What Is the Best Family Plan?
The choice for the best family plan comes down to a debate between performance and value. On the one side is Verizon, which offers a reasonably priced package for family on a fast, reliable network. On the other side is T-Mobile, which gives each member of that same family a sizeable pool of data to call their very own.
In the end, T-Mobile's approach to data wins the day. Still, it's very close.
Best Family Plan
Consider Verizon, which recently revamped its plans to do away with the distinction between family and individual plans. Now Verizon offers four levels of data — family members share from that same pool of data. With that in mind, Verizon’s most attractive plan for families is its new XLarge data plan offering 12GB of shareable data for $80 a month. Even when you add in access fees — $20 a month per device — the $160 total is an attractive package, considering you get more data than what AT&T offers for the same price. And that plan is on Verizon’s network, which fared the best in our tests of carrier performance. (If you want even more data, Verizon currently offers 18GB of shared data for $180 a month, once you add in access fees. Verizon says that's a limited-time offer, but hasn't specified when it will expire.)
* Access fee for phones bought outright or on installment plans; fees for subsidized phones are $40 per device
^ Sprint is waiving the access fee through Sept. 30, 2016
T-Mobile counters with individual pools of data instead of one shared chunk. The carrier's best current plan for a family of four gives everyone 6GB of data. Normally, that plan costs $160 a month, with no access fees at all. A current promotion lets you add a fourth line for free, so that same 6GB-for-four-lines package currently costs $120.
You can pick different amounts of data for each line in your T-Mobile family plan. Any plan of 3GB or more per line also qualifies for T-Mobile's Data Stash rollover plan, which adds unused data from one month to the next month's allotment, putting an end to most data overage worries. Unlike other carriers that will start automatically charging you around $15 per extra gigabyte you use over your allotment, T-Mobile simply throttles you down to 2G.
We think network performance should be a key factor when picking a cell phone plan. But in this case, T-Mobile's vast pool of data is too much to ignore. We also like the fact that T-Mobile's allocates data on a per line basis instead of giving families a bucket that everyone draws from.
Like Verizon, AT&T has done away with the distinction between family and individual plans in its offerings. That’s to the benefit of heavy data users, as you can now opt for 15GB of shared data each month for the same $100 AT&T used to charge for its 10GB plan. You’ll need to factor in access fees. Subscribers to the 15GB plan pay $15 per month per phone if they bought their phone outright or through AT&T’s Next monthly payment plan. AT&T still offers subsidized phones under two-year contracts, but charges $40 a month in access fees for those devices. If you opt for AT&T, avoid the two-year contract, and you could save your family of four $100 a month in access fees.
AT&T becomes more attractive if you're open to bundling your TV service and your cell phone bill. To leverage its DirecTV purchase, AT&T is knocking $10 a month off the bills of people who combine DirecTV service with their wireless bill. That means a family with a 10GB shared data plan could add a DirecTV Select Plan with four TV receivers and pay $200 each month. To attract DirecTV and AT&T U-verse subscribers who get their cell phone service elsewhere, AT&T is offering a $300 credit if they sign up for an AT&T Next wireless plan and trade-in their phone. AT&T’s revamped plans have already made the carrier a more attractive option for families, especially when you consider perks like rollover data and free calls and texts to Canada and Mexico if you have a 15GB data plan or higher. The introduction of bundling will only further alter the wireless service landscape in the coming months.
Sprint charges the same price for data as AT&T, but now offers less data -- 10GB of shared data for up to four users for $100 per month. Sprint currently waives access fees for people who lease or buy their phone on installment plans. But this is a special offer; after Sept. 30, 2016, you'll have to start paying $15 a month per phone in access fees. This will raise the monthly costs for a family of four to $160.
As we've said, we think 10GB of shared data is more than enough for families of four — let alone the individual buckets of data that T-Mobile offers. But if you absolutely demand unlimited data, you have some options, though neither Verizon nor AT&T offer family plans with unlimited data. Sprint charges $70 for the first line of unlimited data, plus $60 for each additional line, assuming you’re leasing your phone or buying it via monthly payments. That’s $250 a month for a four-line unlimited data plan. Unlimited data at T-Mobile is slightly more expensive at $280 a month, though T-Mobile’s network clearly outperforms Sprint’s.
Bottom Line: Verizon’s network stands tall, and $80 a month is a good price for 12GB of data, even after another $80 in access fees are factored in to your final bill. That same $160 each month will get you 15GB of shared data with AT&T, which should also appeal to families. But T-Mobile offers just too much to overlook, including music streaming that doesn’t count against your data allotment, data overage protection via Data Stash, no access fee charges and free international data roaming.