Buying iPhone: Apple vs. AT&T

What is your preference? I have always renewed with AT&T when it’s time for a new iPhone. But I was curious what others have done. Does it make more sense to use AT&T’s money for three years with a corresponding contract obligation, or buy direct from Apple?

IMO: TANSTAAFL

Using their money for “free” means you’re stuck with them for the term of the contract - and you’re paying for that phone somewhere else. Buying your own phone gives you the choice of carrier (you can leave AT&T at any time for a cheaper plan if you so desire). Plus having to buy your own phone means that you should be really asking yourself “do I really need the expense of that top-of-line iPhone, or should I get something that works for what I need and no more”

For me, I would have liked the iPhone 15 extra super-sized model. From a budget and needs perspectiive, though, the iPhone SE 3rd gen is plenty of phone for me.

YMMV, but you get the gist. Don’t get suckered in by advertising to get more than you need.

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Depends on how likely you are to stick with AT&T for the next three years. Since you have been (it appears) a customer for a long time, you should be able to honestly answer that question.

FWIW, Verizon did away with these long-term commitment options several years ago. If you buy a phone from them, you pay full price up front. If you don’t want to pay that much, then you can get zero-interest financing, where you pay the price (via your monthly bill) pro-rated over the next 24 months. If you cancel service before the loan is paid off, then you owe the remaining balance at that time, but there are no other penalties.

This is effectively the same as what you get when buying from Apple, except that Apple’s financing is not via Verizon. In the recent past, phones purchased from Verizon would include a SIM card, while phones purchase from Apple required eSIM activation. But today’s iPhones are eSIM-only, so even that is no longer a difference.

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If you are prepaying with Verizon, you get no benefits of upgrades or interest free payments. When I tried to upgrade by iPhone this year, I was told that I could not pay the phone in interest free monthly installments as I am with my iPad. I’m sure there is an economic reason for them to do this, but it is not obvious to me.

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My wife was very disappointed with AT&T. She had bought an iPhone SE about a year and a half ago and had been problems with it keeping a charge, so she went in to AT&T to check what was wrong. They told her it was the battery and that it would require repairs that they couldn’t do, but which would require going into an Apple store, which is further away. Because she needed to have a working phone at hand, and did not have time to go for repairs, they offered her a “deal” on a new iPhone 15 that gave her more features. What AT&T didn’t tell her was that the “deal” would leave her paying a monthly charge for the SE, which they represented as difficult to repair.

We didn’t realize what they had done until she started getting the higher new bills, and had time to call Apple to see about repairing the old SE. The woman she talked with at Apple was able to get the SE back to working condition on the phone – what we had thought was a bad battery was caused by her use of an Otter case on the SE, which apparently caused thermal problems. Removing the case solved them. So we ended up paying for a replacement phone that we didn’t need, although it lets her get more features from Duolingo. A further frustration was that the new plan erased the family plan discounts we had been getting.

After that experience, I strongly recommend dealing with Apple, because they know how to solve problems and – as noted above – AT&T plans don’t offer any significant benefits over buying your own phone.

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I’ve only had two iPhones, but bought them both from Apple, refurbed. The second time I bought a new phone , I lost my affordable Sprint plan because I had “upgraded” my phone. Didn’t matter that I didn’t get it through them.

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This is the reason I purchase my phones directly from Apple rather than from a carrier. The cost is transparent and easily measured (and felt), and I am free to switch carriers or plans. Rather than paying the carrier a larger bill every month, I set up a sinking fund account and transfer an amount of money monthly to that account - which stays with me rather than going to the carrier, until I replace the phone.

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I am happy with AT&T as my carrier, but I got one phone through them, and I will never do it again. (Nor any other carrier.) When it comes time to sell or trade-in the phone elsewhere, having it locked to a carrier is a major pain in the butt.

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Thanks for all the input. As it turns out in my OP, out of ignorance I set up a bit of a false dilemma for myself (AT&T vs. Apple). I buy iPhones so infrequently that I forgot: When buying through Apple, you can avail yourself (or not) of many carrier-sponsored plans, as well as just buy the phone outright.

So I went through the Apple site, and chose AT&T as my carrier. It was an extremely pleasant and intuitive experience, especially compared to my abortive attempt to do the same thing on the AT&T site. Some of the benefits were:

  • Straightforward, “Apple-like” web shopping experience, compared to AT&T’s herky-jerky, unintuitive mess of a system.
  • No crazy “we need to be sure it’s you” shenanigans, which include uploading a picture of your driver’s license (required on the AT&T site)
  • Straightforward access to AT&T’s substantial trade-in credit (couldn’t even find it on the AT&T site, but it turned out to be 4x what Apple offered)
  • Additional 3% discount for up-front charges when using my Apple Card (tiny benefit, true, since the bulk of the charges will appear on my AT&T bill over time)

Given the considerations others have mentioned here (i.e., I do plan to stay with AT&T for the next three years, and I don’t see any reason not to take advantage of zero-interest financing), this seemed like the best option for me.

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Carrier locking policies differ from carrier to carrier.

