How to Manage Your Phone Data Usage

Unless you have an unlimited data plan for your mobile devices, at some point you’ve probably underestimated how much data you’ve used and gone past your data limit, incurring additional charges on your phone. This can be a real problem, especially if you’re on a budget. Fortunately, there are ways to track and control your data use.

What is Mobile Data Use

Before we get into how to control your phone’s data use, it’s important to answer one question: What is mobile data use anyway? Any action that requires a connection to the internet consumes data. If you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, this isn’t usually a problem, but if you’re using your data plan, every online action you take eats up a little -- or a lot -- of your available data limit.

Your online data usage refers to a wide range of activities, including:

  • Browsing the internet
  • Checking email
  • Downloading and running apps
  • Playing online games
  • Streaming music
  • Making social media posts
  • Video conferencing
  • Watching streaming video

Monitoring Data Use

You can monitor how much data you’re using by setting data usage alerts. Usually available through service provider apps like My Verizon Mobile, data usage alerts send you texts or emails when you’re at certain points in your monthly data limits, such as 50, 90, or 100 percent.

How to Control Your Data Usage

Your mobile device offers several ways to control data use. The first, and most important, is setting your phone to automatically connect to your Wi-Fi network when in range. As long as you’re connected to your Wi-Fi, your phone won’t use its data plan(although it will count towards your WiFi data limit).

This makes it important to limit data-intense activities to when you're connected to Wi-Fi. Updating your phone’s operating system, downloading and updating apps, and uploading videos or large numbers of photos to social media should all be reserved for when you’re on Wi-Fi, as they consume large amounts of data. 

If you’re streaming video, podcasts, or music, check to see if you can download songs, movies, and episodes while you're on Wi-Fi, so you can watch them without streaming while you’re on your phone’s data plan. If not, reducing the resolution of streaming video reduces the amount of data used. 

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Controlling Apps and Limiting Background Data

Phone apps can consume data even when you aren’t actively using them, so be sure not to leave apps running on your phone. Even then, it’s possible for an app to quietly drain data while it’s off. This type of hidden data cost is called background data. 

Background data is responsible for much of a phone’s data consumption. If your mail app syncs new messages or apps automatically download updates while you’re using your phone plan, you’re losing significant amounts of data. 

You can set your phone to only consume background data when you’re connected to your Wi-Fi. How you do this depends on whether you’re using an Android or Apple device. 

For Android phones, take the following steps:

  • Open Settings and select Data Usage.
  • You’ll now see a list of apps on your phone and can tap any app to see its data usage. 
  • In the data usage information for the app, select Restrict Background Data. The app will now only perform background tasks when you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

For an Apple device, you can shut down background data use for all apps by going to Settings, selecting General, and then toggling off the Background App Refresh. If you prefer to only turn off background data for specific apps, you can toggle each one off from the list below the Background App Refresh option.

How To Choose The Right Data Plans

Knowing how much data you use every month helps you choose the right data plan. Someone who only uses their phone for phone calls, instant messaging, and email won’t need as much data as someone who loves social media and streaming video. If you constantly find you go through your data limit before the end of your phone’s monthly billing cycle, you might want to consider an unlimited data plan, many of which come with extras such as free streaming services.