How to Use Less Cellular Data on Your iPhone

As cellular data becomes more expensive, apps and services seem to consume more of it. This article explains how to use less cellular data on your iPhone.

Table of Contents:

  • Cellular Data Is Becoming More Expensive
  • Turn on Airplane Mode When Not in Use
  • Configure Video Quality on Streaming Apps
  • Download Content over WiFi for Offline Viewing
  • Turn off Cellular Data Access for Nonessential Apps
  • Turn off WiFi Assist
  • Turn on WiFi Calling
  • Turn off Background App Refresh
  • Turn off Automatic Downloads
  • Turn off Fetch New Data
  • Turn off iOS Photo Stream
  • Turn off iOS iCloud Backups
  • Turn off iOS Operating System Updates
  • Exercise Caution When Using a Personal Hotspot
  • Turn off LTE Data
  • Consider Getting a Cheaper Cellular Data Plan

Cellular Data Is Becoming More Expensive

Technology typically becomes cheaper over time. Think about that first PC you owned. It was expensive and not very powerful. Compare that to the cheapest computer you can find today, and it’s likely that the new, less expensive machine is better. This is due to free market competition.

Decreases in price are often driven by technological breakthroughs and economies of scales effects. Infrastructure needed to deliver cellular data is cheaper than ever. There are more subscribers, which should create an economy of scales effect. Unfortunately, collusion in the industry has prevented free market equilibrium. Instead, companies like Sprint and T-Mobile gouge consumers.

Most famously, Sprint and T-Mobile pledged not to raise cellular data rates for three years after their merger. The merger will actually produce synergies, eliminate redundancies (layoffs) and provide greater economies of scale effects. They should be reducing prices. Unfortunately, by reducing competition, they can get away with raising prices. The fact that cellular data still costs $10-20 per GB and is slower than ever speaks a familiar truth — the industry is no longer competitive. Cellular networks are owned by modern-day robber barons. Cellular data is pretty much the “gasoline” for your cell phone and you are being gouged. This level of market manipulation didn’t happen by accident.

You can scream and shout about this, but it won’t do any good. If this situation produces any outrage, it will be ephemeral. People will go back to following whatever red herring the media puts in front of them. The news consumer will suspect collusion everywhere except where it actually exists!

The only thing you can do about rising cellular data costs is to conserve data. Let’s take a look at how to do this.

Turn on Airplane Mode When Not in Use

By default, your iPhone is constantly using cellular data. Apps are set to do background content refreshes. If you download some apps on your Apple TV or iPad, they may show up on your iPhone. You’re probably well aware that it’s easy to use up more cellular data than you expect, especially if you have a restrictive data plan.

Airplane mode basically turns off cellular data. The feature is designed to prevent conflict with wireless aeronautical systems. Fortunately, you don’t have to be on an airplane to use this feature. Simply slide your finger up from the bottom of any screen to launch Control Center, then tap the button resembling an airplane.

You can turn on WiFi while using Airplane mode. If your carrier supports WiFi calling, you will be able to make and receive phone calls while in Airplane mode. Without support for WiFi calling, you cannot make calls in airplane mode. Make sure to forward calls to another phone or check Notifications periodically. You will need to momentarily turn off airplane mode to do this.

Personally, I turn on Airplane mode all the time. I’ve had the same cell phone number for over 20 years. Most of my phone calls are from con artists. If I’m not in Airplane mode, I’m using Do Not Disturb and I also have the ringer turned off. I get about 8 calls from con artists every day. Isn’t it amazing that the cellular providers can’t do a thing about this? All they seem able to do is raise rates while their services deteriorate in quality. What happened to the free market?

Configure Video Quality on Streaming Apps

Streaming video can consume the greatest amount of cellular data, especially if you’re not careful. Some streaming apps, such as Netflix and YouTube, provide excellent controls for conserving cellular data. If you absolutely need to watch video over a cellular connection, I strongly recommend configuring these services to use less data.

Configuring Netflix to save cellular data is easy, but you’ll need to visit the Netflix website. For more information, please read “How to Adjust Netflix Video Quality on the iPhone, Mac and Apple TV”.

