Data allowance is now the most important part of a phone contract. Phone calls and texts have taken a back seat to Facebook Messenger, TikTok and WhatsApp, while web browsing, streaming and even working from our phones is something we’re doing more and more of.
As such, it’s vital that you have enough monthly data. But you also don’t want to be paying for unused data, which many people do.
To help you get a handle on how much you might need we’ve covered all the common data-devouring activities, with information on how many precious megabytes they use.
What are MB and GB?
Throughout this article we’ll be referring to data primarily in MB (megabytes) and GB (gigabytes). A megabyte is 1,024 kilobytes (KB) or 1,000,000 bytes. A gigabyte is 1,024 megabytes.
It’s rarely useful to talk about data in smaller units than megabytes, as even the lowest data allowances are usually hundreds of megabytes, with the majority of allowances being multiple gigabytes.
Although not referred to in this article, be aware that there are also megabits (Mb) and Gigabits (Gb). These sizes are tiny, with there being eight Mb in one MB, but it’s worth being aware therefore that a Mb is very different to a MB.
How much mobile data does the average person use?
The average person used 5.6GB of data per month in 2021, according to Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2022. That’s a 24% increase on the 4.5GB used per month in 2020, which in turns is a 27% increase on the 3.6GB used per month in 2019. Data use has steadily increased every year included in the reports too – with the stats going back to 2013.
The study doesn’t include figures for 2022, but with the growing availability of 5G and the ever-increasing data demands of modern applications, we’d expect data use will be continuing to grow rapidly.
Indeed, Three for its part claims that its customers used 21.3GB of data on average in June 2022. Three’s customers tend to use more data than those on other networks, so this won’t be representative of the wider industry, but that is a 24% year-over-year increase.
Sample data plans and usage
In this section we’ll give you an idea of what you can do overall with popular monthly data allowances available on UK mobile networks. Note that in all cases the figures we give are only estimates, and will vary based on the app/service you’re using or the quality settings when streaming.
How much is 1GB of data?
1GB (or 1000MB) is about the minimum data allowance you’re likely to want, as with that you could browse the web and check email for up to around 40 minutes per day. That’s still not much, but should be fine for lighter users. That said, social media apps can use quite a lot more, with just 20 minutes of Facebook use a day potentially using up a 1GB data allowance, based on figures from Wirefly.
Music is viable too – using Spotify’s normal quality setting you’ll use around 45MB per hour, meaning you could stream for up to around 22 hours per month, or for up to around 35 minutes a day on average. That’s fine for a short daily commute, but only if you’re not using your phone for other types of data.
And for the highest quality streams you can expect to use at least three times as much data as that, so this certainly won’t be enough for audiophiles.
Video isn’t much of an option for anyone, with a couple of films likely to kill your allowance, depending on the quality you stream in. On Netflix for example, data use ranges from around 1GB of data every 6 hours for low quality to 3GB or more every 1 hour for high quality, and some services will use more.
1GB data sample monthly usage:
- 40 minutes daily of web browsing
- Or 20 minutes daily of social media apps
- Or 22 hours per month of music
- Or 1-2 films per month (low or medium quality)
How much is 2GB of data?
2GB of data (or 2000MB) a month is a plan aimed at those who don’t use mobile data often, but is enough to browse the web for around 80 minutes a day, or use social media apps for at least around 40 minutes per day. However, it is not suitable for those who stream lots of movies, or want to watch a lot of other videos.
2GB data sample monthly usage:
- 80 minutes of daily web browsing
- Or at least 40 minutes of daily social media
- Or 45 hours per month of music
- Or 3-4 films per month (low or medium quality)
How much is 4GB of data?
With 4GB of data (or 4000MB) you’re approaching the lower mid-range of data use. Web browsing, social media and email should be nothing to worry about unless you’re using mobile data much of the day, as you could web browse for up to around 3 hours daily on average, or use social media apps for at least half that.
If you’re happy with just around 40 minutes of daily browsing you could also stream around 2 hours of music each day, striking a nice balance between the two. Or you could cut the music and stream a few movies on low or medium video quality. If you’re a binge-watcher though this still won’t cut it.
4GB data sample monthly usage:
- 3 hours daily of web browsing
- Or at least 90 minutes of daily social media
- Or 40 mins of browsing and 2 hours of music daily
- Or 40 mins of browsing daily and a few films each month (medium quality)
How much is 8GB of data?
