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Comparing U.S. iPhone Plan Costs in a Contract-Free World

With Apple’s launch of the iPhone 6s (see “iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus Get Touchy Feely,” 9 September 2015), many people are considering an upgrade. But if you’re on one of the four major U.S. cellular carriers, things are likely to be quite different this time around. Depending on your situation, this may also be an excellent opportunity to switch to a different carrier.

Most Americans have become accustomed to the contract model of cellular service. Instead of paying the full $649 for a low-end iPhone, for instance, you paid $199, with a two-year service agreement. The carriers essentially subsidized the $450 difference, making up for it (and usually generating more profit) by increasing your monthly service charge and ensuring that you’d stay a customer for the duration of the contract.

That contract model is going the way of the DVD, with T-Mobile leading the way and Verizon dropping the contract entirely. Going forward, most people will shell out full price for an iPhone, either all at once or spread out through monthly payment plans. All the carriers offer some type of payment plan, and Apple, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile also have plans that make upgrading easy. In exchange, you’ll pay less for service and won’t be stuck in a contract. This is how most of the rest of the world has long purchased mobile phones and service.

Here’s a rundown on how getting your next iPhone will work, but note that prices (and even the availability of an installment plan) may vary depending on your credit score.

Buying the iPhone -- First, let’s look at what’s familiar: contract pricing. The two-year contract price for an iPhone 6s will start the same as previous iPhones: $199. But where can you still get a contract?

From AT&T, for one, but only directly from AT&T. If you buy an iPhone through the Apple Store, you have to sign up for the AT&T Next installment plan or the iPhone Upgrade Program, which we’ll explain shortly. On the flip side, Verizon no longer offers contracts directly, but if you purchase an iPhone from the Apple Store, you can still get it with a two-year contract. Finally, Sprint still offers old-fashioned two-year contracts by itself and through the Apple Store, but it has new options as well. In general, though, contracts aren’t good deals, since the monthly embedded subsidy cost is often more than subsidized price of the iPhone.

So, let’s look next at what is arguably the simplest option: all four carriers will let you pay the full price for the iPhone 6s or iPhone 6s Plus. Here’s what each model costs from Apple:

  • iPhone 6s 16 GB: $649
  • iPhone 6s 64 GB: $749
  • iPhone 6s 128 GB: $849
  • iPhone 6s Plus 16 GB: $749
  • iPhone 6s Plus 64 GB: $849
  • iPhone 6s Plus 128 GB: $949

Depending on your carrier and plan, paying full price may save you money in the long run. Because no-contract plans don’t include the cost of the device in your monthly bill, you’re incentivized to keep the phone as long as possible. If you don’t mind dropping big money up front and you can keep your phone working for more than two years, you’ll enjoy lower monthly payments and thus less money over time.

Not everyone will be able to swing $649–$949 up front for a phone. That’s OK, Apple and the carriers have you covered there, too, letting you split up the cost of the phone into 24 payments — making your bill similar to what it was under the contract system. Happily, we saw no finance charges for spreading out the cost in this fashion.

Verizon and T-Mobile make this payment plan simple. For either, the monthly payment for a 16 GB iPhone 6s is $27.08, for a total price of $649.92. Sprint offers an Easy Pay option that costs $27.09 per month. All three are fair deals.

The AT&T Next plan offers more choices, but is wildly confusing (note that the upgrade requires trading in your old phone in working order):

  • AT&T Next 24: Divided into 30 installments; upgrade after 24 installments
  • AT&T Next 18: Divided into 24 installments; upgrade after 18 installments
  • AT&T Next 12: Divided into 20 installments; upgrade after 12 installments
  • AT&T Next with down payment: Pay 30 percent of the iPhone cost as a downpayment, divided into 28 installments; upgrade after 12 installments

If you purchase an iPhone 6s via AT&T Next 18 (confusingly split into 24 payments), you would pay $27.09 per month for your iPhone 6s, the same as Sprint.

To add further chaos to the mix, T-Mobile and Sprint offer different payment plans that let the tech-savvy upgrade more often. Let’s look at each in turn.

T-Mobile offers JUMP! On Demand, which lets you trade in your phone for another one up to three times per year. Of course, you still have to make the monthly payment, but as a launch promotion, T-Mobile offered the 16 GB iPhone 6 for only $15 per month. Folks who got in on that promotion will be able to upgrade to a newer iPhone for no additional cost, and they’ll get priority on available stock. Pretty good deal, if you got it.

T-Mobile is also offering a new JUMP deal for the iPhone 6s. You can get an iPhone 6s for $20 per month or an iPhone 6s Plus for $24 per month. Presumably these are 16 GB models, and there’s no word on how much larger storage sizes will cost.

