What are data overage charges and how to avoid them?

Data overage is a term commonly used in the context of pay-monthly or postpaid mobile phone plans. When data overage takes place, it can lead to additional charges for you on top of your existing pay-monthly subscription fee.

Data overage is the additional data (e.g. 500 MB) you consume in any given month after having used up the data allowance included in your monthly mobile plan. You can avoid data overage charges by using utilities like data cap to control data usage or spend cap to limit any additional charges.

—Quick summary of data overage—

Our mobile tariffs can be hard to understand sometimes, especially when it comes to our pay monthly phone bills. We use mobile data on our 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G phones whenever we are out and about and not connected to a WiFi network. While we don’t have to keep counting every MB of data we use, exceeding our monthly data allowance can potentially lead to a bill shock. That is where data overage comes in.

For example, if you have a pay monthly mobile plan that gives you 1000 minutes, 1000 texts and 5 GB of data each month, if you end up exceeding this 5 GB in any month, every MB of data you use after exceeding this limit will be considered data overage.

What happens if you go over your mobile data allowance?

If you go over your monthly mobile data allowance, your mobile operator can charge you according to their out of bundle charges specified in their pricing plans. Generally, these charges are priced for each MB of data you consume after exceeding your monthly data allowance.

For mobile operators in the UK, e.g. Vodafone UK or EE, you can go to their website, look under “Terms and Conditions”, and you are likely to find price plans for different tariffs. These tariffs contain information on out-of-bundle charges. For example, you can find out what rate is used for each MB of out-of-bundle data for your tariff. The other, better option is to check directly with the operator if you find the detailed price plans hard to comprehend. Some mobile operators may choose to throttle your speed, e.g. maximum speed of 100 kbps, until your monthly allowance gets renewed at the end of your monthly billing cycle. This is where spend-cap becomes very useful, which allows you to set a limit on the out of bundle charges your mobile operator can charge you. So, for example, if you set your spend cap limit to £0, then as soon as you exceed your monthly data allowance, your operator would put a stop to your data consumption (or throttle your mobile data depending on the operator’s policy) until the next billing cycle.

If in any given month, you end up using all your allocated data allowance before the end of the month, you may be left with two choices:

  1. Stop using mobile data for the rest of the month and rely solely on WiFi for any data sessions in that month
  2. Or, just purchase an add-on (also known as bolt-on) from your operator to have some additional data for the rest of the month

If you choose option # 2, that will be more or less straightforward as long as your mobile operator notifies you in good time so you can purchase additional data without any downtime.

If you are more inclined towards option # 1, then there may be some further scenarios. Some mobile operators make it easier by simply stopping your mobile data usage once you have reached your limits and presenting you with options on what to do next. But some operators don’t do this by default and let you decide whether you want to stop using any additional data through data capping. If your operator doesn’t stop your data usage once you have reached your limits and don’t have data capping, you will likely go over your data limit, which will incur data overage charges. Mobile operators charge for data overage at different rates depending on each operator as well as your tariff. As a user of mobile services, it is a good idea to be aware of these charges to avoid a bill shock.

What uses up data on your phone?

All services that require you to use the internet on your phone consume data, e.g. web browsing, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, sending iMessages, creating mobile hotspots etc. If your mobile phone is not connected to a WiFi network, then this data consumption comes out of your mobile data plan.

The exception is if your mobile operator has zero-rated any of these services for you, e.g. if all WhatsApp calls are included in your phone plan. In addition, many apps on mobile phones usually require frequent updates that are data-intensive. Unless you have set up your phone to do such updates on WiFi, the updates can consume your mobile data.

How do you avoid data overage charges?

The best way to avoid data overage charges is to choose the right data plan that fits your needs, proactively monitor your data usage, use WiFi wherever possible, be aware of your monthly bill cycle, be mindful of data-hogging apps and use data-cap or spend-cap utilities from your operator.

You can take some practical steps to avoid paying any data overage charges. It doesn’t mean that you start counting every single MB or GB of data because that can potentially lead to a stressful lifestyle. All you need is to be mindful of the following and just use the facilities that mobile operators already provide.

