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 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. (The FCC is indicating that it backs the deal, while reports suggest that the U.S. Department of Justice is more skeptical.) Nothing's likely to change until the merger goes through, which would happen later this year.
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).
With 5G networks launching this year in some cities, expect more wireless carriers to reveal what the faster networking standard will mean for your smartphone bill. T-Mobile has said that its 5G plans will feature unlimited data and that pricing will be unchanged from what it currently charges. Sprint customers won't pay extra for 5G service, but they will need to get Sprint's most expensive unlimited plan if they want service for the 5G-capable LG V50 ThinQ. Verizon is charging $10 a month for unlimited 5G data on top of its Beyond Unlimited and Above Unlimited plans as it's now selling the Galaxy S10 5G.
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, so check the carrier's site for deals that could lower your monthly bill.
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.
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 June 30, 2020, though, 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.
Other Family Plan Options: Verizon and AT&T
Verizon's Best Plan: Beyond Unlimited Plan, $200
Verizon also 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. 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. And Beyond Unlimited subscribers now get free access to the Apple Music streaming service, while Go Unlimited plans only get 6 months free before Apple's $10 monthly rate kicks in.
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.
As with Sprint, you can 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.
A new 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. Two parents who add two lines of Just Kids service to their plan would pay $170 total each month.
AT&T's Best Plan: Unlimited & More, $160
After some name changes in 2018, AT&T's unlimited plan offerings are now known as Unlimited & More and Unlimited & More Premium. The former costs $160 a month for four lines, while the Premium plan raises that cost to $190.
AT&T's plans include a WatchTV service that features 35-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 channels 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.
AT&T still offers tiered data plans for families, in which you can draw from a single pool of data. That's potentially appealing if you don't want to pay up for unlimited data, though the pricing isn't significantly discounted. Four lines of AT&T's 9GB Mobile Share Plus plan cost $140 a month — only $20 less than Unlimited & More. 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. 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.