Skip to main content

Your unlimited plan is probably ripping you off: How much data Americans actually use

All four major U.S. carriers once again have an unlimited LTE data plan. For some of us, this is great news: The folks who use upwards of 10GB of data on a line they pay for themselves found plenty of creative ways to hold on to older unlimited data plans, and sometimes that could be a hassle. Now they are available with a click of the mouse.

Unlimited plans coming back are a direct result of tough competition in the industry.

This wasn't unexpected, really. Companies like T-Mobile and StraightTalk made people notice the cost vs. value proposition of a cell phone data plan. AT&T and Verizon enjoyed a consumer mindset that they offered something superior when for many, alternatives could be just as good. When people started to take notice of that, it was time for a small shake-up.

People who will utilize an unlimited data plan and get their money's worth are outliers. Everyone can have a month where they are traveling or otherwise away from Wi-Fi and use a good chunk of data, but when you look at the numbers telling how much data is used per person on average, you see that most people would be better served with a cheaper plan that offers a capped data allotment.

The numbers back this up. According to a late-2018 survey in 2018, the average amount of data used per person per month was about 6 GB if they had an unlimited data plan. That's up about 2.5 GB from a similar survey done in 2015, but still well within the range of cheaper limited data plans offered by wireless carriers. During the same time period, customers who didn't choose an unlimited plan used 1.6 GB per month on average.

The numbers vary a good bit when you break them down by carrier. Verizon customers used only 3.98 GB per month on average, AT&T users check in at 4.06 GB per month on average, Sprint users average 5.4 GB per month and T-Mobile users come in at 5.78 GB. These are totals for all subscribers, not just those with unlimited data plans.

Why this is important

These are average numbers. That means that some people will be wildly outside the average on both ends: You might use 100GB of data per month but someone who uses 0.1GB per month offsets your input towards the average. An average can't predict the highest amounts of data being used (or the lowest) but it is a great way to determine how much data the average person uses each month. There's a lot of ways this data can be used and of course multiple ways it can be interpreted. For example, the average data a customer with access to an unlimited data plan uses isn't dramatically different from the amount someone without access to unlimited data is using.

Americans use about 15 GB per month if you factor in Wi-Fi usage.

This means that the average person, regardless of network, doesn't need to pay for an expensive unlimited data plan. Unlimited plans are hypefests that get everyone talking about something as mundane and boring as a cellular provider. The hope is that you'll decide you need to sign up for one even though you don't need one. Sure, you might use a little more each month knowing that you have an unlimited plan, but generally, people who weren't using a large amount of data before aren't going to be using a lot of data after they switch. Old habits and all that.

None of this matters to the phone company. It has one goal: to make money. That's how business work. Every decision, every promotion, every marketing campaign and everything else is a way to try and make more money. A company won't be around for long if they aren't trying to bank a profit. And sometimes, how that profit can be shown on a quarterly earnings report matters as much as the amount that goes into the bank.

The ARPU

ARPU (Average Revenue Per Unit or User) is the total revenue coming in from the service divided by the number of subscribers. It's also a pretty big deal in shareholder's reports and earning's calls.

ARPU is a number that translates into the amount of money a single line of service brings in over a set time. There can be a monthly ARPU or quarterly or yearly. This number includes all the money you pay to your carrier minus tax and regulatory fees. That means things like extras you may be paying for (international calling or live TV for mobile devices) are included as well as your normal contract or monthly price. The ARPU is an easy way for a company to track its income and growth over time, and each customer who pays for an expensive unlimited data plan brings this average up in a way that's statistically significant.

There is more than one way to count money.

Your carrier wants you to be excited about, and ultimately sign up for, an unlimited data plan because of how it affects the bottom line as well as how much.

Another way your phone company looks at their finances is with an eye towards profit instead of just income. The profit from a customer can be more important than the overall income generated from one. A company can be healthy and profitable even with a low customer count, or vice versa. We see this in action when companies give earnings results.

Income and profit are always two different numbers.

Consider a hypothetical that's not too far removed from actuality. T-Mobile keeps pulling more and more customers away from Verizon. But Verizon is making more money and has a higher value. That means Verizon is making more profit per customer than T-Mobile.

Calculating profit is pretty simple. The service an account uses is tallied then compared to the amount of income that account generates each month. If you sign up for an unlimited data plan and still only use 3-5GB of data per month, you help improve profit margins. All accounts are profitable, but some will be more profitable than others.

Don't hate the players

We're not trying to say your carrier is bad or unethical here. This is just how business works when it comes to a service provider.

