Remember when smartphone plans were all about the number of call minutes and text messages you got, and the data was unlimited? These days, it’s exactly the opposite. When carriers realized what we really wanted was data, there was a shift to unlimited minutes and texts and data caps — with carriers claiming it was about managing the network.
While the situation is better than it was a few years ago, and carriers do offer unlimited plans now (check out our guide to the best unlimited plans), we’re often saddled with unexpected charges, speed throttling, or hidden limits. Every megabyte must be accounted for, or you might find yourself paying an arm and a leg in overage charges, or having your connection speed throttled at the worst time. We’re here to help you set up limits and alerts to keep an eye on your data usage, and to provide some tips to help you maximize your data plans. Here’s how to reduce your data usage.
How much data do you need?
You’ll likely overestimate the data you need, so use cold hard facts to make the decision on which data allotment is best for you. Log in to your carrier’s website and review your data usage over the past few months. Select a plan that is higher than the amount of data you used during this period — but as close to that number as possible. A tool like Verizon’s Data Calculator is great to get a rough estimate of what your data usage is, but we recommend basing it on your real-world use. Still unsure, or just want to be certain? Check out our in-depth guide on choosing the right data plan for you.
Does your carrier offer some type of rollover data option? If so, you might even have extra data to fall back on in an emergency should you use more data than normal in a particular month.
Set data alerts and limits
You can check your data usage on iOS devices by going to Settings > Cellular > Apps using WLAN & Cellular. These data stats do not reset each billing period automatically, so you’ll have to remember to do it yourself. If you’re looking for a more tailored way of tracking data usage on your iPhone or iPad, we recommend you look at some third-party apps. My Data Manager keeps track of your usage, and even allows you to set custom alarms when you exceed a certain amount of data in a month.
On Android 4.0 or later, you can check your data usage just like iOS, but also set alerts and limits. Go to Settings, and under Wireless & Networks, tap on Data usage (you might need to look around on a different Android skin, but it should still be under your Wi-Fi connection settings). You’ll see a table showing your data usage for a specific period of time. You can toggle Set mobile data limit and then move the black and red lines to set alerts. The black line will trigger a notification that you’re approaching your limit, while the red line represents the threshold where your Android device shuts off cellular data. Again, Android has some apps tailored to tracking your usage, but unlike iOS, Android’s built-in controls are good enough that you shouldn’t need to use anything but the baked-in settings.
Another option is using your carrier’s mobile apps. How your carrier accounts for your data usage might be different than what iOS and Android say, so we’d recommend you keep an eye on your data here for the most accurate information.
You should also consider turning mobile data off whenever you don’t need it.
Use Wi-Fi wherever possible
There is a cardinal rule for saving cellular data: If there’s Wi-Fi, use it. Chances are at both home and work you’ll have some type of Wi-Fi access to connect to, and even in many public places — including parks, supermarkets, even department stores — public Wi-Fi is there for your use.
While some may require you to accept terms and conditions in order to connect, many do not, and once you connect the first time it will connect automatically when you’re in range. Get in the habit of checking when you’re somewhere new, and this will lead to a substantial drop in cellular data usage.
Some carriers also offer hot spot networks of their own. AT&T offers connectivity through a network of hot spots (see this Wi-Fi hot spot locator map), Verizon also offer a similar service, and T-Mobile offer hot spot usage for a monthly fee.
Even if you don’t have hot spot access from any of the above, you can still take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of free Wi-Fi hot spots around the world. The app WiFi Finder Free (Android, iOS) is one possible app to find these hot spots.
Limit background data
Background data is one of the biggest drains on your data allotment, and you might not even realize it’s happening. Mail working to sync new messages as you receive them, or your phone automatically downloading new app updates. Do you really need this? Can something wait until you’re connected to Wi-Fi?
Review what’s using cellular data and make any necessary changes. In iOS, this is located under Settings > Cellular > Apps using WLAN & Cellular, and in Android, under Settings > Wireless & Networks > Data usage. Use Wi-Fi where you can. Doing so might also have the added benefit of increasing your battery life, since less apps are pulling on resources.
Take your maps offline
Navigation apps can be a surprisingly large hog on your data. If you’re using them all the time — to find specific shops or restaurants — or if you’re in a new city, maybe you should look at downloading the area map ahead of time? If you’re an Android user, this is simple. Just boot up Google Maps, search for the area you want to download, then tap More info, followed by Download.
Sadly, iOS users don’t have that functionality yet, but they can load a route ahead of time, and Apple Maps’ cache will remember the way without a need for a data connection. Simply enter your route in as normal while on Wi-Fi, allow it to load fully, then exit your app and turn off your data connection. If relying on the app’s cache is a bit scary for you, Apple Maps also allows you to export area maps as PDFs, which can then be printed off.
Change your browsing habits
It’s always better to browse the mobile version of the website on a mobile device, so avoid using the desktop versions of a site if you can. Also, despite taking up a fair amount of storage on your phone, the browser cache is actually a good thing here. By preserving your cache, you won’t have to download images from frequently visited websites every time you visit them.
You might also consider using a browser like Opera Mini (Android, iOS), as it’s designed to compress data and dramatically reduce your usage when browsing.
Subscribe to streaming services with offline options
Videos are by far the biggest drain on your data, so if you stream a lot of YouTube content, then consider YouTube Red. That’s the company’s premium service which costs $10 per month. While it might sound like a lot, in addition to the option of saving videos onto your device, you also have their music service built in. With other streaming subscriptions, you’ll want to check where they offer offline content too. Apps like Apple Music (Android, iOS), Google Play Music (Android, iOS), and Spotify (Android, iOS) allow you to create playlists for listening to offline, but you will need some space to store them. Spotify even allows you the option to download all your Saved Songs — so there’s a decent chunk of streaming saved.
If you’re a fan of listening to podcasts on the move, consider getting a podcast app like Pocket Casts (Android, iOS). It might cost a few bucks, but it has a huge library of available podcasts (including some of our favorites), and the ability to wait until you’ve connected to a Wi-Fi network before downloading any new episodes.
Compress your data
Check out the Onavo Extend app (Android, iOS). It is designed to compress your data and potentially extend your data plan by up to five times. It doesn’t work with streaming audio or video apps, and it doesn’t work with VoIP apps, but it will help reduce the impact of images and text. It gives you a breakdown of which apps are using your data, lets you create a universal cache, and helps you choose the balance you want between image quality and data savings. It’s free, so it’s worth giving it a try if you find yourself running out of data all the time.
Looking for something a little stronger to keep your connected on your travels? Have a look at our guide on the best mobile hot spots you can buy. And while you’re here — how’s your internet speed at home? We’ve got some great tips on how to improve your browsing speed quickly and easily.
Update: We added details of the major carriers’ unlimited data plans, and methods of downloading maps, music, and podcasts.