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Best cellphone plans 2020

What Is the Best Family Plan?

If you want the best cell phone 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 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 Magenta plan (regularly $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 different tiers of unlimited data for each line of your family plan. That introduces some welcome flexibility to Verizon's family offerings. AT&T has reshuffled its unlimited plan into three tiers, lowering prices, but doing away with some of the video-streaming perks included in previous unlimited offerings.

One other thing to be aware of: the T-Mobile-Sprint merger looks like it's moving ahead, though we're still waiting on the deal to officially close. Once it does, we imagine that will have an impact on the combined carrier's plans and what Dish plans to charge for wireless coverage once it takes control of some of the network spectrum T-Mobile and Sprint have to give up.

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. 

MORE: Best All-Around Phone Carrier

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).

With 5G networks launching this year in some cities, we now know what carriers will charge for the faster service. In most cases, there's no additional fee, though you will need a specific unlimited plan. T-Mobile's Magenta plan includes 5G coverage, as does Sprint's Unlimited Premium plan (the most expensive of Sprint's three unlimited tiers.) Likewise, AT&T won't charge extra for 5G, but you will need to get either one of the carrier's two priciest unlimited plans to get 5G service. Verizon charges $10 a month for unlimited 5G data on top of its regular unlimited plans, though the carrier waives the fee for its Do More, Play More and Get More plans.

Top Family Plan: T-Mobile

Best Plan: Magenta (unlimited datea), $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 Magenta 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. Note that T-Mobile offers frequent discounts on multiple lines — it's currently waiving the $20 charge on the third line of data — so check the carrier's site for deals that could lower your monthly bill.

MORE: The Best Phones Available at T-Mobile

Other factors make T-Mobile Magenta attractive. When the company renamed its unlimited plan, it added 3GB of LTE hotspot data for Magenta subscribers. (The previous plan capped hotspot speeds at 3G.) T-Mobile's price also 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. Essentials costs $120 a month for four lines of data, but you give up some of the perks included with Magenta, which covers the cost of a basic 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 included HD video streaming and LTE hotspot data in Magenta, as it did long ago with its $70 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, Magenta Plus offers HD video streaming and 10GB of LTE hotspot data for an extra $10 per month for each line on a family plan. (It's $15 if you have only one line.) Magenta Plus also includes unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi through Gogo.

If you're 55 or older, you may want to consider the carrier's Magenta Unlimited 55 option, which essentially mirrors its regular Magenta plan but at a discounted rate for two lines for $70 a month. A new Essentials Unlimited 55+ option cuts the monthly rate to $55 a month for two lines, but with fewer perks than the Magenta version.

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 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 $220 for four Unlimited Premium lines. To save that $40 to $80 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 limits, 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.

A current promotion at Sprint gives you five lines of Unlimited Basic for $100, allowing you to save $40 each month. You can enjoy discounted rates on additional lines of Unlimited Plus and Unlimited Premium, bringing the cost of those plans down to $140 and $180, respectively, for a family of four. Those discounts end April 30, 2021, at which time you'll resume paying full price.

Sprint also lets you mix and match its different unlimited plans so that one line can be the Plus plan while others can be the lower cost basic plan. That's welcome flexibility for families.

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 Unlimited Basic plan.

MORE: Sprint 55 vs. T-Mobile 55+: Which Is Best for Seniors?

Other Family Plan Options: Verizon and AT&T

Verizon's Best Plan: Play More or Do More plans, $180 a month

In August, Verizon shook up its unlimited plan offerings, with four different tiers of unlimited service. It's a pretty confusing lineup, as you might imagine, but at least Verizon is charging less than what families had to pay for its previous unlimited data plans.

The best plan is either the Play More or Do More option, both of which cost $180 a month for a family of four. Which plan depends on how you want to use your unlimited data. If you love to stream movies and music, Play More is the better option, as it includes a free Apple Music subscription and the ability to stream HD video. Do More subscribers only get six free months of Apple Music, while video streaming is restricted to 480p resolution.

