Cellular data is the data your cell phone uses for Internet access, allowing your device to download information from web browsers and social media apps. Cellular data is distinct from the data used to send and receive text messages and phone calls, so your “data plan” only applies to the amount of data you use for Internet activities.
Your phone plan talks a lot about data usage. But when you consider Wi-Fi, media streaming, and a bunch of other terms, it can be tough to know exactly what cellular data is, how it works, and when your phone uses cellular data instead of Wi-Fi networks.
All of this can make choosing a phone plan much more confusing than it needs to be. Read more to learn about cellular data and when your phone uses it. We'll also explore how you can manage your cellular data to save money effectively.
What Are the Basics of Cellular Data?
Cellular data is any data transmitted from or to your phone using a cellular carrier or carrier tower.
Cellular data is the default type of data connection used to surf the Internet; your phone uses cellular data whenever it is not connected to a Wi-Fi network or hotspot.
Cellular network data is used to transmit:
- Data so your phone can display webpages
- Emails and related data
- Video data for streaming on Netflix or other apps
- Data for app downloads and software updates
- Data for location services, such as GPS triangulation
Cellular data is sometimes called mobile data, but they are the same thing. Furthermore, SMS or text messaging is a separate service; it’s not the same as cellular data, which we mostly use to connect to mobile networks for Internet activity.
You’ll note that your cell phone plan carrier measures and bills your cell data separately from your phone call data.
Cell data use works the same for Apple vs. Android devices, and it’s the same for laptops, iPads and other tablets, and mobile phones. It’s never used if you have a WiFi connection to a router.
Cellular Data vs. Wi-Fi Data
Cellular data is transmitted over cell network towers: the same network of towers that lets you make phone calls, for example. It is contrasted with Wi-Fi data, which uses radio frequencies to wirelessly transmit data to devices like your smartphone.
There are several other differences between cellular data and Wi-Fi data as well. For example, Wi-Fi data has a much more limited range.
Cellular data is available provided you are within a cell carrier tower range. This is why you can usually get cellular data reception even in areas not connected to a Wi-Fi network.
However, the other primary difference is cost. You usually have to pay a monthly fee for cellular data to your cell phone plan provider.
In contrast, when you use Wi-Fi data, you aren’t charged, whether you use the Wi-Fi network at your home or a public Wi-Fi signal, like a network at your favorite coffee shop.
Because cell data charges can add up quickly, it’s essential to know how to monitor and manage your cell data usage regularly.
What Are the Main Types of Cellular Data Networks?
As cellular phones have spread across the country and worldwide, different cellular data networks have been launched.
- The 2G or second-generation network was the first cellular data network technology that most people became familiar with, as it launched in 1991. It allowed users to send texts or make phone calls with other mobile phone users.
- The 3G or third-generation network. This first launched in 2001 and allowed users to talk over the phone or send texts, just like the 2G network. However, it also offered much better security and improved data download speeds for all cell phone users.
- The 4G or fourth-generation network. This popular carrier network enables faster download speeds, mobile IP addresses, link adaptation, and much better IP communication connections. Most users benefited from 500 Mb per second and 1 GB per second upload and download speeds.
- The 5G, or fifth-generation network, is currently rolling out nationwide. This new network brings much faster Internet download speeds; most carriers want to bring 1 GB per second download speeds to their users no matter what. This also often gets lumped in with LTE cellular connections.
What Uses Cellular Data?
Simply put, any activity on your smartphone that uses or requires access to the Internet uses cellular data if you aren't connected to a Wi-Fi network or hotspot. Naturally, different activities incur different data usage rates.
For example, downloading a basic Google page takes less cellular data than streaming a one-hour episode of your favorite TV show.
Generally, video-based downloads, like streaming shows or making video calls, use much more cell data than other activities. That's because the cell carrier towers must transmit much more data to produce an image on your phone screen.
