Managing Your iOS Cellular Data Usage

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Even as “unlimited” data plans are now making a roaring comeback, the majority of iOS users are still on either tiered data plans, or have data thresholds past which they get their speeds throttled. However, with the use a few features built into iOS, and various free data monitoring apps, it is possible to stay on top of your monthly usage, and to know exactly where your hard-earned data is being used.

Knowing the Score

It’s a little hidden, but iOS does track your Cellular Data usage. Go to Settings-Cellular to see the usage for the current period and your roaming data for the current period. More on this is just a second.

Below that, you have all apps that are capable of using Cellular Data listed. The current period data usage for each app is shown here, along with a toggle switch that allows users to turn off the tap for any app that they don’t want using data. There is even a listing at the bottom for any apps that might have been uninstalled during the period. Very nice.

These are incredibly useful tools…..if…IF you keep track of your monthly data plan and act accordingly. I was reminded of an important lesson after going over my data cap a year or so ago. Unfortunately, iOS currently doesn’t have any method for automatically resetting the Cellular Data Usage period. If you don’t do this yourself, the numbers you see here really won’t tell you anything for the current month you are in.

It is also worth noting here that, after a thorough search, I found out that short of Jailbreaking your iOS device, there is no built-in way for third-party apps to detect data usage for individual apps. Well, at least not without jumping through some pretty major hoops. There is an app called My Data Manager from Mobidia Technology on the App Store that creatively uses a VPN to track and record the traffic from each of your apps. Unfortunately, this not only puts a heavier load on your device in the background, but it can also result in slower than average data speeds, and even an increase in your Cellular Data usage. My recommendation is to stick with the current solution until Apple either adds better tracking, or opens the app-specific data up to developers.

Taking Control

I and many others would appreciate the addition of features in iOS that would help in tracking data use per app. However, until that time, it is possible to handle this yourself. If you scroll to the bottom of the list of apps under Settings-Cellular, you will see a button to Reset Statistics.

Just tap this button to reset all Cellular Data usage counters. This will also reset your call time counter for the period. It also gives you a date and time stamp for the last time this was performed.

All you need to do now is consult your wireless bill, carrier app, or your carrier’s online account management interface, and find out the end date for your wireless plan’s monthly billing. As long as you reset your usage on or near this date every month, then the numbers you see on this page will help you in finding out where your data is CURRENTLY going.

This is just too easy to forget, even for the most interested and organized of users. As such, I recommend setting up a monthly reminder late the night before your data rolls over, or early the morning of, depending on your preference. I used Reminders for this because it is built-in and very reliable for these kinds of simple notifications. However, any app capable of generating a reminder or appointment notification will do. This isn’t foolproof, but it will go a long way toward helping you stay on top of this feature of iOS, and making the data here work better for you. I set a reminder for myself several months ago, and I haven’t missed resetting my data stats since. If I can do it, anyone can.

Trouble with the Assist

While we are here, it is worth noting that the Wi-Fi Assist feature just above the Reset Statistics button can be a cause of high Cellular Data usage. When Apple unveiled this feature in iOS 9, it immediately caused a tempest in a teapot. You know. One of those Apple-centered “-gates” that the tech press just LOVE to cover every time a new version of iOS is released or a new Apple device hits the shelves. However, I guess their gleeful coverage of Samsung’s Note 7 debacle proves that it isn’t that they love bashing Apple as much as they love bad tech news that drives clicks.

Back to the topic at hand. Apple left the parameters of this feature a little to loose at release, so that every time a user’s Wi-Fi signal dropped below a certain threshold for a very short time, the apps or services in use would start using Cellular Data rather than Wi-Fi, Since the beginnings of the iPhone, once an Apple mobile device was connected to Wi-Fi, it had ceased to use Cell Data. This feature changed this foundational principle of iOS and confused many users in the process. Suddenly, many early upgraders were burning through large portions of their monthly data allotments in days, even while connected to what they thought were stable Wi-Fi routers.

While Apple’s intentions to help users get a more stable and seamless online experience were noble, the implementation was lacking. Wi-Fi Assist just hadn’t been tested thoroughly enough, and that was exposed when it was released to millions of early iOS upgraders. While I am sure this feature has been tested thoroughly since its bumpy roll out, and has been updated to work better over time, you know what they say. Once bitten, twice shy. I don’t need Wi-Fi Assist, so I don’t think I will ever turn it back on.

