As with the individual plans comparison, T-Mobile has recently overtaken Sprint for this top spot, thanks to its revamped mobile plans highlighting truly unlimited data (no metering, overage fees, or throttled data speeds). Sprint's cheapest data plan for families is $149.99 a month for smartphones, with unlimited data and unlimited messaging, plus 1500 shared minutes for talk; or for unlimited everything, $210 for 2 lines are included. T-Mobile's new family plans, by comparison, are much cheaper: Just $120 for two lines with unlimited talk, messaging, and text ($50 for the first phone line, $30 for the second, and $20 each for unlimited data). Instead of unlimited data, you can also get 2GB of data for $10. Additional lines are $10 each plus an additional $20 each for the unlimited data. Also, there are no contracts and mobile hotspot is included.
Best for: Families who use a lot of data (download or upload a lot of files, stream videos on the go, etc.) and don't want to worry about their data being incapacitated by slow speeds.
MetroPCS' affordable no-contract plans for families are pretty much the same as they are for individuals, except you can save $5 more a month per line up to 5 lines. The cheapest unlimited talk, text, and data plan is only $40 a month; after 2.5GB a month of data, data is throttled to slower speeds. A $45/month per line plan adds 411 directory assistance and international text messaging.
Best for: People looking for the cheapest "unlimited" plan to share, who don't use a lot of data.
T-Mobile offers the best value when adding more than two lines, because each additional line (up to 3 beyond the two included) is only $10 a month. The unlimited data (up to 2GB before throttling) plan with 1000 talk minutes and unlimited texting, for example, is $119.98 per month for two users; add two more users and it's $149.98/month. By comparison, four users on MetroPCS would be $160 and on Sprint's anytime minutes plan, $189.97.
An unlimited talk plan on T-Mobile is available for $20 more a month. There are also cheaper data plans with 200MB of data included, but that may not be enough for two people to share.
Best for: 3 or more shared lines.
Verizon's family plans right now are a la carte, as with the individual line plans. This makes comparing the family plans' value to other providers a bit more confusing. One one hand, if you only need the bare minimum of features--700 talk minutes, pay-as-you-go text messaging, and 2GB data allowance--Verizon's shared plans are the cheapest: $99.98. But comparing apples to apples (or Sprint and T-Mobile to Verizon), with the higher 1400 minutes talk and adding unlimited messaging for the family, Verizon isn't as inexpensive any more: $149.98/month. Additional lines (up to 3) are $9.99 each.
Verizon's new Share Everything plan, launching June 28, 2012, shares a bucket of data with multiple devices (up to 10). Current customers can either keep their current unlimited data plans--if they pay for their cell phones in full--or switch to this new shared plan. The way the plan is structured, it's a bit confusing to know if this is a good value or not for multiple people--pricing is conditional on the type and number of devices you have. For example, each smartphone is $40 a month, regular phones $30, hotspots and notebooks $20, and tablets $10. Then there's a base amount for the amount of data and unlimited talk and text: the cheapest $50 tier comes with 1GB of data, $60 a month comes with 2GB.
To compare with T-Mobile and Sprint: on Verizon, if you have two smartphones and want 2GB of data, it'll be $140 a month. On Sprint it's $209.98 a month but unlimited data. On T-Mobile, it's $139.98--the same as Verizon, but cheaper if you add a third or more lines.
Confused yet? You're not alone. In the end, you may need to use Verizon's Share Everything calculator to see if this makes sense for your needs.
As with its individual plans, AT&T's family plans are also a la carte. They're still a bit more pricey than other providers' options. Each line needs a data plan, at $30/month for 3GB each. Then you can add voice minutes, starting at $59.99 per month for 550 minutes (up to 3 lines), $69.99/month for 700 minutes, or $89.99/month for 1400 minutes. So for the 1400 minutes plan, it's $149.99 per month--but that's not even including messaging yet.