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What size data plan is right for you?

Whether you’re buying your first smartphone, or you are in the market for a new service plan, figuring out how much data you’ll need is an important thing to consider. These days, the world runs on data, and making sure you have enough to get the most out of your phone — while not paying for more than you need — is an important balance to find.

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When it comes to plans, the best size is directly correlated to how you use your data. Is your phone primarily used for email and social media? You can probably get away with a smaller data plan. Using your device as a game console or for video streaming? You’ll want to opt for a larger — even unlimited — plan. Below, we’ve given you some numbers to work with, so you can see exactly how much data certain tasks use up and get a real sense of what your monthly data needs will be. We’ll also breakdown the plans available from each of the four major U.S. phone companies.

Updated 06-20-2015 by Brendan Hesse: Updated to reflect new data use averages for apps and operations, as well as current data plans offered by Sprint, Verizon, At&T and T-Mobile.

How Much Data Are You Using?

Not all apps use the same amount of data. It’s important to know where your data is going and how much you’re using in order to find the best plan for you. Before we break down the data usages for different apps and features, it’s worth mentioning ways to mitigate data use. No matter what your data limit, it’s always a smart idea to connect to a Wi-Fi network whenever you can. This is an easy thing to do while at home, as most people have wireless Internet these days, but when out and about, it can be tricky. Coffee shops and restaurants often have a network customers can connect to, and connecting to your workplace’s Wi-Fi may also be an option.

Why is connecting to Wi-Fi important? If limiting data usage is your goal, then Wi-Fi is going to be your greatest ally. Any data used while connected to a wireless Internet network will not affect your monthly 3G/4G allocation from your carrier, so you can stream, download, post, and email to your heart’s content. Most devices and apps also have settings to limit the use of certain features while not connected to Wi-Fi, which takes the guess work out of tracking what apps you should and shouldn’t be using.

Social Media

Many of us use social media apps on our smartphone. But how much data do our tweets, Likes and Instagrams use up? Updating your Facebook feed takes up about 50KB on average, each time you open the app. Updating your Twitter feed takes about 70KB. Instagram, on the other hand, can utilize anywhere between 30 and 150KB per picture. Posting also takes up a little bit more data than simply updating your feeds. If you post 10 times a day — for instance —you’ll use about 0.07GB in a month, while posting 200 times day will use roughly 1.43GB in a month. That’s an unrealistic number for even the most obsessive socialite, so unless you’re going hog wild with your status updates, social media isn’t going to make much of a dent in your monthly allocation.

Web surfing

Depending on the webpages you visit, surfing the Web on your smartphone is economical on your data budget. Of course, every website is different, and your data numbers will be higher if you tend to visit pages with lots of multimedia features. If you are planning on doing some light Web browsing on your phone, then you should expect to use less than 100MB of data a month. On the other hand, if you are browsing some data-heavy sites that aren’t optimized for smartphones, you could find yourself using more 1GB of data. There is a big difference there, but unless you know for sure that you are going to be surfing a lot, you shouldn’t be using more than roughly 200MB a month.

Email

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Alongside social media and Web browsing, email is probably the next most-used feature on smartphones. Luckily, even if your inbox is constantly being flooded and you’re responding to emails all day long, your data isn’t going to take much of a hit. Let’s say you’re sending 500 emails a day — a gross overestimation for the majority of people — you’ll wind up having used just 0.5GB of data by the end of the month. A more realistic estimate of about 10 to 20 emails equates to a measly 0.02GB of data; that is, assuming they’re text-only.

There is a big difference between text emails and emails with attachments, though. If you were to send 5,000 emails, each with a picture attachment, you could be looking at more than 2GB of data a month. However, most of us don’t take and send that many pictures, so you’re more likely looking at around 100MB of data resulting from sending a couple of emails with images a day.

Streaming Music and Podcasts

Now we’re getting into the more data-intensive apps. Whether using a music app like Spotify or a podcast app like Stitcher, streaming audio is going to eat up your data plan quickly. Streaming two hours of audio every day for a month is going to use more than 3.5GB, and since it’s not hard to imagine spending more than two hours in a day listening to music or podcasts, one could easily rack up 6GB a month or more streaming audio data alone. That said, this is one feature you’ll likely want to use most when connected to Wi-Fi networks. T-Mobile is an exception to the rule — the carrier excludes music streaming from some of its data plans.

Video

Here’s the big one. Apps such as Netflix and YouTube may allow us to easily to catch up on favorite shows while on the go, but they also gobble up a monstrous amount of data in the process. Watching a mere 60 minutes of standard-definition video a day can utilize up to 8GB of data in a month, while that same amount of time spent watching HD videos can take up nearly 30GBs. That being the case, we suggest holding off on that next episode of House of Cards until you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

Gaming

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With phones becoming more and more sophisticated, their potential as dedicated gaming machines only becomes greater. Smartphones can now support 3D graphics and even online multiplayer, which makes them suitable for games more complex than just Threes and Candy Crush. However, what’s their data footprint like?

As long as you’re sticking to single player games, your data usage should be limited — the affect on battery life is another issue, though. Online modes and multiplayer games are going to take up a chunk of data, but exactly how much varies from game to game. Short sessions ranging between 10 and 30 minutes for a game like Candy Crush will certainly add up, but likely won’t push you into data overages. However, it’s still best to connect to Wi-Fi if you’re planning on indulging in intense multiplayer matches for an afternoon. It’s likely a more reliable connection, anyway.

