Family Plan Face-Off: What’s the Best Deal?

If you’ve got a house full of smartphone users, a family or “shared” plan can save you a lot of money by bundling your accounts together at a reduced cost per line. Most often these plans involve a single, shared bucket of data.  For example, the cost of four separate AT&T accounts with 2GB of data each adds up to about $220, while a four-member family plan costs $160 for 10GB of shared data. However, MetroPCS charges for $100 for four lines with 1GB of data reserved for each one.

  att_thumb att_thumb att_thumb sprint_thumb tmo_thumb verizon_thumb att_thumb
               
Total Monthly Cost
(4 lines)
$160 (Next)
$260 (contract)
$100/month $100/month $100 (for 20GB) $100 (10GB) $140 (Edge)
$240 (contract)
$86.92/month
Each Line Access Fee

$15 on Next
$40 (contract)

$25 $25 $15 (waived thru 2015) $60 (first line; 3GB)
$40 (2nd line; 3GB)
$20 (3rd & 4th lines)
$15 (Edge)
$40 (contract)
$16.10
Data Amount

10GB

1GB per line 1GB per line 10GB 10GB 10GB 4GB
Data Cost
$100 included included included included $80  included
Talk and Text Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited 750 mins, 1500 texts
 
 
*Does not include taxes, fees and device payments
 

Each of the big four carriers offers some type of family plan as do prepaid leaders such as Virgin Mobile , Metro PCS, and Cricket. To help you find the best value, we’ve compared each provider’s cost for a four-member family plan with roughly 2.5GB (the average amount smartphone users consume) of data per phone.

Overall Value

At first glance, Sprint’s Family Share Pack offers the best value. Not only is it the cheapest of the lot at $100 a month, but also you get 20GB of data (if you sign up before January 2015). That’s double the 10GB offered by the other Big Four carriers. But T-Mobile’s lines ($100 for 10GB 4-line pack for a limited time or $180 for unlimited data for four) come with free international data roaming packed in, as well as free music streaming and no data overages. And Sprint, for all the value it provides, has some of the worst 4G LTE performance in major cities across the nation. 

Both AT&T and Verizon’s family plans with 10GB will cost you more than $200 ($260 / $240), unless you sign up for each company’s early-upgrade plan (AT&T Next or Verizon Edge), which will lower that rate to $160 and $140 respectively. Be aware though, that both AT&T and Verizon’s early upgrade plans can cost customers more over two years than traditional two-year plans do.

Prepaid providers such as Virgin Mobile have enticing sub-$100 prices for a four-line plan, but these often come with tiny data allotments and a limit on the amount of texts and calls you can make. But that could be perfect for cash-strapped people who just want a line for texting and Facebook check-ins. 

Plan Size and Flexibility

All of the Big Four carriers now let you add up to 10 members to your package, but only Sprint gives you double the data offered by competitors at the same price range. For a limited time starting Dec. 10, T-Mobile gives your group of four unlimited data for $180. And while prepaid carriers may entice with their low prices, these smaller players offer far less LTE data to share, and you can only add up to 4 or 5 lines to your plan. 

Flexibility is also important to consider, as your family members might eventually want to break away and pay their own phone bill. Both T-Mobile and Sprint don’t tie you down to an annual commitment, so members can leave anytime they want. 

MORE: 10 Smartphones with the Longest Battery Life

Prepaid carriers also offer plans with much less commitment than their post-paid counterparts. But these smaller players offer a much more limited range of available smartphones, so those looking to get a good deal on a leading handset should make sure they like the device selection being offered.

If there are young kids in your group that need a basic setup with just calls and texts, Virgin Mobile’s family plan comes with a useful tool that lets you specifically allocate the amount of minutes and messages your members get. The carrier’s app even comes with a custom control feature that lets you set curfews and restrictions on app and phone use. Verizon also offers a similar feature via its My Verizon and FamilyBase portals. 

  att_thumb sprint_thumb tmo_thumb verizon_thumb
         
Total Monthly Cost
(4 lines, 10GB)
$160 (Next)
$260 (contract)
$100 (for 20GB) $100 (10GB) $140 (Edge)
$240 (contract)
Each Line Access Fee

$15 on Next
$40 (contract)

$15 (waived thru 2015) $60 (first line; 3GB)
$40 (2nd line; 3GB)
$20 (3rd & 4th lines)
$15 (Edge)
$40 (contract)
Data Cost
(~10GB)
$100 Included in line cost Included in line cost $80 
Unlimited Talk & Text Yes Yes Yes Yes
 

If you’re looking to take away or add members to a family plan, you’ll need some more details. Here’s how the plans break down.

