Family Plans: Which Smartphone Plan is Really the Best Deal
Shopping for a family plan gets complicated quickly. Even though carriers’ websites are getting easier to navigate and the choices are becoming a little more straightforward to compare, there are still plenty of ways that carriers overcharge you. And choosing the right carrier and the right amount of data when you have three, four, or even more people all on the same plan can quickly add up to a lot of decisions and an array of potential mistakes. Fortunately, we’ve rounded up all the information you need to compare the family plans offered by the major carriers in the U.S. and figure out which one is best for you.
The best overall family plan: T-Mobile
Stewart Wolpin and Philip Michaels report for Tom’s Guide that the best choice for a family plan comes from T-Mobile, since the carrier gives each person on the plan an individual pool of data (instead of requiring everyone in the family to share the same pool of data). The carrier also offers generous amounts of data and sizable discounts as you add more lines to your plan, which can help make it a little less painful for you to add teens or tweens to your plan.
T-Mobile currently offers a family plan that costs $120 for four lines that get 10GB of data each. T-Mobile’s family plan is Wolpin and Michaels’s top choice thanks to the individual data pools, the absence of access charges, and the generous discounts for higher data plans. T-Mobile typically charges $50 per month for the first line on a family plan, $30 for the second, and $10 each for any additional lines. The basic family plan includes 2GB of data for each line, while you can opt for 6GB for each line for an extra $15 per month, 10GB for an extra $30, or unlimited data for an extra $45.
A family of four that wants 10GB of data for each line would normally pay $220 per month, but T-Mobile’s discounts and promotions reduce the price to just $140. That’s a great deal for the large amount of data you get, especially since the carrier’s Data Stash program adds any unused data to the next month’s allotment. Even if you need just two lines, T-Mobile offers an attractive family plan: a two-line plan that gives each person 6GB and costs just $80 each month, $30 less than the typical pricing. Or, if you have a family full of data-hungry smartphone users, promotions lower the cost of a four-line unlimited plan from $280 to $220 per month.
A solid alternative to T-Mobile: Verizon
A good alternative to T-Mobile’s family plan is Verizon’s, which can be an attractive choice for many users thanks to Verizon’s superior network. Particularly if you live in an area where Verizon’s network consistently outperforms T-Mobile’s, Verizon’s plan can be a good choice. However, keep in mind that each line on the plan won’t get a separate pool of data, and the carrier recently changed its plans to cost slightly more (but to include more data, too).
In the past, Verizon would charge a family of four $160 per month for 12GB of data. (That broke down to 12GB of data for $80, plus a $20 fee for each phone. However, the carrier would add 2GB of data per month for each phone, bringing the total to $160 for 20GB of shared data). If you needed more data, you could pay $100 for 18GB of data. Add in the bonus 2GB of data and the $20 access fees, and a family of four would pay $180 per month for 26GB of data. With the changes to Verizon’s plan sizes, the base “data buckets” cost $70 per month for 8GB of data, $90 per month for 16GB of data, or $110 per month for 24GB of data. Verizon raised its prices, but also increased the amount of data that you get at each tier.
The large tier has changed from 6GB for $60 to 8GB for $70, while the extra-large tier has moved from 12GB for $80 to 16GB for $90, and the extra-extra-large tier has increased from 18GB for $100 to 24GB for $110. The $2o access fee for each line still applies, which means that a family of four would pay $150 for 8GB of data, $170 for 16GB of data, or $190 for 24GB of data. It’s a lot pricier than what T-Mobile’s family plan offers, especially since the 2GB bonus data promotion is now over, but it’s still an option to consider if Verizon’s coverage map looks more attractive in your area than T-Mobile’s.