Sprint is offering an iPhone Forever deal, where if you trade in a working smartphone, you can get an iPhone 6s for $15 per month, with a 22-month plan, but you can trade it in at any time. The $15-per-month price is a limited-time promotion — the usual price is $22 per month, which is what you’ll pay once you upgrade the $15-per-month iPhone 6s to the next model.

Be aware that with the early upgrade plans from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, you will have to trade in your old phone to upgrade, though you may be able to pay a fee to keep it. These plans are largely for those for whom the latest tech is important. Be sure to read the fine print carefully; the details can be tricky.

And now Apple has entered the iPhone installment game as well, making the carriers almost irrelevant.

iPhone Upgrade Program -- With the iPhone 6s, Apple is launching the iPhone Upgrade Program, which lets you upgrade every year and includes AppleCare+ protection.

Here are the monthly prices for the iPhone Upgrade Program:

  • iPhone 6s 16 GB: $32.41
  • iPhone 6s 64 GB: $36.58
  • iPhone 6s 128 GB: $40.75
  • iPhone 6s Plus 16 GB: $36.58
  • iPhone 6s Plus 64 GB: $40.75
  • iPhone 6s Plus 128 GB: $44.91

Note that the iPhone Upgrade Program is more expensive than the carriers’ installment plans, thanks to the addition of the $129 AppleCare+ (it was $99 for iPhones prior to the iPhone 6s).

There are other catches as well. To sign up, you must go to a physical Apple Store, though you can schedule an appointment online. Also, the AppleCare+ accidental damage fee is rising from $79 to $99 for the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. Like the other early upgrade plans, you’ll have to trade in your iPhone 6s if you upgrade to the iPhone 7. Lastly, the program requires iPhone activation with a national carrier — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon, so you can’t take advantage of it and then go to an off-brand cellular reseller.

The cool thing about the iPhone Upgrade Program is that the iPhone comes unlocked, so in theory, you could switch between national carriers at any time.

Let’s see what those plans look like now. Note that I’m not including taxes, fees, and miscellaneous discounts, so if you want to compare to a current contract plan, look carefully at a recent bill and take those numbers into account.

T-Mobile -- To call T-Mobile CEO John Legere a “character” would be an understatement. With his pink shirts, leather jackets, long hair, and profane tirades, you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for a rock star. Well, he is a rock star of sorts, and he is single-handedly changing the American cellular market.

Since 2013, T-Mobile has branded itself the “Un-carrier,” dropping contracts and subsidies in an attempt to become more profitable. The moves weren’t always popular, such as when T-Mobile abandoned employer discounts, but T-Mobile’s business has been booming since it became the Un-carrier.

If you’ve been with T-Mobile for a while, none of this comes as a surprise. As for plans, the Simple Choice plans are well named: they include unlimited voice minutes and SMS text messaging, and a given amount of data for a fixed monthly price.

  • 1 GB of data for $50 per month
  • 3 GB of data for $60 per month
  • 5 GB of data for $70 per month
  • Unlimited data for $80 per month

Plan prices get more complex but cheaper with a family plan. Two lines cost $80 per month: $50 for the first line, $30 for the second. Both lines feature unlimited talk and text and 1 GB of data. Three lines will run you a total of $90 per month, including the third line at $10 per month, again with unlimited talk and text, plus 1 GB of data for each line. Each additional line, up to six total, costs another $10 per month.

If you need more than 1 GB of data per month, things get tricky, but stick to the same pattern. For the first line, each higher tier of data is an extra $10 per month: $60 for 3 GB, $70 for 5 GB, and $80 for unlimited. The same is true for the second line, but prices are $20 lower: $40 for 3 GB, $50 for 5 GB, and unlimited for $60. Additional lines follow the same pattern, but are $20 cheaper than the second line, so unlimited would be $40.

For an individual, T-Mobile is cheap and easy: $50 per month for 1 GB. But let’s say that you and your spouse each want 1 GB of data every month. That family plan would cost $80 per month total. Add a child with 1 GB of data to the plan and the total increases only by $10, to $90.

There is good news about T-Mobile’s data usage caps. For one thing, you will not be charged overages. The plan covers only 4G data; once you run out, you’re merely dropped back to 3G speed, but you can buy more 4G data if you choose. Second, T-Mobile includes a Music Freedom feature that excludes many popular music services, including Apple Music, from the data limits.

T-Mobile also has a compelling international story for those who frequently travel to other countries. The Simple Choice plan includes unlimited calling and texting in Canada and Mexico, and unlimited 4G LTE data. For another 120 countries, the Simple Choice plan includes unlimited data and texting; calling will be billed different rates depending on the country.

