What does 500MB or 1GB internet actually mean? Explaining mobile data limits
February 13th, 2013
Most mobile phone contracts come with a limit on your internet usage. But what do terms such as 500MB or 1GB limits actually mean in the real world?
When using a smartphone, you’ll normally need a smartphone tariff to get online. This is a tariff that has an “inclusive data allowance”.
Almost all of the functionality on a modern smartphone requires an internet connection to work properly. For example, you’ll need data when browsing the web, sending e-mails, watching YouTube videos, updating Facebook and Twitter, making Skype calls and navigating using maps. All of these activities consume different amounts of data.
All of the mobile phone networks have a range of tariffs with different data limits. Typically you’ll get 500MB or 1GB each month but it really depends on the tariff that you choose. Some tariffs offer all-you-can-eat data with no download limits whereas other tariffs offer download allowances as low as 100MB per month.
There’s a great deal of confusion about what figures such as 500MB and 1GB actually mean in the real world. In this article, we want to reduce the confusion. We’ll outline exactly what you can do with your download allowance, how you can avoid going over your download limit and how to decide how much data you need.
How much data is included on my mobile contract?
The standard data allowance in the industry is 500MB per month. This is the amount included on most mobile phone tariffs. As a notable exception, Three offers unlimited internet as standard on The One Plan (from £25/month) and on their Ultimate Internet plans (from £13/month). As there are no download limits, there is no need to worry about the risk of incurring extra data charges. Unlimited internet is also offered on T-Mobile’s Full Monty plan (from £17/month) and giffgaff’s goodybags (SIM only, from £12/month).
On the other end of the scale, there are many entry-level plans with just 100MB or 250MB of internet each month. These plans are suitable only for light users.
Please select your chosen tariff to view more information on the inclusive data allowance and what it corresponds to:
For Pay Monthly tariffs, download allowances are as follows:
|Network||Typical Download Allowance||Other Tariffs|
|3 (Three)||The One Plan: No download limit (more info)
Ultimate Internet: No download limit (more info)
|Essential Internet: 250MB|
|EE||500MB||4G tariffs: Up to 20GB|
|giffgaff||1GB||£7.50 Goodybag: 250MB
£10 Goodybag: 1GB
£12+ Goodybags: Unlimited
Gigabags: 500MB, 1GB or 3GB
|O2||1GB||O2 Refresh: Between 1GB and 4GB
O2 Refresh 4G: Between 1GB and 8GB
Other Plans: 100MB – 500MB
|Orange||500MB||Pay Monthly Plans: Between 250MB and 5GB|
|Tesco Mobile||500MB||Selected Tariffs: Up to 3GB|
|T-Mobile||1GB||Unlimited Plans: Unlimited|
|Vodafone||1GB||Vodafone Red: 1GB, 2GB or 4GB
Vodafone Red 4G: 2GB, 4GB or 8GB
Please note that these are the typical download limits found on tariffs available today. If you’re on an older tariff which is no longer available, there may be a different download allowance or fair usage policy.
For more information on the download allowance included with your specific tariff, consult your mobile network’s webpage: 3 (Three), EE, giffgaff, O2, Orange, Tesco Mobile, T-Mobile or Vodafone. Alternatively, use the form above to select your network and tariff.
What is the relationship between KB, MB and GB?
There are 1,000 kilobytes (KB) in 1 megabyte (MB) and 1,000 megabytes in 1 gigabyte (GB).
This means that if you see a tariff advertising a 1GB limit (1000MB), you can download twice as much every month as on a tariff advertising a 500MB limit.
You may occasional come across terms such as terabyte and mebibyte. These terms are rarely used in the mobile industry but Wikipedia has a good explanation in case you ever come across them.
What activities will count towards my download limit?
Most activities on a modern smartphone will consume data – the main exceptions being making a phone call and sending a text message.
Activities that consume data include: browsing the web, reading and sending e-mails, browsing Facebook and Twitter, sharing photos, updating your status, downloading applications, downloading music, listening to online radio and watching videos on YouTube. Instant messaging and voice over IP (VoIP) applications such as Skype, BlackBerry Messenger, WhatsApp, ChatON and Facebook Messenger also consume data when in use.