Choose the right data plan and consider unlimited data plans

The first and the most important step is to choose the right data plan for you. There are many free websites that allow you to calculate your monthly data consumption depending on your browsing behaviour. Mobile operators also offer the so-called “data calculators” that can provide you with an estimate of how much mobile data you may need each month. For example, have a look at this data calculator from Vodafone UK. It is good to try multiple calculators and go with the highest estimate to be on the safe side. If you search for “how much data I need on my phone” on Google or Bing, or something similar, you should be able to find these calculators. If you consider yourself a heavy data user or if you are looking for a data-only SIM for a mobile WiFi router, then you may benefit from an unlimited data plan. Based on my personal experience, as I use a 5G mobile broadband connection in addition to a fixed broadband connection, an unlimited plan takes away all the hassle of data monitoring.

Monitor your data usage and set alerts

Once you have selected the right plan, and if you do not have an unlimited plan, the next key step for you is to be aware of your monthly data usage. Usually, mobile operators have companion apps to manage your account, e.g. My Vodafone, myAT&T, and other similar apps. These apps typically have the option for you to monitor your monthly data usage. While you can always download any FREE apps to do the same thing, the safest bet is to use the app of your operator, who is your primary source for this information. Depending on the app, you may also have alerts to let you know when you are about to exceed your data limit.

Be aware of when your bill cycle starts each month

It is also handy to have a rough idea of when your monthly bill cycle starts. The bill from your mobile operator is usually a good indication of which period they are billing you for. For example, your monthly bill could show a period like “Jan 6th 2022 -Feb 5th 2022” to suggest that your allowance would renew after Feb 5th, i.e. Feb 6th. You can then manage your data usage accordingly if you know your bill cycle.

Use WiFi where possible and keep an eye on the WiFi symbol

You can also use any available WiFi networks whenever possible, especially if your mobile data allowance is small. For example, if you only get around 5-10 GB of data each month, it can get consumed quickly if you don’t use WiFi regularly. An easy way to do this is to keep an eye on the WiFi symbol on your mobile phone, as shown in the screenshot below.

—Keep an eye on the WiFi symbol—

Be mindful of the data hogging apps

As a general rule, any apps or websites on your mobile phone that deal with uploading or downloading files, images or videos consume a lot of data. These apps can be real data-hoggers and can quickly eat up your monthly data allowance if you are not in control of your data usage.

Generally, we use many social media and video streaming apps on our phones on a daily basis. Many software updates download large files on your phone before installing them. It is good to use these apps when you are connected to a WiFi network. Examples include Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram etc.

Use the data-cap utility from your mobile operator

To make your life a lot easier, use the utilities or add-ons provided by your mobile operator to control your data usage. One such utility is a data cap that allows you to limit the maximum monthly data you consume on your data plan. With an active data cap, your mobile data usage will stop as soon as you have hit your specified limit. For example, if your monthly allowance gives you 10 GB of data each month, you can set a data-cap limit of 8 or 9 GB so that you can at least enjoy the 8 or 9 GB without stressing about the data consumption. Once you have hit the limit, you may decide to either increase the limit so you can use more data or wait until your monthly data allowance renews. In the meantime, you can use WiFi for all your data needs.

Use spend-cap if your mobile operator offers it

The other great option is to use the spend-cap utility that, at least in the UK, is offered by all mobile operators as a regulation. A spend cap allows you to set a monetary limit on the out of bundle charges. If you set the spend cap to zero (e.g. £0 or $0 or €0 or whichever currency is relevant for your country), then your mobile operator will stop the particular service that is out of bundle until your monthly allowance renews. For example, if your spend-cap limit is set to £0 and you end up using all your monthly data allowance, your mobile operator will stop your mobile data but you will still be able to use other services included in your bundle, e.g. voice minutes, texts etc. I have written a detailed post on spend-cap and data cap so you can get a full understanding of these two important utilities and avoid any unnecessary charges.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post. I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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