The main problem with T-Mobile is that the company’s coverage isn’t as good as Verizon Wireless’s or AT&T’s, though it’s steadily improving.

Verizon Wireless -- Following in T-Mobile’s lead, Verizon also recently dropped contracts. If you’re currently in one, you can keep it until it expires, switch to one of the new, simpler, contract-free plans (but with a higher device fee until your contract is paid off).

The Verizon Plan now comes in four main tiers:

  • 1 GB of data for $30 per month
  • 3 GB of data for $45 per month
  • 6 GB of data for $60 per month
  • 12 GB of data for $80 per month
  • Additional plans go up to $750 per month for 100 GB of data

Like T-Mobile, all of Verizon’s options come with unlimited talk and text. Unlike T-Mobile, Verizon charges overages of $15 for each additional gigabyte of data, though you can upgrade your plan at any time. Verizon no longer has family plans as such, but data is shared among all devices on the plan.

These plans may sound cheaper than T-Mobile’s, but you also have to pay a monthly access fee per device: $20 for a smartphone, $10 for a tablet, or $5 for a connected device, like a Wi-Fi hotspot or an LTE-enabled smartwatch (not the Apple Watch). If you’re still on a contract and switch to one of the new Verizon plans, the access fee will be doubled for the device on contract, so it would be $40 for a smartphone instead of $20.

For an individual with 1 GB of data and an iPhone, the total cost would come to $50 per month — identical to T-Mobile. For a couple sharing 3 GB of data, each with an iPhone, the total would come to $85 per month, $5 more per month than T-Mobile but for an additional 1 GB of data. For a three-person family, it would be $105 — $15 more than T-Mobile.

When Josh does the math to compare this to his family’s current contract plan, it’s not a terrible deal. He and his wife share 3 GB of data, and pay a total of $133.76 per month for service (not counting taxes, fees, and discounts). With the new Verizon Plan, they would be paying only $85 (after their existing contracts end), but of course the cost of their iPhones wouldn’t be included in that.

On the international side of things, Verizon has a variety of plans that aren’t bad for Canada and Mexico, but which seem ludicrously expensive (particularly for data) for other countries.

AT&T -- The new AT&T Next program may be complicated, but what hasn’t changed are the AT&T Mobile Share Value plans. Like plans from other carriers, they feature unlimited talk and text and let you share data with other lines. As with Verizon, there are numerous tiers of data, but the most comparable to the other carriers are:

  • 300 MB of data for $20 per month
  • 2 GB of data for $30 per month
  • 5 GB of data for $50 per month
  • 15 GB of data for $100 per month
  • The largest plan offers 50 GB of data for $375 per month

As with Verizon, there’s a monthly access charge that varies by device: smartphones on AT&T Next or No Annual Contract cost either $25 (for 5 GB or lower data plans) or $15 (for 15 GB or higher data plans), tablets and LTE wearables are $10, and Wi-Fi hotspots are $20.

So an individual with 2 GB of data would pay a total of $55 per month, or a bit more than T-Mobile or Verizon, but with 1 GB more data. A couple sharing 2 GB of data would pay $80 per month, the same as T-Mobile. A family of three sharing 2 GB of data would pay $105, or $125 if 5 GB of data was necessary.

Each additional gigabyte of data costs $15 extra ($20 on the 300 MB plan), though unused data from one month rolls over into the next month (but only month-to-month, not cumulatively).

Adam, Tonya, and Tristan share a 2 GB family plan now, and pay about $130 per month for it. Only one of their iPhones is ever under contract, but it looks as though switching to a contract-free plan would save about $25, or roughly the per-month cost of a new iPhone. So it’s essentially a wash, though occasional overage and international charges increase their bill (see “More Problems with iCloud Photo Library Uploads,” 19 June 2015, and “How to Avoid Data Overage Charges When Traveling to Canada,” 31 July 2015).

As noted in our previous coverage, AT&T’s international story isn’t great, with the 30-day AT&T Passport packages offering unlimited texting, but expensive data and voice minutes:

  • Passport: $30 for 120 MB and $1.00/minute calling
  • Passport Silver: $60 for 300 MB and $0.50/minute calling
  • Passport Gold: $120 for 800 MB and $0.35/minute calling

Sprint -- Sprint has an easy $60 unlimited plan ($85 if you stick with a contract). That’s unlimited talk, text, and data.