Your phone company is supposed to make money if everyone is doing their job.

They need to offer you something that you feel is worth the monthly cost. If that means an unlimited data plan sounds like a good idea to you, one is available for you. With the U.S. telco market becoming more and more competitive it was a given that all companies would offer a fixed service that included unlimited data for a fixed cost. Users who needed such a plan would sign on and help improve that income per customer metric and users who didn't need an unlimited plan but signed up for other reasons helped improve the profit per user metric. This is how smart business works and the people in charge at your carrier are smart business persons. It's great that carriers now offer unlimited data plans for people who need them. It's also great if you can save money and not sign up for one if you don't.

The one thing to take away here is to ask yourself how much data you need every month. No one answer fits everyone, but there is an answer that fits you. Compare how much you need to how much you're paying for, and then check out what's available. A final metric that's harder to measure is how happy a customer is because happy customers are loyal customers. Make sure you're using a service that works best for you and makes you be that happy customer.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

71 Comments
  • I just saved $60 a month by switching to T Mo unlimited from Verizon 10 GB. I don't need unlimited but it was cheaper and the months when I used 10.01 GB cost me another $15
  • Probably actually even lower than 3.5 for the majority. Always the few that use over 50 a month skew the average.
  • This is a good reminder to compare my grandfathered old Verizon umlimited plan to the unlimited plans offered now. My usage fluctuates month to month and I prefer not having to keep checking if I'm close to a limit.
  • ...yes, that's how averages work. Much like the article already stated.
  • Agreed. Once you use more than a certain amount you are so far away from center on the curve that you shift everything. With an average of 3.5, numbers like 50 have a much larger effect than numbers like 1.
  • Jerry,
    While what you say is correct, this is kind of like ErikJohnon3's comment. In the absence of more data or characteristics around the data, this is near meaningless. We aren't given standard deviations or the shape of the curve. My point is that you/we don't know how many people on higher/unlimited data plans are using 1M/month. It's like guys on car forums that argue Edmunds values are crap because they got way more for their sale, yada yada. My response is "yeah, and for every guy that gets more there are 2 divorce sales", to make the point. We don't know how normal the data about the average is or isn't or the variation. And i agree with another post that 2015 data is probably low. I understand that's what you have available, but with the drastic moves being made by cable companies over cable cutters, and vastly increasing streaming competition, 2015 data are probably aging poorly.
  • I'm on Verizon unlimited and so far I've used 61gbs. It works for me.
  • I am on Verizon as well and was on the 15GB plan and was paying $125 for a single line. I switched to Unlimited when it came back and now I am only paying $78. That doesn't sound like a ripoff to me.
  • thats much betterr
  • Some here. 2 phones on Verizon and we both used well North of our 15g plan. Switched over to unlimited and saving almost $100.
  • It is very, very important to note that most people used 3.5GB (as an average) precisely due to major carriers like Verizon and AT&T scaring people into using WiFi. If everyone kept WiFi shut off, I am very sure that number would be significantly higher. Verizon and AT&T customers especially hint for WiFi everywhere they went, and this practice (since they have a combined 200 million customers) made other consumers follow along too for fear of overages. So, I think this article is not 100% accurate. I work at a carrier, and have been in wireless since I started working. Unlimited data, if people weren't hunting for WiFi, would save people some good money. Not to mention I know several people who have WiFi at home simply so they don't get overages with their carrier. This is all going away, and people are going to be putting more use to carrier networks. So, it isn't ripping you off unless you use no data naturally (even with WiFi) or if you are forced to pay for data without having a smartphone. This is good in nearly every way, and I say nearly because I am sure there are negatives but I just can't think of any at the moment.
  • This is spot on. Look in your Android settings under 'data usage' and you should see how much WiFi data you've used in addition to mobile data. For me, it's <1 GB mobile and 15GB WiFi this month precisely because I'm on a limited plan. I'd gladly run LTE data only if the cost were similar because it's generally superior performance to my WiFi (YMMV). For the short period when I had an unlimited LTE plan that's exactly what I did.
  • However, the article did mention that T-Mobile and Sprint users use an average of 5GB and $4.5GB per month, respectively. Both of those carriers have always had unlimited data plans. So, even with the perk of "unlimited," there's only about a 1-1.5GB difference from users who are on a capped plan.
