Internet speed: How much do you really need?

Trying to pick out the right internet plan for your home? Here's how to get the speed you need without overpaying.

Kristen Bolden
Kristen Bolden
Kristen Bolden is a full-time copywriter who earned her B.A. in English at Palm Beach Atlantic University in 2017. Since then, she has been writing for news outlets, local magazines, and other online publications. You can follow her work on Instagram: @kristenmichelleco
5 min read
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Whether you're moving to a new place or simply shopping around for new options, trying to figure out an internet plan can be more complicated than you might assume. Most plans have you pay for your internet speed and capacity, which prompts the question: How much internet speed do you really need?

Most internet service providers usually have a guide on their websites, but guides like those will sometimes try to upsell you on the benefits of faster speeds you might not actually use. We're here to help you understand just how much internet you need to be paying for. 

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As with most services, your goal is to pay for what your unique usage needs require. An older couple who only need the internet to look things up from time to time and keep up with the grandkids probably doesn't need as much as an avid gamer or streamer, for instance. So let's break things down a bit and see how much home internet speed you really need. 

How fast is fast enough?

The Federal Communications Commission defines anything faster than 25 megabits per second as "advanced service." For most, however, this is probably closer to the bare minimum. In March, a bipartisan group of senators called on the FCC to raise the bar for broadband by setting minimum speeds at 100Mbps.

At any rate, if you make use of the internet on an everyday basis, you'll want to aim for something a little higher than 25Mbps if you can. With smart home gadgets growing in prevalence and our media consumption increasingly driven by streaming, it makes sense to opt for something closer to 100Mbps if plans like those are available in your area (and, frustratingly, in a lot places they still aren't). 

It's also important to note that having a fast internet package doesn't guarantee fast internet.

Network congestion, poor router placement, interference from nearby networks and other factors can all slow things down. To find out whether your internet speed is truly to blame, check out our guide on how to test your connection

How much internet do you use?

These days, with so many people working from home, a lot of us are using more internet than we're used to. However, that isn't the case for everyone, which you'll want to keep in mind as you're shopping for an internet plan. 

If you work from home, stream lots of high-resolution videos or regularly play games online, you'll likely need more internet speed than someone who casually goes on social media platforms and gets their TV from a cable provider. 

Different activities require different internet capabilities -- here's a small chart to help give you an idea:

Internet speed recommendations

ActivityUsage requiredOur recommended speed
Email 1Mbps1Mbps
Web browsing 3-5Mbps5-10Mbps
Social media 3-5Mbps10Mbps
Video calls 3-5Mbps10-20Mbps
HD streaming 5-10Mbps10-20Mbps
Online gaming 3–6Mbps25-35Mbps
4K streaming 25Mbps35Mbps

How many people or devices are using your network? 

Another important factor to consider in your search for the ideal internet speed is how many users and devices are on your network in a given day. Your household may only consist of one or two people, but it could be hosting 10 to 15 devices (laptops, cellphones, gaming consoles, smart TVs, smart home gadgets, you name it). If you're using these devices consistently, then you'll want to ensure your internet speed has the bandwidth to cover them all.

Video is often the biggest bandwidth hog, so aim for an internet plan that can accommodate your viewing habits. If it's applicable, think of the times you've streamed Netflix or taken a video call from Mom, then imagine everything else that could have been happening on your network at the same time and use the chart above as a rough guide. For instance, if you live on your own and like to tweet about your favorite show on your phone while you stream it in 4K on your TV, you'd want at least 35Mbps for smooth playback and another 10Mbps to keep up on Twitter. Sounds like a 50Mbps internet plan might be close to your sweet spot.

Upload speed vs. download speed

As you're considering speeds, it's also important to understand the difference between upload and download speeds. The difference is simple -- upload speeds tell you how fast you can send data out to the internet, while download speeds tell you how fast you can pull data from the internet.

In most cases, you'll be using download bandwidth more often than upload, but it's important to consider both. This is especially true if you're working from home, as upload speeds are important when you're trying to make a video call or email a large attachment. 

Many internet providers offer plans with less upload speed than download speed.

With plans like these, the ratio is typically 1Mbps of upload bandwidth for every 10Mbps of download bandwidth. For instance, you'll see lots of internet plans with download speeds of 25Mbps and upload speeds of 3Mbps, following that FCC standard mentioned earlier. That'd probably be enough to comfortably stream video in regular HD, but with only a few megabits per second of upload speed, your video calls might be choppier than you'd like.

Everything you need to know about data caps

Something else to look out for during your search for your home's ideal internet speed is data caps. Internet data caps are ISP-enforced data usage limits -- it's important to take them into consideration as you shop, especially if you use your internet for high-usage activities like streaming Netflix or scrolling through social media. Video-heavy use cases like that eat through lots of data, and if you hit the data cap, you'll need to pay extra for an additional allowance.

Low-speed internet plans -- a 10Mbps DSL connection, for example -- are typically intended for light internet usage, so the data caps that sometimes come with them can be painfully tight. Meanwhile, some providers offer plans with no data caps at all.

If you're unsure whether it's worth paying for a higher data cap or switching to a provider that doesn't use them, check with your ISP to see if they offer any tools to help you track your household's data usage (most do, usually via their app). That'll give you a better sense of how much you need and whether you need to make a change.

Now you're ready to start your search

Now that you have a general idea of everything that goes into internet plans and the aspects you need to consider when choosing one, you are ready for your search to begin. And if you have more questions about your internet package, be sure to check out the rest of our broadband coverage. Among other helpful guides, we can help you tell how fast your internet speed really is, how to make sure your Wi-Fi is ideal for working from home and how to improve streaming quality.