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 offers a compelling mix of unlimited data at an affordable price, provided you're willing to live with restrictions on video streaming.
The Big Four carriers now offer different tiers of unlimited plans, with perks escalating the more you pay. T-Mobile's new Essentials plan is actually the cheapest at $120 a month for four lines of unlimited data, but it carries a lot of restrictions. The T-Mobile One plan ($160 a month for four lines) offers much better value to families by covering the cost of your Netflix subscription and adding attractive perks for travelers.
As for other carriers, Sprint's basic unlimited plan also carries some restrictions on streaming and shareable data, but the lower monthly bill may be worth it. Sprint offers more features — and a higher monthly bill — with its Unlimited Plus and Unlimited Premium offerings. (Families can mix and match different unlimited plans at Sprint.)
The best version of Verizon's unlimited plan costs more for a family of four than what you'd pay at those other two carriers, but Verizon also lets you mix and match its three different tiers of unlimited data for each line of your family plan. That brings some welcome flexibility to Verizon's family offerings. In contrast, AT&T currently forces you to pick between its two unlimited plans — the lower-priced option or a more expensive version that lets you stream video at HD resolution; however, both AT&T plans offer free access to the carrier's new WatchTV streaming service.
One other thing to be aware of: T-Mobile and Sprint are planning to merge, though that deal requires regulatory approval. Nothing's likely to change until it's clear the merger is going through, and that could drag into 2019.
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. Verizon and Sprint now allow you to mix and match different unlimited data tiers with their plans, meaning you can have some lines that are less expensive than others. For consistent comparisons, though, we looked at family plans with the same kind of data plan for each line. In addition to price, we also considered the reach and performance of a carrier’s network, including our own 4G network testing.
What You'll Pay for an Unlimited Family Plan: A family of four can expect to pay between $120 and $260 per month for unlimited data, with prices varying based on carrier and what kind of features you want (HD video streaming versus streams at 480p resolution, for example).
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. For families, the T-Mobile One plan costs $70 for the first line if you sign up for auto-pay. The second line costs $50 while subsequent lines cost $20 for each subsequent line. That would mean a family of four would pay $160. (Keep an eye peeled for promotional pricing, though: as of this writing, T-Mobile is waiving the fee on its fourth line, so you can pay $140 for four lines of T-Mobile One.)
Another factor that makes T-Mobile One 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. That's not the case with the cheaper T-Mobile Essentials plan the company introduced this summer. Essentials costs $120 a month for four lines of data, but you give up some of the perks included with T-Mobile One, which covers the cost of your monthly Netflix subscription, gives you free texting and one hour of Wi-Fi on Gogo enabled flights, and also includes support for texting and data when you travel overseas. T-Mobile also reserves the right to slow down data speeds on Essential Plans if its network gets congested. (AT&T and Verizon have the same stipulation on their respective Unlimited & More and Go Unlimited entry-level plans.)
We wish T-Mobile still included HD video streaming and LTE hotspot data in its T-Mobile One plan. Instead, T-Mobile's standard unlimited data plan caps video streaming at 480p resolution and gives you unlimited hotspot data capped at 3G speeds. For many users that won't matter, and for the ones who do value those features, T-Mobile One Plus offers HD video streaming and 10GB of LTE hotspot data for an extra $10 per month for each line on a family plan. T-Mobile One Plus also includes 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.
If you're 55 or older, you may want to consider the carrier's Unlimited 55+ option, which essentially mirrors its regular T-Mobile One plan but at a discounted rate for two lines. In March, T-Mobile hiked the price by $10 a month to $70 for two lines of unlimited data. Even with the price increase, Unlimited 55+ is aggressively priced compared to T-Mobile's standard rates. It's also attractive when compared to a senior-focused wireless service like Consumer Cellular.
Best Alternative: Sprint
Best Plan: Unlimited Basic, $140
Who Should Get Sprint: Customers who want to pay the least amount possible while still enjoying unlimited data
Like Verizon and AT&T, Sprint now offers different levels of unlimited data. You've got three options with the carrier: Unlimited Basic, Unlimited Plus and Unlimited Premium. And while the Basic plan's perks aren't as generous as what you get with Plus or Premium, the lower monthly bill is very attractive — especially compared to Premium, which is one of the most expensive options for families.
Unlimited Basic costs $140 per month for a family of four. That compares to $180 for four lines of Sprint's Unlimited Plus plan and $240 for four Unlimited Premium lines. To save that $40 to $100 on your monthly bill, you'll only be able to stream video at 480p resolution. (Plus and Premium subscribers get full HD streaming.) There are restriction on streaming music (up to 500 Kbps) and gaming (up to 2 Mbps) that other Sprint unlimited plans don't impose.
