If you’re worried about busting through your monthly cellular data limit with your Android phone, relax. I’ll show you how to use Android’s data-tracking tools to stay within your monthly cap. I’ll also show you how to keep certain data-hogging apps—yeah you, Netflix, Spotify, and Instagram—in line, and offer some other helpful hints to avoid racking up overage charges.
Read on for 8 ways to keep your Android device’s cellular data use in check, starting with…
1. Set a cellular data limit
Most wireless carriers will shoot you a quick text message once you’ve used 75 percent or more of your monthly data limit. That’s certainly helpful, but besides the warning, your carrier typically won’t do anything to stop you from sailing over your cellular data cap and incurring additional charges—go figure!
Luckily, Android’s impressive cellular data tools let you take matters into your own hands. With a few taps, you can set your Android handset to give you a heads-up before you crack your monthly data limit, or even to cut off cellular access once you’ve used a preset amount of data.
Tap Settings > Data usage, tap the Cellular tab, then switch on the Set cellular data limit setting.
Next, you’ll need to set a monthly cycle for your data usage—ideally, the same cycle your carrier uses. Check your most recent wireless bill for the day of the month when your data usage resets, then choose that date as the beginning of your monthly data cycle from the pull-down menu.
Now, see the two horizontal lines in the data usage chart—one orange, the other black? The orange line represents the amount of cellular data you can use before your Android handset cuts you off (you’ll still be able to use Wi-Fi data, of course), while the black line shows the data-usage limit you’d need to hit before getting a warning.
Go ahead and drag those lines to whichever levels you see fit—and remember, since your device’s tally of your cellular data usage isn’t official, you should set your “hard” data limit a tad below the cap of your wireless data plan.
2. Rein in an app’s background data use
If you see an app on the Data Usage screen that’s hogging more than its fair share of cellular data—particularly in the background—there’s an easy way to put the data-hungry app on a diet.
Just find the greedy app on the Data Usage list (Settings > Data usage), tap it, scroll down a tad, then switch on the Restrict app background data setting.
Now, the app will only get to nibble at your cellular data when you’re actively using it.
Note: As Android will warn you before it lets you enable this setting, some apps have their own settings designed to curb cellular data use; we’ll get to some examples in a minute.
3. Slam the door on all background data
If you’re determined to keep your cellular data use to a bare minimum, try a setting that’ll keep your Android device and apps from using any mobile data at all unless absolutely necessary.
Tap Settings > Data usage, tap the three-dot menu button in the top-right corner of the screen, then tap the Restrict background data option.
Android will now keep your apps and certain core Android functions from using any more cellular data unless you’re actively using them. Keep in mind, though, that restricting background mobile data has its downsides: Namely, you’ll need to get your Gmail manually, third-party chat apps might not work unless they’re active on your screen, and so on.
An alert in the notifications pull-down window will remind you that background data has been turned off.
4. Turn off data roaming
While restricting background data might be considered a last resort when it comes to halting a skid into your mobile data cap, there’s another data-saving setting that’s pretty much a must, at all times.
Tap Settings > More > Cellular networks, then make sure the Data roaming setting is turned off.
The reason: When your Android device wanders out of range of your particular cellular network, it has the ability to “roam” on other available cell networks. Doing so will help keep your handset connected, but it could also rack up horrific data charges in the process, given that you’d be consuming another network’s mobile data without a data plan.
5. Set a hotspot as a ‘metered’ network
Your Android handset is smart enough to know when it’s gobbling up too much cellular data, but it might not know that it’s using too much data from another device—specifically, a hotspot-enabled phone or tablet—until you tell it so.
Once you designate a hotspot’s Wi-Fi signal as a “metered” connection, your Android device will obey the rules of the cellular-data road whenever it’s connected to that particular connection—meaning, for example, Android won’t exceed any mobile-data limits you’ve set, or allow your apps to use background data if you’ve restricted it.
Tap Settings > Data usage, tap the three-dot menu button in the top-right corner of the screen, then tap Network restrictions.
You should see a list of your saved Wi-Fi networks. If one of them is your hotspot, flip on the appropriate switch to flag it as a “metered” network.
6. Stop Google Play from downloading app updates over cellular
While it’s handy that the Google Play app can automatically install updates for your apps, you don’t want those updates downloading over your cellular connection.
To make Google Play wait to download app updates until you’re back in Wi-Fi-range, try this.
Launch the Google Play app, tap the three-line menu button in the top-left corner of the screen, then tap Settings.
Tap the Auto-update apps setting, then select the Auto-update apps over Wi-Fi only option.
7. Keep streaming video and music apps from gobbling too much data
Now that you’ve got Android’s cellular data settings buttoned down, it’s time to turn to your third-party apps—specifically, those data-hogging streaming-media apps.
Take, for example, YouTube. Open the app, tap the three-dot menu in the top-right corner of the screen, tap Settings, then make sure the Limit mobile data usage option (which only allows HD-quality videos to stream over Wi-Fi networks) is checked. You should also tap the Uploads setting and select the Only when on Wi-Fi option.
For Netflix, you can tap the three-line menu button in the top-left corner of the screen, tap Settings, then check the Wi-Fi Only option to keep from streaming Netflix videos using precious cellular data. If you don’t like the all-or-nothing approach, you can leave the Wi-Fi Only setting unchecked, log in to your Netflix subscription over a desktop browser, click your profile in the top-right corner of the screen, click Settings > Playback settings, then pick a data-saving option, like Low quality. (The Auto setting is liable to gobble up more data than you’d like over a speedy LTE connection.)
Streaming music apps typically have their own cellular data settings, too. With Pandora, tap the Settings tab, tap Advanced, then make sure the Higher-quality audio setting is unchecked. For Spotify, tap the three-line menu button in the top-left corner of the screen, tap the Settings button (the one marked with the gear icon) at the bottom next to your username, scroll down to the Music Quality section, then choose either Automatic or Normal quality. (Normal will keep Spotify from squeezing more data out of a fast cellular connection.)
8. Watch out for data-hungry social apps
If you don’t think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other popular social apps are capable of doing much damage to your monthly cellular data allowance, think again.
Auto-play videos are all the rage when it comes to mobile Facebook and Twitter feeds, and with all those selfie thumbnails filling your screen, Instagram is positively ravenous when it comes to mobile data.
Again, though, you can ease off the cellular gas pedal by tweaking a few key settings on your favorite social apps, such as…
Facebook: Tap the three-line menu button in the top-right corner of the screen (the big one, not the one with the silhouette just above), scroll down and tap App Settings > Autoplay, then pick On Wi-Fi Connections Only.
Twitter: Tap the three-dot menu button in the top-right corner of the screen, tap Settings > Data > Video autoplay, then select the Use Wi-Fi only option.
Instagram: Tap the Profile button in the bottom-right corner of the screen, then tap the three-dot button in the top corner. Scroll down and tap Cellular Data Use, then choose the Use Less Data option.
Ben has been writing about technology and consumer electronics for more than 20 years. A PCWorld contributor since 2014, Ben joined TechHive in 2019, where he covers smart speakers, soundbars, and other smart and home-theater devices. You can follow Ben on Twitter.