Mobile Internet: How Many Gigabytes Do You Need? Download Limits Explained

March 1st, 2015

In the UK, almost all mobile phone plans have a monthly limit on how much you can download. In this article, find out what you’re able to do with a gigabyte of data. Also, discover the right data plan for your usage every month.

SmartphonesAfter choosing a new smartphone, the next thing you’ll need to do is to choose an appropriate tariff on which to use the handset.

In the old days, choosing a mobile phone tariff was simple. You simply needed to know how many minutes and how many texts you wanted every month. In the new world of high-tech 4G smartphones, choosing a tariff is now much more complicated. Instead of minutes and texts, it’s now all about the data. You’ll need to work how many gigabytes you want per month (on average, that’s about 2GB per month but it depends very much on how you use the handset).

On today’s smartphones, almost all of the functionality requires data to work. You’ll need data when browsing the internet, when sending messages on WhatsApp and when reading your e-mail. You’ll also need data when using applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, Skype and YouTube. Unfortunately, different apps and activities all consume data at substantially different rates. This can make it a little bit tricky to work out how much data you’ll actually need every month.

In this article, we’ll explain the real-world meaning of monthly download limits. We’ll show you what a gigabyte of mobile data actually means in reality: how many web pages you’ll be able to access, how many messages you’ll be able to send and how many apps you’ll be able to download. We’ll also help you to find the best value data plans available for your handset. Finally, we’ll show you how to measure your current data consumption and how to make your monthly allowance go a lot further.

Download Limits in the UK

A typical phone contract in 2015 has 2GB of data included every month.

In the UK, there’s a wide choice of mobile phone tariffs with varying amounts of data every month.

Typically, new mobile phone contracts in 2015 have around 2GB of data per month. Entry-level tariffs (including some cheap SIM only deals and some Pay As You Go bundles) often start from around 500MB per month (500MB is equivalent to 0.5GB per month). On the other end of the spectrum, there are more expensive tariffs with up to 20GB of data per month. There are also two mobile networks offering all-you-can-eat, unlimited data (only Three and giffgaff currently offer this).

The following table show typical data allowances offered by the UK networks:

Network Typical Download Allowance Other Tariffs
EE 2GB Pay Monthly: Between 500MB and 20GB
Pay As You Go: Between 500MB and 4GB
giffgaff 1GB £7.50 Goodybag: 250MB
£10 Goodybag
: 1GB
£12 Goodybag: 3GB
£15 Goodybag: 5GB
£20 Goodybag: Unlimited
O2 2GB Pay Monthly: Between 500MB and 20GB
Pay As You Go: Between 500MB and 2GB
Tesco Mobile 2GB Pay Monthly: Between 500MB and 8GB
Three 2GB Pay Monthly: Between 1GB and Unlimited
Pay As You Go: Between 1GB and Unlimited
Vodafone 2GB 3G Plans: Up to 4GB
4G Plans: Up to 20GB
Pay As You Go: Between 500MB and 6GB

As the inclusive data allowance depends on your tariff, we strongly recommend verifying the details with the network you’d like to join via the following links:

A note about terminology (KB, MB and GB)…

There are 1,000 kilobytes (KB) in 1 megabyte (MB) and 1,000 megabytes in 1 gigabyte (GB).

This means if you see a tariff offering 500MB per month, you can download only half as much as you’d be able to do a 1GB per month tariff (500MB is equal to 0.5GB).

You may occasional come across terms such as terabyte and mebibyte. These terms are rarely used within the mobile industry but Wikipedia has a good explanation in case you ever come across them.

UK Networks: Tariffs, Handsets and Allowances

All of the UK’s major networks offer a tariff suitable for use on smartphones. You can either choose a tariff which comes with a new smartphone included (a Pay Monthly contract) or you can choose a cheaper SIM-only tariff where you keep the handset you already have.

