Mobile data: what is it, should it be on or off and why is it not working?

The mobile data allowance is an important feature of any mobile phone tariff. But what is mobile data, and how can you reduce your mobile phone data use?

If you’re out of contract and you’re looking for a new data deal, take a look at our best SIM only deals.

What is mobile data?

Mobile data lets your mobile phone connect to the internet using a 3G, 4G or 5G connection.

One of the main uses for a mobile phone, beyond the ability to make phone calls, is to access the internet while on the move. If you are not able to connect to the internet through a Wi-Fi connection, that’s when your phone will instead use mobile data through that mobile connection.

Mobile tariffs will have different limits over how much mobile data you are allowed to use in a month without having to pay extra. Some tariffs can be quite restrictive, while others are essentially limitless. So it’s important that you select the right tariff for your mobile data needs.

As Stuart Jones, spokesman for Go.Compare, explains: “Being aware of the data package that’s included in your phone tariff is really important in an age when being online is more important than ever. Straying over your data allowance can incur costly charges, and having to pay for extra data each month can be expensive.”

How much data do I need?

According to a report from Ofcom, the average UK consumer uses 5.6GB of mobile data a month. But how much data you need will come down to how often you use the internet on your phone, what you use it for and how much of the time you’ll be connected to Wi-Fi.

First, it’s worth understanding how data is measured, namely in megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (MB). There are around 1,000 kilobytes in 1MB, and 1,000MB in 1GB. Most mobile phone and SIM only deals will come with an allowance of mobile data in gigabytes.

A low data SIM deal would come with a monthly allowance of anywhere between 1GB and 3G and could cost you as little as £3.99 a month. This kind of deal is good for someone who is usually connected to Wi-Fi, either at home or at work and just needs access to the internet for sending and receiving messages, checking emails and using maps when out and about.

For someone who uses their mobile data more regularly than this without being a heavy data user, you’d probably want somewhere between 4GB and 9GB a month. You should be able to get one of these midrange SIM only deals for a monthly cost of less than £10.

If you use a lot of mobile data or you’re always running out of data before the end of the month, you might want to consider a high-end or even unlimited mobile data deal. And this might not be as expensive as you think, with unlimited data SIMs now costing as little as £16 a month.

To give you an idea of how much mobile data you might need, if you have your Netflix app on the automatic setting then you can watch about four hours per GB of data, according to Netflix. But you can always download Netflix shows over Wi-Fi before you leave the house, so you don’t have to use up your mobile data streaming your favourite shows.

A good way to work out how much mobile data you may need is to check how much you’re currently using. You can do this by going into your phone’s settings, where you can find not only how much data you’re using but also which apps are using the most data.

Alternatively, you can check your most recent mobile phone bills or your network’s app, which will detail your mobile data use.

Jones adds: “The best time to work out your exact data needs is when you are signing up for a contract or renewing it. There are online calculators that can help you to work out how much data you are going to need in your contract – while it’s important to make sure you have sufficient data you also don’t want to be paying for more data than you need.”

If you need more advice, take a look at our seven ways to reduce your mobile phone bill.

What do I do if I’ve run out of data?

If you exceed your data allowance, you will need to pay for any additional data. Traditionally, this has been charged based on each additional MB you use, which means it can become incredibly expensive.

However, many mobile networks now contact you as you start to get towards the end of your data usage to warn you. This also gives them the opportunity to purchase an add-on to your regular allowance ‒ perhaps 5GB or so ‒ which will likely work out more budget friendly than paying for your actual use.

It’s a useful reminder to make sure that your tariff meets your usage needs.

Can I rollover my unused data?

The amount of mobile data you need to use can change significantly over any given month. For example, you might normally use less than your allowance but then have a lot of travel coming up, which will see your usage spike.