However, the Sprint Family Share Pack gets more complex, since there’s no unlimited option. Sprint offers a number of data plans, including:

  • 1 GB of data for $20 per month
  • 2 GB of data for $25 per month
  • 4 GB of data for $40 per month
  • 8 GB of data for $70 per month
  • Additional plans topping out at 60 GB for $225 per month

The confusion comes with the access fees, which cost $40 per device for smartphones under contract, but which are discounted by $15–$25 for non-contract customers, based on the selected data plan. (AT&T works like this too, though it’s not as obvious since the company is deprecating contracts.)

So, for 2 GB shared between a couple not on a contract, the monthly fee is $25 for the data, plus $25 per device, for a total of $75 that’s cheaper than all the others. For three people sharing 2 GB, the bill would be $25 for the data plus $75 for the access fees, for a total of $100; bump up to 4 GB and that increases to $115.

If you go over your data limit, each additional megabyte costs 1.5 cents, which equals out to $15.36 per gigabyte, which is comparable to the competition.

For international travellers, the free Sprint Global Roaming includes unlimited texting, free 2G data, and $0.20/minute calling. 100 MB of 3G data for 1 day can be added for $15, 200 MB of 3G data for 7 days costs $25, and 500 MB of 3G data for 14 days is $50. The “included countries” are quite restrictive, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, for instance, but only a handful of other countries in Europe and Asia. Confusingly, the Sprint Open World program, which is also free, provides unlimited calling and texting, plus 1 GB of high-speed data in Canada, Mexico, and most other countries in Latin America. If you’re sticking to the Americas, you’re probably fine; otherwise, read Sprint’s fine print carefully.

As with T-Mobile, Sprint’s challenge is coverage, which isn’t as complete as Verizon’s or AT&T’s.

The Bottom Line -- Many of you are stuck with whatever cellular carrier has the best service where you live. But for those with a choice, here’s a quick breakdown for an individual looking for a non-contract plan with 1–2 GB of monthly data:

  • T-Mobile: $50 (1 GB)
  • Verizon: $50 (1 GB)
  • AT&T: $55 (2 GB)
  • Sprint: $60 (unlimited)

Here’s a breakdown based on a two-person family plan with 2–3 GB of monthly data:

  • Sprint: $75 (2 GB)
  • AT&T: $80 (2 GB)
  • T-Mobile: $80 (2 GB)
  • Verizon: $85 (3 GB)

For the couple with a child, again trying to aim for 1–2 GB per person, here’s how it works out:

  • T-Mobile: $90 (3 GB)
  • Verizon: $105 (3 GB)
  • Sprint: $100 (2 GB) or $115 (4 GB)
  • AT&T: $105 (2 GB) or $125 (5 GB)

It took us hours to sift through the carrier sites to put together these lists, and frustratingly, it’s difficult to make exact comparisons, due to the carriers offering differently sized data plans. Nonetheless, here are our conclusions.

We were surprised to find that Verizon, which generally has the best coverage in the United States, was competitive in pricing and reasonable for travel within Canada and Mexico. But avoid Verizon if you do a lot of other international travel.

T-Mobile does generally well, and has the most compelling set of bonuses, including free international roaming, free music streaming, data rollover for 3 GB and larger plans, and reduced speeds instead of overage fees if you exceed your data cap. Its weak network coverage is bolstered by Wi-Fi calling.

AT&T was a solid middle performer, and when it was notably more expensive, that was generally due to having a larger data plan than the others. Rollover data is welcome, but AT&T’s international plans are weak.

Sprint is just weird. It had the most expensive individual plan, but with unlimited data. Then it was the cheapest for a two-person family plan, but expensive again for the three-person family. The company’s international story is complicated and restrictive, but largely free in supported countries. Even data overages are unusual, being billed per megabyte, rather than per gigabyte, even though the raw cost is the same. Like T-Mobile, Sprint’s coverage is weak, but is bolstered by Wi-Fi calling.

What Does It All Mean? -- We’ve been pondering the move to contract-free plans coupled with installment-based iPhone purchases all week, and Apple’s introduction of the iPhone Upgrade Program threw in yet another variable. It seems safe to make the following conclusions:

  • Overall cost of ownership won’t be much different for most people under contract-free plans, unless you can keep using your iPhone for more than two years. You do get more flexibility to switch carriers, which you may be able to parlay into lower bills. (In the future, we’ll look into whether it’s possible to save a lot more via pre-paid plans or MVNOs.) If money isn’t an issue, these plans make it easier to upgrade more frequently.

  • Companies prefer small regular monthly payments to larger one-time payments in order to even out revenues, and customers are less likely to switch to a competitor. Consumers also often prefer this approach as a way of regularizing a limited budget. Regardless, it’s nice to have the choice.

  • The iPhone Upgrade Program will undoubtedly make Apple money due to the forced inclusion of AppleCare+. It’s also possible, even likely, that carriers buy iPhones from Apple at a discount, so by selling direct to consumers at full retail, Apple would make more.