Your phone will consume data in the background even when you’re not using it. For example, the weather widget on your home screen will update itself periodically by download the latest forecast from the internet. Your e-mail application will check for new messages in the background. Your phone could also be downloading application updates automatically.
Is 500MB enough for day-to-day use?
Yes. In general, 500MB should be enough for day-to-day use. This is providing that you do not use your smartphone for data-intensive things such as:
- downloading music or listening to online radio
e.g. using apps such as Spotify or Last.fm
- streaming or downloading video
e.g. using apps such as YouTube, TVCatchup, BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Sky Go and Ustream
- tethering your phone to a computer
e.g. using your phone’s 3G connection as mobile broadband for your PC
- using P2P applications
e.g. using BitTorrent applications
- using voice-over-IP applications
e.g. using apps such as Skype, FaceTime, Google Talk and Hangouts
A typical smartphone user in the UK will consume around 10MB of data per day. This is equivalent to 300MB per month. For this reason, a 500MB plan should be suitable for most consumers and will give you an adequate buffer against additional data consumption. On a 500MB plan, it is recommended to connect your smartphone to your home wi-fi network when possible. This will significantly reduce your data consumption and keep it below 500MB.
For power users, data consumption can be substantially higher than 500MB. In fact, it’s not uncommon to use more than 1GB of data each month – particularly if you use your smartphone for data-intensive activities such as those listed above. If you’re likely to fall into this “power user” group, we recommend unlimited internet plans such as The One Plan and Ultimate Internet from Three. T-Mobile’s The Full Monty and giffgaff’s goodybags (from £12/month) are also a good bet. These tariffs allow worry-free smartphone usage: you can happily use the full functionality of your phone without the worry of download limits and extra charges.
What do 500MB and 1GB actually correspond to in real life usage? For example, how many web pages, emails or videos is this?
It’s hard to give an exact figure – for example every web page differs in size depending on the amount of text, images and other multimedia content within it. Also, whilst most e-mail messages are small in size, they can also be fairly large if they include attachments such as photos. In the following table, we’ve taken “typical” values as provided by O2:
|500MB corresponds to…||1GB corresponds to…|
|Basic webpages (mainly text)||5,000||10,000|
|Rich webpages (with multimedia, e.g. BBC)||1,500||3,000|
|Rich e-mails (with attachments)||1,000||2,000|
|Downloading/streaming music||100 songs||200 songs|
|Downloading/streaming video||1 hour||2 hours|
|Skype voice call||15 hours||30 hours|
|Skype video call||2 hours||4 hours|
|Listening to online radio||8 hours||16 hours|
|Downloading/updating apps||80 apps||160 apps|
Source of estimates: O2 [1, 2]. Our testing found a Skype mobile voice call consumes around 0.55MB/minute (70kbps). Skype video call uses 4MB/minute (500kbps). Online radio calculation assumes 128kbps bitrate. Average size of app is 6.1MB (based on a sample of the top 20 Android apps).
Note that we’ve listed what 500MB and 1GB correspond to: this is not a shopping list of what you can download with a 500MB allowance. In other words, viewing 5000 web pages, watching 1 hour of video or downloading 80 apps would use up the entirety of a 500MB allowance (a 500MB allowance does not allow you to do both in the same month). Realistically, you’ll do a bit of everything in a month and so each activity would contribute towards your data usage.
To see the download limits for your chosen tariff and what they correspond to, please select your chosen tariff:
Where can I get a smartphone tariff and how much data would it come with?
All of the major networks offer tariffs which are suitable for use with a smartphone. You can either choose a tariff which comes with a smartphone or you could choose an airtime-only tariff (a SIM-only tariff).
|Select a tariff for more information and to see which phones are available:|
|Other Popular Networks: giffgaff (250MB – Unlimited), Talkmobile (100MB – 1GB), Tesco Mobile (100MB – 3GB)|
For a comparison of SIM-only smartphone tariffs see our guide to the best value SIM-only tariffs.