AT&T

att logoAT&T’s 10GB Mobile Share plan costs $100 a month, and each device’s access fee  to that data varies depending on how you get it. If you buy your handset through AT&T’s early-upgrade program Next, bring an existing smartphone or buy a new device at full retail value, that access fee is $15 a month. If you get your phone on a two-year contract, that fee jumps to $40, which could add $100 to your monthly bill.

If you don’t want to subscribe to Next, you might want to look at what T-Mobile and Sprint have to offer for families to avoid the hefty access fees.

With more than 400 markets covered by its 4G LTE network though, AT&T is one of the better options for those who need reliable data coverage in the nation. Coming in third in our 4G tests in San Francisco, New York City and Chicago and second in Los Angeles, AT&T’s LTE speeds aren’t the best, but you’ll find it good enough for most uses. 

Lines: Up to 10
Price: $40 per month for each device on 2-year contract, $15 for each non-subsidized handset
Data: $100 for 10GB 
Unlimited Talk and Text: Yes

MORE: 5 Best AT&T Smartphones

Sprint

sprint logoIf you sign up by Jan. 15 2015, Sprint will give you 20GB of data to share among up to 10 members for $100 a month. This Family Share Pack deal only applies to those switching to Sprint from another carrier though — existing customers will have to pay the waived $15 per device to get on the plan.

After that, you can still get 20GB on the Family Share Pack, but you’ll have to pay the $15 data access fee per line. If you choose to get your phone through Sprint Easy Pay (the company’s installment plan) or bring your own, then there are no contracts or early termination fees. This means you could leave the carrier whenever you want.

While Sprint’s prices are the lowest of the lot, its 4G network’s performance scrapes the bottom of the barrel. Coming in last in our 4G tests in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Sprint’s crawling data speeds will infuriate you. The carrier is in the process of rolling out its enhanced LTE network Spark, which proved zippy when available, such as in our Chicago test. Make sure you’re covered by Spark before buying a Sprint plan.

Lines: Up to 10
Price: $100 total for one to ten lines
Data: 20GB (included in line cost)
Unlimited Talk and Text: Yes

MORE: 5 Best Sprint Smartphones

T-Mobile

t mobile logoT-Mobile is a good fit for the commitment-wary family, as the Simple Choice plan is a month-to-month agreement with no early-termination fees. And if your young ones spend more time on Facebook than your data plan allows, T-Mobile will simply slow your data speed down to 2G or 3G, rather than charging you overage fees (a la AT&T and Verizon). The Simple Choice plan also comes with free international data and unlimited streaming music at no extra cost.

From Dec. 10, 2014 to an undisclosed end date, T-Mobile is offering an unlimited Simple Choice plan starting at two lines for $100 a month. Each additional line (up to 10) costs $40. That means a family of four can get unlimited data at $180 a month. For a limited time starting Dec. 10 (no end date announced), you can also get 10GB of data to share between four lines for $100 a month.

The Uncarrier’s speedy network will serve you well, where available. It came in tops in Los Angeles, second in New York City and San Francisco, and third in Chicago during our tests of 4G performance in major American cities.

Lines: Up to 10
Price: $50/$60/$70/$80 for line one (depending on data plan), $30 for line two , $10 for each additional line
Data: $50 for 1GB, $60 for 3GB, $70 for 5GB, $80 for unlimited (prices apply to primary phone line)
Unlimited Talk and Text: Yes

MORE: 5 Best T-Mobile Smartphones

Verizon Wireless

verizon logoThanks to a recent promotion (Verizon has not disclosed an end-date), Verizon Wireless’ 10GB Share Everything plan will run you $80 per month. To add lines to this plan, you’ll have to pay an access fee, which varies depending on how you buy your device. If you got your handset via a two-year contract and an upfront payment, your access fee per line is $40, taking your total with four devices to $240. 

If you get your phones with Verizon’s early-upgrade plan Edge, though, each line’s cost drops to $15, so your monthly total becomes just $140. That’s cheaper than AT&T’s $160 for the same setup.

Verizon’s plan is ideal for parents, as you can set monthly data allowances and texting curfews for your children. You can also use the My Verizon hub to make changes to your data plan without affecting your contract terms. 