  • Yeah, which is why I mentioned that people were just trained to do that thanks to the majority of people having the major two carriers. I've seen people with unlimited data looking WiFi in 2017. It's habit, and it is going to take a while to break it.
  • I can't recall ever being "scared into using WiFi" by a carrier. WiFi is my preference and I'm lucky enough to have access to good WiFi most of the time that frequently is much better than my carrier speed at the same location. It also allows me to easily work within a $30/5GB LTE plan, which saves quite a bit over any of the unlimited plans. No doubt, everyone's situation is different. My carrier doesn't want me using WiFi. If I used just cellular, I'd need to ante up for more GB or an unlimited plan.
  • Your first sentence is contradicted by your last. Just sayin'.
  • How is that? My carrier has never pushed me to use WiFi, contrary to estebancam's point that carriers do this. The reason is in the last sentence, it's against their best interests to push WiFi, they'd prefer I stay on cellular all of the time so I would have to upgrade my plan.
  • I think the point you're trying to make is that they make more money when you use more data. Which is fair. However, the general carrier attitude is to make data expensive enough (before unlimited was the norm) that you would not want to use it. Then, when you went to carrier stores, the representatives would TRAIN YOU on how to use WiFi. That was part of their sales process fundamentally in order to get people to pay Verizon $120 a month for 8GB of data...... While spending their time on wifi. Essentially, paying Verizon to use Comcast. Unlimited is less expensive than many high tier plans. This is a lower margin for carriers for sure, which is good for consumers. I like a balance. I am a capitalist at heart, but understand when businesses like carriers take advantage of consumers not understanding the way their industry works. That's when competition steps in and solves it as it has now.
  • i think you're missing the point they train you to use Wi-Fi to keep you off the network as much as possible to avoid network congestion which i don't blame them when you have lowlife fools abusing the network by using like 50-60GB of data per month slowing things up and congesting the network for everyone resulting in 3Mbps speedtest download numbers instead of 25+Mbps
  • This is a solid point, too. But my argument and this one are not mutually exclusive. Yours is a different one altogether, and I think there is definitely a balance between the two.
  • Lowlife? So, I if I use 0 data I'm a really good person, but if I use more than what you think is my "fair share" I'm an *******. That about right, in your humble opinion? Just so you know, when I'm cruisin' on my Spectrum account I make it a point to use at least 150Gb a month. If I don't, I consider it a bad month! I guess that makes me a super duper *******. Ironically, I don't use any data on my phone. It's wifi all the way.
  • How many consumers in 2015 were on a capped plan and ended up paying large fees when they exceeded their monthly allotment of data? Given what AT$T and Verizon were charging for overages, it probably does save alot of people money (and time, which is valuable) to just pay the upcharge for unlimited, and not worry about it.
  • I looked at Verizon Unlimited, but it would end up being $20 or $30 per month more. Since I'm on WiFi so much and rarely go over the 8 GB limit, it didn't make sense. It all came down to using a spreadsheet and figuring out if there was enough value there. I'd encourage everyone to do that and see if unlimited makes sense for them.
  • Jerry, in your opinion which of the "Big 4" carriers have the best unlimited plan? I know coverage varies by location, but for example say that you didn't own a smartphone, which carrier would you choose as of today if you could only pick one? Thanks and keep up the excellent work.
  • If I recall correctly, in a previous article, Jerry said to look for coverage of where you anticipate going then AFTERWARD evaluate the carriers that meet your coverage needs.
  • This. If all coverage were equal everywhere I would use Sprint because they offer the cheapest unlimited family plan because they have fewer extras attached. Because coverage is not equal, I would use AT&T. They have better coverage in places I go. Verizon might be better for you. If you need an unlimited data plan (and I know some people need one) look at coverage before price. 15-30 dollars difference is not worth having a phone with a crappy signal.
  • Using 2015 data usage numbers is very old data. I'm willing to bet that data usage has almost doubled since then. We use a ton more video on Facebook, Twitter, etc and stream much more video from news/entertainment sites.
  • This is one of the main points I wanted to make. I work for one of the major carriers and data consumption is going through the roof more and more everyday. Using numbers from 2015 to make an argument today just doesn't give accurate results
  • This is the data that I have. If you can get me access to "going through the roof" numbers I'd like to see it.
  • 6 lines. $20 per line after auto pay and $10 per line kickbacks. Love tmobile.
  • Kickback is a pretty awesome offering
