Update: Since this post went up in September 2015, Apple has introduced the smaller, 4-inch iPhone SE starting at $399. You can also buy the iPhone SE on an installment plan of $17 a month. Apple will be taking pre-orders on March 24, 2016 and the phone will be available by March 31. Sprint has also made a shift back in the direction of offering cellular contracts.
Apple's begun taking preorders for the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, and by all accounts, it looks like another record launch. A lot has happened in the wireless industry since the last time Apple released a new iPhone: All four national cellular carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — have moved away from the traditional two-year contract, that familiar arrangement that tied you to your carrier but let you buy a basic iPhone at a subsidized price of $199.
This shift away from device subsidies means millions of Americans for the first time will be expected to cover the full price of their phones — $649 or more, in the case of the iPhone. But the range of choices is more likely to confuse than to clarify. You can buy. You can lease. Some offer promotional pricing; others don't. You can pay for the phone in installments. But how many? Twelve? Eighteen? Twenty-four? Thirty?
Into this mix comes Apple, which just announced a new plan of its own that lets you pay for an iPhone over 24 months and upgrade every 12 months.
For reasons we'll get into below, we think Apple's new iPhone upgrade plan will be right for many people, and it could even reshape the face of the cellular industry. But it's not for everyone. In fact, even though it's aimed at simplifying everything, the addition of a new choice from Apple threatens to complicate to an already confusing jumble of payment plans.
Choice gives you flexibility. But it also adds complexity, which is why we've tried to narrow down the options based on four common consumer archetypes. iPhone shoppers should ask themselves what they value most: Is it price? Is it the ability to upgrade the device whenever you want? Do you want to own the device? Or do you just like the way things were?
The following guide is designed to help you settle on a way to pay for your iPhone; remember, you'll also pay an additional fee for wireless service on a cellular carrier's network. When you make your decision, you'll have to balance the deal you're getting on device payments with the quality and service charges of your chosen network. For simplicity, all of our iPhone references refer to a 16 GB iPhone 6S — the most basic iPhone of this generation you can find.
You're the family's savviest shopper.You clip coupons and sign up for company newsletters. You buy things only when they're on sale, to be sure you're getting the best deals. When it comes to the iPhone, your top priority is minimizing your monthly costs.
AT&T's most relaxed payment plan, Next 24, splits your cost into 30 manageable, month-long installments. So, for a $649 16GB iPhone 6S, you'd be charged $21.63 a month. Completing the installment plan lets you keep your device, or you can trade in for a new device at 24 months. Verizon, for its part, lets you pay for a device over 24 months, reflecting a monthly cost of $27.08.
But if you want the absolute lowest monthly cost, T-Mobile's JUMP! On Demand program and Sprint's iPhone Forever leasing program are good options. T-Mobile's promotional price on the iPhone 6S right now under JUMP! On Demand that charges you $20 a month. Sprint currently charges $22 a month to lease the iPhone, and under a promotion running through the end of December, that cost falls to $15 a month until your next upgrade. But you're only eligible for that price if you trade in an existing smartphone.
For bargain hunters, these options are the best out there, but the tradeoff is that you either don't get to keep the phone after you're done with it, or you have to wait a long time between upgrades. Top plan: T-Mobile. Runner-up: Sprint.
The early adopter
You're the kind of person that lives on the cutting edge. You built your own computer and can rattle off the specs from memory. You bought an Apple Watch sometime, like, last year. You have to have the latest and greatest technology, even if it means paying a little more upfront.
For you, there are now several plans that allow consumers to upgrade every 12 months — essentially whenever a new iPhone comes out from Apple.
Sprint's iPhone Forever program lets you upgrade to another iPhone every time Apple releases a new one. For $22 a month, that's a pretty good deal. AT&T's Next 12 costs $32.50 a month for 20 months and lets you upgrade again after just 12 months. T-Mobile's JUMP! On Demand lets you change devices three times a year, for free, which basically means you can switch to the latest iPhone as soon as it comes out, too. The only catch is that you'll likely have to cover some of the remaining costs of your existing device; T-Mobile will take part of the hit (up to half), which is nice, but you're responsible for the rest.
If you're in a hurry — let's say your last device upgrade was just a few months ago but you want to switch right now — AT&T will let you pay off the rest of your device in one lump sum once you've made two installment payments. And Verizon will let you do that at any time. It increases your upfront costs significantly, but it frees you to select a new phone right away, and since you've paid for the old phone in full, it's yours to keep.
But of all the choices, we think you get the most from Apple's new upgrade program, which offers a reasonable balance between monthly price, time between upgrades and device support. Under this plan, a 16 GB iPhone 6S costs $32.45 a month. That's pricier than Sprint or T-Mobile, and roughly the same price as AT&T's most aggressive installment plan, Next 12, but with it comes device insurance that protects your iPhone from accidental damage. Carriers generally charge separately for this protection.