Some networks, such as Sky Mobile and iD Mobile, now allow users to rollover any unused data to the next month which can come in particularly useful if your usage tends to fluctuate. There will generally be limits in place on precisely how much data can be rolled over to the following month. The terms will vary between networks, so it’s important to check exactly how a network handles rollover data before signing up to a new package.

Sky Mobile also lets you donate unused data to any other Sky Mobile user on your family plan. So, if one of your kids has used up all their data, you can give them a gigabyte or two to tide them over until the end of the month.

What is data roaming?

Data roaming is when your mobile phone connects to a network outside of your usual provider, for example when using your mobile phone on holiday.

There have long been horror stories around the huge sums that innocent phone users have run up on their bills simply by using their phone overseas.

It’s really important that you check how your network handles data roaming and whether they offer an add-on which can ensure that you don’t end up spending a fortune if you happen to use your phone on your holiday.

Ofcom, the communications regulator, says: “You can even run up a big bill without actively using your phone, as smartphones and 3G/4G enabled tablets automatically seek out mobile connections and use them to update apps.

“So unless you turn off data roaming before you go, these devices could be downloading data at standard rates throughout your stay without your realising it.”

Should I switch my data on or off?

You should switch your mobile data off if:

  • You want to keep your mobile data use to a minimum ‒ some apps will continue to use your allowance, even when you aren’t actively using them
  • You want to save your battery, since having mobile data turned on drains the battery more quickly

You should switch your mobile data on if:

  • You want the convenience of being able to use the internet on the move whenever necessary
  • You aren’t concerned about exceeding your mobile data allowance
  • You aren’t concerned about your mobile battery running out

Why is my mobile data not working?

There are certain common reasons which may mean your mobile data is not working. First and foremost, check that mobile data is turned on. You can do this by going to your phone’s settings. 

It’s also worth making sure you haven’t set your phone to airplane mode, since this will involve turning off your mobile data.

Next, check your data usage. If you have used all of your data for the month, then depending on your network, you may not be able to access the internet through mobile data until you purchase a top-up. 

If that still hasn’t resolved matters, try restarting your phone or removing and reinserting your SIM card.

If all this fails, there may be a problem with the mobile network. If you can access a Wi-Fi connection, use that to go to your network’s website and check for any issues. Or contact your network’s customer support to report the problem.

How to use less mobile data

There are plenty of ways to reduce the level of mobile data you use each month.

A simple step is to make the most of Wi-Fi connections whenever possible. So, if you know you’re heading off on a long train journey and want to watch a film, download the film in advance using your Wi-Fi at home rather than stream it or download it while on your journey.

Turning off the autoplay feature on any video apps can also reduce the amount of mobile data you use. That way, you have to actively choose to watch a video, rather than see your data allowance eroded by videos on Facebook, Instagram and the like automatically starting as you scroll.

Many phones are set up to use mobile data to boost Wi-Fi when the connection is slow. Turning these services off – Wi-Fi Assist on the iPhone or Smart Network Switch ‒ can mean you reduce your data use. You can do this through the settings on your phone.

It’s also worth checking which specific apps are using the most mobile data. By adapting the way you use them, or at least the frequency, you may be able to use less data.

Finally, if you are going to need to use maps while out and about, you can download entire towns or regions in advance so you don’t have to use any mobile data.

What’s a fair usage policy?

While certain tariffs are advertised as having unlimited mobile data, that may not be strictly true. That’s because some networks impose a fair usage policy.

Effectively they monitor how much mobile data you are using, and if it’s felt that this is excessive compared with other customers, then the fair usage policy can kick in. This may mean that you have your mobile data speeds limited for a certain period. And in extreme circumstances, this could even result in your contract being terminated.

Fair usage policies are usually a lot stricter when you’re using your mobile data while roaming abroad, so make sure you check your network’s policy in the destination you’re travelling to before you jet off.

If you’re a heavy mobile data user it’s a good idea to get to grips with your provider’s fair usage policy, so you understand what is and is not permitted.