How Much Cell Phone Data Do I Need?

Recent Updates: More than 2 years
Since last updating this page, data consumption has more than doubled on average. As apps improve and become more robust, they become hungrier for more data.

Smartphones and apps keep improving, which means we need more and more data to use them. It’s kind of like getting a bigger car every year that requires more and more gas to run it. And much like gas, data doesn’t grow on trees (does it grow in…clouds?), and unlimited plans can get really expensive. Still, paying for an unlimited plan is better than paying for data overages on a limited data plan.

Let’s get a better idea of how much data you use so we can find you a cell phone plan that offers the most bang for your buck.

How much data do I use?

To figure out how much data you need, you first have to assess what you use your phone for. (While you’re at it, see how everyone else on your plan uses theirs.) If you watch YouTube TV for an hour on the train every morning, then you’ll need more data than your brother, who just checks his email and does everything else on Wi-Fi.

For an exact sum-up of your data usage, you can check your phone bill. You can also pull up your phone’s settings, but keep in mind your phone carrier will always trust their own data tracking first.

If you’re paying for an unlimited plan but your bill shows you or your family uses only 10 GB of data per month, then you might be able to switch plans and save money without cramping your style.

Which activities use the most data?

The biggest data hog is video streaming, but you should also watch out if you stream a lot of music or podcasts or play games online. Full disclosure: I have for sure gone over my data cap purely because of Hearthstone once or twice.

Before we spit out a lot of numbers at you, there’s two conversions you’ll need to put everything in context:

  • 1MB = 1,000KB approximately
  • 1GB = 1,000MB approximately

The main currency of wireless data is the gigabyte (GB). For example, if I had a data plan that allowed me 3 GB of wireless data a month, then that means I could use approxamitely 3,000 megabytes (MB) or 30,000 kilobytes (KB) every month. Hopefully that will make the numbers below make more sense.

How much data do everyday cell phone activities use?*
ActivityAmount of data used
4K video streaming5.85 GB/hr.
HD video streaming2.5 GB/hr.
SD video streaming.7 GB/hr.
Audio streaming72 MB/hr.
Uploading one image to social media5 MB/photo
Sending emails (without attachment)20 KB/email
Sending emails (with standard attachment)300 KB/email
Online gaming12 MB/hr.
Viewing a web page1 MB/pg.

Based on AT&T data calculator estimates. Amounts may vary.

Data can add up quickly, especially if you share data on a family plan. Unless you like playing around with your calculator app, almost everything on your phone takes up data.

How do I limit my data usage?

The best thing you can do to limit your cell phone data usage is to stay connected to Wi-Fi as much as possible. If you have an accessible Wi-Fi network at both work and home, then you probably won’t use much data every month.

If you use Wi-Fi as much as you can and you still go through more data than you’d like, there are a few other things you can do to reduce your usage.

Tips to limit cell phone data usage:

  • Back up photos to Google Photos or iCloud only when your phone has a Wi-Fi connection.
  • Download music, podcasts, audiobooks, and videos to your phone only while connected to Wi-Fi so you don’t have to use data for music or video streaming later.
  • Check your phone’s settings to see which apps use the most cellular data and delete any you don’t need.
  • Watch and stream videos in standard definition instead of HD or 4k.
  • Turn off video autoplay on Facebook and other apps.

Recap: How much cell phone data do I need?

You might use less data than you think, and you might not need an unlimited plan if you or your family doesn’t have many data-heavy habits, like streaming college football in HD or downloading 4K-resolution movies.

  • Assess your individual or family data usage to see what kinds of things you do that use a lot of data.
  • Check your past phone bills and/or your phone’s settings to see how much data you use on average.
  • Stay on Wi-Fi as much as possible and reduce video and audio quality to keep your data usage in check.

Note: If you’re relying on your Wi-Fi to reduce your data usage, you might want to consider our advice on How Much Internet Speed Do I Need?