  • Verizon phones are locked for 60 days from the date of purchase. Then they should automatically be unlocked. VZW Locking FAQ.
  • AT&T’s policy is that a phone is eligible to be unlocked if it has had service for more than 60 days and if it is fully paid-off. AT&T Device Unlock policy. But then you have to ask AT&T to do it. Which isn’t very convenient.
  • For T-Mobile, a phone on a post-paid contract is eligible for unlock after 40 days, if it is fully paid off. For prepaid phones, it must have been in service for a year or had at least $100 of refills since purchase. Phones should self-unlock within two days of becoming eligible. Customer service can unlock it if the self-unlock doesn’t work. T-Mobile Device unlock policy.

So, I would agree that AT&T’s policy is the most annoying - since you have to explicitly ask them to do it. But Verizon and T-Mobile seem pretty reasonable, given that their phones should self-unlock after you’ve owned them for a few billing periods.

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I don’t think the Verizon and T-Mobile policies apply to phones bought directly from Apple:

An iPhone purchased from apple.com is unlocked. Once your new iPhone is activated, it remains unlocked, which means you can use it with any network that provides service for iPhone. The exception is when you buy an iPhone with an AT&T Installment Plan. It will be locked to AT&T and will only work on the AT&T network for the term of your Installment Plan agreement.

I can anecdotally confirm this because I bought an iPhone from Apple on Verizon’s network in early April and installed an additional T-Mobile eSIM (to try out the network coverage) less than a week later. I checked before I installed, and Settings / General / About said under “carrier lock” (is this new, by the way?) “no restrictions”.

I believe that Verizon started carrier locking only because phones were being stolen from delivery trucks going to the individual stores.

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If you travel outside the US/Canada/Mexico you should consider purchasing your phone directly from Apple “unlocked”. 1. Warranties apply world-wide, including Apple Care+. 2. You can purchase an AT&T prepaid plan and e-Sim for voice/data in North America. 3. You can purchase multiple data only e-sims from Airalo before you leave the US and they will activate automatically with local carriers when you step off the plane. Most cost less than $20 for 15gb of data for 30 days of 5G service. For voice service you can use What’s App or Google voice while roaming on Airalo. You can rely on AT&T wi-fi service for making calls home from your hotel or apartment with AT&T prepaid (although they still want to sign you up for foreign roaming @$35 for 7 days! Which you can easily ignore) Bottom line: buy an unlocked phone from Apple that gives you flexibility.

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Thanks, Jere. If I traveled outside the US frequently, that would probably be an option I’d consider. But I’ve found for the little international travel that we do, AT&T’s International Day Pass works great. We tend to go from country to country, rather than stay in one for an extended period of time. Also, at this stage of my life, I’m really into pressing the “easy” button, unless the cost is significantly out of line with a solution comprised of several independently managed parts.

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Understood.

But Airalo has regional e-sims for every part of the world. For example, for Europe they have one e-sim that covers 39 countries and offers 5Gb of data for 30 days for $20. Last time I checked AT&T daily International rate was $10 per day or $70 per week. Calls home or to US offices are normally are made late in the day using AT&T wifi calling which is free - especially with a 6 to 9 hour time differences.

The technology and use of e-sims has been a game changer for us and eliminated the hassle of visiting airport vendors, showing passports, etc., to get local high speed cell data service in multiple countries.

I certainly agree that pressing the “easy” button is preferred. I only wish that e-sims had arrived ten years ago when we first started traveling in retirement.

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I’ve used T-mobile for a long time. Price was better than Verizon or AT&T and service has always been good. I’ve also always purchased my phones from Apple (well, except for my first Nokia).

I have been using AT&T for service for a long time and buy my phones from them using ATT NEXT. I get 30 months interest free financing vs. 24 months from Apple, at the same price. While I agree that having an unlocked phone is nice if you travel internationally a lot, that’s the job for my old phone.

I have a VOIP phone line associated with my Internet provider, which has iOS and Android apps for calling or receiving calls. If I need to make phone calls back to the USA, I connect to the WiFI connection in my hotel and call using the mobile app for the VOIP, which costs me nothing.

This was quite useful for a recurring medical issue that flared up while I was in Europe. It enabled me to connect to my doctor’s office for advice.

I’ve bought my phones directly from Apple since unlocked models became the norm. The places I live have spotty cellular coverage so being able to choose your carrier, without being locked into a contract, is important.

Also, I haven’t looked in a while, but the models offered by the carriers were somewhat limited. I still prefer the SE.

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It is so much more pleasant to buy your iPhone direct from Apple (either in an Apple Store or online). Buying from telco carriers IMHO is a pain in the rear because of the hard sell (pushing a multi-year contract to pay it off). So many people still don’t know that Apple offers the same deals as the telcos (if that’s what you want) or use the advantage of buying an unlocked phone (which is what I always do). For first time buyers, purchasing in store also offers the advantage of having Apple set it up for you, so you walk out of the store with a working phone. I don’t understand why people still go to telco carriers for purchasing an iPhone!

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