Which smartphone family plan is best and most affordable for your family?
Smartphones are an expensive necessity these days, and kids are getting them younger and younger. To keep up with their friends, kids want the latest and greatest handsets, and photo and video intensive apps like Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube suck up your data like a tornado.
With the importance our phones now play in our lives, it is important to have a dependable phone that works great, but at the same time doesn’t bust the budget.
Choosing a Cell Phone Plan Is Not Simple
Cell phone plans run from very inexpensive to hundreds of dollars per month. Some are pre-paid, some have a contract, some come from big, reputable companies everyone knows, some few have heard of. There are so many options, it can be hard to make the right decision.
While each company shouts that they have the fastest, bigger, most reliable, and most modern network, how do you know what to trust? Which is really the best?
Read on for a basic review of the most popular phone plans available, and tips on choosing the right one for your family.
Verizon is the biggest network provider in the United States today, and for one reason above everything else: the network. I have used three different cell phone providers myself, and Verizon stuck out as the most reliable with the widest coverage.
It worked almost everywhere and I rarely dropped a call in my many years as a customer. A detailed network test by root metrics shows that Verizon performs best in more states and metro areas than any other provider. If that is your primary concern, Verizon is the best.
However, for the best network you have to pay a bigger bill than some others charge. A 2014 survey by ars technica found that Verizon’s average $148 per month bill is higher than any of the other major carriers.
As a major carrier, you can typically get the latest Android and iPhone handsets at competitive prices, but that generally comes with a two-year contract. Verizon recently started pushing monthly phone payments rather than a one-time charge when up-front.
Family plans range from a $35 per month base price for 2GB of data up to $450 per month for 100GB plus $20 per line.
The second largest provider also has the second best network performance of major carriers in the United States. AT&T typically outperforms any other provider with the exception of Verizon.
AT&T average monthly costs were $141 in the previously mentioned cost comparison report, which was less than Verizon’s $148 average. Like Verizon, AT&T offers the latest and greatest handsets.
Most AT&T family plans charge $15 per GB of data plus $15-$40 per line depending on your plan. AT&T plans require a two-year contract. This is definitely the most confusing pricing.
On a personal note, I was an AT&T customer when I first got a cell phone, and had occasional dropped calls, which went away when I moved to Verizon.
As a company, Sprint has seen high turnover in executive leadership and ownership as it struggles to compete in the United States market. It is known for having a spotty network. The company is currently working on building out a network with the fastest data, but it will work in fewer places than the two larger rivals.
Plan range from $20 per month for 1GB up to unlimited data for $75 per month. For all but the unlimited plans, there is a $20 per line fee. On the unlimited plan, the second line costs $45 per month and additional lines cost $30 per month.
Sprint typically offers the newest Android and iPhone handsets at competitive prices.
Like Sprint, T-Mobile struggles to keep up with the networks of Verizon and AT&T. However, it makes up for that with the best prices of the four biggest US carriers.
Family plans start at $80 per month for two lines with 2GB of shared data. Like Spring, T-Mobile offers unlimited plans that cost $140 for two lines, $180 for three lines, and $220 for four lines. For larger families, each new line starts at $10 which includes 2GB of data.
One big benefit of T-Mobile is its international roaming option. Unlimited international data and text are included in most plans, and calls are .20 cents per minute. For big travelers, this may be the best option.
T-Mobile typically offers the newest Android and iPhone handsets at competitive prices.
One of the newest cell phone plans available, Google is now in the cell phone business. I switched to Google Fi earlier this year from Verizon. Google’s offering is unique, but I am thrilled to have made the switch.
Billing is simple. You pay $20 per month for unlimited calling and text and $10 per 1GB of data used. If you use 500MB (half of 1GB), you pay about $5. If you use 3.5GB, you pay $35.
The network is a hybrid of three others. Google Fi handsets switch off between Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular, using whichever is stronger where you are at the moment. The phones are programmed to securely use free public WiFi networks when available.
So far, I have noticed that the network is not quite as good as I had it with Verizon, but it works well in most cities and, like with T-Mobile, there are no extra charges for data and text messaging internationally, which I took advantage of earlier this year.
If you can live with a slightly weaker network than Verizon, this is a winning phone plan. Note that family plans are not offered, and each phone runs through its own Google account.
Google Fi currently supports Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X handsets only, so this is a no-go if you are addicted to your iPhone.
If you really want to save money on your phone plan, which we all do, sometimes you have to look to smaller providers. Republic Wireless runs on the Sprint network and uses hybrid WiFi calling like Google Fi.
Plans start at $10 per month, really, and Republic Wireless claims the average monthly bill for customers comes in at just $13.83 per month. For more data, Republic offers a .5GB plan for $17.50 per month up to 3GB for $55 per month.
The plans are no contract, so you can leave whenever you want, unlike with the bigger providers that require a two-year agreement.
Republic Wireless has long had a weakness of offering very limited handset options, there are currently only two Android options available, but nine new phones are coming at the end of July including industry leading phones like the Nexus 6P and Samsung Galaxy S7.
Cricket is now owned by AT&T, and uses that network. Cricket was one of the first discount phone providers in the country. Plans start at $35 per month for 2.5 GB if you use autopay, and go up to $65 per month for unlimited data.
When adding new lines, you pay the full rate less a discount. You get $10 off per month for the second line, $20 off per month for the third line, and so on to $40 off per month for the fifth line. The group discount only applies up to the fifth line.
Cricket offers a variety of phones at competitive prices.
Another entrant with their own network, US Cellular is a smaller provider offering plans starting at $25 per month for a 1GB base plan up to $560 per month for 75GB. In addition, smart phones cost $15-$40 per line depending on the plan you choose.
US Cellular also offers pre-paid plans such. The most compelling option is $45 per month for unlimited talk, text, and 2GB of data.
Virgin Mobile specialized in no contract, prepaid plans. The most popular plan costs $40 per month for unlimited talk and text with 4GB of data. For $50 per month, that is boosted to 6GB of data. If you go over, you pay $5 for the first 1GB or $10 for 2GB.
What Makes the Most Sense for You?
The big phone companies are big for a reason, with the strongest networks available. However, smaller entrants like Google Fi and Republic Wireless offer compelling deals at a much lower price tag.
Before you pick your next plan, be sure to check their network map to make sure the places you spend the most time are covered and look at things like data overage charges in case you need a little more.
There is no perfect plan, but you might find the perfect plan for your needs.