What are the charges for exceeding the monthly download limit?
If you’re approaching your monthly download limit, you’ll normally be informed in a text message from your operator. To continue using the internet, you may need to pay some additional charges:
- Three: No charges on The One Plan and Ultimate Internet. For Essential Internet: £2 for an additional 250MB or £5 to upgrade to “all-you-can-eat” for the month (see Three website).
- EE: £6 for additional 500MB or £15 for additional 2GB (see EE website).
- giffgaff: 2p per additional 1MB (with a goodybag/gigabag, otherwise 20p per 1MB).
- O2: £5.11 for additional 500MB or £10.21 for additional 1GB of data (see O2 website).
- Orange: £5 for each 250MB, up to £20 for 1GB. An additional £20 is charged if you’re more than 1GB over the limit. Charges are capped at £40 per month for 2GB. If you’re under 24, you can get an extra 1GB data for free.
- T-Mobile: £1/day once your data limit has been reached.
- Vodafone: £5 for each 250MB. Alternatively, £10 for 2GB with Vodafone Boost add-on.
I’m worried about incurring extra charges for exceeding my download limit. Are there any tariffs with no download limits?
Yes. If you enjoy downloading apps, listening to music, watching videos and browsing the web, consider opting for a tariff with no download limits. Often, an unlimited data tariff will cost little more than a standard 500MB tariff. This frees you up from worries around download limits.
The most well-known unlimited internet tariff is Three’s The One Plan. It has no download limits: as such you’ll be able to use your smartphone to your heart’s content without any worries. The One Plan features all-you-can-eat data and additionally allows you to tether to a tablet, iPod or PC. This means you essentially get free mobile broadband too: all of your devices can go online without limits. It’s available from £25/month as a traditional mobile phone contract (with a new phone) or as a SIM-only contract (without a new phone). You’ll also get a monthly allowance of 2000 minutes, 5000 Three-to-Three minutes and 5000 texts.
- Apple iPhone 5s with no download limits - £41/month on The One Plan (£99 upfront charge)
- Samsung Galaxy S4 with no download limits - £37/month on The One Plan (£49 upfront charge)
- Apple iPhone 4S with no download limits - £35/month on The One Plan
- Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini with no download limits - £29/month on The One Plan
- £15/month SIM Card with no download limits (12 month contract)
- £18/month SIM Card with no download limits (1 month contract)
Aside from The One Plan, you could also consider the following tariffs for unlimited internet:
- Three’s Ultimate Internet: Unlimited internet from £13/month. No tethering (only permitted on The One Plan).
- T-Mobile’s The Full Monty: Unlimited internet from £17/month. Speeds are capped at 4Mbit/s down and 1Mbit/s up. Also no tethering.
- giffgaff’s Goodybags: Unlimited internet from £12/month. SIM only and no tethering.
Do I need to pay more for unlimited internet?
No, not necessarily. Unlimited internet offerings are often comparable in price to those with download limits. For example, take the 16GB iPhone 5s:
|Network||Allowance||iPhone 5s Price|
|Three||500 minutes, 5000 texts & unlimited internet||£99 plus £37/month|
|EE||Unlimited calls, unlimited texts & 2GB internet||£119.99 plus £40/month|
|O2||Unlimited calls, unlimited texts & 1GB internet||£49.99 plus £42/month|
|Orange||Unlimited calls, unlimited texts & 1GB internet||£119.99 plus £38/month|
|T-Mobile||500 minutes, unlimited texts & unlimited internet||£139.99 plus £38/month|
|Vodafone||Unlimited calls, unlimited texts & 1GB internet||£79 plus £42/month|
Does listening to radio count towards my download allowance?
Yes, but only if the audio stream was transmitted over the phone’s data connection. If you’re listening to music through an application or through the web browser, it’ll have been transferred over a data connection and will therefore count towards your download limit. Meanwhile, if you’re listening to radio via a FM broadcast, it won’t count towards your download limit.
The iPhone does not have a FM radio tuner. This means that if you’re listening to radio on the iPhone, you’re consuming data. This will count towards your download limit with 8 hours of radio consuming 500MB of data.
