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How to get free data

Do more online while paying less with these tips and tricks that will increase your allowance for free

The average Brit spends more than two hours a day on their smartphone – and it’s not for making calls. Since the late 2010s, more than half of all web traffic has come from mobile phones, and according to YouTube, three quarters of its at-home viewers are watching on a smartphone.

When we did leave the house, we took an estimated 1.72 trillion photos last year and, with 85% of pictures being shot on a smartphone, that’s a lot of data syncing to the cloud.

It’s little wonder then that mobile networks have largely stopped counting how many calls and texts we make now. They know that what really matters is data. Data is the differentiator, and the factor on which the cost of your contract will often be decided. So, if you want to save a few pounds, it pays to limit your spending in that area, by finding free alternatives.

If you’re wondering how you do that, then you’ve come to the right place. Whether it’s switching to a contract that better suits your needs, hopping on a free hotspot, or applying for support from the National Databank, this is where you will discover all you need to know.

Bag a contract with free streaming

If you regularly stream video or music on your commute, you can quickly use up a lot of data. High-definition Netflix video can eat up about 3GB an hour, with standard definition consuming a third of that. Fortunately, several networks will write off any data you use while streaming, so it effectively counts as free. 

Voxi, from Vodafone, offers several contracts with unlimited video streaming on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, My5, UKTV Play and Netflix while in the UK. The cheapest monthly plan to include unlimited video streaming costs £12/mth and also includes an additional 30GB of data for all other uses, plus unlimited social media use (see below). Considering this is just £2/mth more expensive than a 15GB plan that lacks free streaming, we reckon that’s a pretty good deal. Naturally, if you want to watch Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, you will still need to pay for a separate subscription, since these aren’t bundled.

View deal at Voxi

VOXI offers free streaming across a range of popular services.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Sky Mobile, being tied to a broadcast network, offers something similar. Sky TV subscribers can use Sky Mobile Watch to access Sky channels including Sky Sports, Sky News and Sky Kids, without it eating into their data. You will need to be connecting within the UK and have at least 50MB of available data on your account. If you’re not a Sky TV subscriber, the range of channels you can access will be trimmed to just the free-to-air options, such as Sky News; but if you want to catch up on what’s happening without using any data, it’s still a tempting deal.

View deal at Sky Mobile

EE offers a range of benefits to customers who opt for a plan that includes Inclusive Extras. One of these Extras is the Entertainment Data Pass, which lets you stream from Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, BBC Sounds, Netflix, BT Sport, iPlayer, YouTube, YouTube kids and Prime Video, without the data counting against your allowance. EE says this benefit is worth £8.99/mth.

At the time of writing, the cheapest contract to include an Inclusive Extra is the 5GB plan at £26/mth, running for 24 months. However, if you could afford an extra fiver, you could instead opt for the £31/mth plan, over the same term, which would bag you one Inclusive Extra and 250GB of data to use as you choose.

View deal at EE

Find a free social media deal

VOXI doesn’t count Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter or Snapchat use against your data, with the caveat that making and receiving voice or video calls – through WhatsApp, for example – is excluded. This works with both app-based and website access to each service, so it makes no difference whether you’re logged in to, using the Facebook app, or chatting through Facebook Messenger.

Similarly, Virgin Mobile’s 4G plans let you send text, pictures and voice notes on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter. This isn’t quite as generous as the VOXI offering, but in an age where 58% of Brits use WhatsApp and 60% use Facebook Messenger daily, it may well be all that you need.

READ NEXT: Best SIM only deals

Opt for a contract or auto renewal

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) offers a lot of freedom, and lets you vary your deal depending on your budget or changing requirements. However, signing a contract – or a recurring plan, at the very least – can get you more data for the same price.

Giffgaff, which sells add-ons in the form of “goodybags”, offers 12GB of data for £10, 25GB for £15, and 80GB for £20 without commitment. However, set up a recurring plan – still without a contract – and you qualify for a golden goodybag. This ups the data to 20GB for £10, 35GB for £15, and 100GB for £20. 

Giffgaff’s golden goodybags, available to customers with renewal set up, increase your data allowance.

Giffgaff has two unmetered plans, called Always On (£25 as part of a regular goodybag), and Unlimited (£35 in a golden goodybag). Always On runs at full 4G speed for the first 80GB of data, after which the rate reduces to 384kbits/sec between 8am and midnight, which should be fine for email, but could hamper streaming.

View deals at Giffgaff

Roll over unused data

With most contracts, you will lose any data you’ve paid for if you haven’t used it before the end of the month. So, look for a contract that rolls over unused bytes from one month to the next and, in the second month, they’re technically free.