  • If I was on an unlimited plan, I would likely not think twice about streaming Hulu or Netflix in an airport, hotel, at the beach, etc. Without that net, I am a little more cautious on hitting my 10 GB limit. For me, having unlimited would alter my behavior and definitely push my usage over the 10 GB I have available currently.
  • Another pro Mint article using data from 2015
  • I wrote a total of zero words about Mint. You can ctl+f for Mint and you'll only see it used in your comment and my reply. And this is the most recent data I have access to. If someone has newer data (that's actual statistical data and not anecdotal), I'd love to see it. That's tough to find because the people with the data don't want anyone to talk about usage.
  • I have the AT&T $60 a month unlimited plan and freaking love it. Yeah my speeds are between 3-5 Mbps, but that's plenty fast enough for YouTube, news, seeing what a certain maniac is doing on Twitter etc. I'm at 34 gigs for this month and have a few days left. Really happy with that plan
  • The speed scared me away from that plan. Interesting that it's fast enough for most things. I should check how much bandwidth that live video streaming uses.
  • Iv been on tmobile and it was actually $10 cheaper to switch to unlimited from 10gb
  • I used to have WiFi at my old job. That would save a lot of data. Not anymore. So when unlimited data came into the picture, I just went to town. A lot of auto-downloads, not worrying about downloading full albums onto my phone if needed, it's simply great to know I can use my phone without worry. I use about 15GB average and tether a lot to my iPad, which I confirmed with Verizon is in a separate pool. So the iPad is great with a bigger screen, especially when remoting back to my computer at home. It may be too much money for how much an average person uses, but the average will grow over time. I'm glad Unlimited is back for all carriers instead of just one.
  • I like this article. I used to work for a Big 4 carrier and people used 3 gigs but wanted unlimited cause it sounds better. The writer is right tiered data plans works for some not so much for others like me. I use 80 gigs a month streaming everything on my phone. But teh average american can save money buy only paying for data they will actually use.
  • I sold or rented my Grandfather Verizon grandfathered unlimited plan and switched to T-MO... saving 100 bucks a month. no difference in service.
  • For me, with an employer discount it was cheaper to go with a non unlimited plan. That and the fact I am not on my phone all the time (most of the time is wifi) it was a no brainer. Unlimited is nice to have, but with safety mode or whatever the carrier calls it and no overages it is nice to save $$.
  • How much data Americans actually use. That's a good title to an article unless you're directing it at people who read android news sites. You know the ones who use the heck out of our phones. I don't have Wi-Fi at work, I stream Google play music for a 12hr shift unless there is a good game on, then I video stream the game. I use 25-100GB per month. I need unlimited.
  • My AT&T unlimited plan (the one combined with DirecTv) is cheaper than a data plan with enough data to cover our usage.
  • I would use far more than the 1.5GB I typically consume in a month, but the unlimited plan raises our cost by $30/phone. I simply can't afford to spend $180 more each month just for the convenience of unlimited data.
  • Well I average about 15GB a month and that's with WiFi always on at home. So I def need my unlimited plan.
  • I've been using about the same amount on our family plan that I was paying for before.
    But this month is the NHL playoffs so I'm up to 30gb on just my phone. Still have 15 days to go on my cycle.
  • 3 weeks into my bill cycle and I'm at 77.8Gb used, my family plan in total is over 100Gb. I'm getting my money worth.
  • We just moved to Sprint last December and have unlimited for two Iphone 7 plus. I have no internet provider at home so I used my phone to surf the net constantly and watch videos. last month, I was up to about 80 gigs with no throtling from Sprint. We pay about $180 including taxes. Most articles says that eventhough its unlimited, you are limited to less than 30 gigs before throttling but not sprint. In my case, they are true high speed unlimited.
  • This was my case on two lines. Since we already had 3 lines on VZW with opnly 15GB shared, it was cheaper to switch evryone to VZW and save us $105 per month overall (5 phones, 1 tablet and the tablet is getting removed this month cause we can tether). Before with a tiered plan, I watched data usage, Former job had wi-fi. New job has it, but we can't use it plus they limit and watch what we do online.Now, I really don't care how much streaming I do on my device!
  • I'm over 50 Gb used on mobile hotspot and haven't been throttled by Verizon, good to live rural I guess.
  • My line of 4 goes over 100 GB each month so ...
  • "Unlimited plans are hypefests that get everyone talking about something as mundane and boring as a cellular provider." Thank you for saying this!
  • I have Sprint. I'm on an older family plan. I get 1500 minutes a month. Everything else is unlimited. I pay almost $180 after taxes. The only reason I keep this plan is because I can still get a two year contract and my employee discount. If I switched to an unlimited plan, I would be paying about the same with no discount, plus having to pay monthly payments for a phone. It benefits me to keep what I have. More options.
