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. The carrier also offers generous data allotments and discounts as you add more lines, currently selling a $180 family plan for four lines and 10GB of data each. Based on our extensive analysis, 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: 10GB plan, $180
Who Should Get T-Mobile:Families who don’t want to share data
T-Mobile is our choice for the best family plan, thanks to its individual data pools, lack of access charges and frequent discounts for higher-data plans.
Typically, T-Mobile charges $50 a month for the first line of a family plan and $30 for the second line; any additional lines cost $10 a month each. A basic family plan includes 2GB of data for each line. You can also opt for 6GB (an extra $15 a month), 10GB ($30) or unlimited data ($45) for each line in the plan.
That would mean a family of four that opts for 10GB of data on each line would normally expect to pay $220 a month. Factor in T-Mobile’s discounts and current promotions, though, and the monthly price drops to $180. That’s a tremendous amount of data, especially since T-Mobile’s Data Stash program adds any unused data to next month’s allotment. Even if you go over your allotted data, T-Mobile simply throttles you down to 2G speeds, instead of charging you extra.
Families can also mix and match the size of each data bucket in their plan. Parents could assign themselves 10GB of data each month, but opt for a 2GB allotment on the other lines in the plan.
Families with heavy data needs should also check out the pricing on T-Mobile’s unlimited plans. Usually, a four-line unlimited plan would cost $280 a month, but current promotions lower that cost to $220.
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, particularly if you live in an area where Verizon outperforms its rival. Plus, Verizon’s attractive pricing makes it a compelling option for families.
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.
High-data users could consider the 24GB, $110-a-month Verizon plan, which also adds in a bonus 2GB of data. Factor in access fees, and a family of four would pay $190 a month. 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.
Lowest Cost Option: Sprint
Best Plan: 12GB shared data plan, $140
Who Should Get Sprint: Families who want to keep monthly costs down
Sprint gives subscribers a choice: Do you want a lower monthly bill or unlimited data? If the former, the carrier's best option for families is a 12GB shared plan. Add a $20 per line monthly access fee to the $60-a-month rate, and a family of four pays $140 — the lowest price in our comparison of family plans. The trade-off is Sprint's network, which lagged behind other carriers in our performance testing.
A 12GB shared plan should be more than enough data for a family of four, assuming each family member uses less than 3GB of data each. If you eat up a lot of data each month, though, consider Sprint's unlimited data plan. Sprint charges $75 for the first line of unlimited data, $45 for the second, and $30 for each line after that. That brings the cost to $180 for a family of four, which is less than what you'd pay for unlimited data at T-Mobile. Sprint's unlimited data offer is more compelling for families when the carrier waives the cost of the fourth line, as it's known to do on occasion.
Other Options: AT&T
Best Plan:15GB 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 range of plans isn’t as flexible as Verizon’s: Low data users can opt for either 2GB ($30 a month) or 5GB ($50), while higher-data options start at 15GB ($100). That’s a big gap if you only anticipate using between 6 and 10GB of data.
AT&T further complicates things by varying the size of the access fee you have to pay for each device. Families with 5GB of data or less pay $25 a month per phone, while 15GB plans or more pay $15. (That’s if you buy your phone outright or on an installment plan; get a subsidized phone under a two-year agreement, and you’ll pay $40 per month in access fees. Don’t do that.)
Factor in access fees, and a family of four would pay $160 a month for a 15GB shared data plan. A 5GB plan would cost $150 for that same family. Obviously, the 15GB option is the more attractive one, even if it doesn’t measure up to other carriers.
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.