What is mobile data and how much do you need?

Gone are the days of phone plans with limited call and text inclusions, with unlimited standard national calls and SMS pretty much standard across postpaid and prepaid plans. Thanks to the constant improvement in smartphones each year — whether they’re cheap phones or premium devices — there is no doubt that our data needs have changed over the past few years. Our need for more data is reflected by the amount of data that the telcos are offering. Now when comparing phone plans, the biggest measure of ‘value for money’ is usually determined by how much mobile data is included on the plan.

Where once 10GB of data would cost a fair bit, now you can easily get more than 10GB for as little as $20 per month. This increasing need for data has also seen a rise in big-data phone plans with over 100GB of data available, not to mention ‘unlimited’ data plans (we’ll get to that later). But, the big question still remains: how much mobile data do you actually need?

While it’s easier to think that you’d be best off with a big-data phone plan, the reality is that for the average Aussie, it’s unlikely you’ll come close to using up that much data. The balance when choosing a phone plan is to make sure you’re getting enough data for your needs, but without paying too much. After all, what’s the point in paying for a lot of data when you’re unlikely to use that much? In this guide, we’ll take a look at how much mobile data you’ll typically use on basic activities that require data to give you a better idea of how much data you need.

What is mobile data?

Mobile data is essential internet data being delivered to your device via a mobile network. This is the same network that allows you to send and receive calls and SMS. As long as you are near enough to a mobile tower to receive a signal to your device, you can use mobile data, whether that’s on 3G, 4G or even a 5G network. This is different to using WiFi, which uses a modem/router to deliver a signal from a (usually) fixed internet connection. WiFi signals also have a shorter reach than mobile networks.

Telcos will typically include an amount of data (usually in gigabytes/GB) on a phone plan for you to use within your billing period for postpaid (typically per month) or expiry/recharge period for prepaid plans (commonly over 28 or 30 days). Each activity you do which requires the internet, will use a portion of this data unless your device is connected to a WiFi network. Now that you know the basics of mobile data, let’s dive into how much data common online activities use.

In this guide:

How much data does email and web browsing use?

When you browse the web — whether you’re shopping online, looking up recipes or just doing some browsing — each page you load uses a portion of data. Web browsing can use around 60MB of data per hour and this is typically the activity which uses the least amount of data, however images and videos on web pages can chew up more data than a text-only page. Considering there are around 1,000MB in 1GB, this means that 60MB will only use around 0.06GB — if you use your phone’s mobile data for web browsing, it’s going to take a lot to use up just 1GB of data.

Much like web browsing, checking your emails (both sending and receiving) uses up some mobile data, but how much depends on whether there are images and attachments in the emails, which can use up more data than just text. Sending or receiving an email could use around 0.5MB per email, which is not much at all – so unless you’re sending and receiving multiple emails with large attachments each day, standard email usage will not use much data.

How much data does social media use?

This is much harder to determine as different social media apps will have different usage needs. Typically images and videos will drain the most data, so that means apps like Instagram and TikTok will typically have higher data needs than those of Twitter and Facebook, which tends to have more text mixed with images and video.

It’s a bit tricky to determine just how much mobile data Facebook uses. It can be anywhere from around 120MB and up to 300MB or more per hour, depending on what you’re browsing. Viewing more videos on Facebook will push your usage up.

Instagram on the other hand, will use more data than Facebook. Considering that the Instagram feed is made up of images and videos, it naturally has greater data needs than Facebook. Using Instagram for an hour can use up around 400MB of data, but this does depend on the content — majority video watching will use more data than a feed of mainly images. This also means that you can easily chew through 1GB of data in around 2.5 hours. If you do that 2.5 hours of scrolling in just one day, it will only take you 10 days of this daily habit to reach 10GB of data usage.

Other forms of social media, such as video calling apps, can also use up a fair amount of data. For example, making video calls with FaceTime can use around 180MB per hour and other video calling apps might use a similar amount. If you spend around four hours video calling friends and family — and using mobile data to do it — you could be using up around 1GB.