Those heavily dependent on mobile data will appreciate Verizon for its speedy 4G LTE performance. The carrier took first place in our performance tests in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, losing to T-Mobile (first place) and AT&T (second) in Los Angeles

Lines: Up to 10
Price: $40 per month per line (contract); $15 on Edge
Data: Starts at $20 per month for 500MB, $40 for 1GB, then goes up $10 for every 1GB of data
Unlimited Talk and Text: Yes

MORE: 5 Best Verizon Smartphones

Prepaid Carriers: Plans Compared (4 lines*)

  att_thumb att_thumb att_thumb
       
Total Monthly Cost
(4 lines)
$86.92/month $100/month $100/month
Cost Per Line $16.10 $25 $25
Amount of Data 4096MB to share 1GB LTE# per line 1GB LTE# per line
Talk & Text 750 mins, 1500 texts Unlimited Unlimited
 
 
*Does not include taxes, fees and device payments
#Unlimited throttled data after 1GB LTE limit
 

Prepaid carriers tend not to offer as generous LTE data limits as the major providers do, and have less extensive device selections, but they’re often cheaper, and don’t require a commitment. You can also add or take away from your plan more frequently. 

Virgin Mobile (Custom)

virgin mobileThe only way to get shared data on Virgin Mobile right now is through its Custom plan, which is exclusive to Walmart. Custom lets you add up to five lines to your group at $6.98 per device. Then, you add as many texts, minutes and data as you’d like, which will change the overall monthly price.

The beauty of Virgin Mobile’s offering is the control you can get over the amount of minutes, messages and data each line in your group gets. With an app for iOS and Android, the primary user can not only dictate the specific bandwidth that each member gets, but also set curfews and restrictions on apps and device usage. The controlling device doesn’t have to be part of the package to wield control over those in it. 

A four-line plan with 750 minutes, 1,500 texts and approximately 1GB each member adds up to $86.92. This means you can get a decent package at a cheaper price than on the major carriers. The top data limit of about 6GB is small, though, meaning those who use plenty of data may want to consider a Big Four provider.

Three phones are compatible with Virgin Mobile’s custom plan right now — the ZTE Emblem, LG Pulse and LG Unify. The latter is the only one of the three that’s LTE-capable.

Network: Sprint
Lines:
 Up to 5
Price: $6.98 per month per line
Data: Starts at $1.40 per month for 20MB, $8 for 250MB, $13.50 for 500MB and up
Unlimited Talk and Text: No

MetroPCS

metropcs logoAt $100 for 4 lines, MetroPCS’s limited time offer is a steal. Each device gets 1GB of data at LTE speeds (on compatible devices), unlimited 2G/3G bandwidth after that cap, unlimited talk, text and caller ID. The package is available in MetroPCS stores and authorized dealers.

That 1GB of LTE data isn’t much compared to Sprint’s 20GB cap at the same price, but light users won’t really need much more than that for Facebook check-ins and mobile Web browsing. The 4-line plan also includes visual voicemail, premium directory assistance and three-way calling.

MetroPCS offers the Samsung Galaxy S5, Alcatel Onetouch Evolve, LG Optimus L70 and ZTE Aspect as part of its lineup. It rides on T-Mobile’s network, which provides solid data speeds where available. 

Network: T-Mobile
Lines:
 Up to 4
Price: $25 per month per line
Data: 1GB LTE, unlimited 2G/3G after
Unlimited Talk and Text: Yes 

Cricket Wireless

cricket logoRiding on AT&T’s network, Cricket offers a $100 monthly deal, but you can get up to 5 lines at that price. But Cricket’s Group Save promotion is actually a series of discounts on its $40 Basic smartphone plan, with every new line getting an additional $10 discount on its monthly price. So the second line costs $30 a month, the third costs $20 and the fourth $10. Add that all up and you get four lines for $100 and the fifth one thrown in for nothing. The maximum monthly discount is $100.

On Cricket’s Basic plan, you get 1GB of LTE data access, with speeds reduced after you hit that limit. You also get unlimited talk and text.

If you need more high-speed data, Cricket also offers Smart and Pro plans that offer 3GB and 10GB of LTE access respectively, and the Group Save promotion applies to these lines too. The Pro and Smart packages also come with unlimited international texting, and those who need more data can add an extra 1GB for $10 a month.