How do I find out how much data I currently use?
The most reliable indicator of data consumption is the statistics reported by your mobile network. You can usually find these statistics by logging in on your mobile network’s website:
Your mobile operator may also provide an official application. This will usually have the same information.
As an alternative, many smartphones also keep track of your data consumption. iPhone users can find their data usage stats under Settings > General > Usage whereas Android users can navigate to Settings > Data Usage (you’ll need Android 4.0 or later). If you’ve got an older version of Android, try the free 3G Watchdog application instead.
If you’re buying a new phone, your current data consumption may not be a good indicator of how much data you’ll use on your new phone. Newer smartphones tend to use more data than older feature phones. You should keep this in mind and refer to the above statistics when purchasing your new smartphone.
How can I reduce my data consumption?
If you’ve received a notification message to say that you’re approaching your download limit, you can restrict your data consumption by following these tips:
Use Wi-Fi when you’re at home. Whenever you’re at home, connect to your wi-fi network. This will route your data through a home broadband connection allowing you to save your precious download allowance for when you’re out and about. You can also use wi-fi hotspots at local coffee shops and restaurants.
- Refrain from using bandwidth-intensive apps. If you’re not connected to a wi-fi network, refrain from streaming music or video content from the internet. Applications such as Spotify, iPlayer, YouTube and TV Catchup will eat up your download allowance very quickly. You should also avoid tethering and using voice-over-IP or P2p applications.
- Disable automatic application updates. Application updates can use up a large proportion of your monthly download allowance. If you receive 10 application updates per month, this would be equivalent to about 60MB data usage. Within Google Play (Android), press the menu button and select the Settings menu item. Uncheck the box for “Auto-update apps”. To further restrict data consumption, you can also tick the box for “Update over Wi-Fi only”.
- Use bandwidth saving apps. Applications such as Onavo and Opera Mobile can reduce your data consumption. This is achieved by compressing data before it is transferred to you.
- Disable bandwidth-hungry apps. On Android, it’s possible to see how much data each app is consuming. To do this, navigate to Settings > Data Usage. Consider uninstalling bandwidth-heavy applications or restricting their ability to use background data.
How much data do I need when tethering?
Tethering means sharing your phone’s 3G connection with other devices such as a tablet, laptop, iPod or Kindle e-book reader. It’s essentially a mobile broadband service that is routed through your phone.
Data usage tends to be much higher if you’re tethering to a PC or laptop. Although the figures in the table above are still accurate when tethering, we wouldn’t recommend tethering unless you have a large download allowance (at least 1GB per month). People tend to consume data much more quickly when they’re using a laptop. For example, you’re likely to view a larger number of web pages and you’re more likely to use data-intensive apps such as online radio, video, photo-sharing and Skype calling. Automatic updates can also use a large amount of data.
For laptop PCs running Windows, consider using the tbbMeter application to monitor your data consumption. You should also consider disabling automatic software updates as this can consume a large amount of data very quickly.
Can I use my download allowance abroad?
No. Your inclusive download allowance can only be used within the UK. If you’re travelling within Europe, you can get 25MB of data for £2/day. Outside of Europe, you’ll normally pay around £6 per megabyte when using the internet. See our in-depth guide to using your phone abroad for more information.
Does data transferred over a wi-fi network count towards the download limit?
No. Data transferred over a wi-fi network does not pass through your mobile operator and will not be counted towards your monthly download limit. We recommend connecting to a wi-fi network whenever you’re using a bandwidth-intensive application (e.g. listening to online radio, making calls over Skype and watching TV online). You should also use wi-fi when you’re abroad.
Note that your home broadband connection may have it’s own download limit. If this is the case, consider whether wi-fi usage on your smartphone could affect this. As the majority of home broadband connections have download limits of 10GB or more each month, it’s likely that using wi-fi is still a good option.
|Select a tariff for more information and to see which phones are available:|
|Other Popular Networks: giffgaff (250MB – Unlimited), Talkmobile (100MB – 1GB), Tesco Mobile (100MB – 3GB)|
I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.
Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.