Understanding the fine print on Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon examines where and how phones bought through Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program can be used.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

For savvy wireless shoppers, Apple's new iPhone Upgrade Program offers the freedom to shop for the best deal on wireless service. But before you make any commitments, let me take you through the details.

Two weeks ago, Apple announced that it will sell unlocked iPhones through a new monthly installment plan. The plan lets customers upgrade to a new iPhone each year by simply turning in their old devices for new ones, similar to what T-Mobile and Sprint offer, but without tying themselves to a single carrier.

For consumers who have dreamed of a day when they could buy one iPhone and take it to any wireless operator in the US, the plan sounds brilliant. It finally allows American wireless consumers to shop for the highest-quality and lowest-priced network in their area without the hassle of switching phones.

But the plan poses a few questions. Will the program let you choose a prepaid or regional operator? What about older wireless plans? Will you have to give up perks like unlimited data? Will special features like Wi-Fi calling still work with devices offered on these plans?

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At its event to unveil the latest iPhones, Apple introduced its new iPhone Upgrade Program that allows customers to pay for a new iPhone in monthly installments and upgrade to a new device every year. CNET/James Martin

Last week, my Ask Maggie column helped customers figure out how Apple's new program stacked up to similar plans from the major carriers. In this edition, I delve deeper into where and how iPhones bought through Apple's program can actually be used.

Here's a look at the most frequently asked questions I received over the past week regarding this program.

Can I activate a new iPhone 6S or 6S Plus on a service from a prepaid carrier or from a regional operator, like C Spire, if I buy it through the Apple iPhone Upgrade Program?

No. An Apple spokesman confirmed that the program requires that customers sign up for one of the four major wireless carriers when they purchase one of the new iPhones. The phone must be activated, at least initially, on AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint while you are in the store.

After you sign up for service and leave the store, you can cancel your service and sign up with a prepaid or regional carrier, as long as the iPhone works on its network. Since most prepaid services in the US lease capacity from one of the four major wireless companies, you should be fine. Many regional operators support the same radio frequencies and 4G LTE bands as the major operators, so the phone should also work there.

What about prepaid brands owned by the large carriers?

Three of the nation's largest wireless providers operate separate prepaid brands. AT&T owns the Leap/Cricket brand; T-Mobile owns MetroPCS; and Sprint owns Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. Unfortunately, you will not be able to get service for one of these brands when you initially sign up for the iPhone Upgrade Program. As mentioned above, you must activate the phone on a major carrier, after which you can cancel your month-to-month service and then sign up with one of these prepaid brands.

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Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, shows off iPhone colors at the unveiling of the 6S and 6S Plus. © Xinhua/Xinhua Press/Corbis

I'm confused. I thought these phones were unlocked. Why am I limited to Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon?

The phone is unlocked, which means it's free from software that only allows the device to be used on a specific carrier's network.

You're free to switch once you leave the store. Apple will not restrict you from hopping around, and there is no minimum amount of time that you must keep service on a particular carrier. But depending on which carrier you sign up with, you may be required to pay for a full month of service.

Will I be able to use this iPhone overseas on a foreign network?

Yes. After you activate it on one of the four major carrier networks, you can hop on a plane, pop in a SIM card from a foreign carrier, and get service.

I'm still on Verizon's unlimited data plan. Will I be able to keep my plan if I buy my next iPhone via the Apple Upgrade Program?

Yes. A Verizon spokesman confirmed that to keep the unlimited data plan, customers can either bring their own device to the service or purchase a device at full price from Verizon. Using the Apple iPhone Upgrade Program would fall under the category of bringing your own device to Verizon. This is good news for customers who have been holding onto Verizon's older unlimited data plan, which otherwise is no longer available. Now these customers have a way to finance the cost of a new device and participate in an early-upgrade program.

I'm a T-Mobile customer. Will iPhones sold under the Apple iPhone Upgrade Program support Wi-Fi calling?

A T-Mobile representative confirmed that the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus will support Wi-Fi calling on T-Mobile's network, even when purchased through Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program. Wi-Fi calling allows phone calls to be transmitted over a Wi-Fi network instead of T-Mobile's cellular network, which offers clearer calls when indoor cellular signals are weak. Wi-Fi calling is supported on all iPhone models past the iPhone 5C, according to T-Mobile.

The bottom line:

The Apple iPhone Upgrade Program offers consumers more flexibility in choosing a carrier. But there are a few catches, including the requirement to activate the new iPhone at a store. The good news is that consumers aren't stuck with their first choice -- you're free to choose a prepaid carrier, regional operator or even a wireless provider in a different country as soon as you walk out of the door. Verizon customers with grandfathered unlimited data plans have extra reason to sign up for the program.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.