Data limits are the worst—here’s how to stay under yours
The data must flow.
This post has been updated. It was originally published on March 2, 2017.
Smartphones put a world of information, games, videos, and music at your fingertips. That is, until you run out of data. It only takes a few minutes of throttled, agonizingly slow speeds to realize how much you rely on that cellular connection—and how important it is to stay within your data allowance. The solution: Cut back on the amount of data your phone chews through. Adjusting your settings to reduce data usage will come in handy for those with limited data plans or travelers who plan to spend time out of network.
We’ve collected some tips for staying on the right side of your data boundaries. Whether you have an Android or an iPhone, there are two sets of options you’ll need to bear in mind: those in your phone’s main operating system settings, and those in the individual apps you’ve installed.
How to manage data settings on Android
Android gives you a detailed look at your overall data usage—just go to the Settings, Network & Internet, and SIMs. If you use more than one chip, choose the one you want to consult and then go to App data usage (if you’re not using stock Android, you should see something similar). There are a few helpful tools here: You can obviously see your current data stats, but if you tap on the cog icon next to the period range, you can also set a level at which Android displays an alert about your consumption. Check your monthly plan and configure the limit accordingly.
Scroll down to get a more detailed look at the list of the apps that have been the worst offenders for eating up your allowance—this will come in handy when we configure individual app settings later on.
[Related: A beginner’s guide to using Android]
Back on the Network & Internet menu, you can tap Data Saver. This feature limits the data apps can use in the background, which stops most platforms from downloading or uploading information (think email syncing and so on) when they’re not open—unless you’re connected to WiFi.
To manually set whether apps can or can’t use data in the background, tap on the individual app entries in the App data usage list.
Meanwhile, to stop apps from updating when you’re not on a WiFi connection (some of those updates can be pretty hefty), go to the Play Store app, tap your avatar in the upper right corner of the screen, and then open the Settings option. Once you’re there, tap Network preferences and then Auto-update apps.
Finally, back in the SIMs menu, you can switch off data roaming, where data is downloaded on cellular networks other than your registered one (usually when you’re traveling). This can help avoid unwanted bills when you get back from vacation.
How to manage data on iOS and iPadOS
Apple’s mobile operating systems have settings comparable to those on Android, giving iOS and iPadOS users essentially equal ability to take control of their iPhone or iPad’s data usage. Get to know these options first and then move on to individual app settings if you need to.
Tap Cellular (labelled Mobile Data in some parts of the world) in the Settings app to get at all the key configuration options. This screen also lists how much data individual apps are using, just like the Android equivalent does.
[Related: The 5 best new features in the iOS 15 update]
To prevent an app from using data when not on WiFi, just toggle its switch to off. To shut down mobile data completely, toggle the top switch next to Cellular Data. The Cellular Data Options submenu, meanwhile, lets you turn off data roaming when you’re not connected to your primary network (like when you’re out of your home country).
The newest versions of Apple’s OS have a WiFi Assist feature, where your device will fall back to cellular networks if WiFi reception is poor. It’s designed to speed up browsing on patchy WiFi networks, but it can chew through a lot of data. To prevent that, scroll down to the very end of the apps list and switch this option off..
As on Android, you can tell Apple devices not to download app updates over cellular networks: Choose App Store from the Settings app, find the Cellular Data heading, and toggle off the switch next to Automatic Downloads.
Another option is to prevent apps from uploading and downloading data in the background while they’re not in use. Tap General, then Background App Refresh from Settings, and you can disable this for individual apps or stop it completely.
How to manage data in individual app settings
There are plenty of ways to configure Android or iOS to use less data, but some apps will have data usage settings of their own. We can’t cover every app out there, but these tricks should rein in some of the most data-hungry ones.
Open up the settings in the Instagram app, for example, and you can stop it from accessing your location, cut down on the number of notifications you get, and tell it alone not to refresh itself in the background when you’re not using it. The settings menu layout varies between iOS and Android, but these options are easy to find.
Google Chrome for Android has a data saver tool all of its own called Lite mode—it preloads and compresses pages through Google’s servers before sending a stripped-down version to your mobile. You can enable it from the main Settings menu inside the app.
Have a look at the apps on your phone to see if similar options are available, particularly for apps that appear high up in your data usage tables. For example, think about music and podcast apps—are they syncing playlists and downloading new content over cellular connections? The settings for many of these apps will let you restrict this activity so it only happens over WiFi networks.
Preparation will also help you cut down on total data usage. We’ve mentioned music playlists, which you can sync ahead of time while you’re still on your home WiFi, but you can do the same in Google Maps: open the app, tap your avatar, and go to Offline maps. From there, you’ll be able to download parts of the map before leaving the house. This should save you from using as much data when you’re on the road.
Finally, get connected to as many Wi-Fi spots as you can: at work, at your coffee shop, at your friends’ houses (as long as they’re not unsecured networks). Any time you’re not relying on cellular networks alone, you can be saving on data.