Superdrug Mobile’s 5GB, 15GB and 20GB plans, at £10, £15 and £18 per month respectively, each roll over unused data from one month to the next. iD Mobile rolls over data on all of its plans to the next month, and so does Virgin Mobile and Sky; but where iD Mobile and Virgin Mobile only let you roll over for one month, so any excess from January needs to be used up by the end of February, Sky Mobile lets you roll over for up to three years. So, data rolled over in September 2022 could still be showing on your account until the start of October 2025. Better yet, because data is stored in Sky Piggybank, you can instead cash it in for use against a new phone, tablet or accessories if you prefer.

Sky Mobile lets you roll over data for up to three years and use it to offset the cost of phones, tablets and accessories.

Use a public hotspot

Most high streets have a public hotspot or two that will get you online without eating into your data allowance – you just need to know where to look.

O2 Wifi is a network of several thousand hotspots offering nationwide coverage in bars, cafes, coffee shops and hotels. You can find your nearest hotspot, or a hotspot for wherever you’re travelling, by searching the service’s online map. If you’re an O2 customer, you can access O2 Wifi Extra, which will automatically connect you to a hotspot when it’s detected and the signal is stronger than the surrounding 3G or 4G signal.  O2 Wifi has public hotspots around the country.

Likewise, The Cloud from Sky WiFi has rolled out hotspots to thousands of coffee shops and other chains across the country. Although host sites have the option to charge if they choose, many are offered for free as an inducement to visit. In particular, this is the case in coffee shops looking to attract remote workers.

Virgin Mobile customers can connect to one of over 3.5 million hotspots across the UK, including on the London Underground, and browse without consuming their bundled data. You will need to download and log in to the Virgin Media Connect app for iOS or Android, after which it should automatically connect you to a Virgin Media hotspot whenever one comes in range.

Wi-Fi on London Underground and at Victoria Coach Station is also available for free to EE, O2 and Three customers, despite being maintained by Virgin Media. Connect to EE WiFi-Auto if you’re on EE, WiFi Extra if you’re with O2, or Three_WiFi if you’re a Three subscriber. Full details can be found on the Transport for London website.

Virgin’s Underground hotspots, and 8,000 O2 hotspots, are also available to Giffgaff members, although they will need to opt in to the services. You can enable them through the Giffgaff app, unless you’re running Android 11, in which case you will need to set it up manually. Giffgaff has posted full details of the process online.

READ NEXT: Best pay-as-you-go SIM deals

Apply to the National Databank

Vodafone, Three and Virgin Media O2 have each donated data to the UK National Databank, which aims to help vulnerable people get connected. As the Databank itself says, “think of it like a ‘food bank’ but for internet connectivity data”.

To qualify for up to 12 months’ worth of free data from the UK National Databank, you will need to be 18 years or older, come from a low income household, and satisfy one or more of the following conditions:

  • you have no access or insufficient access to the internet at home;
  • you have no or insufficient access to the internet when away from home;
  • you cannot afford your existing monthly contract or top-up.

Should you believe you qualify, you can apply for free data through your local Good Things Foundation Online Centre. These centres assess the needs of applicants in their area and, if they believe you have a legitimate claim, obtain the data from the Databank and share it with the applicant.

You can find your local Online Centre through the Online Centres Network site The UK National Databank makes donated data allowances available to users from low income households.

Be a smarter data user

It also makes sense to minimise the amount of data you waste, so you can keep as much as possible in reserve. You might not realise it, but your phone is continually going online and downloading updates, even when it looks like it’s sleeping. It does this to save you time, ensuring your social feeds, inbox, weather apps, news and more are up to date as soon as you launch them.

But what if you only use your weather app once a day – or less? Is it a good use of data to have it updated every few minutes, when most of those updates won’t ever be seen?

Turning off this feature – or restricting it to when you’re on Wi-Fi, rather than a mobile network – means your apps may take a second or two to refresh the next time you launch them, but we reckon that’s a small price to pay for the data you could save and use more productively.

  • On an Android device, open Settings and tap either Apps or “Apps & notifications”, depending on the version of Android you’re running. At the top of the next screen, you will see a handful of recently opened apps. Tap the “See all apps” link beneath them, then tap the app for which you want to turn off mobile refreshing. Scroll down and tap the switch beside “Background data”, so it slides to the left and loses its coloured background. The app will continue to update in the background when connected to Wi-Fi, but not when only connected to a mobile network.
  • To do the same on iOS, open Settings and tap General, followed by Background App Refresh. To change background refresh for all apps, tap Background App Refresh again at the top of the next screen, followed by either Off (to never update apps when they’re not being actively used), or Wi-Fi (if you want to turn off the feature when you only have a cell network connection). Alternatively, to tweak apps individually, rather than tapping Background App Refresh for a second time, simply tap the switches beside the apps for which you want to turn off refreshing entirely when they’re not being used. This latter option will affect both Wi-Fi and cell network connections.

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