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

By Mike GikasConsumer Reports

The biggest chunk of that smart-phone bill you pay every month is for data charges, and choosing the right carrier and plan could reduce those costs by as much as $1,000 a year. But making the smart choice isn't so easy. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—the Big Four--have done their best to complicate apples-to-apples comparisons. They charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competitions', and provide differing discounts for multiple phones.

To help you find the best deal, we’ve figured out the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy. data service. (Read "How Much Service Do You Need?") As the tables below show, each carrier stands out for different reasons:

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  • T-Mobile offers the best prices, and it was a solid performer in our recent cell-service survey of 58,000 subscribers in 23 metro areas. The carrier recently announced a plan to lure customers from rivals AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon by paying off the early-termination fees
  • In our survey, Verizon was the most satisfying among the Big Four, and it was a standout for data service and resolving customer-support issues.
  • Also according to survey, respondents, AT&T offered the most problem-free high-speed 4G data service, something to consider if you're a heavy data user.
  • Sprint's Framily plans are good deals for groups of people living at different addresses—five people in one "Framily" would each pay just $55 a month for unlimited, voice, texts, and data. But the carrier ranked near the bottom in many of the metro areas of our survey.

T-Mobile Simple Choice

Sprint Framily

AT&T Mobile Share

Verizon Share Everything

In comparing rates, we couldn’t always find perfect matches, but we used the most similar plans. For instance, AT&T and Verizon sell their data in chunks that can be shared by all the phones on one account, while Sprint and T-Mobile require you to buy data plans for each phone. So we selected sharable data plans on AT&T and Verizon that matched (or came as close as possible to matching) the per-phone data plans of Sprint and T-Mobile. Another adjustment: T-Mobile and Sprint offer unlimited data plans, while AT&T's and Verizon's cap off at 50GB at rates north well north of $300. We determined that 4GB to 5GB per phone would be comparable to having unlimited data.

—Mike Gikas

1. First see whether a 500MB to 1GB data plan is enough for you. It will be for many consumers, especially if you confine your cellular-data activities mostly to browsing the Web, using news and e-book apps, and sending and reciving e-mails without large attachments. Save video calls, media streaming, and big-file uploads for when you have Wi-Fi access.

2. If you stream a fair amount of music and video on the road, such as during your commute to work or on business trips, you'll probably need 2GB to 3GB per month.

3. And if your eyes are permanently glued to Netflix, YouTube, and other other data-draining activities, you might want to consider a high-limit or unlimited data plan.—M.G.

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