Remember when smartphone plans were all about the number of call minutes and text messages you got and data was unlimited? Well, those days are gone forever. When carriers realized what we really want is data, and smartphones evolved to make greater use of it, there was a shift to unlimited minutes and texts alongside metered data. Now every precious megabyte must be accounted for, and it can get downright expensive.
Updated on 7-20-2015 by Simon Hill: Refreshed the text, reformatted, updated instructions, removed discontinued apps, and added some new tips.
No one wants to get slapped with overage charges or end up being throttled at an inconvenient moment (is there ever a good time?), but if we let the fear prevent us from getting anywhere near our actual limits then the carriers have won, and we can’t let that happen. Here, we hope to help you set up limits and alerts to keep an eye on your data usage, and some tips to help change the way you use your smartphone, just a little, to avoid eating data you don’t need. We’ll even throw in a couple of apps that can help painlessly reduce data usage.
How much data do you need?
People generally overestimate how much data they need and that can mean paying more money each month than you really have to. You can check up on how much data you have been using by referring to your bill or logging into your carrier’s website. You can also use something like AT&T’s Data Calculator to get a rough estimate of what your data usage is likely to be over the course of a month.
On an iPhone running iOS 7 or later, you can check your data usage by going to Settings > Cellular and taking a look under Cellular Data Usage. You do have to remember to reset the tracker at the start of each month for this to be useful. It might be a good idea to set a reminder, based on your billing period, and you can go to Settings > Cellular and tap Reset Statistics on the relevant day.
On an Android smartphone running version 4.0 or later you can check your data usage and set alerts and limits. Go to Settings and under Wireless & Networks tap on Data usage. You’ll see a table showing your data usage for a specific period of time. You can toggle Set mobile data limit and then move the black and red lines to set an alert usage amount (so you’ll get a warning when you’re closing in on your limit), and a hard limit (which will prevent you from going over your allowance).
You’ll also find that most carriers have an app that will allow you to keep tabs on your data usage and allowance. For example, My Verizon Mobile and myAT&T (both are available for Android as well) keep track of your data usage. Alternatively, My Data Manager (Android, iOS) is a free and easy-to-use app to keep track of your data and set alerts up.
You should also consider turning mobile data off whenever you don’t need it.
Use Wi-Fi wherever possible
Whenever you’re in the house, or at the office, there’s a good chance you can switch from your mobile data connection to Wi-Fi. Make sure you get into the habit of doing it, and you can make huge savings on the data you’re using. It’s as simple as tapping Wi-Fi in your Settings menu. If you leave Wi-Fi turned on, and you’ve connected to a router before, then it should connect automatically when it comes into range.
Many carriers also offer Wi-Fi hotspots you can connect to when you’re out and about, so take advantage of them. For example, AT&T has a Wi-Fi hotspot locator map and an AT&T Smart Wi-Fi app for Android, which is supposed to make it easy to automatically connect, although reviews are mixed. If you’re in a city you can probably save a fair bit of data by learning where your carrier’s hotspots are.
It’s also worth checking around you for free Wi-Fi. The free app Wi-Fi Finder (Android, iOS) takes all the pain out of finding Wi-Fi spots near you.
Limit background data
One of the main drains on your data is probably going to be background syncing, when an app like Facebook grabs an update, or your phone checks to see if there’s any new email on your server. Think about what you actually need updated in real-time. Can you reduce the frequency of push notifications, or just set apps to update manually so they only grab new stuff when you actually open them? This can save you a lot of data, not to mention battery life. You’ll generally need to do it via the Settings menu of the app in question.
In iOS, you can also go to Settings > Cellular and scroll down to see a list of apps under Use cellular data for. Toggle off anything that isn’t essential.
In Android, take a look under Settings >Wireless & Networks > Data usage and tap on an app to find the option to Restrict app background data.
You should set some things to only update via Wi-Fi, such as app updates. This is an important one because app updates can be huge, and if you’ve set them to update automatically then you could end up using a surprising amount of data.
Next page: More data saving tips including alternative browser suggestions, preloading data, and compression
Change your browser
You should only browse mobile versions of websites where possible, as they tend to load faster and use less data. You should also avoid deleting your Internet cache (which is a common way to free up some space on your phone). By preserving your cache you won’t have to download images from frequently visited websites every time you visit them.
You might also consider using a browser like Opera Mini (Android, iOS) as it’s designed to compress data and dramatically reduce your usage when browsing.
Cache or preload data
A little organization can save you a whole lot of data. Why not save yourself a batch of interesting articles to read on the commute by preselecting them when you’re at home and connected to Wi-Fi? You can use an app like Pocket (Android, iOS) to save interesting web pages and access them later anytime you like without needing an Internet connection.
How about saving an area in Google Maps for offline use? Fire up the Google Maps app when you’re connected to Wi-Fi and select the area you want to save then tap Menu > Make available offline or go to Maps > My Places > Offline and tap New offline map before selecting the area you want. You can also review your offline maps via Maps > My Places > Offline.
Unfortunately, you can’t get directions when you’re offline, though Google has announced plans to add this option later in the year. You won’t find offline turn-by-turn in Apple Maps either. You might consider getting a navigation app that does offer offline turn-by-turn directions. You could try Nokia’s Here app on iOS or Android – it’s free. There are also a lot of premium options in the app stores.
Videos are by far the biggest drain on your data, so if you stream a lot of YouTube content then think about doing it differently. The ability to save videos offline has supposedly been coming to YouTube’s mobile apps for months now, but there’s still no sign of it. Search online and you’ll find a wide selection of free software tools to download and convert YouTube videos. You could compile a selection and preload them before you leave the house. If you must stream video, then consider reducing the quality – it can make a huge difference to the amount of data you use.
With any streaming app you use check to see if there’s an offline mode. Apps like Spotify and Google Music allow you to create playlists for listening to offline, but you will need some space to store them.
Compress your data
Check out the Onavo Extend app (Android, iOS). It is designed to compress your data and potentially extend your data plan by up to five times. It doesn’t work with streaming audio or video apps, and it doesn’t work with VoIP apps, but it will help reduce the impact of images and text. It gives you a breakdown of which apps are using your data, lets you create a universal cache, and helps you choose the balance you want between image quality and data savings. It’s free, so it’s worth giving it a try if you find yourself running out of data all the time.
Get rid of ads
Not only are they annoying, ads are also eating your data. This is a good reason to consider splashing out on the ad-free version of an app, especially if you use it a lot. You can also just turn Airplane mode on or turn mobile data off before you fire the app up and avoid ads that way.