What’s cellular data, and how can you conserve it?

Mobile data (also called “wireless” or “cellular” data) is how you get online when you’re not on a wired or Wi-Fi connection. While some mobile users have unlimited monthly data plans, others will have finite amounts of data each month, or even pay for blocks of data as they go. Data is measured in megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB); these are metric units, so there’s 1,000 MB in 1 GB.

In this short article, we’ll discuss what mobile data is, how it’s used, and ways to conserve data for both cost savings and faster browsing speeds.

What is cellular data and how does it differ from Wi-Fi?

Mobile data is the distribution of digital data through wireless networks. It’s the invisible connection—usually to a satellite or a nearby cell tower—that allows you to visit websites and use apps on your cell phone or tablet, even while you’re out and about.

Mobile data is fundamentally different from Wi-Fi. With Wi-Fi, there’s a data connection (often via hardwire like cable, fiber, or ethernet) to a local hub like a modem; this connection is then transmitted via Wi-Fi router. The transmission signal is localized (say in your house or a cafe) and only available if you’re within close range (say 100 feet or 30 meters) of the router itself.

Mobile or cell phone data, by contrast, doesn’t require you to be tethered to a local router.

How to check your mobile data usage and plan details

You use data whenever you access the Web on your phone (and you’re not on Wi-Fi). Depending on your contract details, you may have a limited or unlimited amount each month. Or you might have no contract, and instead pay as you go via mobile data top-ups.

Your cell phone provider can tell you how much data you have on your plan. You can also check your phone’s Settings menu. There should be a Cellular section that tells you how much data you’ve used and how much you have available.

What activities consume mobile data?

Most often, mobile data is used up in one of three ways.

Emails, texts, and direct messages

These all use mobile data. How much depends largely on what you send and how you send it. Emails with high-resolution photos attached will take a lot of data, while a short text saying “I’m here” won’t take much at all.

Web browsing

Surfing the Web on mobile takes quite a bit of data. This makes sense given the pages you visit might have large images or videos. But a lot of this browsing data is actually used up by ads and unseen trackers. Blocking this stuff doesn’t just remove unwanted clutter—it can actually save phone data.

Apps

Apps are likely the biggest data users on your phone. Anything that needs to connect to the Web to update, refresh, or download will use cell data. This means all your social media and streaming apps, from Facebook to Twitter, Spotify to Netflix, will quietly eat up your data.

Effective ways to conserve mobile data and reduce costs

There are lots of ways to save phone data. Below we talk through a few of the easiest.

Switch to Wi-Fi when using data-intensive apps

If you’re online but away from a home, work, or public Wi-Fi network, then you’re using data. One easy way to save data is to maximize the amount of time you spend on Wi-Fi, and what you do when away from it.

Take streaming, for example. In standard definition, Netflix uses about 1 GB of data per hour; in HD it’s closer to 3 GB per hour. (Note that with Netflix, you can control your data usage directly in your settings.)

Streaming music uses less data, but it can still add up over time. Like videos, music can be streamed at different rates; the lower the streaming rate, the lower the quality, but the less data you use. It’s a trade-off. If you use 320 kilobytes per second (KBps), the top quality for most streaming sites, you’ll end up burning around 1 GB of data every 8 hours.

Contrast this with Wi-Fi—when you’re on Wi-Fi you don’t use cell data at all. So wherever possible, try to stay connected to a Wi-Fi signal. When that’s not possible, try to limit what you do on your mobile. Texting is not data intensive; streaming very much is.

(Note: When using Wi-Fi, always check that your phone stays connected to the signal. Some buildings will have “dead spots” the Wi-Fi doesn’t reach—if you’re in one of these spots, your device might switch back to mobile data to compensate for the poor Wi-Fi connection.)

Be careful using mobile data while traveling abroad

Mobile data generally works the same all over the world—assuming there’s coverage—but costs can vary. If you’re traveling abroad, it’s best to keep your phone on airplane mode or turn off cell data on your device and only connect to Wi-Fi. Your phone plan may also have deals for mobile data when traveling, but it’s important to know the pricing ahead of time.

Monitor each app’s data usage

In your phone’s Settings app you’ll find a list of all the apps you have installed, along with the amount of data they use. Streaming and content-rich apps like Facebook and YouTube use a lot, but so do location-based apps like Google Maps. If you see apps that you don’t use often, you can uninstall them. Or you can verify that apps aren’t still running in the background.

Restrict background processes

A lot of apps will quietly run in the background, which can drain your battery and burn lots of mobile data. Consider deleting apps that do this regularly, or (on Android) use some advanced options in Developer Mode to limit background processes.

Switch to a browser that reduces the data load on your device

As discussed earlier, the webpages you visit are likely riddled with ads and hidden trackers, all of which take extra data to load on your phone. A browser that natively blocks these unwanted ads and trackers will automatically save you tons of data.

Brave does exactly this. With Shields, Brave protects your browsing privacy and saves your mobile data. Every tracker that isn’t downloaded is mobile data saved. With dozens and hundreds of trackers blocked each time you browse, Brave can load pages up to 3x faster than Chrome, use 30–50% less data than Chrome, and give you longer battery life on every charge. Download Brave for a faster browsing experience that saves your data.

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