What does “unlimited” really mean? Mobile fair usage allowances

February 9th, 2010

What does unlimited mean? According to the dictionary definition: “having no restrictions or control” or “having or seeming to have no boundaries”. Unfortunately in the world of mobile phones and mobile internet, it’s not so simple. Networks impose fair usage policies on “unlimited” tariffs. In this article, we’ve dug through the small print to find out what “unlimited” really means on each of the networks.

What is a fair usage policy?

All the major mobile networks have an acceptable fair use policy. These policies give them the right to terminate your contract or tariff if they believe you are utilising too many network resources (i.e. sending too much texts or downloading too much). The networks have recently moved towards greater transparency by setting explicit limits on usage but these limits are often hidden in the small print. Furthermore, these tariffs continue to be advertised as “unlimited” when they are not.

What are the fair usage policies?

Note that this is intended only as a general guide. You should double-check the usage limits on your specific tariff as usage limits often differ between tariffs on the same network.

If you’re looking to find out about fair usage policies (download limits, restrictions on use, etc.) on unlimited internet, see our new article.

three3 (Three)

What they say What they mean
Unlimited internet 500 MB per month
Unlimited Windows Live Messenger 10,000 Windows Live messages per month
Unlimited Skype 5,000 Skype messages per month

Source: 3 Terms and Conditions

Tariff information: 3 Store

o2O2

What they say What they mean
Unlimited texts (Text and Web) 12,000 texts per month
Unlimited internet (Pay Monthly, from June 2010) From 500MB per month
Unlimited internet (Text and Web) 500MB per month
Unlimited internet (Web Bolt On) 200MB per month

Source: O2 Terms and Conditions

Tariff information: O2 Shop

orangeOrange

What they say What they mean
Unlimited texts 3,000 texts per month
Unlimited internet (Panther) 750MB per month
Unlimited landline minutes 3,000 minutes per month
Unlimited email 500MB per month
Unlimited music (PAYG) 600 minutes per month

Source: Orange Pay Monthly Terms, Orange PAYG Terms, Orange Pay Monthly (Panther) Terms

Tariff information: Orange Shop

tmobileT-Mobile

What they say What they mean
Unlimited internet (Pay Monthly) 1GB per month
Unlimited internet (Pay Monthly; Android phone) 3GB per month
Unlimited internet (Pay As You Go) 40MB per day
Unlimited texts (Pay As You Go) Texts to a maximum of 200 different numbers per month
Unlimited Blackberry email 50MB of Blackberry email per month
Unlimited music (PAYG) 600 minutes per month

Source: T-Mobile Fair Use Policy

Tariff information: T-Mobile website

vodafoneVodafone

What they say What they mean
Unlimited texts (Text Unlimited; Pay As You Go) 3,000 texts per month

Source: Vodafone Text Unlimited Terms and Conditions

Tariff information: Vodafone Store

Virgin Mobile virgin

What they say What they mean
Unlimited texts 3,000 texts per month
Unlimited Virgin minutes 3,000 minutes to Virgin Mobile customers per month
Unlimited landline minutes 9,000 minutes to landline numbers per quarter
Unlimited landline & other mobile minutes 3,000 minutes per month
Unlimited internet (Pay Monthly) 1GB per month
Unlimited internet (30p/day; Pay As You Go) 25MB per day
Unlimited Windows Live Messenger 10,000 Windows Live messages per month
Unlimited Blackberry emails 25MB of Blackberry emails per month

Source: Virgin Mobile Fair Usage Policy

Tariff information: Virgin Mobile

    

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About Ken

Ken Lo

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+.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 38 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Mica said:

    You definitely need to update Three’s tariffs, they are fully unlimited now. Also Skype messages and windows live messages don’t even exist anymore!

  2. moira said:

    Just had a text from t.mobile i have reached my limit even though my contract says unlimited can i carry on playing my games eg.bakery story ect

  3. Josh said:

    Ken, could you please find out on Talkmobile? It's pretty new… Going to get a good contract with 'unlimited text'…

  4. @infoatwc said:

    So tell me as a lot of this information is not current. Is 3's – "the one plan" still the best value for money offering, which include Free tethering? Thinking of waiting for Jelly Bean on a Samsung Galaxy S III and am a little confused as to what is meant by 'Unlimited'.

