To say that navigating U.S. carriers’ family plans is a trial is the understatement of the century. Although carriers’ websites have improved and plans have become more transparent, it’s still an exercise in frustration trying to figure out which network offers the best deal for your family. Luckily, we’ve compiled this comprehensive guide on how to choose the family plan that best suits your needs — and saves you the most cash.
Perhaps the most important decision you’ll have to make when choosing a family plan is the amount of data you will need. Choosing the right amount for your family is essential, to avoid overage charges. T-Mobile is the exception to this rule, because it no longer has overage charges. If you exceed your limit of free data on the Uncarrier’s network, the company will just dial back your data speed to 3G or slower for the duration of the month. And as of September 6, 2016, T-Mobile won’t have data caps on its new One Plan, which offers unlimited data for all lines.
Related: The best Android apps for almost any occasion
If you have a certain plan with Verizon, you can also avoid overages by slowing down your data. Big Red introduced Safety Mode, a switch you can flip in the My Verizon app to put all the devices on your account on a slower 128kbps connection if you are about to go over your data limit. Unfortunately, the feature is available only for subscribers on the XL or XXL plan. Others will have to buy a “Data Boost” of 1GB 4G LTE data from Verizon for $15 before exceeding the limit.
AT&T has different overage rates per gigabyte, depending on your plan, but it’s typically about $15 per gigabyte over the line. Although Sprint doesn’t explain overage charges in great detail, it does say that “additional on-network data usage” will cost 1.5¢/MB. Sprint will send text message alerts to the head of the family if the data limit is exceeded, and there are options for similar notification methods on AT&T and Verizon as well.
To determine how much data you need, consider two factors: the number of people in your family plan and how much data you think each will use. If you and your family rarely use the Internet when you’re away from a Wi-Fi network, you might want to buy less data. If you or your kids like to stream movies over your 4G network, browse the Internet for hours, check your email 95,000 times a day, and live-tweet your day, you’ll want a huge chunk of data.
Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T want you to share data — T-Mobile does not
With the Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T family plans, all family members draw from the same data pool, which means that all four of you pull data from the 8GB you purchased. All connections from these two networks should run at 4G LTE speeds. Meanwhile, T-Mobile users each get their own chunk of data. Each individual T-Mobile customer in the family plan gets 2GB of 4G LTE data for free; once you run out of 4G data, slower data speeds of 2G or 3G LTE are unlimited. Additional 4G LTE data costs more. New customers who get the T-Mobile One Plan will have unlimited data for all family members.
T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon let you save data you don’t use for the next month
T-Mobile was the first to allow customers to save unused data for up to a year and use it when they need it most. The program, called Data Stash rolls over your extra data to the next month if you have the 6GB and 10GB data plans. That way, you never waste money on bandwidth you didn’t end up using. T-Mobile also offers a one-time chunk of 10GB 4G LTE data to Data Stash customers. New One Plan customers will not have this option because their data is unlimited.
AT&T offers a similar option, called data rollover. If you have an AT&T Mobile Share Value plan, your unused data will roll over to the next month, but the extra data only rolls over for one billing period, instead of over the course of a year. Additionally, if you buy extra data due to an overage charge, you better use all of it up that month, because it won’t cross over to the next month.
Finally, Big Red recently joined the club with Carryover Data. Like AT&T, this new feature only rolls over your unused data on a month-to-month basis, but if you buy additional data it still carries over. Unfortunately, like the Safety Mode feature, Carryover Data is available only to Verizon subscribers on the XL and XXL plan. You can add both Safety Mode and Carryover Data to your S, M, or L plans for an additional $5 a month.