Does 5G use more data and how much data do I need?

24 August 2021

How much 5G data?

Contents list

  1. Does 5G use more data than 4G?
  2. How much data do we use?
  3. How much is 1GB of data?
  4. How much is 2GB of data?
  5. How much is 4GB of data?
  6. How much is 8GB of data?
  7. How much is 12GB of data?
  8. How much is 30GB of data?
  9. How much is 100GB of data?
  10. Do I need unlimited data?
  11. How much data will we be using on 5G in future?
  12. How much do you need to pay for 5G right now?
  13. Conclusion

Data allowance has been the most important component of a mobile contract all through the 4G era. It’s even more crucial during the 5G era.

Your data allowance is what gets used every time you access the internet from your phone without a Wi-Fi connection. Social media, YouTube videos, music streaming, direct messaging, and web browsing all consume data while you’re out and about.

With 5G’s exponential increase in mobile network performance and capacity, you may be concerned over how this will cost you - both in terms of megabytes of data allowance and, ultimately, money. Here’s a rundown on how much data you can expect to use on a 5G network.

Does 5G use more data than 4G?

5G doesnt inherently use more data than 4G. Its merely a more advanced form of network with faster speeds, lower latency and greater capacity. At present, as weve just discussed, were still using our phones for the same things, regardless of the network we use.

But 5Gs unique attributes will lead to an exponential increase in data usage over time. Its speed, low latency and reliability will lead to far more connected devices than before, and far more advanced use cases.

Purely in terms of regular smartphone usage, we will all start to consume far more data thanks to 5G. Its attributes will lead to more advanced and connected applications that will demand more from a mobile internet connection.

The quality of basic video streaming will increase massively, with increased 4K resolutions, more advanced image processing, and immersive 360-degree video and augmented reality properties. This will mean exponentially more data being pumped over our mobile networks per video stream.

Away from regular mobile usage, the Internet of Things will increasingly rely on 5G to connect homes, cars and entire cities. Meanwhile the fact that 5G offers a comparable experience to home broadband will lead to a massive market for 5G wireless broadband services.

While those latter elements might not seem to directly impact your mobile data allowance, the point is that everything is going to be more interconnected as the 5G era matures. Your phone will be at the centre of your 5G-connected life, and that in itself is going to take up a lot of extra bandwidth.

How much data do we use?

According to Ofcom's Communication Market Report 2020, the average UK phone owner used 2.9GB of mobile data per month in the first half of 2019. That marks a 34% increase over the previous year.

The second half of 2019 - which also happened to be the first 6 months of 5G availability - saw a further increase of 22% to 3.6GB of data. Then in 2020 the average monthly amount was 4.5GB according to Ofcom’s Communication Market Report 2021. This was a further 27% rise, and that’s despite the pandemic meaning that most people in the UK will have been out and about utilising 4G and 5G networks much less, with increased reliance on home Wi-Fi.

We're still awaiting the figures for 2021, but would expect further growth, albeit perhaps less than in a normal, non-pandemic year.

That said, even if this world-changing event hadn't taken place, we would have expected an increase in data usage of less than 5GB per month. 5G availability is still relatively limited, and most of us are still doing the same basic things with our phones as we were in early 2019.

It's perhaps instructive, then, to break down what some of those basic online activities consume in terms of data. Where we provide a wide range in the chart below, that’s because different sites and services use quite varied data amounts.

Activity Average data use (per hour)
Web browsing/Social media 20-120MB
Instant messaging 50MB
Email 1MB (without attachments)
Music streaming 100MB
Video streaming 250MB
Online gaming 3-300MB
Video calling 200-300MB

How much is 1GB of data?

With 1GB (1000MB) of data, you could browse the web, use social media, and check your email for 10 hours or so. Spread over a month, that's really not that much. You could also stream around 10 hours of music, using services like Spotify or Apple Music. Though the exact amount will depend on the service and the audio quality you choose.

On the video streaming front, Netflix uses about 1GB of mobile data every six hours on its Save Data setting, 1GB every four hours on Automatic, and 3GB per hour or more on the Maximum Data setting. So you could watch several movies at a sub-optimal SD resolution, or just 20 minutes of content in high quality. Numbers will vary on other video services, but expect that sort of ballpark in most cases. In a nutshell, then, 1GB of data allows one of the following:

  • 10 hours of web browsing and social media
  • Or 10 hours of music streaming
  • Or 2 films per month (medium quality)

Recommended deal

iD SIM Card

1GB data

Unlimited mins & texts

£5 a month

View Deal

How much is 2GB of data?

With 2GB (2000MB) of data, you could browse the web, use social media, and check your email for 20 hours or so. Spread over a month, that's really not that much. You could also stream around 20 hours of music, using services like Spotify or Apple Music.