  • Regardless of the revenue deal, the iPhone Upgrade Program will reduce the likelihood of people switching to Android smartphones and create a tighter relationship between Apple and iPhone users. That’s good for Apple, and comes at the expense of the carriers. Could it be a long play on Apple’s part to have a customer base for its own cellular carrier? The company has emphatically denied such rumors, but it wouldn’t acknowledge such a project if it were true (see “Apple Denies Plans to Become a Cellular Carrier,” 4 August 2015).

In the end, not much is really that different, and the move away from contract plans seems to be generally positive for both consumers and Apple, but dangerous for carriers, who may end up becoming generic utility providers before long.

 

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Comments about Comparing U.S. iPhone Plan Costs in a Contract-Free World
(Comments are closed.)

Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-11 19:08
As a side note, I was at an Apple Store today (2015-09-11), and asked the folks there: if you sign up for an iPhone Upgrade Plan appointment tonight, are you guaranteed an iPhone when you show up to your appointment? They said that yes, one will be reserved for you, but otherwise, they know as much as the rest of us.
Jonathan Horton  2015-09-11 19:47
My understanding is that the JUMP! On Demand program from T-Mobile does not add any monthly fee other than the monthly prorated cost of the phone. In the article you state that "You can pay T-Mobile an additional $15 per month per line for JUMP! On Demand, which lets you trade in your phone for another one up to three times per year." The old JUMP! program had a $10 monthly program fee, but I don't think JOD does.
http://newsroom.t-mobile.com/doc_download.cfm?doc_id=156
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-11 20:05
Thanks, it looks like you're right, Jonathan. I've updated the article.
Paul Anderson  2015-09-11 19:45
I have my doubts.

First, who needs a new cell phone after only two years? It seems like a waste to force people to get a new one every 1-1/2 or 2 years.

Second, this sounds like I would pay a LOT more for a phone. I pay for four of them with my family plan. Do I want to pay over a hundred dollars to LEASE a phone? Wow, my bill is high enough without adding that on it.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-11 20:03
Remember, you're not forced to get a new iPhone regularly - it just becomes an option. Personally, I agree about keeping them longer - if we didn't need to keep up with Apple for obvious business reasons, we'd upgrade much less frequently. As it is, Tonya and I each keep our phones for 2 years, alternating who gets the new one each year.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-11 20:23
This is very much the carriers passing the Apple premium onto you, so an iPhone will be more expensive than say, a Moto G. But if you keep your phone for more than two years, you'll save a lot of money on your monthly bill.

With the contract system, you were pretty much forced to buy a phone every two years, because the price of the phone was always factored into your service charge, even after your contract was up. If you didn't buy a phone, you were throwing money away. Now the system reflects actual economics.
Michelle Steiner  2015-09-11 20:57
I have an iPhone 6, purchased under the AT&T Next plan, where I can upgrade after 12 months. If I opt to buy an iPhone 6S (or 6S Plus) through Apple's iPhone Upgrade Plan, could I trade in the 6 to Apple and simply pay AT&T the remaining balance on the iPhone 6, or would I have to buy it under the AT&T Next plan?
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-11 21:10
Short answer: upgrade through AT&T Next.

Long answer:

It sounds as if you have AT&T Next 12, which is actually a 20-month agreement that lets you upgrade after 12 months. If you were to break the agreement now, you'd owe AT&T the remaining balance on the phone. Now, you could then take that iPhone 6 to Apple and get an Apple Store gift card that you should be able to apply to your iPhone Upgrade Plan, but that would likely be a losing proposition.
Michael Curtis  2015-09-12 05:54
o2 in the UK is offering their own get a new iPhone after 12 months with insurance. It is £64 a month and £10 up front for some reason. They only offer it on the 30GB tariff. I hope Apple bring their upgrade programme to the UK soon. I would be all over that.
It seems you're not factoring the resale price on your old used iPhone. It sounds like all these new plans effectively charge you full price (amortized) for the phone but give you nothing for the old phone you have to give back at the end. Do I have thT right?
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 12:23
Good question. The answer is: it depends.

Most of the early upgrade programs, like JUMP, Next, and the iPhone Upgrade Program, require you to turn in your phone when you upgrade through the program.

Most carriers and retailers (including Apple) will give you some amount of cash or credit for your old phone.