For more information about the options available, choose a mobile network and a type of tariff:

Select a tariff for more information and to see which phones are available:
EE giffgaff O2 Three Vodafone

EE
(500MB – 20GB)

giffgaff
(250MB – Unlimited)

O2
(250MB – 20GB)

Three
(1GB – Unlimited)

Vodafone
(250MB – 20GB)

Other Popular Networks: iD Mobile (250MB – 10GB), Lycamobile (50MB – 5GB), TalkTalk Mobile (300MB – 4GB) Tesco Mobile (500MB – 8GB), The People’s Operator (50MB – 3GB)

How Much Data Do I Actually Need?

iPhone 6 Colours

We’d typically recommend getting around 2GB of data when choosing a new tariff.

Generally, we’d recommend choosing a tariff with around 2GB per month. Light users (e.g. for people who rarely use their smartphone or for people who mainly use wi-fi) can reduce their allowance to either 500MB or 1GB per month. Heavy smartphone users may instead wish to look at tariffs with 4GB or more every month.

What Can I Do With A Gigabyte (1GB) Of Data?

The table below shows you what 500MB, 1GB, 2GB and 4GB of data actually mean in reality.

Please note: it’s difficult to give exact figures in the table below. To give an example, web pages differ substantially in size. Some websites are incredibly simple (they’re mainly text with only a few images) whilst other websites are much more complex (they’ll have embedded photos and videos which will greatly increase data consumption). Hence, in order to produce the table below, we’ve had to take averages for each item in the table. It only provides a rough guide on what you’re able to do (your mileage may vary depending on the apps and the websites you use).

500MB data is… 1GB data is… 2GB data is… 4GB data is…
Accessing Web Pages 900 web pages 1,800 web pages 3,600 web pages 7,200 web pages
Basic e-mail/instant message 150,000 350,000 700,000 1,400,000
Rich e-mail/IM (with attachments) 1,000 2,000 4,000 8,000
Downloading/streaming music 100 songs 200 songs 400 songs 800 songs
Downloading/streaming video 1 hour 2 hours 4 hours 8 hours
Skype voice call 15 hours 30 hours 60 hours 120 hours
Skype video call 2 hours 4 hours 8 hours 16 hours
Listening to online radio 8 hours 16 hours 32 hours 64 hours
Downloading/updating apps 40 apps 75 apps 150 apps 300 apps

Approximate figures for what you’re able to do with 500MB, 1GB, 2GB or 4GB of mobile data. See this data usage table for a breakdown of data usage by app and activity.

In the table above, we’ve listed what 500MB, 1GB, 2GB and 4GB correspond to in usage (this isn’t a shopping list of what you’re able to do with a 500MB, 1GB, 2GB or 4GB allowance). In other words: viewing 900 web pages, watching an hour of online video or downloading 40 applications would use up 500MB of data (a 500MB allowance would not allow you to do all of the activities during the same month). Realistically, you’ll do a bit of everything so each activity would contribute towards your total data usage.

Data Requirements for the Average User

Three and EE

According to Three and EE, average data consumption is now around 1.1GB to 1.4GB per month.

For the average user, we’d typically recommend choosing a tariff with at least 2GB per month. Our recommendation is based on statistics for average data consumption. It also allows for some data usage increase over the next 24 months.

In July 2012, Three reported that the average customer used 1.1GB per month. In February 2013, EE announced average data consumption to be 1.4GB per month. Based on these figures, 2GB per month should be ample for most users. Heavy smartphone users who’d consider themselves to be ahead of the curve should probably consider an even larger allowance (perhaps in the region of 4GB to 5GB per month).

Data Plan Finder: Cheapest Network By Handset & Amount of Data

The form below will help you to find the best value data plan available for your usage. Start by choosing the smartphone you’d like to buy from the dropdown menu below. You can then use the slider to adjust the amount of data required (move the slider left to reduce the amount of data; move the slider right to increase the amount of data).

Data Plan Finder: Compare Data Plans By Network

Select your new handset:

How much data do you need each month?

Please select the handset you'd like to buy from the list above. Alternatively, click on your network operator's logo for more information about their data plans & tariffs.

