Mobile data usage: what uses the most data on a mobile phone?

A person hovers over the wifi button on their mobile phone (images: Getty Images)

If you’re trying to keep your mobile costs down by opting for a limited data package, you may be wondering what eats up the most data. We explain all in this money-saving guide.

Household budgets are already being eaten into as a result of the cost of living crisis. And with mid-contract mobile price hikes on the horizon, this situation is set to continue into 2024. So, you might be looking to make savings wherever you can.

You can cut the cost of your monthly mobile bills by opting for a SIM-only deal. Another budget-friendly option is to only pay for what you need. If you tend to use data sparingly, it may be that cutting back on your internet usage allowance can save you cash.

Some deals offer unlimited data at cheaper prices. But the greater the allowance you have, the more expensive your bills are likely to be. So, if you think trimming back on your data is doable, how can you ensure you stay within your data limit? In this article, we will run you through how much data you’re likely to need and the biggest data guzzlers on your phone.

How much mobile data do I need?

According to Ofcom’s latest annual Communications Market Report, the average amount of mobile data used per month in the UK was 8.1 gigabytes (GB). But how much data will it take to meet your internet needs? We’ve broken it down into three broad types of user:

  • Low data user (roughly 2GB to 5GB a month):

You’ll be using a below-average amount of data per month if you do the bulk of your surfing whilst on WiFi. So, if you work from home, you could fall into this category – even if you feel like you’re using your phone a lot. In this instance, it may be worth paying for better broadband than splurging on a hefty mobile deal – see our best broadband deals guide for more info.

When you do use data, you will be looking at the occasional website, checking your social media, and reading emails. Low data users will not play many games on their phones, nor will they be downloading much multimedia content to them.

  • Medium data user (6GB to 10GB)

If you’re away from your WiFi more often, and find yourself needing to use your data on the go, a medium-sized package may better suit you. People with this level of usage will be watching the odd video and spending a decent amount of time browsing the web each day. You’ll also be regularly downloading emails, and possibly the odd game and song as well.

  • High data user (11GB+)

Do you stream TV and films through your mobile whilst not on WiFi? If the answer’s yes, you’re likely to be a heavy user of data.

The biggest internet packages are for people who are watching videos on their data several times a week, and downloading a variety of apps, games and music on the regular. You may also be surfing the internet on your phone for several hours a day.

For people in this category, you may need to go well above 11GB. The safest option could be to go for an unlimited deal. This sort of package can work out to be more cost-effective than going for the exact amount of data you need – as well as being stung for going over your allowance and having to pay for an expensive bolt-on (see ‘Will I be charged for exceeding my data limit?’ below). If the offer includes the chance to roll over unused data to your next billing period (Sky and iD are two providers who do this), it could also work out as being more cost-effective.

Should you want to use data while on holiday abroad, you’ll need to add a data roaming extension to your mobile deal. Some providers allow you to tag it on for free, but others charge you for it. You can buy rolling add-ons, although prices have been going up – for example, EE has just hiked the cost of its once market-leading deal.

How can I check how much data I’m using?

The best way to check how much data you use per month is to look at your phone bill. If you can’t see a data figure there, get in touch with your provider and ask them.

Meanwhile, you can get a general gist of your usage by looking at your phone. Both iPhones and Androids track what you use – although they tend to do so over the period of a year, or the lifetime of your device.

To see these figures on an iPhone, head to Settings, go to Mobile Service, and then scroll down to see the amount of data your apps are using. They will be listed in data usage order, from high to low.

If you’re on Android, go to the Data Usage tab in Settings. This will bring up a detailed graph that will show you how much data you’ve used over a period of several months. You will also be able to see which apps are taking up the most data.

What uses the most mobile data?

So, you’ve limited the amount of data you get with your phone. But how can you stay within those limits? Below, we’ve listed common phone functions and how much data they guzzle.

  1. Streaming films and TV in HD: a high-definition film can eat up 4GB of data per hour.
  2. Streaming music: doing this for an hour will use up around 100MB. Downloading a song can use between 4MB and 8MB (1,000 megabytes are equal to 1GB).
  3. Online gaming: an hour of gameplay can use up at least 70MB.
  4. Internet browsing: you can use up around 50MB per hour, depending on how many pop-ups the websites you’re visiting have. Social media can also take up this amount of data.
  5. Getting directions: an hour of Google Maps will take up around 5MB of data.

Will I be charged for exceeding my data limit?

If you exceed your data allowance, you could face a hefty hike to your next bill. You may be charged per MB, which means your additional costs can quickly mount up. Most mobile providers will warn you if you’re in danger of going over your allowance and may offer you a deal if you do go over it.

But, be aware that adding bolt-ons to your contract can get expensive. For example, an extra 1GB of data from O2 will set you back £10.50 a month. If you’re regularly exceeding your data limit, you should consider rejigging your contract to get a bigger data allowance (although renegotiating your deal can erode your bargaining power if you do it during your minimum term).

Some providers may just limit your data use after you go over your maximum. Those operating ‘fair use’ policies will only charge you if you exceed a figure they deem to be ‘fair’, such as 250MB. You can also take control of your data by setting a data cap. This will prevent you from going over your allowance – something that may be particularly handy for parents who pay for their teenager’s phone bills. 

It’s worth checking exactly what will happen to you if you don’t stay within your data limits. You can either do this by digging out your contract or by getting in touch with your provider.