As far as how exactly trade-ins work with the new installment plans, I'm not sure if they'll just give you a lump-sum credit or if they'll let you distribute that throughout your monthly payments.
Gerry Hornik  2015-09-12 13:31
My understanding from AT&T Next is that on a 12-month plan at the end of the 12 months you can turn in the phone and get a new one, starting a new 12-month plan with the same monthly cost. In other words, giving back the phone relieves you of the remaining 8-month charges. Apple says you turn in the phone, get a new one, and begin a new 24-month commitment, implying that returning the phone ends your first 24-moht commitment.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 15:00
Here's the trick: if you're on AT&T Next 12, you're actually on a 20-month agreement. Just because you give the phone back doesn't mean that you're out of your commitment, and if you traded for another phone, now you have a new 20-month commitment for the new phone.

As you said, with Apple, it's a 24-month commitment, but you can trade after 12 months. But when you upgrade, that triggers another 24-month commitment.
Andrew Tagliabue  2015-09-12 08:48
Thanks for sorting through all the complicated options. You note that the iPhone Upgrade Program with unlocked phones would theoretically allow one to freely switch between carriers, but you don't mention what's happening with activation fees. Are the various various carriers still charging the typical $40 or so to "activate" a new phone? Will they charge a fee if you bring a phone bought from Apple or another carrier? Knowing how carriers hate "churn," it seems like they would try to impose some barrier to making it easy to switch.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 11:39
Hard to say, and we didn't see any numbers for that on their Web sites. I suspect it's one of those fees that shows up only when you try to make the switch, and it's very likely optional - meaning that if you make a fuss, they might waive it. They do hate churn, but they also have to make it worthwhile for you to jump to them from someone else.
William Shepherd  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-09-12 09:07
In terms of switching carriers with an unlocked phone, I'm unclear as to what is possible, given the radio capabilities of the different models.

If, for example, you start out with T-Mobile, you'll be given a GSM phone. If you subsequently want to switch, your only choice would be AT&T, right? Yet the Verizon-specific models seem to have GSM radios—would they work on T-Mobile?

Potential switchers might need a chart.
Andrew Tagliabue  2015-09-12 11:17
As I understand it, the newest unlocked versions work across all carriers and all bands worldwide except China Mobile. Haven't fully checked the specs, but I've read this in several news reports.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 12:26
In theory, the iPhone 6 and 6s work with any carrier, because Apple has a unified cellular chip. In practice, I'm not quite sure how that works. I remember hearing something about the chip locking onto frequencies when its activated, so if you set up an iPhone 6 for Verizon, you can't just reprogram it to go to T-Mobile.

But I'm not sure how true that is now. I need to investigate.
Andrew Tagliabue  2015-09-12 16:55
Are you referring to the SIM or the baseband silicon chip? SIMs can behave this way, e.g. the Apple SIM locks on to AT&T is you activate it with AT&T. I'm less sure about whether baseband chips can work this way. There have been persistent rumors that Apple would begin to use its own custom baseband chip, but as with so much of iPhone intervals we won't know for sure until the teardowns after release.
ivwshane  2015-09-12 09:52
Thanks for the write up!

What about pre paid users? Are there any options going that route?
I know tmobile has a $30 a month option for unlimited text & data with 100 minutes and by using google hangouts you can essentially get unlimited talk via voip.
That $20 savings per month pretty much pays for half of a phone payment (if that's even an option).
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 12:00
I wonder if the plan you refer to is old. All I see on the T-Mobile site now are the Simply Prepaid plan for $40 per month and the Simple Choice North America Prepaid for $50 per month. The former is a little cheaper, but the latter seems to be the same as the normal Simple Choice plan.

http://prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com/simple-choice-prepaid-plans

Oh, wait, I found it (man, they hide this stuff!). The $30 per month plan is limited to devices purchased from Walmart or activated on T-Mobile.com. The $35 per month plan doesn't include data, so it's a non-starter.

http://prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com/other-prepaid-plans
Steve Riggins  2015-09-12 11:39
Very comprehensive info!

I looked into Tmobile Jump on Demand this year and one thing not mentioned is paying $10/month for their insurance. If you don't and you lose the phone, you are still on the hook for all of the remaining payments.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 12:01
The insurance stuff drives me nuts! :-)
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 12:31
I've always maintained that carrier insurance is a rip-off. It's expensive, and if you have a problem with your phone, the replacement is usually crappier than what you're replacing (been there, done that). AppleCare+ is still a better deal, even if it is more expensive now and it doesn't cover theft or loss.