On the video streaming front, you could watch around four movies a month in medium quality on Netflix. In a nutshell, then, 2GB of data allows for one of the following:

  • 20 hours of web browsing and social media
  • Or 20 hours of music streaming
  • Or 4 films per month (medium quality)

Recommended deal

Three SIM Card

2GB data

200 mins & texts

£5 a month

View Deal

How much is 4GB of data?

4GB of data is about what your average non-5G user will use in a month. With this amount - which equates to 4000MB - you could browse the web, check your social media, and keep on top of your email for around 40 hours. Alternatively, you could stream music for around 40 hours.

You could alternatively manage up to 8 films per month on medium quality, or just about one film in high definition. While this is proven to be enough for the average user, it still isn't a media addict's paradise, then.

4GB data sample monthly usage:

  • 40 hours of web browsing and social media
  • Or 40 hours of music streaming
  • Or up to 8 films per month (medium quality)

Recommended deal

iD SIM Card

4GB data

Unlimited mins & texts

£6 a month

View Deal

How much is 8GB of data?

With 8GB of data (8000MB), we're getting more into advanced usage territory. You could web browse, check your social media, and keep on top of your email for a full 80 hours with this much data on tap. Alternatively, you could stream music for 80 hours - that's more than two and a half hours per day.

Apart from that, it would be possible to stream up to around 16 movies in medium quality each month, or one to two at high definition.

8GB data sample monthly usage:

  • 80 hours of emailing, web browsing and social media
  • Or 80 hours of music streaming
  • Or 16 films per month (medium quality)

Recommended deal

iD SIM Card

10GB data

Unlimited mins & texts

£7 a month

View Deal

How much is 12GB of data?

Now we're starting to get somewhere. With 12GB of data, you'll be able to tackle most things. 120 hours of emailing, web browsing and social media, or the same number of hours of music streaming should be more than sufficient.

On the video front, you'll be able to watch up to around 24 films on medium quality, or around 3 high definition movies. Alternatively, you could just about be able to watch one full UHD or 4K movie.

  • 120 hours of emailing, web browsing and social media
  • Or 120 hours of music streaming
  • Or 24 films per month (medium quality)

Recommended deal

Three SIM Card

12GB data

Unlimited mins & texts

£8 a month

View Deal

How much is 30GB of data?

With 30GB of data per month, you're well into the kind of territory that will be suitable for heavy 5G usage. With 30GB (30000MB) at your disposal, you basically won't have to worry about the impact emailing, web browsing and social media will have on your usage. With typical usage you'd have to exceed 300 hours of this in order to push past your limits, as you would when it comes to music streaming.

But it's video streaming that really benefits from when you get to this much data and higher. With 30GB, you could stream a Netflix movie in medium quality every day and still have lots of data left over. So this is ideal to get you through a full month of commutes. You could bump up the quality to the maximum offered on mobile data and still watch around 5 movies – though as ever we’re only talking about Netflix here. Data use on other platforms varies, as does the Netflix website (this is when streaming from the app). Still, you’re looking at roughly the following:

  • 300 hours of emailing, web browsing and social media
  • Or 300 hours of music streaming
  • Or 64 films per month (medium quality)

Recommended deal

Three SIM Card

30GB data

Unlimited mins & texts

£10 a month

View Deal

How much is 100GB of data?

100GB of data is close to being unlimited, and is far more than most people will use. However, it still comes in handy if you want to watch lots of films in the best possible quality. You could watch for example around 17 movies in top quality on the Netflix app with this allowance.

Most other data uses will have a negligible impact on this allowance, unless you’re regularly downloading massive games, apps and other files over mobile data.

But otherwise, whether browsing the net, instant messaging, or even carrying out video calls or playing online games, you could spend most of your month doing so and still have data left over in most cases. You can see some sample usage below:

  • 1000 hours of emailing, web browsing and social media
  • Or 1000 hours of music streaming
  • Or 17 films per month (high quality)

Recommended deal

Three SIM Card

100GB data

Unlimited mins & texts

£15 a month

View Deal

Do I need unlimited data?

Most people don’t need unlimited data, but if you looked at the 100GB section above and weren’t sure that would be enough, that you might be one of the few that does.

Beyond watching 4K movies on a regular basis, unlimited data also comes in handy if you want to regularly tether your phone to other devices to get them online. That’s because things like laptops and consoles can use a lot more data than a smartphone, and our totals above are only for smartphone use. Once you’re loading desktop pages, driving big screens, and sites like Netflix think you’re connected to Wi-Fi (as they will when tethering), data use can skyrocket.

Of course, having an unlimited data plan also future-proofs you if you think your data use might go up substantially before your contract is due for renewal, so it can be reassuring to have – especially if you plan to make heavy use of 5G.

