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Get the best cell phone plan for your family—and save up to $1,000 a year

We compare the latest plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon

Last updated: October 01, 2014 04:15 PM

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Updated 10/2/14: The ink was still wet on AT&T’s new Double-Data plan (outlined in our 9/29/14 update) when Sprint announced its own double-data offering. Like the AT&T plan, Sprint’s Family Share Pack Double Data Promotion doubles the allowance only of already big—and expensive—data buckets that few households would likely need (30GB to 100GB). For example, the lowest-priced deal costs $130, which used to buy you 30GB and now gets you 60GB.

This Sprint deal vanishes on November 1, as does the AT&T plan.

But this offering may still be a hit, because of one extra thing Sprint does to sweeten the deal: It waives the monthly line-access fees of $15 or $25 per phone, depending on the size of the data bucket being shared, through 2015. Sprint also drops the fees for tablets ($10) and laptops ($20) equipped with cellular data cards. That makes the $60GB deal worthwhile for anyone already paying Sprint $130 or more a month because of such fees, even if they never come close to using up all that extra data. (Check Sprint’s Family Share Pack Double Data Promotion table, below.) Just remember to reevaluate your plan before Sprint reinstates the device access fees in January 2016.

Updated 9/29/14: This weekend, AT&T introduced a special offer that doubles the amount of data included for plans that formerly ranged between 15GB and 100GB. For instance, the $130 a month the carrier charged for 15GB of sharable data can now buy you 30GB of sharable data, and the $150 it charged for 20GB of data now gets you 40GB.

Thinking about changing your wireless company? We'll help you find the best cell phone carrier.

But after crunching the numbers, we think few households will realize the benefits, since most smart-phone users can comfortably get by on 2GB to 4GB of data per month. Another downer: The offer, like Halloween store decorations, disappears on November 1.

The exception: The new 30GB offer can save you some money if you’ve got to feed four or five smart phones with a big appetite for data. For example, the cost for supplying each of four smart phones with 5GB of data is $210 a month under the old Next plan (sharing 20GB of data, plus an access fee of $15 per phone). Under the double-data plan, those phones would share 30GB of data (7.5GB per phone) for $190 per month. Five phones sharing that 30G data bucket would pay $205 to get 6GB of data per phone, compared to $225 for sharing 20GB (4GB per phone) under the old plan. (See the AT&T Double Data table, below)

Updated 8/25/14: T-Mobile recently became more generous. Its Simple Starter plan, a bare-bones package with unlimited talk and text, now gives you 2GB of data for $45 a month, rather than 500MB of LTE data for $40 a month. The new plan is a pretty good deal compared to what T-Mobile charges its Simple Choice customers: $50 for 1GB of data.

But beware. Simple Starter is a bargain only if you have a single phone. The benefit disappears if you have two or more lines. As the table below shows, with T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan, you can get 3GB of data per phone for the same $90 per month that it would cost you to get 2GB per phone on the Simple Starter Plan. Also, with the Simple Starter, you won’t get the unlimited international data and text or unlimited music streaming that’s available to Simple Choice customers.

Updated 8/19/14: Sprint is quietly abandoning the “Framily” plans it introduced just last January in favor of a complicated data-sharing scheme similar to the ones offered by AT&T and Verizon.  

The new Family Share Pack presents data-sharing pricing scenarios that compete more favorably with the other carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon, even beating bargain king T-Mobile in several cases. But subscribers will need sharper math skills to calculate their optimal level of service. For example, besides determining how much data will be enough to meet the needs of all the phones in their household, Family Share Pack subscribers will have to compute the access fee for each phone tapping into it.

Consider these three points if you're contemplating the new plan.

1. Skip the traditional two-year phone downpayment plan and buy the phones using Sprint's Easy Pay plan, which has you pay off the phone in 24 monthly interest-free payments. Not only will your phone bill shrink once you've paid off the phones, but the monthy access fees are significantly lower for Easy Pay phones than they are for the downpayment phones ($25 or $15 per line vs. $40 per line)

2. If your household has four to five phones, consider buying 20GB of data because the access fee per phone drops from $25 to $15. For example, as the table below shows, it costs $10 less a month ($160) for four phones to share a 20GB bucket of data than it does for them to share an 8GB bucket of data.

3. You can add a tablet computer for $10 or a mobile HotSpot (a hockey-pucklike device that allows up to 10 devices to wirelessly connect to your data connection) for $20 a month.

Sprint says it will continue offering its Framily Plans for the time being, but declined to comment for how long or if there will be pricing changes. In the meantime, use the table below to see how Sprint’s new plan stacks up against the others.

Updated 4/8/14: Verizon radically reduced its Edge Share Everything service plans to bring its offerings more in line with the other recently reduced plans from other carriers—particularly chief rival AT&T. So, how did it do? As the revised table below shows, both carriers now often tie or beat each other by a few dollars, depending on the amount of data purchased and the number of phones tapping into it. Verizon's new pricing formula is a bit convoluted: When you purchase 10 or more gigabytes of sharable data per month, it charges you an additional $15 a month for each smart-phone line tapping into it. But if you buy less data, it charges you $30 for every smart phone using it.