How much data does music streaming use?

If you can’t live without your Spotify — or other music streaming apps like Apple Music or Tidal — the big worry is whether you’re going to go through your data when streaming on the go. While music streaming doesn’t use as much data as video, the audio quality level will play a part in how much data music streaming uses.

Using Spotify as an example, data usage is calculated in Kbps (kilobits per second), and how many Kbps are used is determined by the audio quality setting. Low quality is around 24Kbps, Normal is around 96 Kbps, High is 160Kbps and Very High is 320Kbps. So, for example, if you set your quality to ‘Normal’, you’ll use around 0.66MB per one minute, or 2MB per 3 minute song, and therefore, around 40MB per hour, which would take around 25 hours to use 1GB of data. If you wanted to limit your mobile data usage while streaming to 1GB per week, this would limit you to around 3.5 hours per day over seven days.

Much like web browsing, music streaming doesn’t use too much data for a few hours per day, but it can add up. If you’re setting your music stream at higher quality and you’re streaming music constantly throughout the day using mobile data, this can add up quite quickly.

Young woman looking at phone while wearing headphones

How much data does video streaming use?

Perhaps one of the most data-intensive activities, video streaming is usually the biggest culprit when it comes to going over your data allowance. Of course, the quality of video that you’re streaming will have an impact on how much data you’re using. This usage is also different from app to app, so while YouTube streaming might use a certain amount, this could be different to what you use streaming Netflix or Disney+.

YouTube has a range of video quality that you can choose from, (which is dependent on the video itself as not all videos are available in all quality levels). Whichever quality setting you choose will determine how much data your streaming will chew up, with quality options including: 144p, 240p, 360p, 480p, 720p, 1080p, 1440p, 2160p (not to mention the increase in HDR, 4K and 8K content). For example, streaming in 480p can use around 264MB of data per hour, 720p might use around 870MB per hour and 1080p, which is full HD, could use 1.65GB of data per hour.

Netflix is a little easier to work out, especially as the three different Netflix plans determine which quality you can stream in, with Standard Definition (SD), High Definition (HD) and Ultra HD available. The basic plan only includes SD, the middle plan includes both SD and HD, while the top-level plan includes SD, HD and Ultra HD. The Netflix website states that watching one hour of Netflix in SD quality will use about 1GB of data, while streaming in HD will use around 3GB of data per hour.

Disney+ also offers only a couple of quality settings — Auto and Data Saver — which are most likely HD and SD respectively. While Disney+ doesn’t offer solid information on how much data the Disney+ app uses, it’s safe to assume it’s a similar amount to what Netflix uses.

BINGE offers more choice of video quality and lists on its website that a SD stream will use 0.3GB to 0.5GB per hour, while HD will use 1.5GB to 3.25GB per hour. Stan lists that using low SD will use around 0.57GB of data per hour, medium SD will use 1.13GB per hour, while HD uses around 2.89GB per hour and 4K Ultra is 7GB of data per hour.

Most of the video streaming apps do chew through similar amounts of data, so that 1GB for SD and 3GB for HD per hour is a pretty good way to think about your mobile data usage when streaming video. This does mean that if you’re using your mobile data to stream just one hour of video each day — even in SD — you’ll generally go through at least 1GB per day, which can easily add up to around 30GB per month.

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How much mobile data does gaming use?

Much like the activities already mentioned, the amount of data used when playing games on your phone is really dependent on the game itself. Games with more video, 3D graphics and multiplayer functions will naturally need much more data than less visually intensive/video based games.

For example, Pokemon Go can use anywhere between 2MB to 8MB per hour, while Call of Duty Mobile can use around 35MB per hour, while other games could easily use 1GB per hour. If you tend to play a lot of games on your phone over several hours a day and with mobile data, it could be using up a fair amount of megabytes, depending on the type of games you play, so you might want to monitor your usage.

How much mobile data do I need?

