Posted on March 21, 2024

What is a Data Plan? How to Determine Your Data Needs

With an estimated 17 billion mobile devices globally, to say every person needs data is an understatement. Data allows us to access the internet, make data calls, stream our favorite songs and videos, and work. However, not all data plans are created equal or work for the same budget.

To find the right data plan for your budget and needs, it’s critical to know the answers to what is a data plan, how it works, and what charges to expect. Become data and network literate and choose the best data plan for your needs with this article!

What is a Data Plan?


Your mobile device is your portal to online connectivity; it gives you access to web browsing, social media, and unlimited talk. But what is a data plan, and how do you choose one?

A data plan is a service agreement between a mobile user and a mobile carrier that allows users to access the Internet using data. The access is limited to the mobile carrier of your choice and where their towers are located.

Your exact data plan depends on your budget, data needs, internet speed, and available mobile carrier data plans.

How Do Data Plans Work?

We need to examine the internet and data service to understand your charges and how data plans work fully.


Mobile carriers have access to the Internet. They sell access to the internet to mobile users through data plans, and the access is allowed through carrier towers in your area.

How much data you have limits your access. For example, if you have 500 MB of data, you could browse Facebook for a few hours. If you had 10 GB, you could browse the internet for days or stream up to 10 hours of Netflix or videos.

Most mobile carriers have set data plans. You purchase a data plan with access to the internet for a specific amount, and the data expires on a set date. The exact charges and expiration policies differ from carrier to carrier.

What are Data Charges?

A data charge is your carrier’s predetermined price for a megabyte of data. In 2023, the average cost of 1 GB of data in the USA was $ 2.75. The exact data charge will differ depending on your carrier and data plan.

Mobile carriers divide their data plans and charges according to three common categories: prepaid, postpaid, and unlimited.

Prepaid and postpaid are the ones we spoke of above, where you pay a flat rate for a specific amount of data. For prepaid, you pay upfront for the data. There is no extra data. Once you run out of data, your access to the internet is cut off.

Post-paid offers more flexibility, as you can continue to use the internet even if you’ve run out of your allotted monthly data. The extra data usage will be added to your monthly phone bill. On average, postpaid data charges are less than prepaid data charges because they are usually part of a larger phone package that offers data benefits.

Unlimited plans are more expensive but give users unlimited access to the internet. While the plan is ‘unlimited,’ some carriers will cap your internet access at a certain point, like 100 GB, to prevent bandwidth saturation. Read the fine print on your contract to see if your carrier will cap your access.


How to Get More Mobile Data?

If you find yourself using all your data before your plan resets at the beginning of the month, you may be able to purchase a “refill” or “top up” to add more data to your plan. Costs may differ from provider to provider, but it is an option for customers who may only occasionally go over their monthly allotted data without having to upgrade to a plan with more data.

What Uses Data On a Cell Phone?

Understanding which activities drain your data allows for smarter utilization of your cellular data-only plan or any data plan for tablets and smartphones, minimizing waste and optimizing costs.


Here’s a look at which apps are taking advantage of your internet data:

  • Social Media Usage: Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and X (Twitter) are common culprits that use too much data. Every scroll, post, or video watched while not connected to Wi-Fi uses your plan’s data. 
  • Streaming Videos and Music: Services like YouTube, Netflix, and Spotify require considerable data, especially if streaming in high definition. These activities can quickly deplete your data allowance, making it crucial to monitor usage if you have data limits.
  • Online Gaming: Mobile games consume data for real-time gameplay. However, real data plan usage comes from downloading or updating the game. This is especially true for games with AAA-level graphics, which can require Gigabytes of data.
  • Navigation Apps: Using apps for directions involves constantly downloading map data, which can add up over long trips. 


How Much Data Do You Need?

How much data you need depends entirely on your unique needs. However, there are a few things to keep in mind and ways to check your requirements.

Wi-Fi Access

First, consider your Wi-Fi access. If you have Wi-Fi at home, you won’t need as much data as someone without. You already have your data needs covered at home, where most people spend time browsing or streaming on the internet.

If you don’t have Wi-Fi access, you’ll need more data to access the Internet throughout the month. So, consider how often you’re without Wi-Fi access and use that to guide you.

Historic Mobile Data Usage

Next, consider how much data you’ve used in the past.

Most smartphones have a feature that allows you to check how much data you’ve used in the past. This can help you decide how much data you need to buy in the future. Use the data to figure out your data usage average.

Check Data Usage On IOS

To check your data usage on IOS devices,

  •   Go to your phone’s Settings.
  •   Next, click on Cellular or Settings.
  •   From there, click on the Mobile Data option.