EE

EE

View deals from EE »

O2

O2

View deals from O2 »

Three

Three

View deals from Three »

Vodafone

Vodafone

View deals from Vodafone »

Handset not listed? If your preferred handset isn’t listed in the dropdown menu above, please refer to the EE, O2, Three and Vodafone websites for full information about the data tariffs available.

Want to keep your current smartphone? If you’d like to change tariff whilst keeping your current smartphone, please see our in-depth comparison of the UK’s cheapest SIM only deals.

Data Usage Calculator

If you’re still unsure about how much data you require, choose the network you’d like to join for an interactive tool which estimates your data consumption:

EE Data Calculator → O2 Data Calculator →
Three Data Calculator → Vodafone Data Calculator →

For a more accurate estimate, see the section on how to find out your current data consumption.

Data Usage for Popular Apps & Activities

iPhone Apps

Almost all activities on a smartphone will consume data.

Almost all activities on a modern smartphone consume data – the main exceptions being making a phone call and sending a text message.

Activities consuming data include: browsing the web, reading and sending e-mails, accessing Facebook and Twitter, sharing photos online, updating your status, downloading apps and games, downloading music, listening to online radio and watching videos on YouTube. Instant messaging and voice over IP apps (Skype, WhatsApp, BBM, Facebook Messenger, etc) also consume data when in use.

Your phone could automatically consume data in the background even when you’re not actively using it. For example, your e-mail application will automatically check for messages during the day. Also, the weather widget on your home screen may update itself automatically by downloading the latest forecast over the internet. Your phone may also download application updates in the background. Hence, when choosing a data plan, you should always allow some extra for background data usage.

Rates of Data Consumption by App & Activity

The following table gives a rough guide on how different apps and activities contribute to data consumption:

Mobile Data - Messaging Basic E-mail or Instant Message (e.g. Gmail, WhatsApp)
0.003MB per message (3KB, no attachments)
Mobile Data - Rich Email Rich E-mail or Instant Message (with attachment)
0.5MB per message (500KB)
Mobile Data - Browsing Web Browsing (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, BBC, Daily Mail)
0.6MB per web page (600KB), approximately 35MB per hour of web surfing
Mobile Data - Music Downloading or Streaming Music (e.g. MP3 files, Spotify)
  5MB per song
Mobile Data - Apps Downloading or Updating Apps
  13MB per app
Mobile Data - Skype Voice Skype Voice Call
  35MB per hour
Mobile Data - Online Radio Listening to Online Radio
60MB per hour
Mobile Data - Skype Video Skype Video Call
240MB per hour
Mobile Data - Online Video Downloading or Streaming Online Video (e.g. YouTube, iPlayer)
500MB per hour

Table showing how different activities contribute to data consumption.

Assumptions Made. Web Browsing: The average mobile web page is 558KB (as of February 2014, rounded to 600KB in the table above). Apps: The average app is 13MB in size (based on a sample of the 20 most popular Android apps). Skype Voice Call: Our testing found a mobile voice call to consume 0.55MB/minute (70kbps). Skype Video Call: Our testing found a video call to use 4MB/minute (500kbps). Online Radio: Assumes a bitrate of 128kbps. Online Video: Data consumption is between 300MB and 700MB per hour (depends on the service and the quality of video). We’ve used an average of 500MB per hour.

Find Out Your Current Data Consumption

There are two ways of finding out how much data you’ve been using on your smartphone. The first way is by logging in to your mobile network’s website or app (this will give the most accurate measurement). The second option is using your smartphone operating system to measure data usage (slightly less accurate and only available on supported devices).

Log in to your mobile network’s website or app

In general, the most reliable figure for your current data consumption will come from your mobile network through their online customer interface:

For ease of access, you can also download an app from your network (this will add an icon to your phone’s home screen making it possible to view your allowances quickly).

Mobile Network Apps

Want to find out how much data you’re using on your current smartphone? Log in to your mobile network’s website or app.

