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 the performance of Sprint's network is improving, it still trails T-Mobile, so we give the edge to the Uncarrier.
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 now 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 will soon add 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. 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 promotions — 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 — earlier this year, it waived the fee on that fourth line of data, but that limited-time promotion recently ended — 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 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. Jump on that plan before March 15, though. That's when T-Mobile plans to increase the monthly cost from $60 to $70 for two lines of unlimited data. Even with the price hike, 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 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 June 30, 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. (Sadly, Sprint's Unlimited Kickstart promotion — which lowered the cost of unlimited lines to $15 each while adding tougher streaming restrictions — has ended.)
Sprint used to throttle video down to 480p resolution, but it changed its tune once Verizon offered an unlimited plan last year. Sprint 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.
Like T-Mobile, Sprint now offers a plan for seniors 55 years and older, with two lines of unlimited data available for $70 a month. Sprint places tighter streaming restrictions on this plan than its standard unlimited offering, with video streaming limited to 480p resolution and music and game streaming capped at 500 Kbps and 2 Mbps, respectively.
Other Options: Verizon
Best Plan: Beyond Unlimited Plan, $200
Who Should Get Verizon: Families who want top network coverage with unlimited data
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 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 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, 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 and Sprint charge, 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 is in the process of rolling 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 be changing, 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's 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 is T-Mobile, which only starts 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.