If you’ve ever opened a cell phone bill and felt the floor sway beneath you when you read the total, then it might be time to think about a family cellular plan. After all, you might be able to stick to a monk-like data plan as a single person (though it’s not easy), but once you add on a spouse and data-addicted kids, that several-hundred-dollar bill becomes… well, inevitable. The big carriers all promise that their plans will save families a bundle. But whose can actually do the job? We compared AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile family plans. You’ll see that there are no apples-to-apples comparisons; every plan is a bit different… which makes a complicated (and hopefully helpful) smackdown. Let’s do this.
Note: All the major carriers have done away with contracts, and actually made it pricier to choose a contract plan. Why is going contract-free cheaper? Because you don’t get a free or subsidized phone with the deal… so factor that in to the pricing below.
AT&T’s current Mobile Share Value Plan works kinda like happy hour at your favorite sushi joint. Individual pieces of it are cheap enough, but building a whole dinner can get expensive. First off, while there is a bare-bones, contract-free plan starting at $100 per month for four lines and unlimited talk and text throughout the US plus Canada and Mexico, it includes only 300 megabytes of data. That will probably work only for families who use their phones exclusively for calls inside the house, and never stream anything. Sound like you? I didn’t think so.
AT&T’s “bargain” deal right now is $160 for four lines with 15GB per month. Pair that with AT&T’s boasting about having the nation’s fastest 4G LTE signal, and the plan sounds pretty decent. But beware: Going over your data limit will rack up charges fast… at a whopping $15 per GB. If you stream a lot of movies and music, check your past usage habits carefully before committing to a data plan. Also, this plan does include rollover data, which can be helpful.
Activation fee: $45 per line.
The Verizon Plan is offered like clothing sizes, from “S” to “XXL.” Like AT&T, Verizon offers unlimited talk and text, but that doesn’t include Mexico or Canada (it’s free texting only). The bare-bones four-line plan costs $110 per month and includes 1GB, which, I mean, you could blow through streaming a two episodes of Game of Thrones.
A much better deal seems to be $160 for 12GB (with AT&T, you get 15GB for the same price). Kick in another $20 per month, and you’ll have 18GB. Now we’re talkin’. As with AT&T, data overage will cost you $15 per GB, so watch your consumption.
While AT&T advertises the fastest 4G LTE, Verizon promises the “most reliable” 4G LTE coverage. Whether or not that’s a fact, it does mean you will have the fastest service available, which not every network’s plan includes.
Finally, you’ll want to pick your plan The Price is Right style—that is, guess the maximum data you’ll need each month, without going over—because you won’t receive rollover data. Boo.
Activation fee: $40 per line.
Sprint’s family deals are are little more complex than others’ because, although they’re contract-free, they require you to lease your phones from Sprint. If you don’t, the prices go up. These plans include unlimited talk and text and free calling and text to Canada and Mexico. The bare-bones deal costs $120 per month for four lines with 1GB— still too little for the average family.
Surprisingly, a much bigger plan will cost you less, perhaps based on the theory that a multi-line discount will reel in big families while the bare-bones deal will snag single users. For $100 per month, you’ll get four lines with 10GB of data. And for $120 per month, you can supersize that data to 40GB. Overage will cost about $15 per gigabyte, and there is no rollover data.
Activation fee: $36 per line.
T-Mobile’s Simple Choice North America Plan is the most straightforward of the bare-bones plans. For $100 per month, it offers four lines of unlimited calling and texting within the U.S. and to Canada and Mexico, and 1 GB of 4G LTE data. But that’s not the whole story.
This is more than a bare-bones plan, because after you exceed your data allotment, there are no overages. Instead, your data speed slows down to 2G. Since your data is shared across all your lines, this means that if your son goes on a YouTube bender, all the families devices will slow to a crawl. Majorly annoying, but perhaps not as annoying as an unexpected bill. That said, here’s a perk: You’ll get free music streaming from more than 30 apps, meaning that music won’t count toward your data allotment. That’s kinda cool, and can make a big difference (my kids have been warned about excessive streaming outside the house… this would give them a bit of a free pass where audio is concerned). There’s also free in-flight texting, though you’ll need to set it up before you’re in the air.
You’ll get rollover data only if you upgrade to 3GB or 5GB of 4G LTE data… though that doesn’t apply to Mexico and Canada. For four lines with unlimited 4G LTE data, you’ll pay $220 per month.
Activation fee: none.
Your family’s data needs and local coverage will ultimately determine which plan is the right one for you. I like T-Mobile’s deal because there’s no overage and no activation fee, but I don’t like the slow service that kicks in after I use up my data. (Trust me, you do not want to stream anything in 2G.) My best advice is to call your current carrier and ask for your exact data usage for the past several months. That will tell you how much you need, so you don’t have to guess whether a slightly cheaper 12GB plan is better than a competitor’s 15GB plan.
Which family plan brings it all together for your clan? Let me know in the comments!