Cell Phone Family Plans: What You Need to Know

Family plans can save a lot of money each month

So you've finally bowed to the inevitable and decided to equip your child with his or her very own, grown-up cell phone.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out the pros and cons of the various family plans that allow you to pick and choose from a perplexing array of anytime and rollover minutes, monthly fees and charges for additional phones. (See our article Cell Phones for Kids: Important Buying Advice if you're still on the fence.)

In a family plan, all phones used by family members are covered under the same billing account. The pool of calling minutes is shared by all members, and additional phone numbers can be obtained for a reasonable fee (about $10 extra per month for most plans). Also, many family plans allow for unlimited calls between approved members (that is, calls between members don't count against your pool of minutes). Most plans start at about $60 for two lines. Here's what to keep in mind when shopping for a family plan.

What kind of minutes are you being offered?

When it comes to "anytime minutes," read the fine print. Verify how many of your minutes really do apply to any time of the day, and how many are clustered on weekends or late evenings at the expense of weekday mornings and afternoons, when many parents and kids are most likely to be using their phones.

Do you, your kids or other family members need multimedia capabilities?

Any cell phone carrier will be more than happy to add texting, email, web access or image-sending capabilities to your family plan for a price, usually in the neighborhood of $10 or $20 extra per month. If you're enrolling in a family plan for purely logistical reasons -- such as arranging play dates or keeping track of your spouse -- you can probably skip these multimedia perks, but if you like to text your kids, check email, surf the web or send photos to your relatives, they're worth investigating.

Choosing a carrier and family plan

All service providers, including Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular, have some sort of family plan, and most carriers have multiple options. You'll want to do some shopping around before you commit to a plan. Carriers change their pricing often, and there are often deals during certain times of the year such as back-to-school time or around the holidays. See our report on cell phone plans for more about monthly pricing and features.

Our chart below outlines the plans and pricing for 5 carriers. Most family plans include unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls and unlimited night and weekend calls, but Sprint and U.S. Cellular start their nights at 7 p.m., while the rest start at 9 p.m. T-Mobile has the lowest cost per additional minute at 40 cents, while U.S. Cellular has the highest at 49 cents.

Carrier*Est. price per month for 2 lines*Est. charge per add'l lineShared minutesOverage chargesFamily plan details
AT&T$60$1055045 cents/minuteUnlimited night (starting at 9 p.m.) and weekend minutes; unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes; rollover minutes
Sprint Talk for Family$70 $10700 45 cents/minuteUnlimited night (starting at 7 p.m.) and weekend minutes; mobile-to-mobile minutes
T-Mobile$60$10100040 cents/minuteUnlimited night (starting at 9 p.m.) and weekend minutes; unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes
U.S. Cellular Family Basic$70$1090049 cents/minuteUnlimited night (starting at 7 p.m.) and weekend minutes; unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes
Verizon Wireless$70$1070045 cents/minuteUnlimited night (starting at 9 p.m.) and weekend minutes; unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes

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