In this guide we’ll go over what you need to know about mobile data usage while streaming media, and how to avoid using too much data. Most people love watching YouTube or streaming video and music on their phone, which is why they’re the biggest reason people go over their monthly data plan allowance.
It is easy to burn through an entire 3GB data plan during a Netflix and chill session, streaming the game, or listening to Spotify on your drive to work all week.
And while unlimited data plans are growing in popularity, not everyone has one. With that in mind, here’s how much data most apps use.
These days you can watch HD video, stream super-HQ music, and watch live TV anywhere from your phone. Thankfully some carriers like T-Mobile offer free 480p video streaming plans, but even then, if you stream a higher quality you’ll quickly go over the limit.
Streaming Video Data Usage
Music isn’t quite as big of a problem as streaming video like Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, HBO or any other popular services, so we’ll start with those first.
A prime example is YouTube. By default, most videos play at 720p HD on smartphones, which will use nearly 1GB of data in just over an hour. That means one day of heavy YouTube watching could use your entire data allowance for the entire month. That said, here are some average usage rates for streaming media.
- Ultra-HD Quality: Basically, a 4K stream uses anywhere from 6-7GB per hour
- HD Quality: Streaming video in HD is usually 720p or 1080p full HD and uses about 800MB (0.8GB) per hour, or around 1.4GB for 1080p per hour
- Regular Quality (SD): What carriers and most consider SD is 480p and uses roughly (650MB) per hour
- Very Low Quality: Starting at 144p, 240p or 320p resolution will use roughly 250 MB per hour (144 is the minimum offered on YouTube)
Most people stream video in 480p (SD) or 720p (HD) on smartphones and tablets, which means you can expect to use anywhere from 600MB to over 1GB an hour when you stream video from one of the many video streaming services and cable TV alternatives available these days.
If you have a 5GB data plan with Verizon or AT&T, streaming just five episodes of Game of Thrones could potentially put you over the limit. Thus costing you an exorbitant amount of money per gigabyte when you go over your cap at the end of the month.
Keep in mind that the numbers above are only averages and rough estimates. Some apps consider 720p as HQ, so pay attention and don’t just take our word for it. Additionally, most apps auto-adjust your quality on the fly based on network conditions and your cell service, which can make you quickly use way too much data. Always go into settings and set a specific quality standard.
Music Streaming Data Usage
Next up is music, which is actually a little easier to manage and calculate as they all use the same bitrate numbers for the quality of your music or stream. And while Super-HQ is growing in popularity, here’s what you can expect from the likes of YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora and more.
- High Quality: Usually 320kbps for music. HQ streams use around 110+MB per hour
- Normal Quality: Typically 160kbps, the default for most apps and uses around 75MB per hour
- Low Quality: Around 96kbps and sounds fine while using around 40MB per hour
Just like you can change the video playback quality on Netflix or YouTube, you can control the quality of streaming audio to keep your data usage in check. Plus, apps like Google Play Music (shown above) have specific settings where music will stream in lower quality on a mobile network, and switch to HQ when you’re on WiFi at home.
Average Data Usage for Streaming
Next, we want to offer a list that details multiple different streaming options for a typical smartphone data plan in the United States. Basically, the list below is about what you can expect to use each month without going over your limit. Well, unless you have unlimited data. If so, go hog-wild.
The typical cheap plan from carriers like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint is 3-5GB a month. If you have a 5GB data plan with unlimited talk and text, here’s how much you can stream music and video.
5GB Data Plan Monthly Streaming Limits:
- 7+ hours of SD video (like Netflix, YouTube, NFL Network, HBO Now)
- 5-6 hours of 720p video
- 3.25 hours of 1080p HD video
- 100 hours of low-quality music
- 70+ hours of normal music
- 40 hours of high-quality music (At HQ, you can only listen to a little over an hour of music a day)
Unlimited Data Isn’t Really “Unlimited”
In closing, we want to mention that Unlimited data plans being offered by most carriers aren’t truly “unlimited” and you will run into limits. So don’t think that just because you have an AT&T unlimited plan you can stream 1080p or 2k videos to your Galaxy S10+ for 3-4 hours a day — because you can’t.
Most carriers throttle data usage at 22 or 25GB a month. What this means is you’ve used more than most customers and after 22GB they’ll cut your speeds so slow that videos likely won’t play, buffer non-stop, and you’ll need WiFi to do anything useful on your phone.
Typically the average person that listens to a little music on the way to work, views a YouTube video on his/her lunch break, and uses streaming services sparingly will never hit this 22GB limit. Just know that it does exist, and you can hit that wall if you’re not careful. An hour of Netflix a day at 720p for 30 days will put you pretty close to 25-30GB of data usage in a month. Keep that in mind.
At the end of the day, you’re always better off signing into a WiFi connection at home, your work WiFi, or asking friends and family members to share the password. Anywhere and everywhere I go I’m on WiFi instead of using my AT&T account, so I rarely use more than 6-7GB a month.
We recommend keeping an eye on data usage with the built-in tools on iPhone or Android if you’re a heavy streamer. Or, if your kids are streaming tons of YouTube.
Just know that the numbers you see on your phone in settings may differ from what Verizon or AT&T calculate. It’s always a good idea to check with your carrier or internet service provider on occasion to make sure everything lines up.
So, now that you know how much music or video you can and can’t stream on your smartphone, get a data plan that works for you.
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