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Is Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program Worth It?

(Image credit: Apple)

Thinking of getting the brand new iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, or iPhone 11 Pro Max but wondering if you should wait for one of next year’s models instead? Get both. Apple makes it easy to get a shiny new iPhone every year with its iPhone Upgrade program, which lets you choose the carrier you want. Apple also throws in AppleCare+, which will protect your new phone.

Apple iPhone 11

(Image credit: Apple)

But carriers have been offering early-upgrade plans for years now, and at a lower price than Apple. If you're considering getting your new phone through Apple's program, here's what you need to know — and how it compares to other options.

What Is the iPhone Upgrade Program?

Introduced in 2015, Apple’s upgrade program lets you pay off a new iPhone in 12 monthly installments starting at $35.33 a month for the 64GB iPhone 11. The 128GB version is $37.41 a month and the 256GB model is $41.58 a month.

The 64GB iPhone 11 Pro is $49.91 a month instead of $999 in one shot. The 256GB model is $56.16 a month and the 512GB is $64.50 a month.

You can pay $54.08 a month for the 64GB iPhone 11 Pro Max, rather than $1099 upfront. The 256GB version will cost $60.33 a month while the 512 version will cost $68.66 per month.

If you're the new owner of an Apple Card, you can use it as your monthly payment method. You'll get 3% Daily Cash each time you use it for a payment. 

You'll be able to pick your carrier, since the device you get will be unlocked and supports 25 LTE bands.

That's a great solution for those who want an unlocked phone, but can't afford to plunk down hundreds of dollars at once.

More importantly, the iPhone Upgrade program lets you get a new iPhone every year (after 12 installments) without being tied to one carrier. Apple also throws in its AppleCare+ warranty, which includes up to two years of hardware repairs, software support and up to two incidents of accidental damage coverage (subject to an additional service fee). 

I Already Enrolled in the iPhone Upgrade Program. Now What?

Generally speaking, you can upgrade your phone once you’ve paid 12 monthly installments. You bring your iPhone into an Apple Store or request a mail-in kit and then upgrade to whatever you’d like. Apple also allows iPhone Upgrade Program participants to upgrade after six months or longer, if you’re willing to make all payments due by the 12-month mark early.

If you enrolled in the iPhone Upgrade Program last year, keep an eye on your email because Apple will let you know when you’re eligible for an upgrade. If you haven’t gotten an email or you’d like to check manually, you can pop over to a page on Apple’s website where you can answer a few questions and check your eligibility status.

How Is Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program Different From Other Options?

(Image credit: Apple)

In general, Apple's offering varies from what you might get from a wireless carrier by offering better protection for your iPhone with AppleCare+, and the freedom to jump carriers and pick the best rate plan for you. You’ll also have the benefit of a carrier-unlocked phone, which works more flexibly and carries a higher value on the reseller market.

When considering the value of an unlocked iPhone Xs or iPhone Xs Max, bear in mind this important distinction: An unlocked iPhone designed to work on T-Mobile and AT&T’s GSM networks will not work on Sprint or Verizon Wireless CDMA networks. And to make it even more confusing, unlocked phones on Verizon or Sprint’s networks will work on AT&T and T-Mobile.

If you pick Apple's program you will only be able to upgrade to iPhones, whereas many carriers will let you update to a different brand. You'll want to look elsewhere if you think you might want to switch to Android down the road.

Sprint's iPhone upgrade plan

Just like Apple, Sprint lets subscribers upgrade to a new iPhone every year on its Sprint Flex leasing program through what the carrier calls iPhone Forever. You can upgrade to a new iPhone every 12 months on the program; however, Sprint does not offer the warranty and device protection coverage that Apple does. You'll also be stuck with Sprint as a carrier for as long as you want to have your iPhone, since you won't own the Sprint device.

When the lease is up, you can return the device to Sprint and upgrade to the new iPhone or buy it outright.

MORE: Sprint Phone Plan Buying Guide: What's Best for You?

While Sprint's trade-in deal seems tempting, it's worth noting that the carrier came in last out of the four major wireless providers on our 4G network showdown. The carrier has prioritized improving its network, rolling out carrier aggregation to different markets in its network, which should improve speeds.

T-Mobile's iPhone Upgrade Plan

T-Mobile's Jump program lets you upgrade to a new phone after 12 months worth of payments on a 12-month installment. It's similar to Sprint's offer in that you need to return your current phone in good condition, but it includes damage coverage in the monthly fee. 

MORE: T-Mobile Phone Plan Buying Guide - Tom's Guide

Coming in second on our network performance test in major American cities and offering unlimited data plans, T-Mobile's 4G LTE footprint will serve data sharks well.

AT&T's iPhone upgrade plan

AT&T offers major upgrade plan option is called Next Up. With the Next Up plan, you can trade in your phone when 50% of the full retail price is paid off (typically after about 12 months.) AT&T also a few other upgrade plan options for you to peruse, but Next Up is most like Apple's iPhone Upgrade program.

MORE: AT&T Phone Plan Buying Guide: What's Best for You?

This variety of options gives you the flexibility to choose between paying less each month or settling your debt more quickly. With AT&T, you'll own your device after making all payments, and are not tied to iPhones as your only upgrade option.

Verizon's iPhone upgrade plan

Verizon's Annual iPhone Upgrade program also requires iPhone owners to make 12 months worth of payments to upgrade to a new iPhone. 

MORE: Verizon Phone Plan Buying Guide

Those looking for high-speed and reliable 4G coverage should opt for Verizon. Big Red blazed into first place on our carrier speed tests with its zippy network and wide-ranging coverage.

How Do I Subscribe?

iPhone Upgrade is available at Apple Retail stores in the U.S. and online through the company's website. When you go to Apple.com and try to buy an iPhone, you'll see the option to buy via the "iPhone Upgrade Program" after you've selected your phone's model, color, capacity and carrier.

Is It a Good Deal?

Because of its higher price tag, getting an iPhone 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max on iPhone Upgrade is not for the budget-conscious. Sure, it comes with AppleCare+ (a $199 value) but not all people need that type of protection. You can find a cheaper option on nearly any other carrier, and won't be limited to just upgrading to iPhones in the future (with the exception of Sprint).

Overall, the best value is at T-Mobile, with its combo of low price, speedy network, flexibility and extra features, making it a good all-round deal.

Apple's program is best for those who are tough on their phones and need extra peace of mind.