    Any comments appreciated!

  5. Mark mccallionM said:

    Three are the best network to go with is three on "the one plan"
    2000 texts
    5000 calls to anyone on 3
    5000 texts
    Unlimited net (massive 100G) fair use policy
    Free tethering
    (bbm included on blackberrys)

    Prices for this plan start at £25 p/m with no upfront cost including free phones!!!

  6. laura foofoo said:

    this is blumming brilliant i found some amazing things off kevin and me and my mates know how many texts we can get and why we always run out <3 thanks very mutch :)

  7. Scott said:

    I'm looking at a T-mobile business contract that offers 2000 mins, 500 text and "unlimited intertnet" on Android 2.3 (galaxy note). The t-mobile fair use policy published here suggests 500MB limit outwith "email and browsing".

    1) the table for t-mobile above suggests andrioid limit is 3GB . How did you arrive at this ?

    2) my contact £40 per month suggest 1GB http://www.t-mobile.co.uk/shop/business/mobile-tariffs/ see £40 + 24 month.
    fair usage policy only mentions 500MB however, dispite my 1Gb contract selection.

    3) What is meant by email and browsing ? do the filter by protocol / port for example. Meaning:
    unlimited for smtp (25) , pop3 (110) , http (80), https (443) normally

    and everything else is restricted to 500MB ?

    (they probably use application filtering , deep packet inspection to quantife traffic rather than port thinking about it) … but ether way the question still needs to be answered.

    Thank you.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Scott,

      Sorry this article is a bit out of date (it was published in Feb 2010) – since then T-Mobile have stopped advertising their internet as unlimited. As you say, the download limit is now 500MB. For people with old T-Mobile contracts which were advertised as "unlimited", the download allowance will be 1GB or 3GB if you bought it with an Android handset.

      Best regards,

      Ken

  8. Wrighty said:

    So are t-mobile are the only true unlimited-unlimited network then?? :/ I was with O2 and the 12,000 was more than enough but once they decreased it to 3,000 I started to go over :(

  9. melissa said:

    Hi does anyone know of the tariff on o2 when you top-up £10.00 you get 300 texts and “unlimited” internet and still have your creidt??

    Please let me know if found out :)

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Melissa,

      It's called "O2 Text and Web". You can see more information on it here.

      Ken

  10. gary said:

    i recently got the text from 02 telling me i had used all my unlimited texts, i usually do around 7k texts a month (text happy girlfriend) , i recieved no message that this was gonna be reduced, can they do this, currently on hold to them now gonna kick up a stink, does any other network provide proper unlimited pay as u go texts for ten quid

  11. Stephen said:

    O2 have recently changed their “Unlimited Texts” on all their Pay As You Go (PAYG) tariff’s, Where this use to be 12,000 this has now been reduced to under 3000 per month.

    I spoke to customer services from this conversation it turns out that a minority of people have been using the full 12,000 texts “allegedly” fraudulently, by not actually paying for the service. O2 have therefore taken the decision to cap the number of texts sent on all PAYG where an “Unlimited” number applies.

    If you are in this position, ring O2 and get them to add “Happy Hour” where you can get an additional 60 texts per day between (I think) 19:00 and 20:00 for no extra charge.

  12. zeshan said:

    What is the fair use policy for Skype on Three?
    There are no limits for Pay Monthly or Pay As You Go. You can make unlimited Skype-to-Skype calls and send an unlimited number of Skype instant messages.

    Source: Three Website

    Your info is wrong!

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi zeshan,

      Thanks for your comment – the fair usage policy has changed since the article was originally published in 2010. Originally Skype usage came with a fair usage of 5,000 messages per month. The Windows Live Messenger fair usage has also been removed according to the Three website.