The company offers such smartphones as the Samsung Galaxy S5, Galaxy S4, Moto G and a wide array of other handsets.

Network: AT&T
Lines:
 Up to 5
Price: $40 for first Basic line, $30 for second, $20 for third, $10 for fourth and $0 for fifth
Data: 1GB LTE, unlimited 2G/3G after; Smart plan has 3GB for $50, Pro has 10GB for $60
Unlimited Talk and Text: Yes

Bottom Line

If you can get good Sprint connectivity in you area, the carrier’s new Family Share Pack offers the best value among the big four, with double the amount of data for less money. Data-hungry consumers should consider T-Mobile’s limited-time Simple Choice unlimited data plans, that add up to $180 a month for four. That plan  has no annual commitment and comes with free international roaming.

The smaller carriers offer a variety of inexpensive plans for consumers who don’t need as much data or want a prepaid plan. Virgin Mobile’s Custom plan lets you set tight parental controls and is the least-expensive plan, but rides on Sprint’s network while MetroPCS and Cricket ride on T-Mobile and AT&T respectively while offering similarly inexpensive plans and access to some popular phones, including the Galaxy S5.

AUTHOR BIO
Cherlynn Low
Cherlynn Low
Cherlynn joined the Laptopmag team in June 2013 and has since been writing about all things tech and digital with a focus on mobile and Internet software development. She also edits and reports occasionally on video. She graduated with a M.S. in Journalism (Broadcast) from Columbia University in May 2013 and has been designing personal websites since 2001.
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  1. Loren Says:

    What matters most is coverage. If you can not use the service, why pay a penny. I switched to at&t and have coverage and price which are both very good. Your results may vary, but for me, on the Central Coast of California, at&t gets it right. Sorry, cheaper comes at a big price in when you have no data available for your smartphone. Don’t be fooled by ads.

  2. jrr Says:

    We already have 3 members in our framily with sprint. Join our framily.

    Save some cash. Dont start your own family until you check out ours.

     

    3 members.  Next person is $40 a month.  Then its $35, 30, then 25.

     

    P00282844Ht

     

  3. Jeff H. Says:

    I think this article, and articles like it, are improved by including sample costs for phones. The graph above suggests that Verizon’s plan is nearly double the cost of AT&T’s. But that difference is significantly different if you sign up for AT&T Next and have no contract. The detailed write-up does include that point, but the takeaway from the graph misses that crucial piece of information.

  4. Steph Says:

    With AT&T plans – you do not have to have Next or pay full retail. You can bring your own device as well.

  5. Derek Says:

    My framily plan ID# is B00690276kM that would be capital B zero zero 69 zero 276 lower case k and capital M (they are case sensative) I have 9 spaces available

  6. Steve Mauldin Says:

    Straight talk, accurate and well organised.

  7. Connie Says:

    ATT is good for existing phones. When you buy a new one, instead of charging $15 per month access fee, they charge you $40 per month. They say this is to recoup some of the phone costs. Over 2 years, this adds up to $960. I say bring your own phone and pay $15.

  8. Wendy Says:

    AT&T up to 10 lines is not true for family NEXT plan. If you call AT&T, like I did, to add on 2 additional lines you have to open up another plan or pay $40/phone/month. It’s still around $300/month for 6 people.

  9. nerd guy Says:

    Actually, these numbers are a bit misleading, the att pricing is for monthly contract, and if you are on that, you pay monthly for the phone. . That needs to be included in the price to compare, otherwise each line is 40$.. I know because I just switched from sprint to att THINKING att got much cheaper. I have 4 lines, bill for sprint with taxes is 217, bill with att is 270.. and that’s with only 6gb data. . Sprint was unlimited. I use data a lot but mostly connected to wifi. I’m happy with att though. .way better signal, hence the higher price I guess, it’s worth it to me though

  10. Hansa Says:

    How is TMobile’s signal strength? Also would this carrier be best if traveling to Europe? I would be looking for 2-3 people on the plan.

  11. javaguy Says:

    Who the heck needs 10GB/month? we find our heavy surfing is on wifi- our ATT coverage is not good enough to get us to 10GB of downloads/month, we use more like 1GB. T-mobile and Sprint win out at lower data usage rates… weird that you’d do this analysis and not include that (common) scenario, do you work for ATT?

  12. Christopher Says:

    Why isn’t there a “printer-friendly” option for your website???