With 8GB of data (or 8000MB) we’re in comfortable video streaming territory. Use all your data on that and you could stream up to around 32 hours of content on medium quality – more than the length of a series boxset, though of course turning the quality up substantially cuts that figure down. On the highest quality you might barely manage two hours – though again, these figures vary depending on the service you’re using.
Assuming you don’t want to stream daily you should be able to web browse and listen to music for 40 minutes or more each per day, as well as streaming a movie or a few episodes of a show once or twice a week.
8GB data sample monthly usage:
- 6 hours daily of web browsing
- Or at least 3 hours daily of social media apps
- Or enough to stream 32 hours of medium quality video
- Or enough for a mix of browsing, music, and the occasional video
How much is 20GB of data?
20GB of data (or 20,000MB) ups those figures substantially. With that much monthly data you could on average stream around 4 hours of music, browse the web 2 hours and stream an episode of your favourite show every day, or potentially even a film. Or if you’re not interested in streaming you could browse all the websites you want without being in much danger of running out of data.
20GB data sample monthly usage:
- 2 hours of web, 4 hours of music and 1-2 hours of video daily
- No danger of running out of data if you’re only web browsing
How much is 50GB of data?
With 50GB of data (or 50,000MB) you’re looking at several hours of music streaming, several hours of web browsing and a couple of movies (streamed in medium quality) every day. This is more data than most people are likely to need, but worth it if you like to stream on your commute or don’t have regular access to Wi-Fi at home.
50GB data sample monthly usage:
- 3 hours of web, 3 hours of music and 2 medium quality streamed films daily
How much is 100GB of data?
100GB data (or 100,000MB) is functionally almost unlimited. Even with video streamed in high quality you could manage around 30 hours a month (depending on the source). Chances are you don’t need that much, or would be fine with medium quality, which gives you a lot more.
Realistically that means you can stream both audio and video for several hours each day, as well as browsing the web and using social networks exclusively on mobile data, and are still likely to have some going spare at the end of the month.
100GB data sample monthly usage:
- 30 hours of high-quality video per month
- Or a robust mix of use types
Need even more data? Then you’ll want an unlimited data plan so you can browse without limits.
We’ve created a helpful data calculator so you can find out exactly how much data you need.
Simply use the sliders to select how much of each activity you undertake and your total monthly data use will be calculated automatically.
Data usage by activity
In this section we’ll cover the different data uses – and how heavy on your data allowance they are. These are all rough estimates, as actual data use will depend on the app/service, the quality, and other factors.
Web browsing/Social media
Web browsing tends to be fairly light on your allowance, with each page you view averaging around 1MB of data. That said, social media can use more, with Facebook for example often using around 2MB per minute.
Web browse continuously for an hour and you’re likely to scroll to around 50 pages, for around 50MB of data use, while on the Facebook app an hour’s use (with no video content) will likely come in at around 120MB. That said, different social media services will use different amounts of data.
In either case that’s not much, but it can quickly add up. If you’re using your phone to web browse over mobile data for an hour each day you could chew up as much as 3GB per month on web browsing alone, with social media potentially using even more.
Consider whether you really do that though – you’ll probably be on Wi-Fi a lot of the time, so mobile web browsing will likely only happen for the most part when you’re outside or on a commute. As such, your actual use may well be far less than an hour each day, even if you’re an internet addict.
If you do a lot of instant messaging using the likes of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, that could use up to around 150MB per day – but note that figure is for if you’re using these services as your main messaging platforms, exchanging dozens of messages each day, and doing it all over mobile data.
Realistically if you spend most of the day on Wi-Fi or don’t use these services much you’ll probably be using less than 50MB a day – though as with web browsing that can still add up.
Note that we’re only talking about sending instant messages here – not voice or video calls, which will use a lot more data. A video call on WhatsApp for example will use around 5MB per minute, according to TechWithTech.
If you tend to stream music on services such as Apple Music, Spotify or Amazon Music when you’re out and about you could be eating up between around 10MB and 150MB of data per hour (depending on service and quality). Those are the exact ranges you’re looking at on Spotify as you move between low and very high quality, according to WhistleOut, with around 45MB being used on normal quality.
Listen on normal quality for an hour every day and that’s almost 1.5GB per month before you’ve even done anything else, and that figure triples for audio in the highest quality. Use a service with lossless audio (which isn’t offered by Spotify at the time of writing), and the data use can get even higher.
