What Are Mbps and How Many Do I Need?

macbook on desk

If you’ve ever shopped for an internet provider, you’ve undoubtedly seen the term “Mbps.” You’ve probably also noticed that the higher number of Mbps, the higher the price.

But why? What is Mbps, and how many do you need anyway? Mbps stands for megabits per second. The amount of Mbps you get determines your internet speed. The more Mbps you have, the faster your internet.

How do Mbps work?

Every piece of media or content on the internet uses a certain amount of data, most commonly seen measured in megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB).

If you think those terms sound a bit like the “megabits” in Mbps, you are correct; they’re related but not the same.

  • 1 megabyte (MB) = 8 megabits (Mb)
  • 1 gigabyte (GB) = 1,000 megabytes (MB)

Some file types, such as text documents and PDFs, may take only a few MBs. But to download an HD movie can easily take 4 GB.

Even though Mb are significantly smaller than most file sizes, they’re how we measure how quickly those files will download and upload using your internet connection.

How many Mbps do you need?

Obviously, the faster your internet speed is, the better. But how much speed you need depends on your type of usage. People who download a lot of HD videos or upload high-resolution photos will need more Mbps than someone who just wants to surf Facebook or send emails.

People who download a lot of HD videos or upload high-resolution photos will need more Mbps than someone who just wants to surf Facebook or send emails.

Most high-speed internet plans these days start around 5–10 Mbps, which is sufficient for most everyday online activity. But remember, the more people you have using your network, the slower your internet will run, since it’s divided across multiple internet users. So if you’re part of a family of four and everyone’s going to watch Netflix at the same time on different devices, you’re going to want a higher-speed plan.

Required Mbps for online activity

Activity typeMinimum speed required
General browsing/email/social media1 Mbps
Streaming music<0.5 Mbps
Streaming video (standard definition)3–4 Mbps
Streaming video (high definition)5–8 Mbps
Online multiplayer game4 Mbps
Video conference call6 Mbps

See a longer list of required speeds here.

What does Mbps have to do with your internet speed?

Think of it like filling your car’s gas tank. Your goal is to fill the whole tank with gas, but the pump can dispense only so much at once, so it takes time to get the gas from the pump into your tank.

The internet works the same way—only a certain amount of megabits can reach your computer or device per second, which means it takes time to upload or download content.

The slower your internet speed, (a.k.a. the fewer megabits you have per second), the longer it will take for you to download that PowerPoint presentation for work or be able to watch Netflix without waiting for it to buffer every ten seconds. The opposite is true as well—the more Mbps you have, the less time your iTunes movie will take to download.

To examine internet service providers near you and find the best speed plan for your needs, check out our Best Internet Service Providers post.