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

Consumer Reports
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Editor's note: Got your own ideas on how to save on cell service? Leave a comment below.

Update 7/15/15: T-Mobile’s new, “limited time” 10GB Family Plan offers substantial savings to data-hogging households. It starts at $100 a month for two phone lines, each with a data allowance of 10GB plus unlimited texting and calling. Add a third line for just $20 and a fourth for free. You can also get a fifth line for $20 more ($140 a month). The “limited time” part is until Labor Day, though a T-Mobile official told us the offer may continue longer.

Oddly, T-Mobile, which bills itself as a no-nonsense cell provider, snubbed single-line users this time around. It also made this plan a bit hard to find for qualified users. If you search T-Mobile’s website, you’ll be steered to the carrier’s Simple Choice plans (see our rate-comparison tables below). Follow this link to the plan.

You can also ask for the deal in person at a T-Mobile store, or contact Customer Care Service at 800-866-2453.

Update 7/1/15: Sprint’s new All-In plan puts a top-notch smartphone in your hands with no money down and then charges you only $80 a month (plus taxes and a one-time $36 activation fee) for unlimited data, text, and voice minutes. That seems like a good deal considering other plans, including those from Sprint, charge about $65 to $90 per month per phone (including access fees) for about 4GB or 5GB of data—without the phone. The hitch: Phone choices for the All-In plan are limited to a 16GB iPhone 6, a 32GB Samsung Galaxy S6, or an HTC One M9. What's more, you'll never own the phone. It's just a lease—$20 of the $80 of your monthly bill is a phone-rental fee that never goes away.

Often, we steer people away from that kind of arrangement, but in this case, the pricing should work out well for a lot of consumers. Let's crunch the numbers for someone who needs just one phone line. With All-In, you can get a 16GB iPhone 6 and use it for two years for $1,920 (that doesn't include the activation fee.) The same phone and 24 months of service would cost $2,210 on the company's 4GB Family Share Pack data plan ($65 a month, plus about $27 while you paid off the phone, which costs $650).

What if you keep your iPhone for a third year? All-In will end up costing $2,880 ($80 per month for 36 months). If you have the Family Share Pack, the monthly bill will drop to $65 after two years, once the phone is paid off, but the total for three years is still higher, at $2,990.

That doesn't mean the All-In is better for everyone. You need to do some arithmetic to get the best deal. If you need multiple phones, the price-per-phone drops for most plans, but not for the All-In. You can economize on data usage to bring costs down on most plans, but not the All-In. And if you keep a phone you've paid off for a fourth year, trade it in—or just decide to sell it on E-Bay—the numbers change again.  

Update 2/5/15: Thanks to price-war incentives and greater plan flexibility, there are more opportunities now to save a few bucks on the new, no-contract plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—a.k.a. the Big Four.

These plans separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, effectively giving you an interest-free loan you can pay off in about two years. When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly. And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone.

Although our recent report, "Small carriers outrank the big ones in Consumer Reports' latest cell phone service survey," covering 63,352 subscribers in 26 metro areas, found some very happy customers who switched to smaller cell providers, there are still good reasons for staying big.

Verizon, for example, earned decent marks across the board for voice, text, and data service, while AT&T was a standout for its 4G service. It recently slashed prices on its More Everything plans, added more data tiers to allow customers to better fine-tune plans, and monkeyed with the access fees it charges (for a limited time) to lower costs further.

T-Mobile was tops for value and customer service. And Sprint, which didn’t do particularly well in any category, has recently become very aggressive about pricing—and some people actually do like the company.

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

Unfortunately, these plans are rather complicated, and the carriers have done their best to make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult among one another’s offerings. For example, they charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competition’s, and provide differing discounts for multiple phones. In fact, plan pricing is so bizzare and counterintuitive that customers, particularly those with multiple phone lines, can often save money by buying more data for each phone.  

The good news: We’ve already done the math for you in the tables below to help you find the best deal. And to make sure your needs are covered, we’ve presented the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy data service. All you need to do is figure out how much data your family needs, which we also help you do in  "How much service do you need?"

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

5GB of data per phone

1

$50

$60

$70

2

80

100

120

3

90

120

150

4

100 (2.5GB per phone)

100 (2.5GB per phone)

180

5

110 (2.5GB per phone)

110 (2.5GB per phone)

210

 

Sprint Family Share Pack

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

$45

$50

$65

2

75

90

100

3

115 (1.3GB of data per phone)

115 (2.7GB of data per phone)

135

4

140

130

160 (5GB of data per phone line)

5

145 (1.6GB of data per phone)

165 (2.4GB of data per phone)

175

 

AT&T Next on Mobile Share

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

 $50

$65 (3GB of data)

$95 (6GB of data)

2

 90 (1.5GB of data per phone)

120 (3GB of data per phone)

130 (5GB of data per phone)

3

 115

145 (3.3GB of data per phone

175 (5GB of data per phone)

4

170 (1.5GB of data per phone)

200 (2.5GB of data per phone)

210 (5GB of data per phone)

5

 195 (1.2GB per phone)

175

225

 

Verizon Edge More Everything

Number of people

1GB of data per phone

2GB of data per phone

4GB of data per phone

1

 $55

$65

$85

2

 90

110

110 (5GB of data per phone)

3

 125  

115  

145 (5GB of data per phone)

4

 160  

140 (2.5 GB per phone) 

200 (5GB of data per phone)

5

 145 (1.2GB of data per phone)

155

215

 

Note that 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.

Then there's the question of what happens if you don't use your full data allotment. T-Mobile and AT&T both provide ways for you to "bank" unused data from your monthly allowance for later use. With the T-Mobile Data Stash plan, you get a “gift” bucket of 10 gigabytes of data per phone line, plus the ability to roll over unused data into the following months—it just needs to be used within a year. The AT&T Rollover Data offer is more stingy. There is no data bonus and you have to use rolled over data by the end of the following month.

Another adjustment: T-Mobile offers unlimited data plans, while AT&T's and Verizon's plans cap off at 50GB, and Sprint's at 60GB, at rates north well north of $200. We determined that 4GB to 5GB per phone would be comparable to having unlimited data, for most users.

—Mike Gikas

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



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