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What Is Cellular Data: Everything To Know About Mobile Data

a tower with antennas and a wifi symbol

When searching for the right data plan, have you come across the term “cellular data” or “mobile data”? Cell phone plans talk a lot about data usage, yes, but what exactly does cellular data mean? When you consider WiFi, streaming music and videos, and a bunch of other terms, it can be tough to know exactly what it is, how much cellular data you need, and when your phone uses cellular data (also known as mobile data) instead of WiFi networks.

All of these terms can make choosing a data plan much more confusing than it needs to be. In this article, we’ll cover the basics, including answering the following questions: What is cellular data? When does your phone use cellular data? How can you manage your cellular data to save money on your phone bill?

What Is Cellular Data?

Measured in gigabytes, 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 the default type of data connection used to surf the Internet from your phone and is transmitted from or to your phone using cell towers. Your phone uses cellular data whenever it is not connected to a WiFi network or mobile hotspot. There are many things that cellular data is used to transmit, including:

  • Data so your phone can display webpages
  • Emails
  • 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 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. 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.

Take a close look at your phone bill, and you’ll note that your cell phone plan carrier measures and bills your cellular 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. WiFi Data

Cellular data and WiFi data represent two distinct ways of connecting to the Internet, each with its own set of characteristics. The main difference is where you get coverage. WiFi networks typically connect you to the internet at home, in the office, or when connected to a mobile hotspots. WiFi networks operate within relatively small and limited areas. The range of WiFi is determined by the reach of the WiFi router or access point, and it's typically effective only within the immediate vicinity.

In contrast, cellular data is delivered through a vast network of cell towers that span cities, regions, and even remote areas. This extensive infrastructure allows you to access cellular data no matter where you are, making it suitable for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. It's particularly valuable in locations where WiFi is unavailable so you can stay connected.

Another significant contrast between the two is the cost. Cellular data comes at a price via your wireless carrier. Users pay a monthly fee to their cell phone plan provider for a specific data allowance, either unlimited or capped. Exceeding a capped cellular data allowance can result in additional charges, and these costs can add up quickly if you're not careful.

On the other hand, WiFi is usually free to use in public places like cafes, libraries, or airports. There's no direct cost associated with connecting to public WiFi networks, which makes it an economical choice for data access. There’s also no limit or extra cost associated with connecting to your home WiFi network outside of the cost associated with your Broadband or Internet Service Provider.

Given how quickly cellular data charges can rack up, it's important for mobile users to monitor and manage their data usage effectively. Many smartphones offer settings to track data consumption, and users can set up alerts to avoid exceeding their data limits. This vigilance is crucial in preventing unexpected costs and ensuring that mobile data usage remains within budget.

What Uses Cellular Data?

Any activity on your smartphone that uses or requires access to the Internet uses cellular data -- unless you are connected to a WiFi network or hotspot, in which case you use those networks instead. Naturally, different activities incur different data usage rates.

For example, downloading a basic Google search 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 at all -- they use the radio signals of cell carrier towers.

Do You Use Cellular Data Automatically?

Your smartphone is programmed to use cellular data when WiFi isn't available. However, some apps can consume cellular data in the background without your consent. To avoid these situations, keep an eye on your cellular data usage and double-check your WiFi connection status before browsing the web. If you aren’t careful, you might unknowingly start streaming music or a video while not connected to WiFi, resulting in significant cellular data consumption.

You can always turn off or limit cellular data in your mobile phone settings to control it. Go to settings and look for a “Data Use” setting where you can limit the amount of data you use in a given time frame.

What Are the Main Types of Cellular Data Networks?

You’ve probably heard of 5G and 4G LTE, but what do these terms mean? As cellular phones have gained popularity and wireless carriers have worked to expand and improve their coverage across the country and worldwide, different cellular data networks have been launched. Today, most users are on 5G and 4G LTE, which offer fast, reliable data connections.

Smartphones came of age during 3G networks, which were the first networks that allowed users to access the internet. 4G LTE networks enabled even faster data connections compared to 3G, and are still in use today. 

At the time of the writing of this article, the 5G, or fifth-generation network, is well on its way to rolling out nationwide. This network offers much faster Internet download speeds with most carriers aiming to bring 1 GB per second download speeds to their users no matter what. 

6G, or the sixth-generation network, is currently being tested and is expected to roll out around the end of the decade. This network uses cognitive technologies like AI to enable high-speed, real-time communication at an even faster rate than fifth-generation networks.

What Are Data Plans?

All 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.

There are two kinds of data plans: capped and unlimited. With capped plans, cell phone carriers set a specific gigabyte limit for your monthly cellular data usage, which is included in your monthly plan. Going over this limit can result in additional charges for the extra data used during that billing cycle.

If you have an unlimited data plan, you don’t have to worry about data overage charges. However, unless you select a premium unlimited data plan, you won’t be guaranteed high-speed data at all times. Depending on the amount of high-speed data your unlimited plan includes, your cellular network may reduce your download speed or assign your connection a lower priority when you reach a certain data threshold. Still, lots of people choose unlimited data plans because they like the freedom of not having 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.

Need help determining what phone carrier or plan to switch to? Try our Plan Finder below. Just enter your zip code, and we’ll help you find and compare cell phone plans based on your data needs and other criteria that's important to you, including carrier preferences, number of lines and perks.

What is Data Roaming?

Data roaming is a service available in some mobile data plans that allows users to stay connected to the Internet using cellular data, even when they are outside their service provider's coverage area. This means they can use nearby cell towers, even if those towers are owned by other carriers. However, it's essential to be cautious as data roaming charges can be quite expensive.

To avoid accidental charges, it's advisable to keep data roaming turned off on your smartphone, especially if you don't have any upcoming travel plans. Most devices offer a simple toggle switch in the network settings menu for this purpose.

How Can You Manage Cellular Data?

Given the importance of keeping cellular data fees down, it’s good 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.

Many mobile carriers provide services that enable you to keep track of your cellular data usage throughout the month. For instance, Verizon customers can use the MyVerizon website or their mobile app, which not only displays your current data usage but also presents your bill. Some carriers, like Verizon, also offer the option to check your data usage by dialing a specific phone number, and in such cases, the carrier sends you a text message with the details of your cellular data usage 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 own an iPhone, you can monitor your data usage by navigating to the Settings app. Within this menu, select "Cellular," and then go to "Cellular Data." From there, you have the option to disable your cellular data setting entirely, which will prevent your phone from using mobile 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.

The Bottom Line

In a nutshell, cellular data or mobile data enables your smartphone to connect to the Internet and access online services while on the move. It operates through a network of cellular towers that send and receive data signals to and from mobile devices. This data connection enables you to surf the web, use apps, and tap into video streaming, even in the absence of WiFi connectivity.

If you’re having issues with your cellular data, you can always reach out to your mobile provider for assistance. We also recommend you try our free, unbiased Plan Finder to compare phone plans and find the one best suited to your mobile data and hotspot needs. 

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