You get 500MB of LTE hotspot data each month with Basic, versus 15GB with Plus and 50GB with Premium. (Go over those limit, and your speeds are slowed to 3G.) Plus subscribers also get twice the LTE data of Basic users — 10GB compared to 5GB — when traveling in Mexico and Canada, while Premium customers get unlimited data in those countires. Basic, Plus and Premium subscribers get Hulu's streaming service bundled with their wireless plan, but free access to the Tidal music streaming service is only available to Plus and Premium plans. Premium customers also enjoy an Amazon Prime membership and access to Lookout Premium Plus, which is a mobile security service. If none of those bells and whistles feel like must-haves to you, then Unlimited Basic is Sprint's best buy.
Like T-Mobile, Sprint has a discounted plan for customers 55 years and older that also costs $70 for two lines of unlimited data. It also happens to have the same restrictions on streaming videos, music and games you'll find with the new Unlimited Basic plan.
Other Options: Verizon
Best Plan: Beyond Unlimited Plan, $200
Who Should Get Verizon: Families who want top network coverage with unlimited data
Like Sprint, Verizon splits its unlimited plan in three, giving families a choice — do you want lower prices, better features or a very high ceiling before your data speeds may get throttled?
The less expensive Go Unlimited plan has too many restrictions in our opinion, even though four lines of Go Unlimited cost the same $160 you'd pay for four lines at T-Mobile. For starters, you'd only stream video at 480p resolution. But Verizon also says that it reserves the right to throttle traffic on Go Unlimited accounts if there's a lot of congestion on Verizon's network. Since one of the main reasons to subscribe to Verizon is to reap the benefits of Big Red's network, agreeing to have your traffic throttled at any time negates that advantage. As of January, Go Unlimited subscribers are able to use talk, text and data while traveling in Canada and Mexico while also getting unlimited calls to those countries from the U.S — matching a perk available to Verizon's more expensive Beyond Unlimited Plan.
Speaking of Beyond Unlimited plan, it will cost a family of four $200 per month. That's more expensive than any other carrier, but at least you get some nice features out of the plan. In addition to HD streaming (capped at 780p for phones), Verizon offers 15GB of high-speed hotspot data. (Go Unlimited plans have unlimited hotspot data capped at a ridiculous 600 Kbps speed.) There's also the aforementioned use of talk, text and data when traveling in Canada and Mexico.
If you want an extra 5GB of LTE hotspot data, five of Verizon's TravelPasses that let you take your talk, text and data overseas and 500GB of cloud storage, there's the new Above Unlimited plan. This plan also lets you use up to 75GB of data each month before Verizon could slow your data speeds. (Normally, the cap is 22GB.) But Above Unlimited is also above all other plans in pricing — $240 a month for four lines of data.
Fortunately, you can now mix and match Verizon's different unlimited offerings in your family plan. That meas a family of four could have two lines of the Beyond Unlimited plan plus two lines of Go Unlimited if not every person needs HD video streaming and high-speed hotspot data. Under Verizon's pricing, that mix-and-match plan would run you $180 per month — still more than what T-Mobile charges, but with greater flexibility.
Other Options: AT&T
Best Plan: Unlimited & More, $160
Who Should Get AT&T: Families who want a lower-priced plan with streaming TV and don't mind throttling
AT&T has rolled out new unlimited plans that take advantage of its freshly approved merger with Time Warner. Say goodbye to Unlimited Choice and Unlimited Plus, in favor of Unlimited & More and Unlimited & More Premium. The names may have changed, but for families of four, the pricing is not — Unlimited & More costs $160 a month for four lines, while the Premium plan raises that cost to $190.
What has changed is what the plans contain. AT&T's old unlimited plans included free HBO, but that's making way for a new WatchTV service that features 30-plus channels like TBS, TNT and AMC. (WatchTV doesn't include local networks nor any sports-focused channels.) Both Unlimited & More plans continue to offer $15 monthly credits if you subscribe to other AT&T services — DirecTV Now in the case of Unlimited & More, with Premium subscribers able to apply their discount to DirecTV, DirecTV Now or U-Verse service.
As before, Unlimited & More limits video streams to 480p resolution and there's no hotspot data included with this plan.But that may be a small sacrifice to make in the name of a lower monthly bill. Unlimited & More Premium costs $190 a month for a family of four. You do get to enjoy HD video streaming and 15GB of LTE hotspot data. Also, Premium customers can pick one complimentary premium service (choices include HBO, Showtime and other premium cable chanels plus premium music streaming offerings). Those are nice perks to have, but are they worth an extra $30 a month? For families that could save $360 per year by opting for the cheaper Unlimited & More plan, the answer will likely be no.
As of now, 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 $155 for a family of four — $85 for the plan itself plus $20 per line in access fees but less $10 for autopay enrollment. That's $5 less per month than the Unlimited Choice Enhanced plan, and 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. Above Unlimited customers at Verizon have the highest ceiling at 75GB. (Other Verizon unlimited plans have their cap at 22GB, the same as AT&T's.) Next up are T-Mobile and now Sprint, which both have a 50GB threshold before throttling may kick in. AT&T has the lowest ceiling at 22GB.