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.
Sprint undercuts T-Mobile on pricing, especially now with a promotion that reduces what a family of four would pay for the first year of service. While Sprint's network is improving, it still trails T-Mobile, so we give the edge to the Uncarrier.
Verizon used to offer a compelling unlimited plan for families to go with its well-regarded network, but a reshuffling of options forces families of four to pay much more for Verizon's best unlimited plan. The cheaper choice — which only matches what you'd pay at T-Mobile — has too many restrictions. Likewise, 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.
What You'll Pay for an Unlimited Family Plan: A family of four can expect to pay between $155 and $200 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.) Sometimes, deals — like Sprint's current offer that waives the cost of the third and fourth line for a year — can drive that cost down.
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, T-Mobile charges $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 up to eight lines. That would mean a family of four would pay $160. T-Mobile occasionally offers discounts on multiple lines, 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.
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 (which is a price hike from the $5 T-Mobile used to charge). 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.
T-Mobile is known for its customer perks, and it just added on to family plans: The carrier will pick up the cost of your $9.99 monthly Netflix subscription if you have two or more T-Mobile One lines.
If you're 55 or older, you have a new reason to gravitate to T-Mobile. The carrier's new Unlimited 55+ option essentially mirrors its regular T-Mobile One option, but offers two lines at a discounted $60 a month total. (You're not eligible for the carrier's Netflix On Us promotion, alas.) Not only is that 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 data, $160
Who Should Get Sprint: Sprint customers who want unlimited data
For families, Sprint has eliminated tiered data pricing, following T-Mobile's lead. Like T-Mobile, Sprint charges a family of four $160 a month for unlimited data — at least at its normal rates.
As of this writing, Sprint is reducing rates on its plan through March 31, 2019. For now, you'd pay $100 a month for unlimited data: $60 for the first line, $40 on the second, and the third and fourth lines added at no charge. Just be aware that discount goes away in 2019, when you resume paying $160 per month. If you want to save some money over the next year, and can take advantage of the discount promotion, Sprint offers a compelling alternative to T-Mobile.
Sprint used to throttle video down to 480p resolution, but it changed its tune once Verizon offered an unlimited plan last year. 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.
Other Options: Verizon
Best Plan: Beyond Unlimited Plan, $200
Who Should Get Verizon: Families who want top network coverage with unlimited data
Verizon split its unlimited plan in two, giving families a choice — do you want lower prices or better features?
The less expensive Go Unlimited plan has too many restrictions in our opinion, even though it costs the same $160 you'd pay at T-Mobile and Sprint (when Sprint is charging its regular rates, that is). 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 25, Go Unlimited subscribers can 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.
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 offering. A family of four pays $185 per month under this plan, but they'll be able to stream video at HD resolution and get free HBO streaming as part of the bargain. Unlimited Plus also includes 10GB of hotspot data. Essentially, these benefits match what other carriers' unlimited plans offer, though the HBO throw-in sets AT&T apart. 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, no HBO 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). And AT&T recently let Unlimited Choice subscribers add the DirecTV Now streaming service at a discounted rate.
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 the same monthly rate 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 a healthy 50GB a month currently.) Sprint reserves the right to throttle after you use 23GB, while AT&T and Verizon put the cap at 22GB.