When it comes to getting an iPhone, it’s a buyer’s market. Every major cell phone carrier has them, and they all compete against each other to bring you the best deal.
And while Apple has always sold iPhones in its own stores, recent initiatives such as the iPhone Upgrade Program and Trade-In have made the company a serious contender for your phone buying business. Let’s see which is the better option.
Prices Are Basically the Same
In previous times, cell phone carriers would let you pay off your phone in monthly installments. What they didn’t tell you is that they charged you a bit more than the total price of your phone over the course of 24 months, for the privilege of being able to spread it out.
Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program offered the same 24-month installment plan, with the option of upgrading to a new phone every year for free and trading in your old phone. If you paid the whole phone off, however, it didn’t cost you any more than if you had paid up front.
Carriers followed suit and now, for the most part, all carriers and Apple offer a monthly, no-money-down installment plan through which you purchase the phone from them over the course of 24 months. The monthly cost depends on the iPhone model you want, but across the board, they’re all the same.
There are a few exceptions to this. AT&T offers a plan at a lower monthly rate for a total of 30 months. Apple offers a higher monthly rate and includes AppleCare+ or AppleCare+ with Theft and Loss.
Winner: Essentially a tie.
Carriers Have the Deals
Apple is famous for almost never having deals. It might, in fact, be contractually obligated with the carriers to avoid offering deals on iPhones so as not to undercut them.
Carriers, however, frequently feature deals in order to compete with each other. For example, in 2019, AT&T offered a free iPhone XR with the purchase of any iPhone X or above. And Apple reporting its first profit warning in years could result in more deals than usual.
Locked or Unlocked?
While you can unlock a contract-locked phone, it’s a hassle, and you might have to wait for your contract to run out. The better move is to buy your phone unlocked in the first place.
An unlocked phone allows you to use that phone with any carrier, even if you’re not under contract with them. This is ideal for frequent international travelers, who can purchase a local SIM card and stick in their iPhone for service abroad.
If you purchase your phone through your carrier under a two-year service contract, the iPhone you buy might be locked to that carrier until that contract is up. Even after the two years, if you want to unlock it, you’ll need to contact them.
When you buy a phone from Apple under the iPhone Upgrade Program, it comes as a certified unlocked device. You can even pair it with an existing plan and retain your unlocked status.
Insurance vs. AppleCare+
Both cell carriers and Apple offer all sorts of ways to protect your phone.
AppleCare+ comes in two different tiers: AppleCare+ and AppleCare+ with Theft and Loss. The pricing is different depending on what iPhone you have, but typically the Theft and Loss version costs about $100 more than the regular version. It includes, however, two opportunities to replace your iPhone if it gets lost or stolen.
Regular AppleCare+ covers repairs caused by accidental damage, but you must still physically have the device. See our breakdown of AppleCare+ to find out if it’s worth it for you.
Carrier insurance plans like Verizon Total Mobile Protection, AT&T Mobile Protection, or T-Mobile Premium Device Protection have lots of different tiers and price plans. However, they roughly break down along the same lines that AppleCare does. On the whole, perhaps, cellular company insurance plans are slightly cheaper than AppleCare.
There are two major differences between AppleCare+ and a carrier’s insurance: the level of customer service and the quality of your replacement device.
Apple commits to providing you with a “new or equivalent to new” product when it replaces your iPhone. Its customer service is set up so that all you have to do is walk into an Apple Store and get a same-day replacement. Apple Stores are stocked with almost every model of replacement iPhone available for quick service.
Carriers, on the other hand, don’t have access to the same level of quality assurance for Apple’s products that Apple does. Often, your replacement phone will not be at the same level of “new or equivalent to new” that Apple promises. Instead, it will be a refurbished phone with non-Apple certified parts. Additionally, carrier insurance typically requires verification, and devices are often shipped through the mail.
So, Apple Store or Phone Store?
You were once able to find some real savings by shopping around the various mobile carriers. But these days most carriers, including Apple, offer roughly the same price for a more-or-less equivalent service. However, Apple is a tiny bit better in terms of convenience, customer service, and repair quality. The Apple Store will probably provide you with a better experience, but if you time it right, your carrier might offer you a better price.
The Apple Store has another advantage: these locations are licensed to sell you an iPhone under a carrier’s plan. As a result, if you buy your phone at an Apple Store, you can actually see how much each phone will cost you under each plan. At each carrier’s stores, they will only show you how much it will cost under their own plan. By presenting all the options to you, Apple offers a level of transparency that the other stores can’t match.
Try a Refurbished Phone for Even More Discounts
Maybe saving money is your number-one priority, and you can’t wait for a seasonal discount at a carrier store. If so, you can buy a refurbished or used iPhone at Best Buy or Apple, or even online at Gazelle. Outside of an Apple Certified Refurbished product, the quality can be questionable, but that might not matter to you depending on how much you save.