Updated 3/11/14: The carrier wars continue, as AT&T revamped its phone plans over the past weekend, slashing rates for data and making its early-phone-upgrade Next plans more enticing. The new plans could appeal even to people not interested in upgrading early, since they make it possible to purchase the phone over time via an interest-free loan.

The net result is significantly lower service costs that approach and sometimes beat archrival T-Mobile, the reigning king of bargains among Telecom's Big Four. As our updated tables show, AT&T plan prices actually tie with T-Mobile in some instances. And that may be more than enough to draw smart-phone shoppers to AT&T, which in our consumer surveys was rated better for 4G data service than the other major carriers.  

AT&T data charges have dropped significantly. For example, AT&T used to charge $45 for 1GB of data. Now it offers 2GB for only $40. But the big savings come with a no-contract plan. You can either pay full price for a phone up front, or make 20 or 26 interest-free monthly payments. For example, on the Next plan, a $650 iPhone 5s can be yours after 20 monthly payments of $32.50 or 26 monthly payments of $25, essentially an interest-free loan. AT&T also cuts the monthly charge for every phone tapping into its data plan from $40 to $25 each when the data bucket you share is less than 10GB. If you're divying up 10GB of data or more, the charge per phone drops to $15. In addition, for a limited time, all subscribers, current and new, who sign up for a Next plan also get a $100 per line credit for any phone they add (up to 10).

Of course, comparison shopping between carriers isn't easy. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—the Big Four—have done their best to complicate apples-to-apples comparisons. They charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competitions', and provide differing discounts for multiple phones.

To help you find the best deal, we’ve figured out the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy. data service. (Read "How Much Service Do You Need?") As the tables below show, each carrier stands out for different reasons:

  • T-Mobile offers the best prices, and it was a solid performer in our recent cell-service survey of 58,000 subscribers in 23 metro areas.
  • In our survey, Verizon was the most satisfying among the Big Four, and it was a standout for data service and resolving customer-support issues.
  • Also according to survey, respondents, AT&T offered the most problem-free high-speed 4G data service, something to consider if you're a heavy data user.

Looking to save money on your Internet, TV, and home-phone service? Here's how you can create your own triple-play bundle and save money.

T-Mobile Simple Choice

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

3GB of data per phone

Unlimited data per phone

1

$50

$60

$80

2

80

90

120

3

90

110

160

4

100

130

200

5

110

150

230

 

Sprint Family Share Pack

Number of people

600MB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

$45

$50

$65

2

75 (1GB per phone)

90

140

3

100 (660MB per phone)

145 (2.6GB per phone)

155

4

140 (500MB per phone)

170

160 (5GB per phone)

5

165 (800MB per phone)

205 (2.4GB per phone)

175

 

Sprint Family Share Pack double-data promotion (valid only through Nov. 1, 2014)

Number of people

600MB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

$45

$50

$65

2

75 (1GB per phone)

90

140

3

100 (660MB per phone)

130 (20GB per phone)

130 (20GB per phone)

4

130 (15GB per phone)

130 (15GB per phone)

130 (15GB per phone)

5

130 (12GB per phone)

130 (12GB per phone)

130 (12GB per phone)

 

AT&T Next

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

 $45 (1GB of data not available, price is for 300MB)

$65

$95

2

 90

120

130 (5GB per phone)

3

 145 (1.33GB per phone)

155

175 (5GB of data per phone)

4

 170

160 (2.5GB of data per phone)

210 (5GB of data per phone)

5

 195 (800MB per phone)

175

225

 

AT&T "double data" (valid only through Nov. 1, 2014)

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

$45 (1GB of data not available, price is for 300MB)

$65

$95

2

90

120

130 (5GB per phone)

3

145 (1.33GB per phone)

155

175 (5GB of data per phone)

4

170

160 (2.5GB of data per phone)

190 (7.5GB per phone)

5

195 (800MB per phone)

175

205 (6GB per phone)

Verizon Edge Share Everything

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

 $70

$80

$100

2

 110

130

150

3

 150 (1.33GB per phone)

140

155

4

 190

150

190

5

 230 (1.2GB per phone)

160

225

 

In comparing rates, we couldn’t always find perfect matches, but we used the most similar plans. For instance, AT&T, Verizon, and now Sprint sell their data in chunks that can be shared by all the phones on one account, while T-Mobile requires you to buy data plans for each phone. So we selected sharable data plans that matched (or came as close as possible to matching) the per-phone data plan of T-Mobile. Another adjustment: T-Mobile offers unlimited data plans, while AT&T's, Verizon's, and Sprint's cap off at 50GB (60GB for Sprint) at rates north well north of $200. We determined that 4GB to 5GB per phone would be comparable to having unlimited data.

—Mike Gikas

How much service do you need?

1. First see whether a 500MB to 1GB data plan is enough for you. It will be for many consumers, especially if you confine your cellular-data activities mostly to browsing the Web, using news and e-book apps, and sending and reciving e-mails without large attachments. Save video calls, media streaming, and big-file uploads for when you have Wi-Fi access.


2. If you stream a fair amount of music and video on the road, such as during your commute to work or on business trips, you'll probably need 2GB to 3GB per month.


3. And if your eyes are permanently glued to Netflix, YouTube, and other other data-draining activities, you might want to consider a high-limit or unlimited data plan.—M.G.


If you're thinking about what your next smart phone should be, check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

   

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