Since Apple only comes out with a new iPhone once a year anyway, consumers who were previously in the habit of upgrading every two years when their contracts were up will be able to upgrade more often now under Apple's program. Although T-Mobile's JUMP! On Demand program lets you switch devices as often as three times a year, Apple's slower, annual iPhone release schedule virtually erases this advantage for iPhone loyalists.
But the most compelling reason to hop on the Apple program is something that's been bred into the Apple ethos from day one. It "just works." It promises to turn a paralyzing array of choices into one, simple decision. You want an iPhone? You buy it from, you know, the place that makes iPhones. If anything goes wrong, no problem — you're covered by AppleCare. The only downside is that going on Apple's monthly plan means getting two phone-related bills for wireless service — one from Apple, the other from your chosen carrier.
These options ensure you get quicker access to new technology, but you have to pay a little more for it in the near-term (sometimes, a lot more). Top plan: Apple. Runner-up: Everyone else
Everything in your house is an heirloom. You sing Rick Astley to yourself in the shower. You turn all your old laptops into digital picture frames or wipe the hard drives yourself and sell them on Craigslist ("gently used, $350 OBO”). You don't want to trade in your phone; you want to be able to keep it.
Basically, you want to avoid ever trading in your device for an upgrade. The drawback to that? This will likely cost you in terms of how soon you can upgrade again. Apple's plan, for instance, requires you to trade in your old model if you're upgrading anytime after 12 months but before you've finished paying off your phone.
If money is no object, you can also simply buy an iPhone outright from any carrier or from Apple, paying the full price upfront. This gives you more freedom, obviously, but at a higher upfront cost.
If that's too expensive for you, T-Mobile's JUMP! On Demand program lets you make a "final payment" to own your phone after 18 months, when other customers would ordinarily be considering a free trade-in. This would probably cost you around $145 — assuming you're on T-Mobile's $20-a-month promotional price for the $649 16 GB iPhone 6S and T-Mobile eats half the cost according to its policy.
In addition, a separate Sprint payment plan lets you pay $27.09 a month over 24 months to own instead of lease your iPhone.
Verizon's 24-month installment plan offers full ownership of the device. AT&T's plans are similar, but the company's installment plans offer a little more flexibility -- giving you the choice of raising or lowering your monthly payments as you see fit. Both companies allow you to pay off the remaining balance early.
All these options allow you to keep your device but require you to make potentially expensive decisions in terms of time or money, but AT&T's plans remain the most appealing because they can be tailored to suit your timeline. Top plan: AT&T. Runner-up: Verizon.
You're trying to live life. You don't have the time to make complicated choices about upgrades. What you want most is for everything to stay the same. You'd stay on a two-year contract if you could.
Good news: You can still start a two-year contract if you search for it. Under the purchase options for the iPhone on Apple's online store, you can select a two-year contract, but only for Sprint and Verizon. Curiously, on Verizon's own Web site, the two year contract for new customers does not appear to be available.
To get a contract with AT&T, you can go an AT&T store or its Web site -- but that option no longer appears on Apple's site.
Alternatively, you could sign up for Verizon's 24-month device installment plan or AT&T's 30-month installment plan, both of which let you upgrade your phone after two years.While you'll still have to pay for mobile service separately, this option is functionally the equivalent of a two-year plan.
But we think Sprint should get the award here because it clearly offers a two-year contract on Apple's Web site as well as its own.
Top plan: Sprint. Runner-up: AT&T
Don't categorize me!
For those of you who are a mixture of all these personalities, we think Apple's upgrade program offers a pretty good compromise between monthly price and the ability to upgrade flexibly. Apple's program comes with insurance. Plus, you can choose whatever carrier you want, because Apple will sell you the phone unlocked. (This has benefits as well for international travelers who want to access foreign cell networks.)
That's a pretty good deal that gives you more control over your wireless experience. Before, many people chose a wireless carrier first and then dealt with the device selection that was available. Or they chose their wireless carrier based on what phones it offered on that network. Remember when you could only get the iPhone on AT&T? Those were dark days.
You've almost always been able to buy an iPhone from Apple directly before registering it with the carrier of your choice. But the Apple upgrade program, together with the wireless industry's shift away from contracts that lock you in, makes it easier than ever to do that.
Why is Apple offering an installment plan now? Well, with contracts going away and the cost of iPhones seemingly going "up" in the eyes of many consumers, Apple could lose customers who are turned off by the steep prices. So it needs to show that its premium hardware is still affordable for most people, and like the carriers, is betting that monthly payments will do the trick.
If Apple succeeds in attracting people to its new payment plan, it could have wider consequences for the likes of Verizon and AT&T. A prolonged decline in device sales would mean that these companies would have to focus more on providing mobile service, including data, rather than selling phones. As wireless carriers become more like regular Internet providers, you can expect them to look for new ways of making money off you. Given how complex buying phones and service has become, this might ultimately make your wireless bill even more confusing. But don't worry — we'll be there to help explain things if and when that happens.