Using AT&T carrier credit to buy iPhone 12

I’m planning on buying a new iPhone 12 Pro. I currently have an unlocked iPhone 8 in excellent condition, but Apple will give me only $140 trade-in on it. I’m an AT&T user and see that they will credit me up to $800 if I purchase through them and return my trade in to them. I’m not contemplating switching carriers in near future, have used AT&T for many years.

But if I purchase the new iPhone 12 through AT&T they’ll give me a phone locked to AT&T, right? That means when I travel internationally, I’m stuck with their int’l carrier rates, whereas if I buy an unlocked phone direct through Apple, even if I continue using AT&T domestically, I can switch to a SIM card I buy anywhere when I travel. Have I got this right?

You need to ask AT&T’s customer support. Their policies regarding locked phones has changed many times over the years.

Based on what I could find (I’m not an AT&T customer), the phone may arrive locked, you can unlock it:

These are the eligibility requirements for unlocking:

They key conditions here seem to be:

  • You’ve had AT&T service for at least 60 days
  • You’ve completed your contract or paid off your installment agreement

So, I would suggest that the only potential problem here could be if you choose to finance the cost of the new phone instead of buying it outright.

The unlock page also suggests the use of their international day pass when traveling, which costs $10/day (for one line, $5/day for additional lines) to get your normal plan’s rates when traveling. Depending on where you’re going and how long you’ll be away, this might be better than getting a foreign SIM card.

Thanks, David. Your response helps me to think about this.
Part of the deal with AT&T is that you purchase the phone on an installment basis – and they credit you back a prorated amount on your cellular bill every month for 30 months. So it is not possible to get the AT&T credit as a lump sum if you purchase the phone outright.
I guess after 30 months you would own the phone and could possibly unlock it legally.

If I understand this correctly, the $800 trade-in rebate is credited to your account in the form of a $27 (approximate) credit every month for 30 months.

If you finance the phone, then they subtract that from your monthly payment. If you pay upfront for the phone, you still get the rebate spread over 30 months.

If I understand it correctly, I think you should be able to unlock the phone once you’ve completed your payments (whether paying in full up front, after 30 months, or any point in between if you pay more than the minimum).

If AT&T still owes you rebate money, I don’t think that will be a problem. My understanding of their terms and conditions is that you need to pay off your installment agreement. It says nothing about AT&T’s obligation to pay you your rebate.

And this makes perfect sense. The whole reason for locking is that they don’t want you to unlock a discounted phone and then switch service providers before they’ve received their profit from the deal. If you would pay off the phone early and leave them before receiving the full rebate, that benefits them, not you, so I don’t think they would object.

I think you should definitely call their customer service department and ask these specific questions.

Additionally, customer service reps are sometimes able to bend the rules. For instance, if you know you’re going to be going on a trip and you’ve been using AT&T for a long time, they may be willing to let you unlock it early, assuming that you’re not likely to cancel your service afterward.

Given that current phones have dual SIM support, is it necessary to worry about unlocking when traveling outside the country?