But the unlimited data on Do More isn't quite as limited as it is with Play More. Do More customers get 50GB of what Verizon calls "premium" data — that means you can use 50GB before Verizon reserves the right to slow your data when its network is congested. Premium data is capped at 25GB for Play More users. You also get 500GB of cloud storage included with your Do More plan.

As for the other options, the cheaper Start Unlimited Plan costs $140 a month for four lines — $20 less than T-Mobile's Magenta plan — but Verizon can throttle your speed at any time. You've got the same restrictions on Apple Music and video streaming as the Do More plan. The high-end Get More plan ($220 a month for four lines) offers 75GB of premium data, plus free Apple Music, 500GB of cloud storage and HD video streaming; it also doubles LTE hotspot data to 30GB; Play More and Get More customers get 15GB of hotspot data.

If you want faster 5G speeds, you'll need to pay another $10 per line each month, though right now, Verizon is waiving that fee for Get More, Do More and Play More customers who buy a 5G phone. You can opt for different plans on different lines, meaning some family members can have Do More plans while others enjoy the added streaming benefits of Play More.

Wait, there's more. A Just Kids plan provides another option for parents who want a little more control over their children's cell phone use. Just Kids lines feature 5GB of LTE data, and unlimited talk and text for 20 contacts. Safety Mode prevents data overages by slowing speeds once your child uses all 5GB, and parental controls let you monitor screen time and set content filters. Just Kids plans require at least one line of unlimited data, with pricing dropping the more lines you add. 

MORE: The Best Phones Available at Verizon

AT&T's Best Plan: Unlimited Extra, $160

AT&T has lowered the rates on its unlimited family plans, but it also removed one of the prime perks. The old Unlimited & More plans used to give you access to a WatchTV service that included 35 channels you could stream. That's gone with the new Unlimited Starter and Unlimited Extra plans, but both of those plans cost less than their comparable predecessors.

The Unlimited Extra plan will likely appeal to more families. Four lines of data cost $160 a month, and you get 15GB of LTE Hotspot data, along with the ability to use your plan when traveling in Mexico and Canada. AT&T won't slow your data speeds unless you use more than 50GB of data in a month. (AT&T's old plans capped data usage at 22GB.)

You can save $20 a month by going with four lines of the Unlimited Starter plan, but there's no hotspot data and AT&T reserves the right to throttle data speeds whenever its network is congested. As with Unlimited Extra, you can use your plan in Canada and Mexico, and you're limited to streaming in SD resolution.

People who want HD streaming can turn to the newly launched Unlimited Elite plan. It also includes access to HBO, and you'll get 30GB of hotspot data. Speeds won't be slowed unless you use more than 100GB of data. You'll pay up for these perks, though — four lines of Unlimited Elite cost $200 a month.

MORE: The Best Phones Available at AT&T

AT&T still offers tiered data plans for families, in which you can draw from a single pool of data. That would appealing if you don't want to pay up for unlimited data, though the pricing for AT&T's 9GB Mobile Share Plus costs the same $140 a month for four lines as the Unlimited Starter option. You can save more with the 3GB Mobile Share Plus Plan (four lines for $120), but that's not a lot of data to go around.

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. AT&T's Unlimited Elite customers will enjoy a 100GB cap, while Verizon's ceiling is 75GB for Get More subscribers. Other Verizon unlimited plans have their cap at 25 to 50GB. Next up are T-Mobile and now Sprint, which both have a 50GB threshold before throttling may kick in. The lowest-priced plans at Verizon (Start Unlimited) and AT&T (Unlimited Starter) allow your data speeds to be slowed whenever there's network congestion.

  • PhilipMichaels
    Archived comments are found here:
  • JamieLanger
    It also depends on your geographical location and the vicinity of you with respect to the carrier's signal. You can just bypass iCloud lock if you're using an iPhone and get done with it. Everything completes every other, thus an ultimate "ideal" plan is not always feasible