How to keep track of your data and minutes
By Martin Pratt
Exceeding your mobile allowance can result in hefty bills. Find out how to monitor your bundle and make minutes and messages last longer.
Does the risk of going over your monthly data limit or chatting away your included minutes give you cause for concern? You're not alone.
We asked more than 1,200 Which? readers how they use their phone and keep track of their usage, and found that more than 50% of you are concerned about an unexpectedly high bill.
That worry means we're not getting the most out of our phones and contracts, with some people going to fairly extreme lengths to avoid 'bill shock'.
Our survey also found that a third of you didn't know how to see how much data or how many minutes you had used, and about three quarters of you didn't know how much this costs outside their bundle. Understandably, 63% of you didn’t want to have to increase their monthly bill to make sure they have plenty to spare.
The good news is that monitoring your usage is a doddle and most of the simple tasks we use our phones for every day, such as checking emails, don't use much data at all.
Sure, if you want to show off the screen on your stunning new smartphone with a 4K YouTube video, for instance, or stream Spotify tunes on the highest possible bitrate, then you'll soon find your data depleted. But for the most part, staying within even modest data allowances shouldn't mean you need to cut yourself off when you aren't near a wi-fi connection.
In this guide, we'll show you simple ways to manage your data and minutes and how to make them go further by making a few small changes to your mobile habits.
Looking to change provider? Find out which ones we rate highest in our page on the best mobile providers.
How much data do you have and how much do you need?
Many contracts now offer unlimited minutes and texts. As result, it tends to be data that drives the price of a phone contract - the more you get the more you pay.
Newer phones and flagship handsets, such as the Samsung Galaxy range and iPhones, are likely to come with big data contracts because providers want to charge more for the phones people are clamouring for.
Most of us don't need more than a few gigabytes every month, despite what a charismatic salesperson might say, so be wary of contracts that have data in the double digits and unlimited data contracts - you could be overpaying significantly for what you're actually using.
We'll show you how to keep track of your data usage, so next time you come to upgrade you'll have a better understanding of how much data you're chewing through each month.
Easy ways to keep track of your data
The best way to be sure of how much data you need is to monitor how of much of it you're using every month.
Smartphones have built-in settings that show you how much data you've been using and which apps have been greedily vacuuming up your precious gigabytes.
Track your data on an iPhone
- Go to the Settings app and select Mobile Data.
- This menu will show you data you've used in the current period, which will be from when you first started using the phone.
- It will also show how much data you've used while roaming, which is useful when you're abroad.
- You can also see how much time you've spent on the phone since you got your handset.
- At the bottom of the menu is a list of all the apps installed on the phone and you can select the ones you don't want to use data. Underneath each app it will also say how many megabytes of data it has used so far this cycle.
- If you want to monitor your data month by month, then you'll need to remember to reset. Select Reset Statistics at the bottom of the page to set your data back to zero.
Track your data on Android
- Go to the Settings app on your phone and scroll down until you see a menu called Data Usage or Data.
- In the Data menu it will show you how much data you've used since a certain date. You should make sure the start date or billing cycle for your contract is correct so it refreshes at the right time.
- If there's a suitable option, make sure your billing cycle is set to monthly and you can then see how much data you're using each month.
- You can also set a data warning, so if you're getting close to your cap your phone will alert you and, in some cases, switch your data off until you override it.
- You may see a Data Saver option in the menu, too. Activating it will stop some apps from using your data while you aren't using them. You can also choose which apps have unrestricted access, so you'll still get emails and notifications when you're using other apps or your phone is asleep.
- Selecting Mobile Data Usage within the menu will show you how much of your data each installed app is using. You may be surprised at how hungry, or not, some apps are.
Simple tips to save your data
- Read web pages offline If you're a bit of a news hound or you often find yourself tens of pages deep into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, then it's likely that internet browsing is where you use most of your data. Rather than loading all the pages using data you can instead use apps, such as Pocket, to download those pages while you're on wi-fi and read them at a later date offline. This is also useful if you're heading somewhere where the signal isn't too good.
- Change your YouTube video quality YouTube lets you watch videos in a variety of resolutions - from blocky 144p all the way to crisp 4K. The small size of phone screens means you don't need to choose the absolute best quality to enjoy a good-looking video. Switching down to 480p will save you a boat load of data and if you must watch in HD, then choose 720p rather than 1080p - on phones smaller than 5 inches you'd be hard pressed to see the difference. To adjust the quality, simply press the three dots in the corner of the video you're watching.
- Don't let your phone choose 4G over wi-fi Some phones have a setting that allows them to flick between data and wi-fi to give you the strongest signal. That may be good for loading web pages faster, but it isn't good for your data allowance. Turn this off in your data settings.
- Watch your bitrate Did you know you could adjust the streaming quality in Spotify? Well you can, and it will save you some precious megabytes. Head into your settings and choose the streaming quality. Don't choose extreme or high quality if you want to cut down on your data usage. You can also make sure Spotify isn't downloading songs using data in this same menu. Downloading is a good idea, though, which leads to our next tip.
- Download your media over wi-fi Whether its music or video, downloading what you want to consume before you leave the house will save you a tonne of data. Amazon Video, Netflix, Spotify and streaming apps from broadcasters all let you download your favourite shows and music straight to your device, so there's no need to stream them and use loads of data in the process.
- How often is your phone checking for emails? Email apps will usually scan for emails automatically. This can be anywhere from every few minutes to once an hour. If you're not bothered about getting your emails updated constantly then you can turn this setting off. You'll now need to go into your app and prompt it to search for new emails manually instead.
- App updates Make sure your apps can only update over wi-fi and not using your data. Head to your app store to make sure this setting is turned off.
How to keep track of your minutes
It's a case of apps to the rescue when it comes to keeping on top of your minutes. Many of the apps that keep track of data usage can do the same for your minutes and the vast majority are free.
Apps such as My Data Manager and Phonalyzr will tell you how many minutes you've used since a certain date. Mobile providers also have their own apps, which will keep you up to date with how many minutes you've used as well as show you your bill history.
Some providers also let you dial a number or send a text to see what you have left.
- EE Text AL to 150 to see how many minutes and texts you have.
- Giffgaff Dial *100*7# to hear your remaining minutes.
- O2 Dial 4444 to hear your remaining minutes.
- Vodafone Dial 2345 to hear your remaining minutes.
- 3 Dial *111# to hear your remaining minutes.
- Tesco Mobile Text BALANCE to 2112 to see your remaining minutes.
Simple tips to save your minutes
- Makes calls with apps WhatsApp, Viber and Skype let you make phone calls using wi-fi or a data connection rather than using your minutes. You can even do video calls. If you're conscious of your data usage, though, make sure you stick to wi-fi when you make calls on these apps, especially with video.
- Get a call back This may be a little cheeky, but if the person you're calling has unlimited minutes then ask them to call you back.
- Does your provider offer free calls? Some providers, such as Giffgaff, let you make free calls to people on the same network. If you're planning on getting a deal for your whole family, then choose one that will let you call them for free. You could also check to see what provider your most-called contacts are using and switch to it next time you upgrade.
- Don't neglect your landline Providers are often throwing in bonuses such as free weekend and evening calls to landline packages, so if you know the call is going to be a long one then use your home phone.