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5 Ways Cell Phone Data Is Used & How to Conserve Data Usage

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Your mobile device uses a few different types of data depending on whether it’s connected to a WiFi network. That magical pocket computer doesn’t always need to be hooked up to WiFi – whenever you’re out and about, it provides internet access and sends text messages without trouble. But how does that work?

It’s all thanks to cellular data. Cellular data is one of the most important types of data for all mobile communications and data downloads. Let’s break down what cellular data is and look at five different ways in which cellular data is used.

What Is Cellular Data?

Cellular data is data transmitted across cellular towers, which stand across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and pretty much every other country. Combined, these cellular towers form a cellular data network, which provides the digital infrastructural framework needed to transmit internet information to mobile devices.

When you are driving in your car and bring up Google Maps or Waze on your iPhone to figure out where you need to go, and you aren’t in range of a WiFi router, you use a cellular data connection to do so. Your data usage will reflect this on your cell phone’s settings app.

Most cellular data transmits at 4G LTE or 5G speeds. 

How Is Cellular Data Used?

Cellular data is used in a few ways on both Apple and Android devices. Odds are, if you’ve left your house, you’ve used cellular data today and will continue to do so through the rest of the week. Here are some examples of what uses cellular data.

1. Web Browsing

When you surf web pages on a mobile device and aren’t connected to WiFi or hotspot, you use cellular data by default. That means your mobile device connects to a local cell tower and uses that connection to bring internet data to your screen. A quick Google search, checking on a sports score in a web browser, or reading an article your friend sent you – this is one of the most popular data uses for laptops and mobile network phones alike.

2. Media Downloads

Many people use cell data to download various media, such as podcasts, songs, or TV shows. When you stream a Netflix show on your device while connected to a cellular network, it’s all happening thanks to cellular data.

3. Mobile Apps

Similarly, many of your mobile apps probably have a higher amount of data than you think. Many apps need to connect to the internet to refresh or update themselves, like by downloading updates. They use cell data to do this automatically if you aren't connected to a WiFi network. Many social media apps can be data-hungry and use up more of your data allowance than you expect if you aren't careful!

You can easily check the data usage of apps in your phone’s settings. Examples of data-hungry apps are navigation apps like maps, music-playing apps like Spotify – especially if you’re playing songs in high-quality sound – and apps that download a lot of data, such as eBook readers, streaming apps, and YouTube. Social media apps can also consume a lot of data through scrolling.

4. Emails

You probably send emails through apps, too, but this is a common enough activity that uses that that it’s worth highlighting separately. When you send an email on a cell network, you use cellular data to do so. Emails aren’t very data heavy, but they can still take up more data than you think if your email inbox is allowed to refresh automatically, even if you aren’t connected to WiFi.

You can disable the automatic refreshing of emails in the app settings, but note this means you will no longer get notifications when new emails come in. 

5. Texts and Direct Messages

You can even use cellular data to send texts and direct messages, though it’s not a requirement. If you bring up your phone’s message app and aren’t connected to WiFi and have no signal, sending an SMS or other message can use cellular data or WiFi to facilitate information transfer. Other messaging apps like iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp all use data. 

Typically, as long as you’re covered by your network, you can send an SMS without data. 

How Can You Save Cellular Data?

Since you can use cellular data for many different things, it’s a good idea to figure out how you can save cell data each month. That way, you won’t exceed your monthly allowance or have to pay high fees.

Pick a Good Cellular Data Plan

For starters, be sure to choose a high-quality data plan. The top cell providers, like T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T, offer top-tier, unlimited data plans with monthly allowances of 50 GB of premium data per month or more. Many family plans offer even greater data allowances because they assume everyone on the plan will use some amount of cellular data.

The more cellular data plan comes with, the more data you can use before running into the surcharge limit. Just keep in mind that many phone plans with high cellular data allowances also cost more compared to those that only give you a few gigabytes of data. 

Wondering how much data you need? You can check your phone settings to see how much data you’ve used so far this month to get a rough idea of how much data will suffice. 

Use WiFi Networks Whenever Possible

You can also save cellular data by using WiFi networks as much as you can. When you go to a coffee shop, for example, log into their free WiFi network if you’re not doing anything that could put your identity or work at risk.

Similarly, be sure to connect your phone to your home and work WiFi networks and use the settings app to connect to WiFi automatically when possible. That will prevent you from using cellular data by accident or without meaning to.

Visiting friends or family? Don’t be shy about asking to connect to their WiFi networks. Remember, since most folks have unlimited WiFi at home, they won’t begrudge you the connection. 

Turn Off Default Data Roaming

Data roaming happens when your phone “hops” or “roams” from network to network. Most domestic networks have roaming agreements with each other, so for example, if you are an AT&T customer but you connect to a Verizon cell tower, you won’t get charged for using Verizon’s network. 

This is not the case for international roaming, which can get very expensive, very quickly. If you plan on traveling abroad, carefully read your cell phone plan contract to determine what countries are already covered, how much roaming rates are, and whether you can buy a travel pass. Note that many of the best phone plans for international travel include some free connectivity in Canada and Mexico by default. 

To be safe, turn off default data roaming so you only use it when you explicitly need to save money and cellular data.

Check Your Apps’ Permissions

Lastly, go to your settings app and look at all the app permissions currently enabled. Many of your apps have their permissions set to “on” for updates and connecting to the internet. Turn those permissions settings to “off” so your apps have to ask for your permission to update themselves or connect to the internet. That way, they won’t do so when you aren’t connected to WiFi, eating into your cellular data allowance in the process.

Note that as we mentioned above, this will mean you no longer get push notifications from the apps that can’t connect to cellular data if you’re out of WiFi range.

How Does Cellular Data Differ From W-Fi Data?

Cellular data has some similarities to WiFi data. For example, both types of data are transmitted and received wirelessly, so you never need to plug your phone in to access the internet. That said, there are some big differences between these data types.

WiFi is a type of radio frequency that connects wireless devices. WiFi signal is only available via a WiFi network, which is transmitted from a WiFi router. That’s why you can only use WiFi data when you are within a certain physical proximity of a WiFi router, typically around 30 m or 100 feet. When you move out of the range of your chosen WiFi network’s router, your phone will automatically use cellular data to continue data transmission unless otherwise directed. Cellular data, by contrast, has a much broader range.

Furthermore, WiFi data is virtually unlimited. Most broadband providers don’t limit the amount of WiFi you can use per month, but cell phone providers sometimes do. For instance, your phone provider might give you 50 GB of cell data per month. If you use more than 50 GB, you may face slowdowns or even have to pay a surcharge,

In contrast, when you hook up to a WiFi network, you can use that WiFi data as much as you like. 

Given these differences, most people use WiFi data when they are within range of a WiFi router or network they trust (since open public WiFi networks can be dangerous for security and identity theft). Then, when they are out of range of a WiFi network, mobile data usage allows them to retain internet connectivity.

The Bottom Line

In summary, cellular data is the wireless cellular network data your phone uses to connect to the internet and send messages whenever it's not connected to WiFi or a hotspot. Thanks to cellular data, your phone stays valuable even when you aren't near a WiFi router.

It’s important to make sure you have a good cell plan that includes plenty of cellular data for your browsing and downloading without racking up high fees. Not sure how to start your search? Our free, unbiased Plan Finder below can help. Just answer a few questions including your current provider, what perks you’d like, and how much data you need, and we can help you compare phone plans to find the best deals for you today. 

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