Recommended deal

Three SIM Card

Unlimited data

Unlimited mins & texts

£16 a month

View Deal

How much data will we be using on 5G in future?

While we've established that 5G doesn't inherently consume more data than 4G, it is still leading to a considerable increase in data usage.

Data from the first year or so of 5G shows that data consumption is significantly higher. Opensignal found that in six leading 5G countries during September 2020, 5G smartphone users consumed between 1.7 and 2.7 times more mobile data than 4G users.

In the UK specifically, 5G phone users consumed 2.5 times more mobile data than 4G users. The average 5G data consumption stood at 17.4GB, which is also instructive.

Naturally there's a certain case of early adopter syndrome at play here, with the first users of any new technology tending to be the most heavily invested - both financially and emotionally. But the new 5G-enabled applications outlined above (360-degree video, augmented reality etc.) are going to lead to a further exponential increase in data usage.

As noted by Mobliciti, the general consensus seems to be that by 2022, average mobile data consumption could be around 20GB per month.

In terms of the nature of that data consumption, mobile infrastructure giant Ericsson predicts that Three hours more video content will be consumed on mobile devices weekly when away from home, of which one hour will be on AR/VR glasses in a 5G future”. It also notes that Half of all users expect their mobile cellular data usage to increase significantly on 5G, and 1 in 5 could see an increase of 10 times, with usage of 200GB per month”.

Of course, both of those reports were written in a pre-COVID world, before 5G rollouts and consumer habits were so unexpectedly constrained. While this might delay that predicted data usage spike a little, however, it won't stop it altogether. The simple fact is that in the not too distant future, we're all going to need significantly more generous data plans.

How much do you need to pay for 5G right now?

After an initial bout of high-priced 5G contracts, as network operators sought to recoup some of their initial rollout costs, monthly fees have stabilised significantly. In most cases, 5G access is all part of the package.

So how much should you be looking to spend on your 5G data today? Based on those aforementioned stats and projections, if you were starting a 24-month 5G contract in 2021, you would ideally want at least 20GB of data allowance each month.

Note that we're not taking handset cost into account here. Most new phones on the market today above £200 (which is budget phone territory) will support 5G connectivity, and the cheapest way to take on any mobile contract is generally to buy a phone outright, then opt for a SIM-only contract.

Check out our feature on the best 5G phones for all budgets if you'd like more information. For now, here are the 5G SIM-only prices for some recommended deals across the UK’s big four network operators at the time of writing.

Three has long provided its customers with access to 5G at no extra charge. You can currently get a 24-month SIM-only plan with unlimited data, minutes and texts for £10 per month over the first 6 months, and £20 per month for the remaining 18 months. If you'd prefer to keep those charges consistent, you can get 30GB of data for £14 per month.

EE now also offers 5G-ready SIM-only plans. At the time of writing you can get a 24-month 120GB data allowance for £20 per month.

As of right now, Vodafone is offering a SIM-only 24-month 120GB plan for £20 per month, or a 30GB plan for £18 per month.

O2's current SIM-only 5G plans include a 24-month 120GB allowance for £20 per month. You can also get a 25GB plan for just £16 per month.

Conclusion

The arrival of 5G is bringing about increased performance, and with it new data-hungry applications. Inevitably, this is leading to a massive increase in mobile data usage.

Whether youre streaming higher quality video, controlling an increased number of connected devices, or taking advantage of the new data-hungry applications that are right around the corner, the simple fact is most of us are going to be needing far more generous data allowances when we sign up for our next mobile contract.

Thankfully, signing up to a 5G contract is no longer an expensive option aimed exclusively at early adopters. Getting connected to the speediest of networks is now all part of the package, and crucially, operators are increasing their data allowances accordingly.

There are plenty of unlimited data and 100GB+ packages out there right now. From what we've learned, however, the average 5G user should find 20GB of monthly data allowance to be sufficient throughout their next contract.

Jon Mundy
About Jon Mundy

Technical Writer at 5G.co.uk

Jon has nine years experience of writing and editing copy for leading publications, as well as attending technology shows and events and conducting interviews. Currently working with 5G.co.uk, TechRadar, Trusted Reviews, T3, Digital Spy, What Mobile, Pocket Gamer, and The Gadget Show.

View more posts by Jon Mundy >
James Rogerson
About James Rogerson

Editorial Manager

James has been writing for us for over 10 years. Currently, he is Editorial Manager for our group of companies ( 3G.co.uk, 4G.co.uk and 5G.co.uk) and sub-editor at TechRadar. He specialises in smartphones, mobile networks/ technology, tablets, and wearables.

In the past, James has also written for T3, Digital Camera World, Clarity Media, Smart TV Radar, and others, with work on the web, in print and on TV. He has a film studies degree from the University of Kent, Canterbury, and has over a decade’s worth of professional writing experience.

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