      Ken

  13. kieran said:

    what is the fair use policy for Tesco 'unlimited'

    1. tyler replied:

      3000 texts :)

      1. Chris Spreckley replied:

        Surely that's enough texts for any one; isn't it?
        But what of the rest of the data and the phone calls.
        My bundle states:
        500 minutes of free calls
        Unlimited texts
        Unlimited Data. But now on the penultimate day of my monthly bill I received a message "You are reaching the limit of your Fair Usage of data. Usage in excess of this will be charged.

        Under anybodies diagnosis no matter how biased you might be UNLIMITED Means No Boundaries in fact NO LIMIT.

        Cheers,
        Chris Spreckley, M/Cr.

  14. Alikat said:

    Like do the unlimted minutes like go to ur plan as minutes but dont Cost???? For T-moblie

  15. james snapr said:

    3 MOBILE DO NOT USE THE TERM "UNLIMITED" its all you can eat!! there for there is no fair usage policy on it as it is actually as much as you want to use

  16. looser said:

    IMHO let them fack u and then let the try FACK u in court, they wont take you into court as their ad's dont redifine the meaning of the word "UNLIMITED" and they know they will loose hands down. I would and do encourage them to take me to court for not paying the stupidly high costs for a per mb over the so called fair usage as this cant be justified in a court of law. Do your research into what the average vid dl mb is for youtube etc and the "FACT" that your mobile is attached to you 24 hours a day so could be more utilised than a home pc which costs max £10 per month for true unlimited internet. As I said they will loose the case hands down, its just sad most judges are out of sync with new tech that you have to take it to that lvl to make them realise the mobile comps are running a racket on 0 and 1.

  17. looser said:

    Lets not be retards about this, it is pimped as unlimited and then you get a bill for 0.0 + x, e.g not unlimited call it fair usage or whatever. If fair usage is 500mb then its a 500mb plan simple, not a maybe you wont use this so we will call it infinate/unlimited. Or maybe free car, if you drive it more than once a year you pay for the thing. Sad thing is people who say yeah call it unlimited dont know diddy about how the net works and that one website could give you 50mb usage in a short time.

  18. LEM said:

    i had the exact same problem with orange, when i rang them to ask why my phone bill for this month was so high, they said you have gone over on your allowance for your data usage. i said i thought i had unlimited internet? and the man replied "you do have unlimted internet upto 500mb" so i said so i DONT have unlimited internet? and he insisted that it was the same thing. i then spolke to lady who made more sense who told me unlimited internet, with fair usage policy means that you have an allowance of 500mb per month and once you exceed that, you have a certain number of mb you can use in ONE day before it starts to charge you. i just cant remember what the number was. so for example if that number was 10mb. if you use 500mb of internet up. you then have 10mb per day. and if you exceed that in any one day it is ONLY then that you will get charged. and it will reset itself everyday. i still didnt think it was right that this is not explained to customers BEFORE they have a high phone bill. ALSO if you have an android phone, be careful of apps that use internet in the background and this can cause you to incur data charges as i have learnt. and im not happy at all!!!!

  19. mark said:

    had the same problem with 3 .. i was sold the contract over the phone and thought the unlimited internet was….unlimited .. so phoned up 3
    they said that from now on they are going to say how much internet there is instaed of using the word unlimited…..and changed my usage from 500mb to 2.5gb
    so there is hope just keep at them :)

  20. grahame30 said:

    well guys i dont bother with contract phones to much hassel ! but im with three and it works for me nicely becouse
    i text and surf the net not a talker.
    they give me when i put £10 on 150mb data / 5000 3-3 mins 300 text but 600 if i top up via my mastercard 5000 skype mins 10000 skype texts 10000 msm messages..
    now this lasts for three months knowbody else gives that kind of deal !
    but i use a truk load of data so each month i get a internet add on for £5 that gives me 2gb FAIR USE POICY ! im on my iphone watching tv on the train or listen to the radio on line without ever running out of data.
    but the morral of the storey is if you seek out deals from operators look at the base costs and add extras you think you will use then you will know how much you will use per month for me thats around £6.50 per month and there is no way in a miilion years you would get that kind of deal with a contract !
    if talking is a big issue the get a talk add on for £5 thats 100 cross network mins if i wanted that as well £11.50 pm still quids in !
    you still could not get a better deal on contract and you pepole are supposed to be high yeild customers and treated like gods and pay as you go customers are the lowest of the low ! i know witch id rather be !