But again, consider how much you actually do this. You’ll likely be on Wi-Fi much of the time, or playing music that’s already downloaded to your phone. And an hour each day is quite a long time. Even if you do it on your commutes you probably won’t be doing it on weekends.
Streaming video, such as using YouTube and Netflix, will depend on the service and the video quality. Some platforms give you controls, such as Netflix, which lets you use up to about 1GB of data every 6 hours if you stream in low quality (known as ‘save data’ on the mobile app), 1GB every 4 hours for medium quality (called ‘automatic’ in the app, but designed to strike a balance), and 3GB or more every 1 hour if you stream in high quality.
You definitely shouldn’t do that unless you have unlimited data, but even at low or medium quality Netflix (and video streaming in general) will eat more data than almost anything else you might do on your smartphone. And some streaming services likely use a lot more data than Netflix.
So if you plan to stream a lot of video over mobile data you will want a high data limit, of probably at least around 15GB per month. Note however that data use on Netflix is also higher than on some other video services, so it’s worth checking the details of whatever services you use most.
There shouldn’t be much need to regularly download apps – or anything else – over mobile data, as this usually isn’t urgent or you can download them before you get off Wi-Fi.
But, if you must download apps, be sure to check the file size. These can vary from a few dozen megabytes to multiple gigabytes – though the latter is usually only the case for games.
If you use your phone to check your email over mobile data every day you’ll still likely only use around 150MB of data per month (unless you live in your inbox or send/receive lots of emails with attachments). So this eats a lot less data than most things and isn’t something you need to overly worry about unless you have a small data limit of 1GB or less.
This is another very small data drain. You’ll usually be able to upload several photos to cloud storage or social networks before you’ve even used 10MB of data, so unless you’re uploading thousands this shouldn’t have much impact. That said, this will depend on the file size of the images you’re uploading. If your phone’s camera is packed full of megapixels and you shoot using all of them, then photo file sizes could be quite a lot larger.
Video calls, such as on Skype, Facebook and Zoom, tend to use around 15-25MB of data for a 5-minute call, so if you tend to keep your calls short or don’t make many of them this kind of data use shouldn’t add up too much, but if you’re video calling people for hours at a time it could do.
A 1 hour video call could use up to around 300MB of data – which still isn’t all that much, but do that regularly and it could easily total 1GB or more each month.
Tethering will typically use a lot of data. Even if you’re just web browsing for example, you’ll generally be getting the full desktop versions of sites (since you’ll likely be viewing them on a tablet or laptop) and these use more data than mobile versions.
Similarly, video is likely to stream in higher quality, as the services will think you’re on a Wi-Fi connection (Netflix for example can use up to 7GB per hour if streaming 4K video on a PC), and if you tether to a tablet and have it set to automatically update apps over Wi-Fi, those updates will happen while you’re tethering.
As such, this is another kind of data use that demands a high allowance if you plan to do it a lot. Think 20GB minimum.
Does 5G use more data?
5G doesn’t use any more data than 4G. So if you download a file over 5G it will be the same size as if you download it over 4G – it will just download faster with a 5G connection.
However, the speed of 5G means that it’s more viable to download big files and stream in higher quality and the like, so it could motivate you to use more data.
Some video streaming apps and the like may also default to higher quality if they detect a 5G connection, which will then use more data. But you should be able to switch to lower quality if you prefer, you’ll just need to look out for this.
So there you have it. Hopefully with this information you’ll have a better idea of how much data you actually need. But, if we assume that you tend to mostly use Wi-Fi and don’t do much tethering or video streaming, it’s very likely that you can get by on under 8GB per month (quite possibly far under).
If you’re only a light user – occasionally using instant messaging, web browsing and email checking for example, but not much else, then you may even be okay on 2GB, though we’d be wary about having a lower data allowance than that unless you really don’t use it at all. Even 2GB will be cutting it close, so for some breathing room we’d generally suggest at least 3GB.
Meanwhile, if you’re using mobile data much of the day, every day, or using data intensive things like video streaming and tethering regularly, you’ll probably want at least 50GB – and even that might not be enough.
Assuming you currently have a data allowance you should be able to check how much you’re using each month by logging into your account on your network’s site or app, so that too can give you a good idea of what you need. Do that, compare it with the figures here, and you should be able to work out a comfortable limit.