Use the data monitor built in to your smartphone

The second way of measuring data consumption is through your smartphone’s built-in data monitor. The measurement is slightly less accurate than your mobile network’s measurement but the two figures should generally be similar. A key advantage of using your smartphone’s data monitor is you can see an app-by-app breakdown of how much data has been used.

  • iPhone. Providing your iPhone is running on iOS 7 or later, you can see a breakdown of data usage through the Settings > Cellular dialog. Note: Data usage figures are shown since you last reset the data counter on your phone. For most people, you’ll be shown the figures for all-time data usage.
  • Android (e.g. Samsung Galaxy, HTC One, Sony Xperia, Nexus & Moto). On Android-based handsets with Android 4.0 or newer, you can see data usage through Settings > Data usage. For a more accurate measurement, we recommend setting your data usage cycle to match the billing period associated with your tariff.
  • Windows Phone. On Windows Phone 8.1, the built-in Data Sense application will show you data usage for the past thirty days.
Data Usage Monitor

On iPhone, Android and Windows Phone handsets, you can monitor data use within the operating system.

Using these measurements when choosing a new contract

When choosing a new contract, it’s well worth taking some time to find out how much data you’re currently using on your old smartphone. If you’re using the measurements to choose a new contract, we strongly recommend allowing yourself some extra data. For instance, if you’re currently using around 1GB per month, we’d probably recommend choosing a 2GB tariff.

The reason for this is natural growth in data usage over time (the contract will need to last you another 24 months!). Over time, we expect data consumption to naturally increase by around 20% per year even without any change in usage. This is because web pages naturally grow in size and newer applications become increasingly data-hungry.

How To Reduce Your Data Consumption

If you’re running out of data, you can reduce your data consumption by following these tips:

Data transferred over wi-fi does not count towards your download limit.

Data transferred over wi-fi doesn’t count towards your mobile download limit.

  • Use Wi-Fi whenever you’re at home. Whenever you’re in range of a wi-fi internet connection, connecting to it will help to reduce your mobile data consumption. Data transferred over wi-fi will not be counted towards your mobile download allowance. This means you can save the mobile data for the times when you actually need it out-and-about. You can normally find free wi-fi internet at coffee shops and restaurants.
  • Avoid using bandwidth-intensive apps. If you’re not connected to a wi-fi network, refrain from using online music and video services. Applications such as Spotify, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Netflix will very quickly use up your download allowance. You should also avoid tethering and using voice-over-IP or file sharing applications.
  • Disable automatic application updates. Application updates can use up a large amount of your monthly download allowance. For instance, if you were to receive 10 application updates per month, this would use around 130MB of data. In the Google Play Store (Android only), press the menu button followed by Settings. For the “Auto-update apps” setting, we recommend choosing either “auto-update apps over Wi-Fi only” or “do not auto-update apps”.
  • Use bandwidth saving apps. Applications such as Onavo and Opera Mobile can reduce your data consumption. They do this by proxying your data through online compression servers (this is so less data can be transferred over the network).
  • Disable bandwidth-hungry apps. Using the data monitor that’s built-in to your smartphone, you can find the applications using a lot of data. Consider removing these bandwidth-heavy apps. Alternatively, you can restrict their ability to use background data. On the iPhone, change this setting through Settings > General > Background App Refresh. On Android, you can tick the box to ‘restrict background data’ in the data usage monitor.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does data transferred over wi-fi count towards the monthly download limit?

No: your mobile network operator only counts data transferred over the mobile network. If you’re using wi-fi, the data will bypass your mobile network entirely. As such, it won’t be counted towards your download allowance. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to use wi-fi when you’re at home or at work (it saves the allowance for when you’re actually out-and-about). Wi-fi will also give a more reliable experience when using data-intensive apps (e.g. online radio, Skype and online video). It also helps to reduce battery consumption (wi-fi uses less power than 3G and 4G).

How much data is used by tethering or portable wi-fi hotspot?