A good option to cut costs: Sprint
In the assessment of the Tom’s Guide reviewers, Sprint’s family plan is worth considering if your main priority is to cut costs. The carrier offers a 12GB shared plan that, including a $60 monthly rate and a $20 per line monthly access fee, costs just $140 for a family of four. The major tradeoff is that Sprint’s network often lags behind its competitors’ when it comes to performance. However, a shared 12GB of data is enough for many families. Alternately, Sprint’s unlimited family plan costs $75 for the first line, $45 for the second, and $30 for each line after that. For a family of four, you’d pay $180, which is less than what T-Mobile charges for unlimited data. It’s an even better deal if you can catch one of Sprint’s occasional promotions, in which it waives the cost of the fourth line.
Tom’s Guide reports that AT&T’s family plan, on the other hand, is rarely worth considering. If you live in area with “stellar” AT&T coverage or subscribe to AT&T’s DirecTV satellite service, AT&T’s plan may be worth a look. Everyone on an AT&T family plan shares the same pool of data, but the carrier offers only a few choices when it comes to the out of data. You can opt for 2GB for $30 a month, 5GB for $50, or 15GB for $100 — which leaves a big gap for families who typically use somewhere between 6GB and 10GB of data.
AT&T’s family plan is further complicated by the fact that access fees vary. Families with 5GB of data or less pay $25 per month per phone, while those on 15GB plans or more pay $15. Considering access fees, a family of four would pay $160 each month for 15GB of shared data, while a 5GB plan would cost only $10 less at $150. If you subscribe to DirecTV or U-Verse, you can choose an unlimited plan, which costs $100 for the first line and $40 for additional lines. AT&T also currently credits the price of a fourth line on the bill, so a family of four could get unlimited data for $180 each month if they use AT&T for their TV service.
MVNO family plans to consider: Cricket and Boost Mobile
Kelsey Sheehy reports for NerdWallet that another good family plan to consider is Cricket’s Basic family plan, which costs $100 for four lines and offers 2.5GB of data per line. The activation fee is only $25 in-store or free online, which can save you a significant amount of money. (On Sprint’s family plan, for instance, activation can cost up to $36 per line.) If you need more data, you can get four lines with 5GB of data each for $160 per month, or four lines with 10GB of data each for $180.
Cricket operates on AT&T’s network, and an important factor to keep in mind is that Cricket’s LTE speeds are capped at 8Mbps, which is significantly slower than the 20+Mbps of which LTE is capable. That probably won’t matter if your primary activities are web browsing or scrolling through Facebook, but you’ll likely notice the slower speed if you’re streaming high-definition video or completing similarly data-intensive tasks.
Boost Mobile is another MVNO that offers a family plan worth considering, particularly if your preference is a prepaid plan. Boost’s family plan offers 5GB of data per line, and you can stream music via a variety of apps without using any of your data. The plan costs $140 for a family of four. Boost operates on Sprint’s network, and it’s important to keep in mind that if you want to make the switch to Boost from another carrier, it’s likely that you’ll need to buy new phones. Another factor to consider if you’re thinking of going prepaid is that while the plan will likely save you money in the long run, it will cost you more upfront to pay the full retail price of the phones you want.
Choosing the right family plan requires some comparison shopping and a healthy measure of introspection about what you and your family really need from your carrier. As you might have realized when reading about the different options offered by popular carriers, you’re going to need to have at least a general idea of how much data you need, and if you have a data-hungry family, you may want to consider whether an unlimited plan would make sense. It also pays to know which carrier offers the best coverage and performance in your area, which will help to rule out options that may look attractive, but would actually leave you frustrated with dropped calls and poor reception in the long run.
When you’re looking for the right family plan, you should also consider the cost of the phones themselves. Buying new phones on a two-year contract, where they’re available, will ultimately cost you a lot more than using an installment plan or purchasing the phones outright, and you’ll want to price out your options if one or more members of your family needs a new phone. Buying new phones on an installment plan will significantly increase your monthly bill, so make sure that you keep your budget in mind when you’re comparing options.
Finally, when you’re looking for a family plan (or any other plan, for that matter), you should always keep an eye out for discounts and promotions that can reduce your monthly bill. Also check what freebies and extras the carrier is offering, since they can end up saving you a significant amount of money.