YouTube also provides excellent control over cellular data. The easiest way to do this is to adjust the video quality setting for each video. After selecting a video to play, tap on the three dots on the top right of the screen. A menu appears. Tap on the Quality menu option and set the desired video quality. If you’re trying to conserve data, I recommend 480p or less. I’ve also found that the video quality selection isn’t persistent. Unfortunately, you’ll need to make this change with every video.

It is possible to prevent YouTube from streaming in HD quality on your iPhone. Simply launch the YouTube app and tap on your account icon in the top right corner, then tap on Settings. From the Settings menu, turn on “Play HD on Wi-Fi only”. Of course, SD video can also burn through a lot of data. It’s always a good idea to adjust video quality manually, if you’re trying to conserve cellular data.

Download Content over WiFi for Offline Viewing

Both Netflix and YouTube support downloading videos for offline viewing. Netflix only allows this for certain videos — typically ones which they have produced. If you plan on watching a Netflix download on Apple TV using AirPlay, you will be disappointed. Netflix has disabled this capability. Downloaded videos will also expire within 48 hours to a week. The Los Gatos streaming giant imposes a lot of strict rules for downloading content. In fact, I have actually burned through more cellular data due to their expiration rules. Make sure to only download videos that you can watch before they expire.

To download a Netflix video, simply launch the Netflix app and tap on the Downloads tab. Next, tap on FIND SOMETHING TO DOWNLOAD. Once you have found a video, tap on the cover to display the detail screen. Download links (arrow pointing down to a perpendicular line) appear next to each video. Press a download link to initiate the file transfer. Multiple videos can be downloaded simultaneously, although this may slow the overall download speed per video. It all depends on your Internet connection speed, Internet congestion and the status of Amazon’s data center. (Netflix hosts their content on AWS.) Tap on the Downloads tab on the bottom of the screen to view download progress, expiration dates and other relevant information.

YouTube is much more generous when it comes to downloads. Of course, users must subscribe to YouTube Red in order to download videos. I recommend subscribing to Google Play Music, as it comes with a free YouTube Red subscription. YouTube downloads don’t expire and they can be beamed to your Apple TV via AirPlay.

Downloading a YouTube video is easy. Simply tap on the Download button under any video. You can access downloaded content by tapping on the Library tab.

Turn off Cellular Data Access for Nonessential Apps

By default, some iPhone apps are configured to use cellular data. If conserving data is a must, you may want to consider disabling cellular service for these apps. Fortunately, Apple makes this process easy. From Settings, tap on Cellular and scroll down. A list of apps with on/off switches appear. Turn off any apps that shouldn’t be consuming cellular data.

As you can see, by default, everything is using cellular data. That’s great for the carriers, but not ideal for consumers. That said, more Apple users would be upset if they had to turn on cellular data usage for each individual app. After all, people get an iPhone to use apps wherever they roam.

It’s probably best to err on the side of turning off apps. After all, you can always activate cellular data for a specific app later. You can’t get spent cellular data back.

Turn off WiFi Assist

WiFi isn’t always perfect. As we move from place to place, we often connect to WiFi networks with spotty coverage. Apple has ameliorated this issue with their WiFi Assist feature. It uses cellular data to accelerate Internet speeds when WiFi networks are too slow.

Obviously, this feature will use up cellular data when you least expect it. I recommend turning it off. You can always turn it on later if need be.

Turning off WiFi assist is easy. Just tap on Settings > Cellular and scroll down to turn off WiFi Assist.

Turn on WiFi Calling

Let’s face it — most people have horrible cellular service. We just covered how Apple had to implement WiFi assist to deal with spotty cellular service. Another similar feature — WiFi calling — is also designed to make up for shortcomings in cellular service.

WiFi calling is a crutch so people can actually make calls on their phone when they don’t have cellular coverage. Callers often experience poor signal strength in remote areas or inside buildings. The feature may also conserve cellular data, if you’re frequently connected to WiFi and your carrier charges for LTE voice. After all, we can’t hold our breath waiting for telecoms to provide fair, adequate and cost-effective service.