Now that we’ve gone through the common activities that require and use mobile data, the big question is how this translates into how much data do you need on your phone plan. There are a few steps you can take to help determine how much data you’re likely to need for your plan:

  1. Check the usage on your current plan — most telcos offer apps with integrated tools which measure and track your usage, or this could be listed on your last phone bill.
  2. Check your device to see how much mobile data your apps use — most devices should offer this information in some form (Apple’s iOS shows how much over a certain period of time, which could be for as long as you’ve had your phone) — simply go to your device’s settings and find the ‘mobile data’ section to see what information is available (navigating to this will vary between devices).
  3. Other apps which track mobile data usage may be available to download from your device’s app store.

Of course, if you’re frequently going over your mobile data usage each month and being charged excess data fees (or frequently recharging your prepaid plan before the end of the expiry period), this is a good indication that you might need more data!

If you’re unable to determine your usage from tracking your mobile data, you might need to do some calculations to work it out. Consider how frequently you use your phone when you’re not connected to a WiFi network, and what sorts of activities you use your phone for during this time. Let’s take a look at a few examples to help you determine what kind of mobile data user you are.

  • Light user — you mostly use your phone when connected to a WiFi network, however when you’re using mobile data, you occasionally use maps, browse the web and check emails, only for a few hours per month (less than 10 hours per month): requires 1GB to 10GB of data.
  • Moderate user — you use WiFi but are also out of the house frequently and rely on mobile data for regular social media checking, web browsing, emails, music streaming and occasional video streaming for several hours each week (around 20 hours per month): requires 10GB to 40GB data.
  • Heavy user — you use mobile data every day for several hours and for activities like video streaming, gaming, social media, music streaming and general web browsing: requires 50GB data or more.

Hopefully this can give you a clearer idea of how much data you’ll generally need each month based on your usage needs. You can also calculate your requirements based on the usage estimates we’ve mentioned in this guide.Infographic showing how much mobile data users need

How to choose the best plan with the right data inclusions

Now that you have a clearer idea of how much data you need on your plan, it’s time to compare phone plans. Firstly, you’ll need to decide whether a prepaid or postpaid plan is best for you.

Prepaid gives you an allocation of inclusions to use within a set period of time (known as an expiry or recharge period) — if you use up these inclusions before the end of your expiry period, you won’t be able to use the inclusions unless you recharge or purchase an ‘add on’, such as a data pack (if available). Let’s take a look at some SIM-only prepaid plans with different data inclusions to give you an idea of how much you can expect to pay.

Here is a selection of prepaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with 10GB of data or less, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our internet comparison tool to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

Here is a selection of prepaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with 50GB of data or less, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our internet comparison tool to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

Here is a selection of prepaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with more than 50GB of data, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our internet comparison tool to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

Postpaid phone plans will typically send you a bill at the end of the month. If you use up your plan inclusions, you might have extra charges that appear on your next bill, such as excess data usage fees. Now let’s compare some SIM-only postpaid phone plans with different data inclusions to give you an idea of what kind of value you’ll get for your money.

Here is a selection of postpaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with 10GB of data or less, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our internet comparison tool to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

Here is a selection of postpaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with 50GB of data or less, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our internet comparison tool to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

Here is a selection of postpaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with more than 50GB of data, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our internet comparison tool to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

Both plans have their pros and cons, and it depends on what you prefer. When it comes to data inclusions, both prepaid and postpaid plans tend to offer similar data inclusions at very similar price points, however postpaid plans can be a little more generous with how much data you get for your money.

There are even some unlimited data phone plans, but these have a catch. Telstra, Optus and Vodafone don’t have excess data charges on postpaid plans, essentially offering ‘unlimited’ data, however, this is at capped speeds. If you’re on a plan from Telstra or Optus, once you use up your data inclusions, you’ll be able to keep using data but at the capped speed of 1.5Mbps (which is still fast enough for basic internet usage and might even be ok for SD video streaming).

