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.
Set data alerts and limits
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.
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