How Much Internet Data Do I Need? A Comprehensive Guide

Dave Schafer
May 26, 2023
Icon Time To Read3 min read

You may be familiar with this concept from your mobile provider. However, not everyone realizes these limits also often apply to home internet. In today’s stream-heavy world, these data caps can quickly bring the party to a halt, so it’s important to ensure you have enough data available on your plan.

What is internet data?

Digital information, like a web page, email, PDF, or HD video, is composed of pieces of information known as bytes. These days, most content uses larger measurement units: megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB). A megabyte is one million bytes, and a gigabyte is one billion bytes. 

When you use the internet for downloading files, streaming music or video, or simply looking something up on Google, that uses data from your service provider’s network. And if you have a data limit on your plan, it counts against that limit.

To put this in practical terms, a digital photo might be roughly 3-5MB, while an HD movie from iTunes might be about 3GB. Video games can take up even more space-upwards of 30GB, in some cases.

What is a typical internet data cap?

Most providers have a data cap of about 1TB or 1,000GB, which should be enough for most users. Xfinity kicks this up to 1.2TB, which is even better. However, we really like to see no limit at all.

Which providers offer unlimited data?

Many providers have moved away from limited data and offer plans with no cap. Here are some of the ISPs with unlimited data:

  • AT&T
  • Frontier
  • Google Fiber
  • Spectrum
  • Starlink
  • T-Mobile Home Internet
  • Verizon (Fios and 5G Home Internet)

Unlimited data is the best-case scenario, as it means you don’t need to worry about usage. Heavy streamers with limited data plans can tell you how frustrating it is when you sit down for a binge-watching session only to find out you’ve used your allotment.

Which providers have the lowest data caps?

The ISPs with the smallest data allotments are almost always satellite providers. Viasat, for example, only offers 300GB at most. Starlink is the notable exception—not only is it faster than most other satellite providers, it also offers unlimited data.

Why do providers limit internet data?

Providers typically limit data to ensure that all customers have a good experience online. Certain types of connections, like DSL, cable, and satellite, have only so much bandwidth to go around. One person’s heavy usage can thus impact performance for other users.

If you look at the list of ISPs with unlimited data above, most of them are fiber providers-fiber internet naturally has more bandwidth available, so it can more easily support unlimited usage. 

How much data do everyday activities use?

Data usage (per hour)
Web browsing~20MB
Online gaming~30–40MB
Social media160MB
Video calls~250MB
HD streaming3GB
4K streaming~8GB

As you can see, basic email and web browsing use very little data. However, things quickly ramp up as you start to include media, particularly high-definition video. HD and especially 4K video streaming are the biggest hits for most people, and multiple devices streaming at the same time can tear through a data cap in no time at all. Video calls, like those made over Zoom, can also eat into data allotments.

Online gaming is a bit deceptive—the number here is for actually playing the game. However, if your games require local file downloads, data use can grow rapidly. Many big-name games are 20–30GB in size. Downloading a few of these each month can put quite a dent in your usage.

These numbers can add up quicker than you think over the course of a month, too. Studies have indicated that the average household uses over 500GB of data each month.

How much data do I need?

To answer this question, start by taking a look at the list above. Consider how many hours you spend on each activity and add up the totals. Do this for each member of your household, and add the totals together to get an accurate estimate of your overall internet use.

Next, check how much data you used in the last few months with your current ISP. Most internet providers show this information either on your monthly bill or the customer portal. Consider whether your usage will change in the near future.

By analyzing these two data sets, you should be able to get a good idea of how much data you need. Many, if not most, providers these days have either 1TB data caps or unlimited data, so as long as you’re under 1TB, you should be good to go. 

The main circumstance where you may run into issues is if you have satellite internet, like Viasat, where you may need to choose a plan based on how much data you need. In these cases, carefully consider how much you use—if it’s well above the data limits for the plans available, you may need to consider alternatives to satellite, such as fixed wireless or 5G home internet. You can also check out our guide on how to stay within your data limits.

FAQ about internet data

Streaming HD video-especially 4K-is the single biggest data hog. Regular HD video can use up to 3GB per hour, and 4K video can use a whopping 8GB per hour. Similarly, downloading large files, such as movies or video games, uses a lot of data. Video calls and social media are next in line.

One GB of data could last a few hours browsing social media or streaming music but less than an hour streaming HD video. The amount of mileage you get out of your data depends entirely on what you do online.

No, you probably don’t need unlimited data. The average household uses roughly 500GB of data each month, and most (but not all) data caps are roughly double that. However, unlimited data can be a big plus for large families or households where you want to stream a lot of video. It also just provides nice peace of mind. Personally, we’re fans.

Netflix uses up to 1GB per hour for viewing in standard definition (SD), 3GB per hour for high definition (HD), and 7GB per hour for 4K.

Dave Schafer
Written by
Dave Schafer
Dave has written professionally for tech companies and consumer technology sites for nearly five years, with a special focus on TV and internet. He uses his industry expertise to help readers at get the most out of their services. No matter the project, he prefers his coffee black (the stronger, the better).