead to better looking video even within a given resolution– but at the cost of larger file sizes.

There’s another trap here, however, because YouTube typically tries to deliver video to you at the best possible quality, on the not-unreasonable grounds that you probably want to be able to see what it is you’re watching. That’s great for video clarity, but the way it manages this is by dynamically changing resolution based upon the speed of your connection. On a swift 5G connection? You’re more likely to get served the 4K version of a file than somebody struggling with a lower-end 3G connection a long way from a nearby tower. Our hapless 3G connected user will probably get the 480p version of the file, which maintains the ability to watch – but they’ll also be using a whole lot less data to do so, as long as they can stand that data quality on their phone.

So what if you wanted to know more precisely how much data YouTube is using on your mobile phone? Luckily, there’s a way to do just that.

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How to check YouTube mobile usage on your iPhone

If you want to get precise about your usage and you’ve got an Apple iPhone, it’s quite simple to see how much data you’ve used up while watching adorable kitten videos. C’mon, we’ve all indulged from time to time, right?

The way you check how much data YouTube has used on an iPhone is the same as for any other app.

  • Open up the Settings App
  • Select “Mobile”
  • Scroll down to the section labelled “Mobile Data” and find YouTube.
  • The number underneath the app name is the total data it has used in the current period.

The way that iOS, the operating system that every iPhone runs on counts data does have one slight catch to it. It simply collates data usage on a rolling basis. As a result, the number youl see is the total quantity of data that YouTube has used, not the amount it’s used this month, week or day.

So how do you work out your monthly usage? Scroll right down to the bottom of the same page as the Mobile Data stats. You’ll see the precise period of data that all of its collection covers. You could simply divide that down into months based on that period to get an average, but you can also use a little manual tweaking here to track your ongoing monthly usage. Tap on “Reset Statistics” and it will default all app data usage back to zero. Check back in a month and you’ll be able to see your precise YouTube usage. If you want to see how it goes month-by-month, set yourself a monthly calendar reminder to reset each month, noting down your usage as you go.

How to check YouTube mobile usage on your Android phone

For Android users, the precise steps will vary by phone manufacturer and Android version, so we can only give generalised advice here. It’s not that dissimilar to the way you check on an iPhone, however.

  1. Open Setting
  2. Open Apps
  3. Select YouTube
  4. Under “Usage” you should see your data usage for the app.

How to save on data usage while using YouTube

By now, you should have a good idea of how much data YouTube is taking away from your monthly data quota. In some cases you might be well and truly under your quota, in which case, carry on.

For others, though, it might be that YouTube is taking up too much of your quota and you don’t easily have the budget to jump up to a high data or unlimited data plan, but you don’t want to or can’t limit your current usage patterns.

Don’t throw your phone out the car window in frustration just yet! For a start, that kind of e-waste really should be sensibly recycled.

Firstly, the most obvious way to save mobile data usage when viewing YouTube is to cut the “mobile” part out of the equation. If you’re on Wi-Fi, YouTube will use that connection to serve you video data, leaving your precious quota alone entirely. That’s super useful when travelling where (for example) you can while away a little time waiting for a plane to start boarding by using public Wi-Fi to get your video fix in – though in those cases a VPN is also a smart companion to bring along with you.

Another way to make sure your YouTube usage doesn’t impact your mobile data quota is to subscribe to YouTube Premium. Yeah, you probably thought that this was just about ad-skipping, but one of the other advantages of YouTube Premium is that it allows you to download videos to your device for “offline” viewing when you’re on a Wi-Fi network. If you’ve got a trip ahead of you and you already know what you want to watch, this can be a simple way to ensure it doesn’t impact your mobile data usage – but of course YouTube Premium isn’t free, so you’ve got to factor that into your value equations.

There are ways to manage how much data YouTube is using per video, or wholesale for all the videos you choose to watch.

For a single given video, once it’s playing, tap on the screen of your phone to bring up the controls, and then the cog icon to bring up settings. Tap on Quality, and then choose your preferred quality, remembering that the lower you can bear the quality setting, the less data you’re likely to use. By default YouTube on mobile devices opts for its Auto setting to give you the best visual experience, but if you tell it that you want to indulge your passion for wacky animal antic videos in 720p only, it will respect that.

The important detail here is that the above solution only applies to that video. That’s actually a plus, because you might drop down quality for a video where the image isn’t as vital (but maybe the speech is, or it’s a still series of images or similar), but not want that for a high-impact movie trailer or music video clip.

What if you wanted all your videos to be at a given quality? That involves changing a setting within the YouTube mobile app itself. To do that, tap on your profile picture within the YouTube app, and then Settings, and then Video Quality preferences.

Here you’ll have some choices to make. Most current versions of the YouTube app will offer you a choice between Auto, Higher Picture Quality or Data Saver. Auto is the default here, and it will try to serve you the best available version of a video file. Higher Picture Quality will prioritise higher resolutions, which means higher data usage but may also mean more buffering before a video starts to ensure that on slower connections you still get those crisp visuals you want. Data Saver is the effective reverse of this; you’ll get the lower resolution versions of videos, but they’ll probably load a little faster even on weaker connections because the file sizes are smaller.

On some versions of the YouTube app, you may also have an “Advanced” option that lets you specify precisely which quality setting you want. The important detail to bear in mind here if you’re watching on most smartphones is that 4K screens really aren’t much of a factor, and at those smaller screen sizes and with a handheld phone, the difference between 720p and 1080p can often be imperceptible. There’s definitely a taste test style to this however, and the way a given video has been encoded can also make a big difference to what it looks like at a given resolution.

Recommended mobile plans for heavy YouTubing

YouTube can use a lot of data, but right now there are no specific plans that provide that usage quota-free. So what can you do to ensure you’re on the optimal plan for YouTube usage?

There’s a few approaches to this that could work. If you’re a serious YouTube junkie, you should consider an “unlimited” data plan – none of which are actually unlimited in terms of both data and speed, but most of which will provide you with a healthy quota of data usage and then a slowed connection that can typically serve you videos at lower quality resolution:

If unlimited isn’t what you need, you should consider higher data quota plans to keep your YouTube habit ticking alone. Here’s a selection of top-value month-to-month postpaid plans with at least 50GB of data

If you’re trying to take more of a cold turkey approach to your YouTube addiction, then one potential route would be with a moderate to high data quota – 30-50GB – prepaid plan. Here you’ll have a set quantity of data to use and then no more, which will at least control your spending, if not your urges to watch just one more adorable kitten video.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are adorable kitten videos out there on YouTube, and I haven’t watched them all yet. I may need some time.

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Alex Kidman
Written by
Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman is some kind of word-generating AI from the future that somehow worked out how to sneak back in time to 1998 to start its journalism career. Across that time, including editorial stints at ZDNet, CNET, Gizmodo, PC Mag and Finder, as well as contributions to every major tech masthead, nobody has quite managed to figure out this deeply held secret. Let’s keep it between us, OK?

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