Pre-orders for the iPhone 11 and its Pro siblings start on Friday at 5am PDT/8am EDT. While Apple didn’t announce a ton of new features for the devices this year, there are some subtle but important changes happening around trade-ins and upgrades. So we made you a little guide to make sure you don’t get bamboozled by one of the richest companies in history.
The first thing to know about iPhone upgrades is that they’re pretty much carrier-agnostic these days. It used to be that you got a new device every couple of years as long as you renewed your contract and promised to keep paying that carrier a monthly bill. That was typically the best way to get a new iPhone for the least amount of cash upfront.
But things have changed! Carriers still offer upgrade programs, and Apple has its own upgrade program too. There’s also the option of just trading in an old device and paying the difference. The most metal of all is just paying for the iPhone outright.
We’re going to walk you through all of these different options and highlight the pros and cons of each. The fact of the matter is that there’s not a singular best option for everyone to upgrade their iPhone for the least money and trouble. But there’s surely a best option for you.
Not all of the United States carriers have announced upgrade options, but we’ve broken down what we do know of the big four based on available details and last year’s precedent. It’s worth pointing out that many of the carriers essentially offer zero-interest loans, some of which require a downpayment, while others come with perks like annual upgrade options. You might also qualify for a different kind of upgrade than what’s listed below, especially if you’re grandfathering a clause in an old carrier contract.
It’s also worth pointing out that taxes and fees apply across the board here. If you’re locked into a payment plan and then choose to upgrade, you’re essentially just trading in your old device and purchasing a new one under a new payment plan. That means you might owe a couple hundred bucks in taxes as well as whatever fees your carrier decides to slap on there. Then again, you’d have to pay these taxes and fees if you bought the phone with cash, so don’t let that expense hold you back.
Most people have two options through AT&T: the AT&T Next Up program or the AT&T Installment Plan. The AT&T Installment is just a 30-month payment plan with zero down and zero interest, although you may face penalties if you miss a payment. The AT&T Next Up program is basically the same as the Installment Plan, but for an extra $5 a month, you get the option to upgrade after you’ve paid off 50 percent of your current device. If you do the math—$5 a month times 15 months—you’ll realize that the AT&T Next Up is basically just a $75 fee for the option to upgrade early.
The Verizon Annual Upgrade Program for iPhones looks a lot like the AT&T Next Up program, except without that extra $5 monthly fee. Buy a new phone, pay off half, trade it in, get new phone. In the fine print of both programs, however, is the stipulation that, once you’re locked into the payment plan, you have to pay that carrier a certain amount for wireless service until the device is paid off. So these payment plans are essentially contracts dressed up as upgrade programs. If you cancel your wireless service, you have to pay off the full balance of the device in the associated payment plan immediately.
As it does, T-Mobile does things a little differently here. The carrier does offer an installment plan, but it requires a downpayment. (It’s not yet clear how much payments will be for the iPhone 11, but for the iPhone XS lineup, it was about 30 percent of the total cost of the device.) Then you pay off the remaining balance over 24 or 36 months. If you want to do something really different, you can get an iPhone through T-Mobile’s JUMP! On Demand 18-month lease agreement. The company says that, based on your credit score, monthly payments are lower than with the installment plan, and you can change the device you’re using once every 30 days. At the end of the 18-month agreement, you have the option to buy the device. This program seems very fishy for many reasons, the least of which is that T-Mobile sets the prices wherever it wants.
Sprint also offers an 18-month lease agreement called the Sprint Flex Lease. This is a lot like the T-Mobile lease, except you can only upgrade your device after 12 months of lease payments. You can buy the phone after 18 months of payments in one lump sum or six more monthly payments. But seriously, do you really want to lease your phone? This is not an apartment, and it’s not a car. Although they have their downsides, at least the AT&T and Verizon payment plans let you build equity in your device. The T-Mobile and Sprint programs seem riddled with loopholes and footnotes, so be sure to read all the fine print if you take this route.
If you’re all-in on the Apple ecosystem, the iPhone Upgrade is a great option. Like some of the carrier programs, this is essentially an interest-free loan with an upgrade option halfway through. You simply pick the iPhone model you want, go through a little credit check, and if approved, you can spread the cost of that iPhone and required AppleCare+ coverage ($8 a month) over a 24-month period. After you’ve paid the equivalent of 12 monthly, you have the option to upgrade. The 24-month-long clocks starts all over again, if you do upgrade.
Over the years, Apple has added a couple of welcome complications to its iPhone Upgrade Program. You can now add theft and loss protection through AppleCare+ for an addition fee (about $4) in your payment plan. Theft and Loss protection basically means that, if you lose your old one or get robbed, you can buy a new iPhone at a lower price. (A new iPhone 11 Pro costs just $269 under the current program.) Finally, Apple also introduced a new pre-approval process for the iPhone Upgrade Program last year that it’s also offering this year. The pre-approval option means you can jump through the hoops of getting approved for the loan before the mad dash of iPhone pre-orders.
The iPhone Upgrade Program is potentially the most transparent of all the upgrade programs. You’re really just spreading out the cost of the iPhone and AppleCare+ over 24 months, while reserving the right to upgrade after you’ve paid off half. If you don’t want that upgrade option and you don’t want to pay for AppleCare+, Apple also offers a very transparent iPhone payment plan. You still have to get approved for the loan, but this is the way to get the lowest monthly iPhone payments without getting yourself involved in some weird iPhone-leasing program run by a sketchy carrier.
Do you have an Apple device that you don’t use or like much anymore? Great news, because Apple is more enthusiastic than ever about taking it back. The Apple Trade In program is now baked into the process of buying an iPhone, at least to the degree that you have to say whether you’re trading something in or not trading it in before you can pick your color, storage, or carrier options. Apple also displays the lowest possible price with an eligible trade-in, but you’re probably going to end up paying more.
Let me put it this way: your old Apple device almost definitely isn’t worth what you think it’s worth. The maximum amount that Apple will give you for an iPhone is $600 for a flawless iPhone XS Max. A flawless iPhone SE will pull in $45 or less. (The full list of estimated trade-in values is on Apple’s website.) While there are other online trade-in services like Gazelle and Decluttr, you might get the most cash for your old device by taking the old eBay route.
Still, Apple does make it easy to trade in any old device, including some third party devices that the company will just recycle for you. You can get an estimate for the device’s value online. If you do decide to go through with the trade-in, you either ship it to Apple or take it to a store where its condition will be verified, and you’ll be offered a gift card in the amount of the determined trade-in value.
While Apple loves to say that its iPhone Upgrade Program is “the easiest way to upgrade to the latest iPhone,” this is a lie. The easiest way to do this is to show up at the store with a bunch of money and buy the phone you want. An iPhone is not a small purchase, especially if you want one of the jazzy new iPhone 11 Pro models. But all of the options above require some complications and, potentially, some tricks on the part of the carriers as well as Apple. Plus, if you take the route of a payment plan, you won’t actually own the phone until you’ve made all the payments. If you go the route of the weird lease agreement, you might never own the phone.
But if you buy it in the store with your own money, your new iPhone 11 is all yours. So save your pennies, and shop wisely. And stay tuned. As soon as we’ve had some time to try out the new devices, we’ll have more guidance on what’s worth your hard-earned cash and why.