On the other hand, Vodafone offers different capped speeds depending on which plan you pick — these speeds are 2Mbps, 10Mbps and 25Mbps. When it comes to prepaid, Felix mobile is the only telco offering unlimited data, however this is at the capped speed of 20Mbps, which is a fairly reasonable speed for phone usage.

If you’re still unsure about how much data you’ll need, it’s best to first sign up to a month-to-month, no lock-in contract phone plan. That way, if your plan doesn’t have enough data (or you have too much!), you’re free to upgrade or downgrade your plan for the next billing cycle. If your data usage fluctuates from month-to-month, these plans also give you the flexibility of upgrading or downgrading as needed.

How can I limit my mobile data usage?

While choosing a phone plan with the right data is one way of ensuring you have enough data for your needs, there are also ways that you can manage your mobile data usage. For example, if you’re a heavy data user but really want to save some money by switching to a cheap phone plan with smaller data inclusions, there are a few steps you can take to minimise your data usage.

  • Use WiFi networks whenever possible — eg: avoid using mobile data at home if you have good home internet and WiFi connectivity
  • Download music and movies to your device to watch on the go — Netflix, Disney+, Stan, Spotify, etc have the capability to download content to your device (some shows/movies might not be available to download on some video apps)
  • Adjust app settings to low-data usage settings — some apps have settings that limit mobile data usage (such as reducing video quality), so check the settings of those data-draining apps you use the most
  • Limit mobile data use on some apps — you might be able to switch off mobile data for apps in your phone’s settings, which is a great way of reducing how many apps might be using data in the background
  • Turn off app auto sync, automatic updates and notifications
  • Monitor your data usage — try limiting your usage, especially more data-intensive activities, if you’re using up too much data during your billing cycle

Hopefully these tips should help you to limit your mobile data usage. If you find that you’re routinely using more data than your activity indicates, there could be a problem that might be worth investigating further. Check your data usage with your telco’s app to see what activity is using up your data, and if you don’t feel this adds up to your actual usage, you might need to get in touch with your telco.

How much data do I have left on my phone ?

If you don’t have a plan with unlimited data, you probably like to keep a close eye on how much data you are using. Phones won’t show you how much data you have left, but they will show you how much data you have used. You can compare this number against your plan, and can make adjustments to use less data if you have used quite a lot.

To check how much data you have used on your iPhone:

  • Step One: Open Settings > Mobile
  • Step Two: Scroll down to see Current Period. The number beside Current Period is the amount of data you have used since your last recharge.

To check how much data you have used on your Android:

  • Step One: Open Settings > Data Usage / Data
  • Step Two: The Data Usage page should show you how much data you have used in your billing period. It may include a graph to show data usage levels and a line to indicate a data cap.

You can also check your data by checking your bills. You can access these either through the mail or by logging onto your account on your providers home page.

What is mobile data roaming?

Roaming on a mobile phone allows you to use your phone outside of your provider’s geographical reach. This means that even when you are in an area that your provider doesn’t cover, you are still able to access and use the internet.  People mostly use roaming when they are travelling overseas, but there are some areas of Australia where your phone will rely on roaming.

Although roaming doesn’t use your mobile data, it does incur other charges. These charges are managed by your provider and will be charged to you in the same way as your regular mobile data bill. If you don’t need to be using the roaming feature, turning it off can save you a lot of data.

To turn off the roaming feature on your iPhone:

  • Step One: Open Settings > Mobile > Mobile Data Options
  • Step Two: Tap the toggle to turn Roaming on or off. You can also choose to roam in 4G or 3G.

While you are in Mobile Data Options, you can also switch to Low Data Mode to save data.

To turn off the roaming feature on your Android:

  • Step One: Open Settings > Wireless Networks > Mobile Networks
  • Step Two: Uncheck Data Roaming

How much does mobile data cost?

The cost of mobile data varies between providers and plans. A prepaid plan can cost anywhere between $10 to $100, while a postpaid plan can range from $30 to $100.

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