The device will show you a breakdown of your data usage and how much data you’re using on different apps.

Check Data Usage On Android

To check your data usage on Android devices, 

  •   Go to your phone’s Settings.
  •   Next, click on Internet & Network.
  •   Select the sim you’re using with your mobile carrier.
  •   Next, click on Mobile Data Usage. It might also be labeled as App Data Usage in different models.

 The device will show a breakdown of your Android device’s data usage and how much data you’re using on different apps.

Data Needs

Lastly, consider your data needs. Do you make a lot of data calls through apps? Are you using your phone as a hotspot regularly? Do you use your data to power your laptop or tablet for work?

These are all factors that could affect your monthly data needs and how much data you buy.

Combine your average data usage in the previous step with any plans or needs for the future, and decide whether you’ll need more than your monthly average to cover all your data needs. 

Remember, most mobile carriers put expiration dates on their data plans. If you still have a lot of data left over when the expiration date comes around, you lose money. So don’t buy a lot more than you think you’ll need. You can always refill your data later in the month if you need more than you expected.

How Much Does Data Cost?

Data costs are different from carrier to carrier.

On average, a US citizen can expect to pay anywhere from $2.75 to $30 for 1 GB of data. Some contract plans charge as much as $40 a month for 500 minutes of talk time and 2 GB of data.

To get an accurate estimate, visit your mobile carrier’s website or app and check the exact cost of shared and unlimited data plans there.

What Effects Data Costs?

Such a large margin in data costs isn’t just due to carrier markup. Most of the time, the markup is added because of the internet speed or mobile network generation.

There are five generations of mobile networks, with 3G, 4G, and now 5G being the most common. 1G and 2G are too outdated for most modern smartphones.

3G was introduced in 2001 and was the first generation to emphasize fast internet speed. Today, 3G tends to be the cheapest data option. 4G followed in 2010 with faster internet speeds than 3G. It was also joined by LTE, a 4G sibling that offered even faster service. 5G is the newest option and boasts the fastest internet speed.

As each generation progressed, so did the internet speed, capabilities, and cost. Today, the cost of your data can be significantly influenced by which generation of mobile networking you’re using, with 5G being the most expensive.

Final Thoughts

Mobile data is a necessity, but finding the right data plan for your budget and needs can be overwhelming. What exactly entails finding the right plan, and how do you start? This is where understanding what is a data plan for a smartphone becomes crucial.

Luckily, it’s quite simple. A data plan is the plan you purchase from a mobile carrier, which then provides you with internet access. There are postpaid, prepaid, and unlimited data plans for users. The exact charges differ depending on the plan, the mobile carrier, and the internet speed.

If you’re struggling with current data plan charges, don’t worry! Assist Wireless’s Lifeline plan offers free phones and free data benefits to those in need. Plus, we offer Lifeline and the affordable connectivity program in Oklahoma and other states. To check your eligibility, start your application today.

Lifeline Program

Due to sharing many of the same eligibility requirements those currently enrolled in the lifeline program may qualify for The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) also.

Medicaid / Medi-Cal

Program Approval Letter, Benefit Statement, or Verification of Coverage Letter, should contain the following basic information:

  • Name of the program or state equivalent,
  • Name of the beneficiary,
  • Address of the beneficiary, and
  • Date of the award


Eligibility Screenshot or printout from an online portal or website tool, should contain the following basic information:

  • Name of the program or state equivalent,
  • Name of the beneficiary
  • Medical Identification number, OR
  • Case number,
  • Eligibility dates, OR
  • Current participation status

Federal Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans & Survivors Pension Benefit

Pension Grant Letter, should contain the following basic information:

  • Participant’s name
  • Address
  • A decision about the participant’s monthly entitlement amount
  • Payment start date

Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)

FPHA award letter, should contain the following basic information:

  • Name of the program,
  • Date of the award,
  • Name of the beneficiary, and
  • Award amount.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Approval Letter or Benefit Statement issued by the SSA, or on SSA letterhead.

  • Consumer’s name
  • Date
  • Eligibility Date
  • Claim number OR Other consumer identification number
  • Payment amount

SNAP / Food Stamps / CalFresh

Program Approval Letter, Benefit Statement, or Verification of Coverage Letter, should contain the following basic information:

  • Name of the program,
  • Name of the beneficiary,
  • Eligibility dates, OR
  • Current participation status


Eligibility Screenshot or printout from an online portal or website tool, should contain the following basic information:

  • Name of the program or state equivalent,
  • Name of the beneficiary,
  • Case number,
  • Eligibility dates, OR
  • Current participation status