What are mobile data allowances?

When choosing a mobile phone deal, it’s really important to choose a data plan that’s right for you. Whether you like to stream 4K movies on the go or you just want to be able to check your emails when you’re out and about, we’ll talk you through everything you need to know about data allowances.

Woman using data on smartphone

What is mobile data?

Mobile plans are advertised with three separate figures:

  • Minutes: The total number of minutes you can spend on calls for the price of your plan

  • Texts: The total number of texts you can send for the price of your plan

  • Data: The total amount of data you can use for the price of your plan

Very often, minutes and texts are unlimited, so you’ll likely only need to consider how much data you need. Having said that, there are unlimited data plans out there, which can be a great option if you worry about running out of data.

How much data do I need?

This depends on how you use your phone. You need data to do any of the following while using your mobile, unless you’re connected to Wi-Fi:

  • Browsing the web

  • Using email

  • Downloading/uploading attachments

  • Instant messaging

  • Social media

  • Streaming video

  • Streaming music

  • Online gaming

  • Keeping certain apps running, e.g. Google maps, security apps

  • Automatic cloud uploads

  • Video calls and internet calling

Basically, everything you use your phone for that isn’t a traditional call, text or photo. Individually, these data costs are pretty minimal, but they can definitely add up, particularly if you don’t connect to Wi-Fi.

How much data does streaming use?

Streaming is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to mobile data. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube will all eat up data. So will downloading stories from Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. Here are approximate figures for how much data each task needs:

  • Netflix SD: 1GB per hour

  • Disney+ HD: 2GB per hour

  • YouTube HD: 720MB per hour

  • Spotify High setting: 70MB per hour

  • Facetime call (video): 195MB per hour 

Where possible, try downloading video on home Wi-Fi to watch later offline, or stream at the lowest quality setting. Given that you’re watching on a mobile phone screen, the advantages of HD are mostly lost anyway. 

How much data does WhatsApp use?

Social media and messaging apps use less data, but they also tend to run in the background all the time, so they’re never completely switched off:

  • WhatsApp: approx. 50MB a day

  • Social media: 1.5GB per month

  • Checking email: 150MB per month

  • Uploading photos: 1MB per month

You also need to consider if you tether your phone often, which can add as much as 15GB to your data needs to ensure you can support multiple devices. 

Other ways to minimise data use

Many apps, including streaming apps, will let you use them in data saving mode. Quality will suffer but not to any unusable degree. Consider using this if you plan to stream on mobile data. 

You can also change settings in apps like WhatsApp to stop automatically downloading media or backing up your chats, which also eats up data. Of course, you can also just get into the habit of turning mobile data on and off from the pull-down menu on your phone. 

How can I calculate my mobile data needs?

Most providers will have a data calculator available to help you pick the best deal for you. This will be based on things like your video streaming, messaging and uploading habits. Be sure to consider this all carefully. If, for example, you connect to the home W-iFi in the evenings, maybe most of your streaming isn’t done on mobile data. If you download video to watch later using home Wi-Fi, you also won’t be using up data. 

Remember, it’s easy to upgrade a plan to get more data – you can do so with most providers without needing to speak to anyone, just do it online – but it’s near impossible to downgrade your plan. If you’re really unsure, go for your lower guess, and increase your data the next month if you find it insufficient. 

How many MB in 1GB?

There are 1000 megabytes in 1GB, so there are 5000 in 5GB, 50000 in 50GB and so on. For context, one hour of HD Netflix streaming will cost you 3GB. That’s a big bite out of your data before you even consider your other apps. If you rely on home broadband or work Wi-Fi for most hours of the day, you could probably get away with less data than you think.

I’ve run out of data, what can I do?

If you’ve run out of data for the month, your phone, in some cases, will simply stop connecting to mobile broadband but sometimes you’ll start incurring pricey out-of-allowance fees. You can still connect to home broadband via Wi-Fi or use public hotspots. Your network provider may even have its own hotspots across the UK to keep you connected out and about. 

Some providers will let you top up with an extra data boost to see you through the remainder of the month. If you find you run into this issue most months, then you’re likely on the wrong plan and should arrange to increase your tariff with your provider, often easily done via app.

What if I’m paying for too much data?

If you are on a SIM-only deal that lasts 30 days then you can easily go for a lower limit the following month. And if your network provides data rollover, you won’t lose any unused data either. If you’re on a pay monthly deal that lasts longer than a month, you’ll have a harder time trying to switch to a smaller, therefore less profitable plan. 

Downgrading phone plans

Usually, you won’t be able to downgrade your phone plan unless you’re genuinely struggling to pay. For example, you find you only need around 20GB of data despite paying for unlimited, then the blame is on you for not calculating your requirements correctly. 

Your plan may have a minimum period term, though, which can give you some leeway on downgrading. If you need to change your plan due to financial concerns, call your provider and be open and honest with them to see if you can reach an agreement.

How much data do I have left?

Most providers will have an online portal, app or a free number you can text to let you know how much data you have left. Some providers will also let you set a data cap so you’ll never be in any danger of running over. 

Do pay as you go plans come with data?

Yes, pay as you go plans cover calls, texts and data, though these will be charged at different rates and when your credit hits £0 you‘ll no longer be able to use any data or make any calls/texts. 

Do I have to buy a phone plan with data?

Yes, all phone plans come with some assignment of mobile data, but you can also find very low data offerings like 500MB. This is the bare minimum to allow you to browse when you desperately need to get online, but still keep monthly costs down. As many suppliers also provide unlimited calls and texts, you might find this is a fantastic option for great value phone deals. 

What is fair usage?

Fair usage and traffic management policies apply to unlimited data plans. This means that, while there is no set data limit on your plan, if you use more than what your provider deems fair for a single user, your speeds may drop, though not completely stop as they would if you ran out of data.