What size data plan is right for you? It all depends on what you use it for

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The world runs on data these days, and making sure you have enough to get the most out of your phone, while not paying for more than you need, is a crucial balance to find.

When it comes to data plans, the best size correlates to how you use your data. Do you use your phone primarily 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 or even an unlimited plan. We’ve given you some numbers to work with below, 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 to help you in making the right decision.

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 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 (though you may want to use a VPN), 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

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Many of us use social media apps on smartphones. But how much data do our tweets, likes and Instagram posts 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 browsing

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 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 than 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 a day listening to music or podcasts, one could easily rack up 6GB a month or more streaming audio data alone. This is one feature you’ll likely want to use when connected via Wi-Fi. T-Mobile and Sprint are exception to the rule, as they both allow for unlimited music streaming.

Video

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Here’s the big one. Apps such as Netflix and YouTube may allow us to easily to catch up on our 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 30GB. That being the case, we suggest holding off on that next episode of House of Cards until you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

All the major carriers throttle streaming video speeds beyond a certain point or limit the resolution you can stream video at to 720p or sometimes 480p. AT&T offers unlimited streaming of video through DirecTV Now — but any non DirecTV video counts against your data allotment, even though the company now offers unlimited plans (your connection may be slowed after 22GB of used data each month). Verizon is similar with its own unlimited offering, and they too might throttle your connection after 22GB. Sprint does the same after 23GB, and T-Mobile after 50GB of use.

Apps like Netflix now also let you download certain movies and shows to your device, so you don’t need a data connection to watch them later — we recommend downloading these when 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 support 3D graphics and even online multiplayer, which makes them suitable for games more complex than 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 effect 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 that 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). You may also want to check out the best cheap phone plans.

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