    1. grahame30 replied:

      just out of intrest a work friend of mine has been with 02 for some time and has allways enjoyed truely unlimited internet
      but when his contract ends in october he will only get 750mb data and he is on one of the highest plans so much for customer loyalty .
      he has now told me he is off to thee .
      i have an iphone 3gs he has iphone 4 and we did a speedtest of how fast o2 and three provide data well 02 very poor and three im happy to say wiped the floor with o2 TURBO POWER AS THE AD SAYS !

  21. Ilkay said:

    I've recently signed up to 3 as well. It is a big dissappointment. What they do is cheating. "unlimited" internet with limits and there is no * sign anywhere.
    I signed up to 3 and two weeks later they sent me a message which says "you nearly reached your fair use allowance". I ve called costumer service and what they told me "dont worry your fair use allowance is 500 mgb and you still have 275 mgb". Than, I have read the terms and condition it says, we will send you message when you reached your 400 mgb allowance.And costumer service offerd me for this time free add on and they say if I like it I can contunieu with addon. I was really angry and I just hung up the phone. And 2 days later of my conversation with cs they sent me the same message.
    Yes Olajide we need to do something.. People are not stupid as they think.

    1. scrappy replied:

      my friend jerry just got a letter (ups)from century link in forming him that he was using too many minutes on his,unlimited land line,and treatend to termanate his service in 10 days if its not resolved,this is kinda different from your artical but the same,whats really going on?

  22. Olajide said:

    I recent return to get a mobile phne that says Unlimited web I guess am new as the word unlimited means use as u choose, I believe we mobile phone user need to take all this mobile phone companies to court as they have the money to improve their infrastructures, which they don’t want to do so they complain again slow data. if a company cannot provide a service they need not give FALSE information to there clients.
    We all mobile phone users need to sue the companies as the next thing they will do is tell us which site we can visit if nothing is done now.

  23. John said:

    I’ve recently signed up to 3 and asked for a price plan over the phone which included unlimited internet. On day one of having the phone I managed to use my entire months allowance 500mb (which is not exactly unlimited) without really being on the internet much. I’ve had to switch off my internet access to avoid a £1000+ bill for my first month.

    Strangely enough I have to buy an extra unlimited addon to up my fair usage to 2Gb. Makes a mockery of the word “unlimited”.

  24. Dave said:

    O2 have different limits on their iPhone contracts to the rest of us mortals.

    Is an unpublished policy enforceable as you are unable to agree to it?

  25. O2 said:

    O2 infomation you have is wrong, im on a 18month contract £35 month unlimited internet is not capped, on my iphone 3g iv used 20gb of data in 1 month, never had a problem with o2, i download alot of movies form itune and also use my jailbroken iphone as a modem..

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi,

      You are totally right in saying that there is no explicit fair usage limit for mobile contracts with “unlimited” internet. The limits refer to the PAYG Text and Web tariff and Web Bolt On. I am surprised that you haven’t received an angry phone call from O2 having used 20GB of data or tethering though…

      Ken

  26. andrew said:

    May I ask what is the allowance on calls for O2 unlimited? Thanks a lot =D

    1. James replied:

      200Hrs

  27. Ken Lo
    Ken said:

    There’s a post about fair usage on unlimited internet packages over at:
    http://cow.neondragon.net/index.php/how-unlimited-is-your-unlimited-mobile-internet

  28. Marco said:

    The ASA is clearly in the side of these mobile companies despite having recognized that the use of the word “Unlimited” is a misleading advertise, when there is a clear limitation in the use of internet named “Fair Usage Policy” I still wondering why use the word unlimited and no for example “free internet access”….oh I know why they would fail to cheat costumers and see their business going in bankrupt

  29. Ken Lo
    Ken said:

    For anyone interested, see an adjudication from the Advertising Standards Authority which discusses Vodafone’s claim of 500MB/month as unlimited:

    http://www.asa.org.uk/Complaints-and-ASA-action/Adjudications/2009/12/Vodafone-Ltd/TF_ADJ_47835.aspx

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