While you're correct that you'd be on the hook for the rest of the phone if it's stolen and you lack the insurance, that's always been true. If your phone was lost while on a contract, you'd likely have to pay full price for a replacement, so actually, just paying just the balance and getting something else might be a better deal.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 12:34
Another minor detail, prompted by an alert reader. It looks like if you get an AT&T Mobile Share Value plan of 15 GB or higher, you'll also get unlimited talk and text in Canada and Mexico. Sort of nice, for your $100 per month, but it doesn't include any international data at all, and is thus kind of useless.

http://about.att.com/story/att_introduces_new_mobile_share_value_plan.html
Gerry Hornik  2015-09-12 13:24
Actually, Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program costs a little less than AT&T's Next plan for an iPhone 6S every 12 months, with the AppleCare+ thrown in for free in Apple's plan (iPhone 6S 128GB is $40.75 at Apple, $42.45 on AT&T Next 12).
Nick Beadman  2015-09-12 17:04
You should definitely take a longer look at Prepaid plans. I have an iPhone 5 on Verizon that is out of contract and am now playing $45 a month (including taxes) for 2GB of data (as I auto pay, 1GB if not) and unlimited text and talk.

I am quite tempted with AT&Ts 1.5GB of data for $40 with auto pay. AT&T also has a pre-paid 4GB of data for $55.

All of those plans are cheaper than what they quote with their "post paid" plans but if you can buy the phone outright (or use Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program?) then you can save $10-15 per month.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-12 21:00
We might take a look at those for a future article. I do wonder why the prepaid plans still exist. If contracts are gone, why not merge prepaid and postpaid?
Nick Beadman  2015-09-13 17:36
I agree that it doesn't make a lot of sense to have prepaid plans if there are no contracts but for whatever reason they are cheaper at Verizon and AT&T.

If you do decide to look at the prepaid plans it wouldn't take as much investigation as this article did because the carriers don't really hide any information. Of course, there are a few more options than the "big four", specifically Cricket and StraightTalk, both of which ride on the AT&T network.
you still have a contract with post-paid, it's just for the phone lease, not the service.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-15 10:15
Unless you buy the phone outright…
Matthew Monsoor  2015-09-13 00:58
I can't even look at 1-2 Gig's and feel that's adequate! I pay AT&T $130/mo for 30Gig's of data and still need more!
Steve Nicholson  2015-09-13 20:47
That's a lot of data. How do you use that much? Do you stream a lot of video?
Steve Nicholson  2015-09-13 21:29
Thanks for this article, Josh and Adam. Because of this I switched from my current Verizon plan to The Verizon Plan. I went from 700 minutes & 250 messages to unlimited minutes/messages plus mobile hotspot is now enabled. Instead of 2GB per phone we now share 3GB, but between my wife and me we haven't come close to using that much in the last six months. My monthly bill went from $140 down to $125. I still have a year to go on both of our iPhones 6 so I won't have to contemplate a phone upgrade until the iPhone 7 comes out.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-13 21:48
Excellent!
Michael.Witbeck  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-09-14 19:07
I've had a no contract iPhone 5 for a while now. For me the big advantage is that I'm not locked to a carrier, which means I can use my phone anywhere in the world just by getting a local simm--usually free--and some cheap prepaid minutes.
David Friedholm  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-09-14 19:33
TMobile Jump plan requires you to pay the extra storage cost over a 16gb phone each time you upgrade according to a TMobile store rep.

So 64 gig is extra $100, 128 gig $200 up to 3 times per year.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-14 19:43
Yikes. I knew there had to be a catch. It looks like Apple's program may be the best one if you want a new phone every year.
Dennis B. Swaney  2015-09-14 20:50
Actually there is a built in finance charge IF you keep the phone more than 21 months.

Let's take the top of the line $949 iPhone. If you finance it at $44.91 per month rate then the total cost after 24 months is $1,077.84 but at 21 months you have only paid $943.11

If Apple was honest, then the monthly cost over 24 months for a $949 phone would be $39.54 per month. Of course all of the above does not take in to account the differing sales tax rates so each locality will have a different "break even" date.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-14 20:52
Are you counting the $129.99 for AppleCare+ in that equation?
Duane Williams  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-09-15 11:13
None of the plans you described compare favorably to my Cricket Wireless plan: $35 per month (with no additional taxes or fees) for unlimited talk and text and 2.5GB of LTE data (capped at 8 Mbps) on the AT&T network.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-15 11:13
What's Cricket's international story, Duane? I couldn't find anything on their site? What would you do for data if you wanted to go to Canada for a trip, for instance?
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-15 11:21
Looking at Cricket's Web site, the only iPhone they offer is the 5c, for $299.99. I suppose you could buy an unlocked iPhone and use it with Cricket, but then you'd have to pay for it upfront, and couldn't use Apple's upgrade program, because that requires activation with a major carrier.
Duane Williams  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-09-15 11:34
I bought an unlocked, sim-free iPhone 6 from Apple about 5 months ago. It works with all of the major carriers in the U.S. Yes, I paid the full price up front, but considering the higher cost of monthly service with the major carriers, I expected to break even in about a year.

