What Is the Best Family Plan?
If you want a cellphone plan for multiple lines, the best choice for families comes from T-Mobile. Unlike other carriers that make people draw from the same shared pool of data, T-Mobile gives each person in a family plan their own pool of data — and it’s unlimited data, too (though with one important caveat about streaming video).
If you don’t need unlimited data — or don’t want to stream video at lower resolution —, Verizon’s family plan is a compelling alternative, on the strength of that carrier’s superior network. Verizon’s family plans are reasonably priced, as its 16GB shared data plan costs $170 per month, once you include the access fees you’ll be required to pay access fees for each phone on the plan.
How We Picked the Best Family Plan: To compare carriers, we assembled plans for a family of four. You can opt for family plans for as few as two lines and as many as 10 with the major carriers. In addition to price, we also considered the reach and performance of a carrier’s network, including our own 4G network testing.
Top Family Plan: T-Mobile
Best Plan: Unlimited data, $160
Who Should Get T-Mobile: Families who want unlimited data and don’t mind lower-resolution video streaming
T-Mobile is our choice for the best family plan, thanks to its pool of unlimited data for every member of the family and its host of extras.
T-Mobile is phasing out tiered data plans in favor of unlimited data. For families, the carrier charges $70 for the first line, $50 for the second and $30 for each subsequent line up to eight lines. That would mean a family of four would pay $160.
The catch is T-Mobile’s unlimited plan streams video at 480p, a lower resolution that the carrier says is “DVD quality” and good enough on smartphone-sized screens. If you want higher-quality video, you’ll have to pay $25 a month per line — which can add up for families.
T-Mobile’s T-Mobile One unlimited plan is available starting Sept. 6. Until then, you can still get one of T-Mobile’s tiered data plans, though a plan that gives each family member 10GB of data would cost a family of four $160 — the same cost as the T-Mobile One unlimited plan (though without the restriction on video streaming).
Best Alternative: Verizon
Best Plan: 16GB shared data plan, $170
Who Should Get Verizon: Families who want the best network coverage and flexible data options
The reach of Verizon’s network makes it a compelling alternative to T-Mobile, even with the Uncarrier now dangling unlimited data at potential customers.
Verizon subscribers share data from one pool. That makes the carrier’s 16GB, $90 monthly plan the most compelling for families of four. (A two-line family could likely get by with Verizon’s 8GB, $70 monthly plan.)
You need to factor in Verizon’s access fees, though — $20 for each phone on a plan. The extra $80 in access fees would bring a family of four’s monthly bill to $170 for 16GB of shared data.
Verizon has another incentive for customers to switch to its higher data plan. Opt for an 8GB plan or higher and the carrier will add an extra 2GB per line each month for as long that line remains active. Verizon also started allowing you to roll-over unused data on its new plans, meaning any data you have left over at the end of the month get tacked on to next month's allotment.
Unlimited Alternative: Sprint
Best Plan: Unlimited data, $160
Who Should Get Sprint:Sprint customers who want unlimited data
Sprint still lets its subscribers choose between tiered data plans and unlimited data, but given how low its priced the Sprint Unlimited plan, it’s an easy choice for families. Like T-Mobile, Sprint charges a family of four $160 a month for unlimited data. (The math getting there is slightly different: The first line costs $60, the second line costs $40 and each subsequent line costs $30.) Also like T-Mobile, your streaming video will be throttled down to 480p; Sprint also throttles streaming music and gaming.
If that sounds unappealing, a 12GB shared data plan would cost a family of four $140 — $60 for the plan, plus the $20-per-line access fee Sprint charges for tiered data plans. You’ll get to watch video at full resolution, but the trade-off is Sprint's network, which lagged behind other carriers in our performance testing.
Other Options: AT&T
Best Plan: 10GB shared data plan, $160
Who Should Get AT&T: Families that can take advantage of DirecTV bundles
Unless you live in an area with stellar AT&T coverage or you also subscribe to AT&T’s DirecTV satellite TV service, there are few compelling reasons to consider AT&T’s family plans.
As with Verizon’s family plans, you share one pool of data with AT&T. But AT&T’s plans are more stinting with data. A 10GB plan costs $80 a month, but adding the $20 access fee for each device, raises the total bill for a family of four to $160. For $10 a month, you can get a 16GB pool of data, matching Verizon’s best plan but without the bonus data Big Red dangles.
AT&T does offer an unlimited plan for wireless customers who also subscribe to either DirecTV or U-Verse for their TV service. The first line of this unlimited plan costs $100, with additional lines costing $40 each. However, AT&T currently credits the price of a fourth line on your bill, meaning a family of four could get unlimited data for $180 a month, access fees included, if AT&T provides their TV service, too.