How to pick a family cell phone plan

15 March 2017

In this guide, we'll help you work out how to get the perfect family plan. 

Let's face it, with all the options out there, picking a family plan can be confusing. We believe the decision should be straightforward and we're here to help. The best cell phone plans for your family should give you all the data and coverage you need, at the right price. 

To help find the best family cell phone plan, it's a good idea to consider the following questions.

How many lines do you need?

This is the obvious first question in a family plan and you'd be surprised how this works. 

When you're going to Disneyland or buying movie tickets, being a family can be expensive. Yet buying in bulk in the wireless market can save you money. The more lines you have on your family plan, the more the price per line drops. Getting everyone on one plan can mean big annual savings. Your friends are even able to join in on your plan. There's no need to be a related to the main account holder to take advantage of a family plan. 

  • The general rule is that the first line is the most expensive, the second line is cheaper, the third line is cheaper again.   

Consumer family cell phone plans range from 2 to 10 lines. More than 10 lines will be put you on a business plan. 

Are you happy to share between  your lines?

There are two ways data is allotted on family plans. 

  • Shared Usage per line: shared amount of  data/ minutes / texts across all the users
  • Fixed Usage per line: fixed amount of data/ minutes / texts  per line (single lines with allocated amounts, all adding to a total bill)
Shared Data & Calls between lines

In this type of family plan, the data is shared between the users - think of it as a pool of data and each line can use data from that pool.

For example...

    For a plan with a total of 9 GB shared data
  • Line 1 can tap into this
  • Line 2 can tap into this
  • Line 3 can tap into this
  • When all 9 GB is used, the plan will be slowed for the rest of the billing cycle

Any line can use any amount of data until the sum of the data usage for all the lines equals 9GB. (Speeds will be throttled on all the lines' when plan's data allotment is met.) 

Plans that offer data sharing are great ways for tech-happy teenagers and screen weary parents to coexist on the same plan. If you have a variety of data needs in your household, this could be a great option. However, if you don't want your internet speed to suffer just because your son can stay off Spotify then you might be best suited to a plan with a fixed amount of data per line.

For those of us a bit skittish about letting our kids loose on unlimited text (or talk), know that many carriers offer parental controls which allow you to set time limits on your children's devices and block calls. Most providers provide this as an additional monthly fee, and you may also want to consider other third-party software options such as Qustodio which offers those features and many more such as text message monitoring, GPS tracking of devices, for a lower price.  

Or, Fixed Usage per line

In this type of family plan, each of the lines is allotted a certain amount of data for use each month.

For example, on a 3-line family plan, you might have 9GB of total data where each line has 3GB of data only. This makes it a 9GB family plan, but when one of the family members uses all of his data, he can't tap into the other lines. 

  • Line 1 3 GB only
  • Line 2 3 GB only
  • Line 3 3 GB only
  • Total of 9 GB on the account

If a user goes over his data allotment, only the speed on that line will be slowed (until the end of that billing period) and this user cannot access the other data on the other lines. Speeds will be throttled (slowed) by line. 

So, if you think your high schooler should be able to exist just fine with about 3 GB each a month, you can pay for just the data amount you set on each line, and if she goes over, the only consequence is her snarky comments bemoaning how slow her phone is as she waits for the end of the billing cycle.

Some family plans offer buckets of minutes and texts to be assigned per line or to be shared among all lines on the plan. Price-wise, these buckets are a great option if you and yours use your cellphones mainly for checking in or calling home. 

Carriers such as Ting and US Mobile offer build-your-own plans that let you specify the minutes, messages you want so you only pay for what you use.  Ting allows you to pick these specific amounts to be shared among all users on your plan while US Mobile has you assign the amounts per line. Both carriers allow you to add more talk or text or data whenever you please. 

How much data does your family need?

True, the average person uses about 5GB of cellular data a month, but anyone who has lived with tweens and teenagers knows they can consume a lot more. 

When trying to gauge your family's data needs, it's a good idea to consider how each of your family members uses the phone. A person who just checks his email now and then will use a lot less data than someone who loves to stream YouTube videos. 

Internet ActivityDaily AmountMonthly AmountData Suggestion
Emails Sent20 Per Day600 Per Month
Pictures on Social Media2 Per Day60 Per Month1GB
Web Browsing1 Hour Per Day30 Per Month4GB
Facebook Browsing1 Hour Per Day30 Per Month8GB
Music Streaming2 Hours Per Day60 Per Month1GB
Netflix Viewing1 Hour Per Day30 Per Month

WiFi vs Cellular explained here...

If your son's checking out his Instagram account while riding the bus to school, he's burning cellular data. If you're checking your email while hanging out at the beach, you're using cellular data. But if you're web browsing at Starbucks (while hooked up to its free pubic WiFi), you're not touching cellular data.

