Is Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program Worth It?

Updated

Thinking of getting the iPhone Xs Max but wondering if you should wait for next year’s model 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.Credit: AppleCredit: 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 get the 64GB iPhone Xs Max for 24 monthly payments of $54.08 unlocked instead of forking over $1,099 up front. The 256GB version is $60.33 a month and the 512GB model is $68.66 a month.

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

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

MORE: 12 iPhone X Features We Can't Wait to Use

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). That would otherwise set you back $199, which is the full cost for both the Xs and Xs Max.

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 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.

Apple allows Upgrade Program participants to submit their upgrade paperwork before preorders for new iPhones begin. For instance, iPhone 8 owners looking to upgrade to the iPhone X were able to request pre-approval the week before preorders began, so upgrading was as simple as clicking a buy button at 3 a.m. Eastern or midnight Pacific.

How Is It Different From Other Options?Credit: Tom's GuideCredit: Tom's Guide

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.

MORE: The Best iPhone X and iPhone 8 Carrier Deals: Take $350 Off at Sprint

Sprint

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.

Sprint is offering an iPhone Xs promotion: You can pre-order the base model Xs for $0 a month or an Xs Max for $4.17 a month by trading in an eligible phone, such as one of last year's iPhones.

If you don't have a phone to trade in, the 64GB Xs is $41.67 a month. The 64GB Xs Max is $45.84 a month.

When the lease is up, you can return the Xs or Xs Max 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

T-Mobile's Jump On Demand program lets you upgrade to a new phone three times a year, but it requires a down payment. The 64GB Xs is $26 a month with a $280 down payment, the 256GB version is $24 a month with a $430 down payment and the 512GB Xs is $21 a month with a $630 down payment. On the early upgrade program, the 64GB Xs Max is $25 a month with a $380 down payment, the 256GB model is $30 a month for $530 down and the 512GB Max is $20 a month with a $730 down payment.

T-Mobile is offering $300 in bill credits on installment plans for trade-ins of qualifying iPhones.

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

AT&T offers two major options: Its 30-month Next plan and its 24-month Next Every Year plan, which both allow you to upgrade your iPhone. With the Next plan, you can do so when 80 percent of the full retail price is paid off (typically after about two years). The Next Every Year plan lets you trade in your phone when you’ve paid off half of it instead. You can also choose to put down 30 percent of the handset's full price up front for smaller subsequent payments each month.

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. In the case of the 64GB iPhone Xs, for example, you'll pay $33.34 a month with the 30-month payment option, while the 24-month Next Every Year plan bumps the monthly payment to $41.67. For the 64GB Xs Max, the monthly cost is $36.67 a month for 30 months, and the 24-month plan costs $45.84 a month. With AT&T, you'll own your device after making all payments, and are not tied to iPhones as your only upgrade option.

Verizon

Verizon's device payment offer is the least fancy of the lot. It has one flavor at 24 monthly payments of $41.66 for the 64GB iPhone Xs, which is a few bucks less than what Apple is charging. The Xs Max starts at $45.83 a month. You can save $100 by trading in your old iPhone on the payment plan.

If you buy a second iPhone Xs, Xs Max or one of last year's iPhones, Verizon will shave up to $700 off the cost when you activate a second line.

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 Xs or Xs 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. You can get the iPhone X discounted, upgrade to whatever brand of phone you want and travel internationally without fear of extra charges.

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