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What is mobile data? The complete foxing guide

By Ashley Burnett

Originally published November 15, 2022


Last Updated March 21, 2024

Mint Fox waving hi behind a big phone displaying the question, What is mobile data?

Mobile data, a.k.a. cellular data, is any information sent or received by your phone over the internet via your cellular network. Mobile data is what allows you access to all of your apps, the internet, social media or your email no matter where you’re located–even if your local cafe has banned Wi-Fi to “make people actually talk to each other like it’s the ‘90s.” Hence the name mobile data. All you need to use mobile data is a data allowance from a phone carrier and to be in range of a cell tower.

Below, we’ll discuss how mobile data works, how to check your mobile data usage, what uses mobile data and more.

In this article

How does mobile data work?

When you use mobile data, a wireless connection is created by enabling your device to communicate via radio frequencies. The data you’re downloading or uploading is broadcast from or to your nearest cell tower. The way this information has been transmitted over the years has changed with each generation–currently we’re in the fifth generation (5G), which means 5G is the new standard for how phones transmit data. Every new generation is an improvement on the past generations.

Mint Fox rocking out next to a big phone displaying a music app going.

What uses data on a cell phone?

Any time you use your phone to stream a show, download something, make a call or play a round or twenty of Candy Crush, you’re using data on your phone (as long as you’re not on Wi-Fi–learn more on the difference between Wi-Fi and cellular data). 

Here are a few examples of phone services that can use mobile data:

  • Streaming videos
  • Streaming music
  • Checking your email (or sending an email)
  • Video chatting (like FaceTime)
  • Gaming
  • Browsing the internet
  • Using social media apps
  • Using navigation apps

Does texting use data?

Yes, although it’s a pretty minor amount compared to other services your phone provides. Texting apps, like WhatsApp and similar services, can also use data. Check out our article on the difference between SMS vs MMS for more info on what types of messages use data.

Does iMessage use data?

Yes, if you’re not on Wi-Fi, then iMessage uses data since messages are sent over the Internet, with more data being used if you send over a video or photo. 

A table featuring a list of data items with their approximate data sizes.

How is mobile data measured?

The chart above shows approximately how much data various phone functions typically use. Mobile data is measured in terms of the kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB) these activities use up. Check out our article on megabytes and gigabytes to learn more.

Mobile Data light switch

What happens when you change your mobile data settings?

If you leave your mobile data turned on, you’ll be able to use your phone and its services and apps anywhere you go. On the other hand, if you turn your mobile data settings off, you won’t be able to use your phone’s app and services unless you have Wi-Fi–but you’ll also be conserving your data.

How much data do I need?

Unlike what big wireless tells you, the answer to this question isn’t one-size-fits-all. It really depends on how much data you typically use a month and whether you’re usually on Wi-Fi or not. If you love to stream videos or play games and don’t have access to Wi-Fi, an unlimited plan might be for you; while if you work from home and can be on your Wi-Fi all day, a lower data plan is probably the better option.

According to a study from Ericsson done in 2021, the average person uses about 12GB of data a month. But again, that’s just the average person and you could use far more or far less data.

If you’re a Mint subscriber, you’re not average and we know that. That’s why we tell you how much data you use each month: so you can pick the right plan for you. We also offer a plan quiz that can provide recommendations for your next data plan, and you can also learn how Mint Mobile employees use their mobile data for more of an idea on how much data you might need.

A phone's screen showing the cellular  data example

How to check data usage

Have you ever spent time wondering, “how much data do I have left on my phone?” How to check your data usage or how much data you have left will depend on your phone model. If you have an iPhone, check out our article on how to check data usage on iPhone; if you have an Android, check out our article on what is mobile data on Android.

Usually your wireless provider can also show you how much data you’re using, either by logging into your account or calling up their customer service team. As we mentioned earlier, if you’re a Mint subscriber, we’ll tell you how much data you’re typically using so you can get the best plan for you.

How to use less data

If you’re trying to conserve data, one thing you can do is disable background app refresh. You may not know this, but your apps can use mobile data even when you don’t actively have them open. That’s why, if you’re trying to use less data, turning off background app refresh can help. 

Another good tip is to stay on top of how much data your apps use up. Check out how much data Spotify, Google Maps, Netflix, FaceTime and YouTube all use.

Here are some other tips that can help you conserve data:

  • Use Wi-Fi whenever you can, especially when doing something such as streaming or downloading videos that uses up a lot of data
  • Use data saving features on your phone, such as Low Data Mode on iPhone or Data Saver on an Android

Now that you’ve learned what exactly mobile data is and how much data you might actually need, why not check out the plans Mint Mobile offers to discover the best fit for you?

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