  13. Dan Says:

    I have been talking with T-Mobile all day today and the 4-Line for 140$ does not exist says their sales reps. Either it is expired or the information is inaccurate.

  14. Jeff Says:

    Dan,
    Go to T-Mobile’s site, go to the family plans page, select 4 lines, and switch each line to 3GB data (Note: I believe this tier was 2.5GB at the time the article was written). At least for me it comes out to $140.

  15. kb Says:

    Come join my Family plan
    L00956958tn
    Capitol L zero zero nine five six nine five eight lower case t lower case n
    Last four digits of my number is 8438

  16. magnet Says:

    Just bought T-mobile 1GB (per line) for 4 lines. Only cost me $100. I switched from ATT.

  17. Jack Says:

    The problem with all those promotions is that they expires and price might go up.(They count on that so you forget)

    I am calling my service provider (AT&T) every year or so once my promotion ends and request to lower the price mentioning I will move to different provider! – They usually lower my price for few more month or come up with new promotion for year!
    Usually I forget to renew myself but by using Remindme2save.com it keeps sending me reminders when promotion going to expire and I renew:)

  18. Sidney Says:

    ATT Mobile Share lets you include laptops and tablets along with phones. Do the other plans?

  19. John Smith Says:

    I’ve been using Tmobile’s family plan with 1GB per month, unlimited data for over a year. $100 per month. $50 for first line, $30 for second, $10 for each additional. Can’t beat this yet.

  20. gwen Says:

    I tried getting sprints unlimited everything plan. Rather than letting me select that option they made the framily plan my only option. I’m highly dissatisfied with their customer service and their website. I won’t be trying their services again.

  21. Matt Says:

    Tmobile 100$ a month? Did I read that wrong because that is very False if read correct.

  22. Tim Says:

    You used the monthly per device cost of AT&T next vs Verizon’s full price (not edge) in your comparison chart.

    Basically, the chart is worthless.

  23. George Says:

    You forgot to mention that the $100/mo Sprint plan is only good through 2015. After that a $15.00 per month charge is assessed per line.
    If you are a current Sprint user and want that plan, sorry it will cost $100.00 + $15.00 per line

  24. Getem Says:

    Remember with Tmobile if you want a newer phone you must add the monthly finance charge plus insurance which actually adds up. I pay $230 a month for 3 lines on tmobile. Phones are iphone, galaxy 5 and nexus 5

  25. Getem Says:

    Remember with Tmobile if you want a newer phone you must add the monthly finance charge plus insurance which actually adds up. I pay $230 a month for 3 lines on tmobile. Phones are iphone, galaxy 5 and nexus 5.

  26. jim Says:

    One glaring omission from all of this — unless I just missed it — is the fact that the various fees and taxes add significantly. In my case, the plan / phones (5) come to a little over $110 but then Verizon tucks on over $75 in fees and taxes. Now the bill comes to nearly $200 … and we have NO “smartphones”! Since fees and taxes are assessed PER line, a 10-line plan could get really expensive real quick … and, of course, that perky little 20-something with the cute little grin at the counter will not be pointing this out. As usual, caveat emptor.

  27. Harriet Says:

    AT&T is $15 per device until you upgrade your phone then it jumps to $40 per device… I’ve been with AT&T forever and seriously considering dropping them because they sucked us in to the Next Plan… that plan sucks!!! They told me I would save money but they did not tell me it would cost me more later!!!

  28. RM Says:

    T-Mobil family plan with 4 lines after fees and taxes comes out to $130. That’s a 30% increase from the advertised price.

  29. Unni Says:

    This information is outdated. Verizon charges way more than advertised. I am paying $60 for 3 GB shared data plan. For 3 lines, unlimited talking, text and 3 gb shared data, monthly bill is $195. Verizon data plan is very expensive.

  30. RSW Says:

    Have Sprint family plan 3 phones w 20g and I pay 256.00 a month – don’t believe in “deals” believe in bills

  31. Jay Says:

    None of this is truly representative of TOTAL cost, because it doesn’t include the cost of the phone; paid outright, prorated, or financed.

    Sprint for instance…whatever you pay for service, you need to add $27/mo minimum for the phone cost, or kick out $650 ($27 x 24mos) for the phone up front. Sprint used to finance $350.00 for a phone upgrade, but now they are passing that on to the consumer while lowering their plans a few bucks. Its a sham.