How Much Data Do I Need for My Cell Phone?

A 2GB plan should keep you covered

When you pick a data plan, you sometimes are forced to decide without enough information. Meaning: How are you supposed to know how much data you use if you're doing this for the first time? Or when you are adding people to your existing account?

While you could play it safe and go for an unlimited data plan, those plans tend to get quite expensive, so you are likely better off going with a specific plan and adjusting from there.

Before we get too far into this article, let's make sure we're all talking about the same topic. This article covers data usage while connected to your phone's carrier (AT&T, Verizon, etc). We have an article on how much storage your phone should have if that's what you are looking for.

Different Plans From Carriers

Many cell phone and mobile broadband service providers offer tiered, rather than unlimited data plans: a lower price for up to 200MB of data access in a month, for example, versus a higher 2GB or 5GB data limit. To determine which mobile data plan is best for you, learn how much can you download or surf with each data limit and compare that to your needs and actual usage. Then find the best mobile data plan for you based on these numbers.

If you already have a data plan, you can check your wireless bill to see how much data you use in a typical month and decide whether or not you should go to a lower or higher data tier.

Verizon's view of data usage on one phone line on a multi-person account.

Otherwise, you can calculate how much mobile data you'll need to access over a month using the examples below, provided by the major wireless providers in the U.S. (note that these are estimates only and data usage can vary by phone/device and other variables).

Amount of Data Used Per Activity

  • 1 Email - text only: 3 KB - 20 KB
  • 1 Email - with photo attachment: 350 KB
  • 1 Email - with MS Office attachment: 300 KB​
  • 1 Web page: 150 KB - 1.5 MB​
  • 1 minute of Streaming Music: 500 KB
  • Social media update with photo: 500 KB
  • Hi-res digital photo upload/download: 1 MB
  • 1 minute of streaming video: 2 MB - 5 MB
  • 1 app/game/song download: 3 MB - 4 MB

What You Can Do With a 200 MB Data Plan

According to AT&T's data usage calculator, a 200 MB data plan would cover in one month: 1,000 text emails, 50 emails with photo attachments, 150 emails with other attachments, 60 social media posts with photos uploaded, and 500 Web pages viewed. Of course, no one really looks at their email or social media posts with data in mind. A 200 MB plan basically means you need to be aware your data is pretty limited.

What You Can Do With a 2 GB Data Plan

Increasing your data access potential by about 10 times would cover, according to AT&T, on average: 8,000 text-only emails, 600 emails with photo attachments, 600 emails with other attachments, 3,200 web pages viewed, 30 apps, 300 social media posts, and 40 minutes of streaming video. As above, 8,000 emails a month means you are spending a lot of time with your email or you just get a lot of spam. A 2 GB plan means you don't have to watch your usage all that closely.

More Data Calculators and Usage Tables

Verizon's data usage calculator can also help you estimate how much monthly data you may need, based on the number of emails you send, web pages you visit, and your multimedia needs.

Sprint's mobile broadband usage tool attempts to show what you can do with 500 MB, 1 GB, 2 GB, and 5 GB plans, but be careful when reading the chart. For example, it says you can access 166,667 emails each month with a 500 MB plan, but that's if you only use emails and don't do any other mobile data activities (they also estimate each email to use the lower 3 KB per email figure). Again, few people really measure their usage by the number of emails sent, social media posts viewed, etc.

It bears repeating that these are just estimates, and if you go over any allotted data usage (whether intentionally or unintentionally, such as if you travel and go outside of the coverage area without knowing it), you could be subjected to hefty fees. It pays to know how to avoid data roaming charges, and, if you're on a tiered data plan, to keep tabs on your data usage.

  • How much data do I need for Netflix?

    Netflix estimates you need about 3 GB of data per hour when streaming an HD movie (most movies are HD at this point). If you can plan ahead, you can download Netflix movies while at home and not use your carrier’s data plan.

  • How much hotspot data do I need?

    Like with your phone, it depends on what you are doing. Since the hotspot is just your carrier’s data plan being used on your computer, be careful about downloading big software updates as hotspot data is usually capped at a smaller amount than your regular carrier data. Yes, even though it’s all just data you're already paying for.

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