That said, if you do have issues with weak Wi-Fi, this feature may help you. Just keep an eye on your data usage, and if you run into issues, turn Wi-Fi Assist off and see if that helps stem the tide. It is also worth noting that, if you have Wi-Fi Assist turned on, iOS keeps a data usage tab on it, just like all of the other apps and services. That makes it easy to know if Wi-Fi Assist is using more of your data than you think it should.

Service with a Smile

At the bottom of the list of apps in Settings-Cellular, there is also a button to show the Cellular Data usage for iOS’ System Services.

This gives you an overview of just how much data iOS itself is using. Tapping on this field takes you to a detailed menu that breaks down iOS data usage into at least 24 categories.

This is very useful from a reference perspective, but unlike in some previous iOS versions, you can’t disable any data usage from this menu. Anything that can be turned off has been moved up into the list of apps, or in the case of iCloud Drive, just below it.

All in all, Apple has given users a pretty robust set of tools to track data usage. What we are missing is the ability to reset the usage total at a fixed interval. However, as long as you are willing to take a little initiative, the tracking that’s provided should be all your need to stay on top of things.

Going Your Own Way

If Apple’s built-in tools aren’t for you, or if you would just like an easier way to get to this data, there is no shortage of apps in the App Store that will handle your data tracking for you: DataMan, DataMan Next, Data Usage, Data Usage Pro, Data Count, Data Manager, the aforementioned My Data Manager, just to name a few. The list goes on and on.

I don’t typically use an app for tracking anymore, but I do have Data Usage Pro installed on my iPhone.

I actually used it to track my Wi-Fi usage when Comcast put its initial cable data cap at only 300 GB per month. With a family of five, including 3 kids who love tech and were home for the Summer at the time, that 300 GB came and went fast. I chose Data Usage Pro because I could set limits and billing rollover dates for both Wi-Fi and Cellular, and it keeps a running history of your data usage for each month which can be exported for long-term storage and analysis. Like most apps in this category, it also has a widget, so you can keep tabs on data usage without opening the app. Not bad for a free app.

If you are interested in using an app for data tracking, I would recommend starting out by trying all of the free ones. Other than interface and a few features here and there, there won’t be a lot of difference between them all. If one of them doesn’t do it for you, there are several in the $.99 range that may work a little better. As for my use of data tracking apps, Comcast raised the cap to 1 TB per month, which I GREATLY appreciated. We haven’t had any issues since, so I haven’t had any need for an app since then.

Go To the Source

While most of the data tracking apps have some form of notification to let you know you are approaching your data cap, nothing beats getting this information from the company that is actually doing the counting and charging. Most of the cellular carriers have some mechanism to notify you that your data cap limit is approaching. I am an AT&T subscriber, and they give users several notification options right from their iOS app.

As you can see here, users can decide at what point they get alerts, and who they go to. The alerts show up as text messages for the users they are turned on for, and also appear as a notification in the AT&T app.

If I get a 75% notification from AT&T, then I know it’s time to go check my data usage per app in iOS, and that usually keeps me covered. 99% of the time that I go over my cap it is work related, and they are kind enough to reimburse me for the $15 overage fees, so this has rarely been an issue for me.

One of these days I will likely switch my family over to an unlimited plan. However, AT&T’s more affordable unlimited family plan doesn’t allow tethering, which I absolutely rely on for my job. The tier that does allow it is ridiculously expensive, but it is difficult to walk away from AT&T because my company also gets a decent corporate discount through them. So, for the time being, I am writing this article based on current personal experience. I may be counting bytes for a while yet along with many of you. At least we have the tools to stay on top of it with very little extra effort.

Are you still using a tiered data plan, or have you taken the plunge and gone unlimited? If so, let me know what you think. Do you have any tricks or apps for data tracking that weren’t mentioned here? Feel free to let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog or @jhrogersii.

James Rogers

I am a Christian husband and father of 3 living in the Southeastern US. I have worked as a programmer and project manager in the Commercial and Industrial Automation industry for over 19 years, so I am hands on with technology almost every day. However, my passion in technology is for mobile devices, specifically Apple's iOS and iPadOS hardware and software. My favorite is still the iPad.

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