I should have no trouble getting an international sim for my phone if I should ever need one. I don't recall the name off hand, but there is a company that will sell you a stick-on international sim that you affix to your existing sim. It only activates when you are outside the U.S. and their data rates are reasonable.

Duane Williams  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-09-15 12:09
Re: "Lastly, the program requires iPhone activation with a national carrier — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon, so you can’t take advantage of it and then go to an off-brand cellular reseller."

Why couldn't you, for example, buy an iPhone 6s with a T-Mobile SIM on Apple's upgrade program and then cancel your service with T-Mobile within the first month, take out the T-Mobile SIM, and replace it with a Cricket Wireless SIM. I presume the upgrade program payments go to Apple, not the carrier you initially select. I also presume that you are not locked into the carrier you initially select, and T-Mobile plans are contract free, right?
Duane Williams  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-09-15 12:57
I find the wording "...with a national carrier — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon..." rather strange, even if that's Apple's wording, because it implies that those 4 are the only national carriers. They aren't. Cricket Wireless is at least as much a national carrier as AT&T, because it is a subsidiary of AT&T and uses the AT&T network. It is certainly not a local or regional only phone service.
trippp  2015-09-16 00:10
It amazes me that I never hear of anybody but myself who has Verizon's "Prepaid plan." I get 3GB's of data for $20 and I get 90 days to use it up. I signed up last spring for unlimited minutes and unlimited text and 1.5 GB of "free" data a month for $45 dollars a month. After that I add data at $20 dollars for three GB that is good for ninety days. You can do this as many times as you want or need with no penalty. The best deal I have seen anywhere. But "Prepaid seems to scare people away. I checked a couple of days ago and it it is still available to anyone who owns their phone outright. So for most months all I pay is $45 and when I am on the road I get data at $6.66/GB.

Any one else out there who uses this plan?
Nick Beadman  2015-09-16 12:02
I use the $45 a month Verizon pre-paid plan and it is amazing. If you enroll in auto pay you get 2GB a month of data which is enough for me as I live in Wifi bubbles. I commented above that I hoped TidBITS would do an equivalent article on the pre-paid plans as the AT&T pre-paid plan is $40/month for 1.5G of data.

Right now I am using an iPhone 5 that started out on contract and I moved to pre-paid when the contract expired. Can you just walk in to a Verizon store, pay full price for a phone and start immediately on a pre-paid plan? Unfortunately, the pre-paid phone selection is quite limited on Verizon's web site.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-16 12:05
These are good questions, and we hope to address them soon. We would have liked to cover pre-paid plans here, but just the post-paid stuff was a mess to wade through.

I was actually a pre-paid customer for a long time, first on Virgin Mobile and later on AT&T GoPhone. I didn't have a contract until 2009, when I wanted a Motorola Droid (I soon traded it for an iPhone 4).
Duane Williams  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-09-16 14:12
In addition to the basics of pre-paid plans, it would be useful if you included the limitations, some of which may not be obvious, like the 8 Mbps throttle on LTE data that AT&T imposes on Cricket Wireless customers.

Another thing you might want to discuss in a future article is the technical differences between iPhones. There are, for example, basically two types of iPhone 6s phones currently being sold, in terms of network connectivity. To see that you have to compare the antennas and cellular chips built into them. T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint use one type and AT&T uses the other. Older phones, even the iPhone 6, are different.

I wonder how many people with recent iPhones from Verizon know that they have GSM capabilities and that the GSM antennas are unlocked, unlike the CDMA antennas. I don't think that any of the new iPhones you get directly from Apple are locked at all.
Duane Williams  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-09-19 08:08
Nick: I believe the answer is yes. If you check out the Verizon Prepaid web page, you will see a "Bring your own device" tab. Click that and you'll be taken to a page where you can order just a SIM for $49.99 (which includes 1 month service). When you get it, you can put it in any compatible smartphone. The plan is for 1GB for $45 per month.

Since you already have a Verizon SIM that is connected to the Prepaid plan, I would assume that you can just move it to a new compatible phone (purchased anywhere) and not need to buy a new SIM.
Michael Logue  2015-09-19 13:31
My wife and I are with US Cellular. We have to buy our iPhones from them, and only online if we want a 64 or 128 gig model. Does anyone know why you cannot buy an unlocked iPhone from Apple that will work with US Cellular?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-12 10:37
Note that Verizon has changed their international plans now, so you can pay per day to keep your plan. It's still not cheap, but it's better than before.

http://www.theverge.com/2015/11/12/9721078/verizon-international-travel-daily-plans