How Much Data Do I Need?

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Last Updated: Mar 1, 2023 | Published: Apr 14, 2022

There are a lot of factors to consider when you’re shopping for an internet plan, and among the trickiest is the question of data usage. Many internet service providers (ISPs) have data caps. Ending up on the wrong side of one of these caps can be frustrating and costly. ISPs enforce caps in a variety of ways, from charging for data use beyond the cap to slowing down or even cutting off the internet connection. That raises an obvious question for consumers: How much data do I need?

Depending on what you do with your internet connection (and how often you do it), you may find that you need an unlimited data plan or that you can live with a data cap.

Internet Speeds, Data Use, and Data Caps Explained

When you’re shopping for internet service, you’ll always want to consider your internet speed options. Depending on those options, you may also have to consider data use. But what’s the difference?

Simply put, speed is the rate at which data moves on your internet connection. With an internet connection that offers a download speed of 300 Mbps, you could download 300 megabits of data in one second on that connection. (Of course, we don’t always get the speeds we expect, which is why you should test your internet speed to confirm the real number.)

Both things are important. When we consider how fast your internet should be, we’re talking about things like “can you watch Netflix?” In other words, will the connection be fast enough to download the data to display a movie or TV show without buffering? With data, on the other hand, we’re talking about adding up the data that you use throughout that Netflix binge-watching session. Speed tells us whether or not Netflix will work well, but data caps tell us how much Netflix we can watch. Naturally, the best internet plans for Netflix fans will offer plenty of speed and data.

Not all ISPs have data caps, but some do. How concerned you should be about data will depend on how restrictive your data cap is. Fortunately, many data caps are relatively generous — as we’ll soon see, 1 TB or more of data per month is quite a bit of data to work with.

Data caps are enforced in a variety of ways. Most ISPs will not simply cut you off after you reach your data cap; instead, they’ll start charging you overage fees that can be $200 per month or more. Other ISPs will slow down (or throttle) your internet speed once you exceed your cap. Caps that are enforced this way are called “soft caps,” and they aren’t as obvious as hard caps.

Download and upload speeds vary by internet type
Download and upload speeds vary by internet type

How Much Data Do I Need?

How much data you need will depend on how you use your internet connection. Some things that we do on the internet are more data-intensive than others, and the differences can be significant. In fact, one data use factor looms much larger than all others: video streaming.

Activity Estimated data use per hour
Checking emails and browsing the web <0.05 GB
Streaming music (Spotify) 0.15 GB
Playing online video games (Fortnite) 0.15 GB
Streaming SD video (Netflix) 1 GB
Streaming HD video (Netflix) 3 GB
Streaming 4K UHD video (Netflix) 7 GB
Streaming live TV (Hulu + Live TV) 3 GB

These are round figures, of course, and reality is slightly more complicated. For example, browsing the web uses almost no data in most cases, but it may eat up as much as 0.2 GB per hour if you browse primarily on social media sites. On the other hand, the lesson of the numbers above is actually incredibly simple — and you’ve probably already guessed why social media sites might eat up more data than other types of sites. The answer is video streaming, which is far and away the biggest factor in data use.

This makes calculating your data needs a lot easier than you might have imagined. You can effectively ignore your email use and web browsing, and your music streaming will almost certainly amount to less than 50 GB a month (and you’d have to stream music for about 12 hours a day to accomplish that). That leaves video streaming as the only thing to worry about.

In other words, when you’re asking how much data your internet plan must offer, you need to ask yourself how much you’ll be streaming. Here’s what you could get away with, assuming a typical 1 TB data cap:

Streaming type Hours to hit 1 TB
SD video (Netflix) 1,000
HD video (Netflix) 333
4K UHD video (Netflix) 143
Live TV (Hulu + Live TV) 333

With these figures in mind, you should be able to figure out how much data you need.

Which Plan Is Right for You? Which Providers Offer Unlimited Data?

When shopping for an internet plan, remember to consider both speed and data use. Speed will be most important to online gamers, live TV streamers, and other internet power users. Data will matter most to households that stream many hours of video over the course of a month.

If you’re worried about running up against a data cap, you may want to consider an ISP that doesn’t have data caps at all.

Providers With No-Data-Cap Plans

Provider Plans with no data cap Details
AT&T Fiber plans only See plans and pricing
CenturyLink Fiber plans only See plans and pricing
Frontier All plans See plans and pricing
Google Fiber All plans See plans and pricing
Spectrum All plans See plans and pricing
T-Mobile 5G Home Internet All plans See plans and pricing
Verizon All plans, including Verizon Fios plans and Verizon 5G Home Internet plans See plans and pricing

Frequently Asked Questions

How is data measured?

For the purpose of discussing home internet plans, from smallest to largest, megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), and terabytes (TB) are the appropriate units of measurement to focus on.

  • Megabyte (1,000 kilobytes)
  • Gigabyte (1,000 megabytes)
  • Terabyte (1,000 gigabytes)

MB, GB, and TB are used to measure how much memory a device has or how much data an ISP is allowing you to use per month.

What is mobile data?

Mobile data is just like the data that you use on your home internet connection. The only difference is, of course, that you’re using a mobile connection to get it. Mobile data can be expensive, and mobile data caps are more common than home internet data caps. To save on mobile data usage, some people will turn off their mobile data altogether when connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Which devices use mobile data?

If you’re connected to the internet through a mobile device and you’re not on a Wi-Fi network, then that means that you’re utilizing mobile data for pretty much everything, including texting and making phone calls. Be careful with your data use while you’re on a mobile connection, because popular apps like Netflix, Instagram, and YouTube will eat up quite a bit of your monthly data.

How much data do we use?

According to Statista, the average American household uses upwards of 400 GB of data per month. That’s roughly 13.5 GB per day.

How much data do mobile apps use?

As with home data use, video is the biggest thing to watch out for. The most data-intensive apps on mobile devices are Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, and other video streaming services. These apps use data just as fast on a mobile network as they do on your home Wi-Fi network, so expect to burn through 3 GB per hour when you stream video in HD. Other apps that use a lot of data include audio and (especially) video chat programs like Skype.