WiFi calling uses a WiFi network for phone calls, instead of a cellular network. Not every carrier supports this feature. For example, I use Google Fi, which does not support WiFi calling on the iPhone. They may add this feature later. If your carrier supports WiFi calling, I strongly recommend using it, even though it might not conserve data. Most carriers include LTE voice as part of their unlimited calling plans. WiFi calling should save a lot on international calls, again, depending on your carrier.

You can turn on WiFi calling by tapping on Settings > Cellular > WiFi Calling. Next, turn on the “WiFi calling on this iPhone” switch. You will be guided though the rest of this process, which involves providing emergency contact information and acceptance of terms and conditions.

Tip: Many iPhone cellular data plans include unlimited calls. Some plans don’t use LTE networks for calls, unless you explicitly set this up. Users often opt to use 4G LTE data for calls. This provides better audio quality and simultaneous use of the phone and apps. Luckily, most carriers don’t count LTE voice calls as cellular data. You can check your LTE voice & data settings by tapping on Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options. If your carrier doesn’t charge for LTE voice, I recommend setting this to “Voice & Data”.

Turn off Background App Refresh

We live in a connected world. Most mobile apps actually live outside of your device. While the client side may have a small footprint on your device, the server side piece is usually much more complicated. Imagine if you had to download a new Netflix update every time they added new videos. Social media, news and weather apps perform better if they can refresh content in the background.

Apple, being committed to a speedy user experience, implemented a feature known as background content refresh. The technology allows apps to download data in the background, dramatically improving load times. Unfortunately, if you rarely use that social media app that constantly spies on you, background content refresh could rob you of cellular data.

You can turn off background app refresh by tapping on Settings > General > Background App Refresh > Off.

Turn off Automatic Downloads

Automatic downloads is one of the most catastrophic features when it comes to cellular data. I accidentally forgot about this setting and ended up using 3 GB of cellular data, without my consent.

With Automatic Downloads, it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too. Apple allows users to deactivate this feature for cellular networks. It still functions over WiFi. I recommend turning off Automatic Downloads for cellular only. You can turn this feature off by tapping on Settings > [Apple Profile Name] > iTunes and App Store > Use Cellular Data > Off.

There is a much more rare case where WiFi Automatic Downloads could use up cellular data. When I lost 3 GB of data, installing apps that I don’t use, my Apple TV was connected to my iPhone’s personal hot spot. Typically, an iPhone user does not connect to the personal hot spot on another iPhone. It’s superfluous, but possible. After all, I use the personal hot spot on my iPhone for home Internet access in the SF Bay Area.

If you use the personal hot spot on your iPhone, make sure to disable Automatic Downloads on any connected device. You can do this by navigating to Settings > iTunes & App Store, then turn off all automatic downloads, video autoplay and Offload Unused Apps. You might as well take care of these other data hogs while you’re there.

Turn off Fetch New Data

Fetch New Data may sound like Background App Refresh, but the two features are slightly different. Fetch New Data works with Apple’s built-in, first party apps such as Mail and Calendar. This delineation is a good thing. It allows you to keep important apps, like Mail and Calendar, fresh, while preventing that useless social media app from gobbling up cellular data.

The active professional may want to think twice before turning off fetch new data. I have this feature turned off, and I often have to “pull down” several times on the Mail UI to force it to refresh. I don’t really have any critical business conducted over email. I can wait for all the spam to fill up my inbox.

If you decide to turn off Fetch New Data, be aware that your iLife apps, such as Mail and Calendar will take longer to load and refresh. You can turn off Fetch New Data by tapping on  Settings > Passwords & Accounts > Fetch New Data > Push > Off.

Turn off iOS Photo Stream

The Apple ecosystem extends beyond your device. These days, virtually everything exists on your device and on the cloud. Unfortunately, streaming photos from your device to the cloud uses up cellular data. If you’re a shutterbug, data usage can get out of hand.

Fortunately, it’s easy to turn off iOS Photo Stream. Simply tap on Settings > Photos > My Photo Stream > Off.