TetheringTethering or “portable wi-fi hotspot” refers to the process of sharing your phone’s mobile internet connection with other devices. It’s often used to connect devices such as a tablet or laptop to the internet on the go.

When tethering from your smartphone, any data consumed on your tablet or laptop will also count towards your mobile download limit. The figures given in the table above should still be broadly accurate (you simply need to add all of the content accessed from a tethered device). Do be aware however: tablets and laptops are often configured to use more data by default (e.g. laptops may use HD video by default whereas smartphones may use SD-quality video). You should also keep an eye out for automatic updates running on your PC: they can quickly use up large amounts of data. Consider disabling automatic updates before tethering from your phone.

To monitor data consumption on a tethered PC, we recommend using the free tbbMeter app (Windows only). For Mac and Linux computers, you can use the free BitMeter OS.

Does listening to radio count towards my download allowance?

Yes, but only if the radio station was received over the internet. If you’re listening to radio through an app or through the browser, it’s likely to have been received over the internet. Online radio apps which will consume data when you’re listening include iPlayer Radio, TuneIn Radio, Spotify and Google Play Music. A 1GB allowance will allow you to listen to approximately 16 hours of online radio.

iPlayer Radio

Online radio (e.g. BBC iPlayer Radio) will use your mobile data.

If you’d like to listen to the radio without using data, it’s often possible to tune in to FM radio. Unfortunately, many new smartphones lack support for a FM radio tuner.

  • Apple iPhone: FM radio isn’t supported on the iPhone. You’ll need to listen to online radio (this consumes data as mentioned above).
  • Samsung Galaxy: Some older Samsung handsets have a FM radio tuner (you’ll need the Galaxy S3 or earlier or the Galaxy Note 2 or earlier). On these devices, you can save data by listening to FM radio.
  • Nokia Lumia: Most Nokia Lumia smartphones have a FM radio tuner.
  • HTC One: All of HTC’s recent smartphones have built-in support for FM radio (includes the HTC One M7, the HTC One M8 and the HTC One M9).
  • Sony Xperia: Most Sony Xperia smartphones have a FM radio tuner (includes the Xperia Z, Xperia Z1, Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z3).

Can I use my download allowance abroad?

In general, your download allowance can only be used within the UK. If you’re using your smartphone abroad, there may be extra charges for connecting to the internet. Data roaming charges depend on the network as well as the country you’re visiting. To reduce the costs of using your smartphone abroad, consider taking advantage of one of the following deals:

Three Three Feel At Home – Use your smartphone abroad at no extra charge (Free)

Customers with a tariff on Three can use the Feel At Home offer abroad in 18 countries. This allows you to call, text and browse when abroad in another country at no extra charge. Countries that are currently part of the offer include the USA, Italy, France and the Republic of Ireland. From April 2015, Spain will also be included in the offer. For more information, please see the Three website. You can also read our review of the Feel At Home offer.

EE EE Euro Roaming Data Add-On – 100MB of Data in Europe (£3/day)

Within Europe, EE customers can use up to 100MB of data for £3/day. It’s available to customers on Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go: simply register for a Euro Roaming Data Add-On.

O2 O2 Travel – 50MB of Data in Europe (£1.99/day)

For an extra £1.99/day, O2 offers 50MB of data in Europe. The offer is available to both Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go customers. Simply opt in for the O2 Travel offer.

Vodafone Vodafone EuroTraveller & WorldTraveller – Use your allowances abroad (from £3/day)

With the EuroTraveller and WorldTraveller offers, customers on Vodafone can use their smartphone abroad for a fixed daily fee in 49 countries. EuroTraveller costs £3/day and currently covers 41 countries. WorldTraveller costs £5/day and covers 8 countries including the US and Australia. For more information, see the Vodafone website or read our full review.