Downloads

We discussed using Wi-Fi above, but another strategy for reducing data usage is to stick to using media that you’ve downloaded directly on your device. Try to download podcasts, playlists, or videos for your commutes and long trips in advance while connected to Wi-Fi. Doing so will help you stay within data limits each month, leaving plenty for downloading smaller files like email attachments, new apps, and similar content on the go.

What Next?

So, now you’ve hopefully got an idea of what kind of data your apps and activities will take up, what comes next? It’s time to find a plan that’s right for you. The following pages detail the plans available from each of the four major U.S. carriers (i.e. Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T).

Next page: Sprint’s data plans

Sprint

Sprint has a few data plans available, depending on how many lines you’re looking to use. Overall, the company’s plans tend to be among the most affordable of the bunch, but its network isn’t the most robust when compared to others, particularly Verizon. Still, all the major network services and popular phones are available on Sprint, making the carrier a great choice for those seeking unlimited data plans.

Shared Family

This is Sprint’s most cost-effective option for families, given that the price of the plan scales with the shared data amount. The lowest option is 1GB shared between five lines for $20, with additional charges for each line. The largest is 60GB for $235, again, with additional charges for each line. There are several other options for this plan, too, so long as you don’t mind sharing the data between people on the account.

Unlimited Family

Obviously, an unlimited plan nullifies any worries or headaches sharing data may cause. Said plans are more expensive, though, starting at $100 for two lines with an additional charges for each line thereafter.

Unlimited Single Line

For single lines, Sprint offers a flat-rate unlimited plan at $60, plus access charges. However, if you buy a new iPhone 6 when signing up for the plan, Sprint will knock $10 off your monthly bill.

Check out Sprint’s website for more information regarding the company’s data plans.

Next page: AT&T’s data plans

AT&T

Although AT&T might not offer an unlimited data option through any of the company’s plans, it does tout a flexible selection of options. The network also features 4G LTE, meaning you’ll have access to some of the fastest network speeds available even if your data limits are capped. Additionally, AT&T offers data roll over, which allows you to utilize leftover data from the month prior, if you have any available.

Family Plan

With monthly data limits starting at 300MB ($20/month) and increasing to 50GB ($375/month), AT&T makes it easy to find the sweet spot for your family’s data. You can have up to 10 devices on a single plan — smartphones, tablets, etc. — but each smartphone requires a monthly $40 access fee.

Single Line Plan

Sadly, the same data allowances and prices make up the single-line plan. The access charge is still applicable as well, but you do get AT&T’s data roll over and 4G LTE, which makes the somewhat higher price justified.

Check out AT&T’s website for more information regarding the company’s data plans.

Next page: Verizon’s data plans

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Verizon boasts the largest 4G LTE network and provides the most coverage of all four phone carriers in the United States, but unfortunately, they do not offer unlimited data plans.

Prepaid Plan

The company’s prepaid plan is a basic option, one that doesn’t require you to select and juggle multiple features and services at once. The packages are set and offer two flat rates, allowing you to choose between either a 1GB plan for $45 a month or a 2.5GB plan for $60 a month. There is also a network access charge, which varies in price depending on your device.

More Everything Plan

The More Everything Plan is one of the most flexible around. You can add multiple lines and select from several secondary features. Moreover, there are multiple levels of data allowances available starting at $70 for 6GB and working their way up to $300 for 40GB. Again, you will also need to pay access charges per device on your plan.

Check out Verizon’s website for more information regarding the company’s data plans.

Next page: T-Mobile’s data plans

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T-Mobile offers several different plans, most of which include unlimited data on the network with an additional allowance of 4G LTE data. While the network is not as robust as others and suffers from sub-par coverage in select regions, T-Mobile’s phone plans remain highly competitive.

Prepaid Plans

A prepaid plan on T-Mobile nets you unlimited talk and text, along with data and 4G LTE on a single line. However, the 4G LTE allowance is different from the unlimited data access on the network. Your speeds will reduce after you finish your 4G LTE data, but you won’t incur overage charges. The cost per month is also dependent on the amount of 4G LTE data you opt for, whether its $40 for 1GB, $50 for 3GB, or $60 for 5GB. There are several extra features that can be added to your plan, such as international calls and texts, plus there are additional prepaid plans that do not include data, if for whatever reason you’d rather not utilize said features.

Pay-As-You-Go Plans

T-Mobile’s Pay-As-You-Go plan has several perks, including 10GBs of free 4G LTE data on top of the 4G allowances already included in your plan. If you’re going to be streaming music with apps such as Pandora, T-Mobile’s plan becomes even more attractive, as it lets you stream as much as you want without eating into your 4G allowance. Plans start at $50 for unlimited call, text, and data, with 1GB at 4G LTE speeds. However, if you spring for one of the higher data packages for $60 (3GB) or $70 (5GB), you’ll get access to data rollover, which allows you to retain unused 4G data from the previous month. Furthermore, if you decide to go all out and opt in to the $80 plan, you’ll get unlimited 4G speeds and a free subscription to Rhapsody.

Family Plans

The Family Plan available from T-Mobile resembles the Pay-As-You-Go plan above, but with the ability to add up to six lines per account. The prices vary from line to line, but all lines beyond your primary phone get a discount. There are also several perks and special offers available depending on the number of lines you have. All the features available on the single-line, Pay-As-You-Go plan can also be applied to each phone line on an individual basis.

Check out T-Mobile’s website for more information regarding the company’s data plans.