Turn off iOS iCloud Backups

Backups are very important. If you should lose or damage your phone, an iCloud backup can help you get up and running quickly. Unfortunately, iCloud backups can also use a lot of cellular data, if you’re not careful.

By default, iCloud backups will not run over a cellular data network. If you use your iPhone’s personal hotspot and connect an iPad or another iPhone to your device, the iCloud backup might run. Something as simple as plugging a device into a charger can start this heavy data consuming process.

This is a bit of an edge case. If you never use your iPhone’s personal hotspot feature, don’t worry about it. If there is a possibility that another iOS device may connect to your iPhone’s personal hotspot, I recommend disabling iCloud backups on that device. iCloud backups can be turned off by tapping Settings > [your Apple ID] > iCloud > iCloud Backup > Off. Remember to turn this back on and backup your device when you have access to a proper WiFi network.

Turn off iOS Operating System Updates

iOS operating system updates don’t use cellular data unless your iOS device is connected to your iPhone’s personal hot spot. This is another edge case. If one of your iOS devices connects to your iPhone’s personal hot spot, I strongly recommend turning of automatic iOS system updates.

You can turn off automatic iOS system updates by tapping on  Settings > General > Software Update > Automatic Updates > Off. Remember to manually update iOS when you’re on a proper WiFi network. Don’t worry. Apple will continually remind you to update your device.

Exercise Caution When Using a Personal Hotspot

As we have learned, a personal hotspot can use up a large amount of data. This is often unexpected, as it typically happens when a connected device automatically devours data. If you use your iPhone’s personal hotspot feature, make sure to check your data limit often. Set up notifications or limits if your carrier offers these features.

When using a personal hotspot, it’s always a good idea to turn off WiFi on devices that aren’t being used. This will prevent unwanted data usage from automated processes, such as iCloud backups and software/app updates.

Turn off LTE Data

By default, your iPhone is probably set up to use LTE data. You have other options. Turning off LTE data forces your iPhone to connect to a slower 4G or 3G network. This can effectively throttle your cellular connection, saving data. It comes in handy when using video apps that don’t have video quality settings.

Turning off LTE data is easy. Simply tap on Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Enable LTE and turn this setting off. In my own experience, 4G is 75% slower than LTE. Your results may vary based on local networks.

Unfortunately, my 4G connection is still almost 10 Mbps. That won’t really throttle video apps or use less data than an LTE connection. If turning off LTE connects you to a 3G network, the much slower speeds will save on data usage. Don’t bother turning off LTE unless you can connect to a network that’s 5 Mbps or slower. Anything faster than that will still support HD streaming from video apps, so you won’t be saving on data. You’ll only get a slow user experience.

Consider Getting a Cheaper Cellular Data Plan

Although the cellular industry is rife with collusion and obvious price-fixing, some deals are better than others. After being gouged by Verizon for two decades, I recently tried the Google Fi beta and really liked it. They’re one of the few cellular providers that’s actually fair to the customer.

Google Fi is affordable and features bill protection, by default. I never worry about overages. Also, Google Fi offers free data after 6 GB are used. They will throttle users after 15GB is used up, but they essentially give users 9 GB of data for free. This brings the overall cost down to $4 per GB of data.

I have no affiliation with Google. They do not sponsor this site and have not paid me to endorse Google Fi. It’s simply a great cellular plan, which is why I use it. For more information, please read “Getting Started with Google Fi for the iPhone”.

T-Mobile offers an unlimited plan, however, users will also be throttled after using a certain amount of data. It’s that strange, corporate definition of “unlimited”, which is actually limited. (Having worked in corporate America, even at a Fortune 10 company, I am well aware, they lie through their teeth about everything.) Take their “unlimited” plan with a grain of salt. At least Google admits they slow people down, and it’s not buried in the fine print. Not all corporations are bad. Let’s support the better ones.

The other problem with T-Mobile is that you must pledge fealty to use their unlimited plan, by signing a multi-year contract. That’s where they get you. The T-Mobile/Sprint merger is all about eliminating competition and raising cellular data prices. I wouldn’t sign a contract with a multi-headed hydra bent on bleeding their customers like medieval barbers.

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