  • I echo an earlier comment: people average 3.5gb because Verizon et al has made it painful to use more. I have a five-line family plan with Verizon, of which two were grandfathered UDP's. Those two lines have averaged about 12-15gb/mo. for years, simply because they never had to worry about caps or overages, and we adjusted our habits to that reality. Both UDP lines routinely use wifi at home, but if I want to stream a movie at lunch, or download an audiobook, or stream music for 8 straight hours, I do. I switched our five-line family plan to the new Verizon Unlimited, saved over $100 a month not counting overages, and several of those newly unlimited lines are already seeing 5-6gb/month in response (my daughter is ecstatic about loosing her 2gb cap).
  • I was on T-Mo 2 line 6gig rollover simple choice plan. With taxes and fees it was over $100. Switched to 2 line T-mobile one. With kick back turned on for both lines my monthly bill is $80 out the door.
  • I was on T-Mo 2 line 6gig rollover simple choice plan. With taxes and fees it was over $100. Switched to 2 line T-mobile one. With kick back turned on for both lines my monthly bill is $80 out the door. And my wife can still use her phone as a hotspot while on business when needed.
  • I don't know. Have had unlimited since I bought my first blackberry (am I really that old? 😥) and use constantly 20 to 50 GB/month.
    I doesn't matter whether you use it or not. At least nobody needs to fear overage charges anymore.
  • Project Fi has taught me how to sip data by relying on WiFi. Our 2 lines total $45/month. An unlimited plan would be a waste for us.
  • This. I'm also on Fi and don't use even half GB. It's like why use it when I can get my money back. Other carriers you either use it or don't and waste the money.
  • I left Verizon last year because they priced me out of their unlimited plan. I thought I would be comfortable using 4-5 gb per month. What Verizon wanted for that amount of data was ridiculous, so I switched to T-Mobile. Their 6 gb plan price was much more reasonable. At the end of the day, though, I have to agree with Jerry. I don't need unlimited data. I haven't even come close to using 6 gb in any month since the switch. Most of what I would use data for, watching YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or streaming Google Play Music, is covered by Binge On, so I don't really even need the 6 gb. But I'm willing to pay for a comfort level that involves me not having to worry about my data usage (and I get a corporate discount). I average about 2 gb per month. Granted, if I switched carriers my usage would be more like 4-5 gb per month. But I like Binge On, and I'm satisfied with my T- Mobile service, so I'll stick with the limited data plan I have with T-Mo. And I have no plans to switch to T-Mo's unlimited plan either.
  • It's worth it for me 100% I use the max before being throttled -- 26GB-28GB on cellular. I also use around 30GB-35GB on wifi
  • Its not fair that there isn't unlimited data, now its not fair that there is? Guys, its a great time to be alive, be upbeat!!
  • I seem to be way above the avg on data usage. I cant afford the high cost of cable tv any longer but with my Cricket unlimited plan i can watch Netflix. I have so far not exceeded 20gigs. But I've come close every month. Love unlimited data.
  • Get yerself a bunder!
  • Here's the thing with me. I have had grandfathered family UDP on Verizon since 2008. I use between 3-5 GBs a month. I would only use WiFi because it saved my battery, not because of data overage. I wonder how many people were scared off their plan or thought it would cost too much to stay on the plan.
  • Oh no, see back then companies were evil for no longer offering unlimited data...NOW they are evil for offering it. Maybe because talking **** is easier than unpacking the duality inherent to almost everything one might refer to as the "human experience?"
  • Kickback.
  • In the UK I pay £17 ($22) for unlimited 4g data (4gb hot spot), unlimited texts and 200 minutes, plus I get to use these allowances in 42 other countries for free (includes the US, which is great). I actually only use 2-10gb a month but the freedom of being able to download anything at anytime and not worry about a data cap is great and the amount I am paying is trivial.
  • If I don't use my phone as a hot spot I would use around 1gb a month, but I use around 3gb using hot spot. I have 10GB a month and it rolls over unused data, thanks T-MO.
  • The article did not mention any extra savings the unlimited plans may give you. We switched to the unlimited plan on AT&T and saved about $25 a month on our wireless plan from the 30 gb shared plan, and another $25 a month off our Directv bill - and now we have free HBO every month also.
  • I moved from the OLD, grandfathered AT&T plan, down to a 6GB as I wanted my bill lowered to fit my GS8 on Next into the same monthly budget. I think my #1 mobile data saving move was to backup photos/videos only when connected to WiFi. I take a lot of photos, and I felt better knowing they were automatically saved to the loud as I was taking them, but the $$ and data savings are worth it. In probably saving battery, too.