What Is the Best Family Plan?
If you want a cellphone plan for multiple lines, unlimited data is the way to go. And the best choice for families comes down to T-Mobile. The Uncarrier already offered a compelling mix of unlimited data at an affordable price and now that it lets you stream video at HD resolution, it removes our one reservation about the T-Mobile One Plan.
Still, Verizon's new unlimited data plan is a compelling alternative. Like T-Mobile, Verizon lets you stream video at 720p and it offers 10GB of Hotspot data. It also boasts a far-reaching network, though T-Mobile is narrowing the performance gap. Sprint's best option is an unlimited plan, too, particularly if you can take advantage of one of that carrier's frequent specials. AT&T now offers unlimited data to new subscribers, too, but you'll need to decide whether you want a lower-priced plan or the ability to stream video at HD resolution.
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
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's unlimited offering — which is the only plan available at the carrier — is even more compelling now that T-Mobile no longer forces subscribers to watch video at sub-HD resolution.
For families, T-Mobile charges $70 for the first line if you sign up for auto-pay. (Otherwise, tack on another $5 a month to each line.) The second line costs $50 while subsequent lines cost $20 for each subsequent line up to eight lines. That would mean a family of four would pay $160. T-Mobile occasionally offers discounts on that fourth line, so check the carrier's site for the latest pricing.
Another factor that makes T-Mobile's plan attractive: the carrier says the price takes fees and taxes into account, so the price it advertises is the one you'll see on your bill at the end of the month.
With Verizon jumping into the family plan mix, T-Mobile was inspired to tweak its T-Mobile One plan to allow HD video streaming and add 10GB of LTE Hotspot data. Previously you had to tack on another $15 per line per month high-speed hotspot data and HD streaming. (The $15 add-on still exists with perks like unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi through Gogo.) Another tier, T-Mobile One Plus International, throws in unlimited calling from the U.S to landlines in 70-plus countries and mobile numbers in 30-plus countries for $25 per month per line on top of the standard T-Mobile One rate.
Best Alternative: Verizon
Best Plan: Unlimited Data Plan, $180
Who Should Get Verizon: Families who want top network coverage with unlimited data
Verizon was the lone holdout among the big carriers when it came to unlimited data, but that's changed. Now Verizon offers an unlimited data plan that, when you factor in access fees for each line, would cost a family of four $180 each month. That figure doesn't include taxes, though — a noteworthy distinction since T-Mobile's rates reflect taxes and fees.
Otherwise, Verizon's unlimited plan is very similar to T-Mobile's; in fact, T-Mobile altered its unlimited plan to adopt some of the more appealing aspects of what Verizon offered, including HD streaming and LTE hotspot data. Keep an eye on Verizon's pricing, though, because it may be available at an introductory rate.
Budget Unlimited Plan: 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.) Sprint used to throttle video down to 480p resolution, but like T-Mobile, it changed its tune once Verizon offered an unlimited plan, and now subscribers can watch HD video. Sprint still restricts music and gaming speeds, but those limitations — 1.5 Mbps for music and 8 Mbps for gaming — are more generous than they used to be.
As of this writing, Sprint is offering a promotion that knocks $10 off the first line of unlimited data, and it's waiving the $30 per line fee on lines three, four and five. That means our family of four pays $90 a month for unlimited data — a compelling bargain until you read the fine print. Sprint's discounted rate only remains in effect for a year. As of March 2018, you'll pay the regular $160 a month for four lines.
Sprint still offers tiered data plans, though they're not compelling options with the carrier offering discounts on unlimited data. 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.
Other Options: AT&T
Best Plan: Unlimited data, $185
Who Should Get AT&T: Families who can take advantage of AT&T's network reach and want HD video
Facing pressure from other carriers, AT&T revamped its unlimited data plan offerings, giving subscribers two choices. We think the better option is AT&T's Unlimited Plus plan, even though it's the most expensive unlimited data option. A family of four pays $185 per month under this plan, but they'll be able to stream video at HD resolution. Unlimited Plus also includes 10GB of hotspot data. Essentially, these benefits match what other carriers' unlimited plans offer. If you happen to also subscribe to AT&T's DirecTV satellite TV service or the DirecTV Now streaming service, you can knock $25 a month off those fees should you also get the Unlimited Plus plan from AT&T.
If you'd rather save a little on your monthly bill, though, AT&T also has its Unlimited Choice plan. That same family of four pays $155 a month, or $30 less than the Unlimited Plus plan. There are some trade-offs, though. There's no hotspot data, and you'll be restricted to standard definition video streaming. Most significantly, AT&T will also cap your data speed at 3 Mbps. You will get the cheapest unlimited data plan of any of the Big Four carriers, though (excluding Sprint's specially priced unlimited family plan).
You can still get a tiered data plan from AT&T in which family members draw from the same pool of data. AT&T's 10GB plan costs $160 for a family of four — $80 for the plan itself plus $20 per line in access fees. It's $5 more expensive than the Unlimited Choice plan, but without the restrictions on data speed or video streaming.
One last note about unlimited data: it's not completely unlimited, as all four carriers reserve the right to slow down your speed if you go over a certain amount of data during a given billing cycle. T-Mobile's limit is the highest, as it may start throttling your speed if you're among the top 3 percent of data consumers on its network. (That translates to 30GB a month currently.) Sprint reserves the right to throttle after you use 23GB, while AT&T and Verizon put the cap at 22GB.