How Do I Manage Mobile Data on My iPhone?

All your questions about mobile data and your iPhone, answered.

One of the great things about our iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches is that they all feel so effortless. Turn it on, tap a few icons, send some photos, and everything just works. But of course it’s not so neat and tidy, and there’s actually a lot going on behind the scenes — from cellular networks to Wi-Fi connections to GPS tracking — to make our devices work. And at the heart of it all is data.

When we fire up Facebook or snap some selfies, we rely on networks to move our data from our phones to our social feeds. There are three major types of networks:

  • The first is the cellular network, which connects signals from cell towers to our phones and from our phones to cell towers, so we can make calls and send texts.
  • Then there are data networks, which also come from cell towers but allow us to share pictures, use GPS, and connect to the internet. There are numerous kinds of data networks: 3G, 4G, and LTE are the big ones, but the latest and greatest network, 5G, is being rolled out in certain parts of the country. (You can see what your phone is using by checking the top of your screen for any of those listed network types.)
  • Finally, there are Wi-Fi networks, which lets you do all the things cellular and data networks allow but by tapping into the same kind of Wi-Fi connections your computer uses. (Some devices require you to enable Wi-Fi calling before you can use the phone over a Wi-Fi connection.)

All of those networks allow us to watch videos, stream music, send photos, and consume all kinds of data. We use so much data, in fact, that it’s very easy to lose track of just how much. That can be a problem when it comes time to pay your phone bill and you discover you’ve gone over your data plan. Using data over Wi-Fi doesn’t count against your monthly limit, but cellular usage does. And that’s typically where problems arise.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to keep your data consumption in check:

  1. Tap Settings > Wi-Fi and turn Wi-Fi on, if it’s not already.
  2. Tap Settings > General > Background App Refresh. Turn this functionality off to keep apps from updating their content while you’re not using them. Background App Refresh eats up a ton of data, and you don’t need it for most apps.
  3. Tap Settings > Cellular. On this screen, you can allow or prevent apps from using data while over a cellular network.
  4. Tap Settings > Cellular > Wi-Fi Assist, which is located near the bottom of the page. Wi-Fi Assist allows your phone to access cellular networks and data if Wi-Fi connectivity is poor. Turn this feature off.

While we’re on the topic of connectivity issues and loss, the fact is it will happen (usually when you need a connection the most). There are many reasons why you might experience connectivity loss, but the bigs ones are:

  • Large crowds, like a concert or sporting event. Sometimes there’s not enough data to go around.
  • Enclosed spaces, like a garage or elevator. The data signal can’t reach your phone.
  • Wilderness. If you’re too far from a tower, you won’t have access to data.

When the signal goes out, try moving to an area with better service. If you still don’t have a data signal, there might be an issue with your device.

What about Service Throttling?

A relatively new issue facing network users — which is most of us — is carriers throttling service speeds. Depending on your service provider, you may experience slower speeds once you use a certain amount of data. You can read the fine print on your contract or your carrier’s website, but here’s how it basically works:

  • If you have a set monthly data plan, your carrier may throttle your data once you go over your limit and charge you for the overage.
  • If you have an unlimited plan, you can still get throttled if you go over an arbitrary limit set by the carrier. You won’t get charged an overage, but you’ll stop getting the high speed you signed up for. That becomes an issue when you need speed and reliability for streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Pandora.

Be Vigilant When It Comes to Data Overages

All of that means you need to keep your eyes open for how you’re using data. Most carriers will send you a warning — either an email or text, and sometimes both — when you’re reaching your data limit. They’ll also give you the option of a one-time data extension for a small fee so you won’t get hit with an overage charge. All of that is helpful, for sure. But the best offense is a good defense, and when it comes to data it pays to stay on top of how much you’re using. Make it a habit to check your account online or on your carrier’s mobile app to keep from getting a surprise when the next bill arrives.

The more you know about data, the better you can enjoy all your phone has to offer. And this is just the start.

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