More Information

For more information about the data plans available, please select the network you’d like to join:

Select a tariff for more information and to see which phones are available:
EE giffgaff O2 Three Vodafone

EE
(500MB – 20GB)

giffgaff
(250MB – Unlimited)

O2
(250MB – 20GB)

Three
(1GB – Unlimited)

Vodafone
(250MB – 20GB)

Other Popular Networks: iD Mobile (250MB – 10GB), Lycamobile (50MB – 5GB), TalkTalk Mobile (300MB – 4GB) Tesco Mobile (500MB – 8GB), The People’s Operator (50MB – 3GB)

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About Ken

Ken Lo

My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.

Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 363 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Ulysses Grant said:

    Hi Ken,

    Thank you for creating a website like this. It has indeed helped a lot of people. I have a question though. In April, will be travelling with my wife to London. I will definitely need a data plan for this trip. While I am from Canada, it is not feasible for me to roam my data. I noticed O2 has some good deal for a prepaid plan that has 4GB data. My friend suggested Vodafone prepaid. We will be travelling mostly around London and Edinburgh. Any suggestion on inexpensive plan but reliable signal? I am fine with spending around £20? Thank you again!

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Ulysses,
      Thanks for your comment and glad you found the website to be useful! You can see my in-depth guide on Pay As You Go bundle here. In short, I think most of the major networks should give you a suitable deal. I think coverage should also be fine across the major networks in London and Edinburgh, though if you want to double-check for the places where you’re staying, it might be worth trying some of the coverage checker tools here.
      Thanks,
      Ken

  2. SeanM said:

    Six months ago i moved from Vodafone to EE. Since then my data usage has gone up from 500Mb a month, to pretty much 5Gb a month. I use my phone for approx 45 mins / 1hr a day on the way to and from work. And maybe 1/2 an hour during the day whilst on lunch.

    I might stream, one 5 minute You Tube video a day, but other than that it’s very lightly used, browsing BBC, or a couple of other websites. I just can’t get my head around where all this extra usage is coming from. At home i’m on the Wi-Fi. My phone is set not to roam, photos only upload over WiFi etc etc I’m thinking maybe OneDrive might be the culprit.

    My phones internal counter pretty much tallies with what EE says, but nevertheless i’m completely bamboozled.

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Sean,
      Thanks for your comment. It is odd that your data usage has increased so much. Have you tried using your smartphone’s data usage monitor to find out which application has been consuming all the data? Once you’ve done that, you should be able to take action accordingly (e.g. by uninstalling the app or by changing your settings).
      Ken

  3. Peter Evans said:

    I’m in southwest France and have just signed up to Free.fr’s new mobile plan. As far as data is concerned, for 19.99 euro a month (about £14) I get a 50 Gb (or Gio as Free call it) allowance. Beyond that, my broadband will be throttled. As I live in the middle of nowhere and copper wire has been giving me only around 750 Kbps, this new plan has been a godsend and I am using the SIM in a Netgear AC785 Aircard which is docked into Netgear DC113A docking station with the latter connected via an Ethernet cable to a TP-Link wi-fi access point. So I now have apx. 70 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload whci is somewhat better than 750 Kbps!

    The Aircard has recorded data usage of 19.5 Gb over a period of 15 days, which seems about right to me as I downloaded a 5Gb TomTom map to my phone via this Hotspot, and also a 5Gb update to my TomTom Go during this period. However, according to my account at Free Mobile (which shows me an always up to date record of phone, SMS, MMS and data consumption), I’ve used only 7.36 Gb and have almost 43 Gb left for use over the next 15 days.

    How can this be? Do you think I’m just lucky and that Free are not counting the data usage properly? Or is there something I’m missing in the technicalities somewhere?

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Peter,
      Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you’re getting a really good deal from Free in France! There are only three things I’m able to think of:
      1) It might be possible there’s a delay in accounting for your data usage (sometimes it will take a while to show up on your account).
      2) Your billing period might have reset in this time.
      3) You might be using some compression software which reduces the amount of data sent over the network.
      Apart from that, I’m not really sure why the data is being accounted for like this!
      Ken

      1. Peter Evans replied:

        OK, thanks. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed and wait and see what happens at the end of this billing period in two weeks time!

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