If you're due for an upgrade, iPhone day is a lot of fun. Look at this shiny, new thing that can be mine for just a few bucks or even totally free! But if you're not eligible for an upgrade, it's a little more Look at this thing I cannot afford! It doesn't have to be that way.
Most of the major wireless providers now offer creative upgrade programs, which may or may not make sense for you. But through a combination of selling your old device and reading the fine print of your wireless plan, you too can afford a new iPhone. Just follow these simple steps.
Step One: Check Your Options
The calculus of figuring out upgrade costs depending on carrier is wildly complex. Since your upgrade options are specific to the plan you signed up for, they're damn near impossible for us to predict. It doesn't help that major carriers are also moving away from traditional upgrades in favor of lease-like programs that aren't always a great deal—more on that in a second. So when you call a rep to check your eligibility, hang up the phone before you make a decision.
We can't cover every single contingency, but below you'll find a basic chart that lets you know whether it's even worth your time to call and hear a sales pitch. Below that, you'll find all the right links and phone numbers to check your upgrade eligibility as well as a few notes about how that carrier handles upgrades. Also, while there are still plenty of iPhone 6 units available, iPhone 6 Plus shipping has been pushed back a month or so.
AT&T (800.331.0500 or dial 611 from your phone)
AT&T, the original iPhone service provider, is phasing out upgrades in favor of the AT&T Next program, in which you pay for your phone in installments through the course of the contract. That means you're only eligible for an upgrade (for a fee) if you have an old AT&T plan, and your benefit will vary based on which plan you had. You can probably count on it being the advertised $200 price for the 16GB iPhone 6. You'll also have to shell out a $40 upgrade fee.
Your other option is AT&T Next, which lets you spread payments on a new phone out across 12- or 18-months before you're eligible for another upgrade. After 20- or 24-months your phone is paid in full, and you actually own it. It's best—and this pretty much goes with all the carriers—to call or check online for details about your specific situation.
Verizon (800.922.0204 or dial *611 from your phone)
Just as AT&T has Next, Verizon has Edge. Edge splits the cost of your device into 20 monthly payments. If you're on Edge currently, you have to pay off 60 percent of the total cost of your current device before you can upgrade.
People on traditional contracts have to wait for their two years to be up, at which point they acn sign up for a new two-year contract, and buy a new phone at the new contract price, plus a $30 fee. The new contract price for an iPhone 6 is $200, as advertised.
Sprint (866.866.7509 or dial *3 from your phone)
Sprint's being a little tricky around this year's iPhone launch. If you're at least six months into a two-year contract, you " are now eligible to upgrade if [you] purchase the new device through Sprint Easy Pay (installment billing)," a Sprint rep told me in an email. While that sort of sounds like a deal, it actually means that Sprint's giving you the privilege of purchasing the new iPhone after a down payment and 24 additional monthly payments. If you pay an extra $5 a month, you can upgrade the device after 12 months instead of 24, in which case you're basically paying for the privilege of paying Sprint more money.
If you're lucky enough to be upgrade eligible, you can get the iPhone 6 for—you guessed it—$200. Plus the $36 upgrade fee.
T-Mobile (800.866.2453 or dial 611 from your phone)
T-Mobile does not offer upgrades. Instead of a traditional contract (and on-contract pricing discounts), it invites customers to go to their stores at any time and pay full price for the phone. That's actually better than it sounds.
Enrolling in T-Mobile's "JUMP!" program enables you to get an upgrade after you've paid half the price of the device, but you'll have to pay $10 a month for that privilege. It's currently offering a payment plan starting at $27 a month for 24 months with zero downpayment for a 16GB iPhone 6. The 64GB, meanwhile, is $27 a month with a $100 downpayment, and the 128GB is $27 a month with a $200 downpayment. The downpayment structure is the same for the iPhone Plus, but the monthly payments are $31. Either way, you end up spending full price for the iPhone.
Step 2: Beware of Payment Plans
The latest craze among wireless carriers are these rent-to-own programs instead of traditional contracts. Be wary of them, though; they're often not as appealing as they sound.
The big perk of enrolling in one of these programs—AT&T Next, Verizon Edge, Sprint Easy Pay, and T-Mobile Simple Choice and JUMP!—is that you get to upgrade more often than the every two years we've been accustomed to. However, you don't always end up saving money; sometimes you end up spending more than you would have otherwise.
Most of the new upgrade programs out there are simply payment plans with some strings attached. After you've paid a certain proportion of the phone's total cost (usually half) through monthly installments, you can then trade it in for a new phone that will also require a monthly installments. It's monthly installments all the way down, unless you find a magical phone that you don't want to get rid of after it's paid off. And if you lose or break the phone, you may have to pay more because it's not really yours.
The one exception to the is T-Mobile's JUMP! program. While the T-Mobile Simple Choice plan is a payment plan like the rest, JUMP! charges an actual fee—as opposed to an installment—of $10 a month. Instead of just enabling you to upgrade your phone at any time, however, JUMP! also acts as an insurance policy so you don't have to worry about cracking your screen and owing the man. It's part of T-Mobile's mission to differentiate itself from other carriers, and the deal sounds more palatable than what AT&T and Verizon offer. Of course, you have to deal with T-Mobile's sometimes spotty service if you sign up for it.
This is all to say, these programs are just another way for carriers to lock you into contractual obligations. If you really need that new phone right now, agreeing to a monthly payment might be the quickest way to get it. But it'll cost you at least as much in the long run as waiting it out, and very possibly more.
Step 3: Sell Your Old Phone
Here's the part where you make money. You can get a new phone the fastest if you go for one of the carriers' trade-in programs, but you will probably get less for your phone than you could elsewhere.
All of the carriers are running special deals for trade-ins. Sprint and T-Mobile are offering to meet or beat any competing trade-in values. If you find a better trade-in value elsewhere, again, T-Mobile will beat it and offer an extra $50. Meanwhile, Sprint told us in an email that it's offering at least $200 trade in credit "on any used iPhone." AT&T is offering at least $200 for the iPhone 4, 4S, 5, and 5C, and the company will pay at least $300 for an iPhone 5S. Verizon will reportedly give you up to a $200 gift credit for older models when you buy an iPhone 6, but the company's website appraises the trade-in value of an iPhone 4 at only $34.
Again, you will probably get more money for your phone if you sell it on the open market. Your best bet money-wise is to go for Craigslist or Ebay, or opt for a third-party trade-in option like Gazelle or Amazon if you're lazy. For the long and short of how to get the most money for your old iPhone, read this post.
Step 4: Buy a New Phone
Do not wait in line. Order the phone through your carrier and wait patiently—a little more patiently at this point, if you want an iPhone 6 Plus—in a comfortable setting. It will arrive in the mail just fine, and your friends won't make fun of you for standing in the rain for hours on end. Good luck! Hopefully, all the trouble will be worth it.
Worth what? Well to recap, let's look at how much each device is with the standard upgrade device costs versus the no-hold-barred, unlocked, contract-free device.
Standard Upgrade Price
iPhone 6: 16GB $200 / 64GB $300 / 128GB $400
iPhone 6 Plus: 16GB $300 / 64GB $400 / 128GB $500
Unlocked (T-Mobile Only), Contract-Free Price
iPhone 6: 16GB $650 / 64GB $750 / 128GB $850
iPhone 6 Plus: 16GB $750 / 64GB $850 / 128GB $950
Image by Jim Cooke and Sam Woolley