If you and yours mainly surf the web on your phones at home or work while connected to a WiFi network, your monthly cellular data needs will be lower than those who do more internet browsing on the go.  

Basically, any activity you do on your smartphone which requires access to the Internet will use cellular data if you are not connected to a WiFi network. Some activities, such as streaming video or making a FaceTime video call, use more cellular data than checking and sending text-based emails or browsing articles on the web which use much less. Our data guide can tell you exactly how much your daughter's Spotify habit is costing you in data.

WhistleOut Tip: Before shopping for a plan, it's a really good idea to know the monthly data averages for your family. Don't worry if you don't know, it's easy to find out by checking your carrier's site or downloading the free Data Tracker.

How to pay less for your family plan

With family or shared plans making up 50% of mobile sales, carriers are fast & furiously coming up with attractive deals to woe you. Here are some things to help you find the best value for your family plan.

Try PrePaid carriers

Some of the best deals for families are in the prepaid market, meaning that your options stretch far beyond the Big 4 carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint respectively). At time of article publishing date, Cricket Wireless, a prepaid subsidiary of AT&T is offering a  4-line 12 GB plan for $100 (taxes and surcharges included)! Paying $100 for a family of 4 with a generous data amount is a deal!

Because many of the prepaid carriers use the infrastructure of the big 4 networks, you can get big cellular coverage at small prices.  And, since the *entire* wireless market has moved to monthly no-contract plans, the main difference now between your traditional post-paid plans from the Big 4 and other carriers is that on post-paid plans, you pay at the end of the month, whereas with pre-paid, you pay at the beginning of the month. 

Try cutting back on your data

It's never too early to instill a love of all things WiFi with your children! Sure, kids, stream away as long as you're on the home WiFi network. Using WiFi will save you data as will cutting back on internet consumption when you're out-and-about. If you're kids insist on listening to Spotify 24/7, it may be a good time to deliver the "Respect the Data Limits" lecture. 

Do you really need Unlimited Data?

There's a lot of hype around unlimited data now. Sure, it's alluring to think about never running out of high speed cellular data again...   BUT be sure that your family needs unlimited data before you pay for it.  Though carrier competition is driving down unlimited plan prices, you'd still be potentially paying more than you need to if you are a family of average data users  (which is about 5GB a month per user). Also consider that most carriers have done away with data overage fees and therefore keep providing data once you've hit your data limit at low speeds. 

Ditch the taxes and fees

We've all experienced bill shock. Seeing all the extra charges and taxes on our cell phone bill is irritating, especially when most of us pay nearly 18% in federal, state and local fees.  A family plan advertised for $100, will actually cost you close to $125 with taxes and surcharges added in. Thankfully, many carriers  are now starting to offer plans with "All-in pricing" which includes all the taxes and surcharges, so what you see as the advertised price is what you will see on your cell phone bill.

Try adding friends for bulk discounts

There's no need to be a relative to the main account holder to be part of a family plan. Your friends (or foes) can join your plan.

If the account holder has good credit, those carrier deals and benefits -- including attractive phone payment plans -- trickle down to the users of the additional service lines. (Frenemy Alert! The main account holder is fiscally responsible so take care not to miss any bill payments.) 

Leaving the family plan plan is relatively simple. The number that you have on the plan is your own number and can be switched to another carrier's single line plan. 

Consider paying for your phones in-full

Though the monthly service plan is not a contract, meaning you are free to end your service or switch carriers at anytime, your EIP is a contract and therefore you must first pay off your phone in full before you can go elsewhere. In other words, you can freely switch carriers (and take advantage of the competition's lower plan prices) if your family owns their own phones. 

Beware of "buy outs." There are plenty of carrier ads out there offering to buy out your contracts (including your EIP) up to a certain amount per line. Be sure to read the fine print here. These buy outs are only optimal if your phone is brand new, otherwise you are likely going to loose money in the transaction.

Other things to know:

If you're thinking of outfitting your family with phones or considering getting your child his first phone, here are some things to consider:

  • iPhones and non-iPhones (Androids) can be on the same family plan. 
  • iOS and Androids can easily communicate with each other and many apps including Google Calendar run on both.

  • Consider purchasing a low-cost economy model, especially if it's for a younger child.
  • (Pre-paid carrier Cricket Wireless has one of the largest selections of low-price devices.) Aside from being more affordable than premium models, it's lower price could save you on purchasing phone insurance. If it gets lost or broken, no major foul. Also purchasing the phone outright will give you more options to switch carriers and find a better plan in the future. 

  • Choose to skip phone insurance 
  • Sure, the likelihood that our children will loose or break their smartphones is high, but purchasing phone insurance isn't always the best option especially if your child's phone is an inexpensive hand-me-down. Sometimes the best insurance against breakage is a strong cell phone case (some actually claim to protect your phone against being run over by a city bus and a teething baby!). Another option is checking if your devices are covered under your home owner's insurance.


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