In contrast, checking or sending an email that only includes text doesn't take much data. Using turn-by-turn navigation also doesn't take very much cellular data.
Remember, sending text messages or making phone calls does not use cellular data. They don't use data at all; instead, they use the radio signals of cell carrier towers to facilitate their functions.
Do You Use Cellular Data Automatically?
Your cell phone likely uses cell data automatically whenever it is not connected to a Wi-Fi network and you open your Internet browser.
However, if you aren’t careful, applications can use cellular data in the background without your express permission; that’s one reason why some people find very high cellular data bills at the end of the month and can’t account for where all that data went.
Because your smartphone may use cellular data automatically, it's essential to monitor your cellular data usage and check your Wi-Fi network connectivity status before you go on the Internet.
If you aren't careful, you might start streaming a video without noticing that you aren't connected to Wi-Fi, using a lot of cellular data in the process.
What Are Data Plans?
Cell plan carriers offer cellular data usage plans. Data plans are allowances provided by major cell carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. These companies set a cap on how much cellular data you can use per month or billing cycle.
Cell carriers typically limit your cellular data to a certain number of gigabytes. That’s what you get each month for your monthly fee. If you go beyond your gigabyte limit, you might have to pay a surcharge for all the extra-cellular data you used in that billing cycle.
If you have an unlimited data plan, however, you don’t have to worry about a cap on your cellular data usage and can surf the Internet without any limits (though you may not have the download speeds you want).
Indeed, unlimited data plans don't mean that you get priority in download speeds or streaming. If you reach your data threshold, your carrier might slow down your Internet download speed or make your Internet connection a lower priority than other users.
Still, lots of people like to prioritize unlimited data plans because they don’t have to worry about accidentally going over their data caps each month. An unlimited plan might be the best option if you don’t know how much data you need.
What’s Data Roaming?
Data roaming is a feature offered in some cellular data packages. Data roaming services let users remain connected to the Internet via cellular data even if they are out of their service provider’s specific coverage area. Instead, they piggyback off the nearby cell towers, even if they are owned or used by other carriers.
That said, data roaming charges are usually costly. If you accidentally turn this feature on with your smartphone, you might charge yourself a lot of money by accident.
You should leave data roaming off on your smartphone if you aren't planning on traveling anytime soon; most devices let you do this by activating a toggle in the network settings menu.
How Can You Manage Cellular Data?
Given the importance of keeping cellular data fees down, it’s essential to know how to manage cellular data for the health of your wallet. Luckily, there are a few different ways in which you can do this.
Most carriers offer services that let you observe or monitor cellular data as you use it throughout the month. For example, Verizon customers can access the MyVerizon website or the integrated mobile app.
This not only shows you your current cellular data usage rate but also shows you your bill. Some carriers, such as Verizon, let you dial a phone number; in these cases, your carrier will send you a text message telling you how much cellular data you have used in the current billing cycle.
Alternatively, you can take advantage of third-party apps to track data usage. These include Data Usage for iOS and DataManNext.
Both options are great, though they require you to download a third-party app to your phone and permit it to access your phone's software to work. Be sure only to use a third-party app that is highly reviewed and that you trust.
If you have an iPhone, you can check your data consumption rate by going to Settings. Once in this menu, tap Cellular, then Cellular Data. This way, you can turn your cellular data setting completely off, preventing your phone from using cell data to access the Internet.
Of course, you’ll still be able to send texts and make phone calls. Most Android phones also have similar Settings features to give you total control over your phone’s cellular data usage.
Try Navi’s Plan Navigator Today
As you can see, cellular data is always ticking in the background. You might have a relatively flexible cellular data allowance depending on your phone plan. But other plans may charge you significant fees just for forgetting to connect to Wi-Fi when you reach your favorite coffee shop.
Fortunately, Navi's Plan Navigator service helps you find the best cell phone plan based on budget and data allowances.
Try it today, and you can start using a data plan that works for you.