How to Monitor Data Usage on Your Mobile Device

Avoid paying fees, or even having your account suspended

Woman laying with feet up texting cell phone
Hero Images / Getty Images

Many mobile service providers offer unlimited data plans. If you don't have an unlimited plan, monitor how much data you use on your mobile device. When you go over the limit, the provider may charge additional fees, suspend the account, or terminate it. Here's how to set up a mobile data usage tracking system and avoid usage issues.

The instructions in this article apply generally to any data-limited mobile service plan. Check with your provider for details about your specific plan.

Data Usage Limits

With limited data plans, mobile devices have a monthly limit placed on the total amount of data transferred across the cellular link. This data transfer is measured in gigabytes, such as 10 GB. The same provider may offer different service plans, each with different restrictions. Plans vary and may include:

  • Limits on short-term usage, during specified one-hour or one-day periods.
  • Different usage limits for multiple devices on family plans.
  • Unlimited usage during non-peak hours of the day or during the weekend.

Providers define usage limits and the consequences of exceeding limits in their subscription agreements. Consult your provider for these details.

Providers enforce data usage limits based on the start and end dates of the monthly billing period rather than the beginning and end of each calendar month. If you exceed the limits during that period, the provider takes one or more of the following actions:

  • Sends a warning message.
  • Charges overage fees based on the amount of excess data usage.
  • Throttles the data connection to a very low speed until the next billing period.
  • Shuts off the connection until the next billing period or until they agree to reinstate it.

High data usage is an issue for mobile devices because these devices are readily available and frequently accessed. Simply browsing news and sports highlights and checking Facebook a few times each day consumes significant network bandwidth. Watching online videos, particularly those in high-definition video formats, requires large amounts of bandwidth.

Tracking Your Data Use

Mobile service providers measure the amount of data that flows through their networks and provide detailed usage reports to each customer. Some offer access to online dashboards that display usage information in real time.

Consult your provider for details of the specific data usage monitoring tools they offer.

If you don't want to access these reports and dashboards frequently to closely monitor your usage, use one of the third-party apps designed to track usage of 3G/4G cellular data. These apps run on your device and measurements are close, but not an exact match, to the measurements from your service provider.

If you have multiple devices, track the data usage for each device. Then add these usage amounts together to give a complete picture of network utilization.

Install data monitoring apps on frequently-used devices. Report to your provider any significant discrepancies between app-reported statistics and those from the provider's dashboard. Reputable companies will correct billing errors and refund invalid charges.

Other Ways to Prevent Excessive Data Use

In addition to installing a usage tracker, consider these techniques to minimize excessive data use:

  • Be familiar with your online provider's terms of service, including the specific data limits and the defined monitoring or billing period.
  • Reduce video viewing and the frequency of casual surfing. For example, check Facebook once a day instead of several times.
  • Regularly check usage statistics supplied by the provider. If nearing a usage limit, temporarily restrict the use of the network until the end of the period.
  • Use Wi-Fi connections instead of cellular where possible and safe to do so. When connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, data generated across those links doesn't count toward your service plan limits. Similarly, connections to a home wireless network router don't generate data on cellular links (though they may be subject to usage limits on a home internet service plan).
  • Upgrade your plan. If you regularly hit usage limits despite efforts to conserve bandwidth, change your subscription to a higher tier or service, or switch to a different provider.

Mobile devices may switch between cellular and Wi-Fi connections without warning. Watch your connection to ensure your device uses the desired network.