The next time you go buy a new cellphone, things are going to look a lot different. The subsidized two-year contract is all but dead, and the carriers have replaced it with a new heap of confusing options. Here’s what you need to know about buying a phone in 2015.
You’d think buying a new phone would be easy. You can walk into a store and buy a phone or tablet. Why not a phone? Part of it’s our fault. We want the hottest new phone without paying a bunch up front. Carriers have met that need with a mound of increasingly complicated plans. While each carrier’s plans have their own unique quirks, broadly, they have some common ground. No matter which carrier you use, hHere are the basic types of plans you may find:
Subsidies: Up until recently, this was how you probably got a new phone. When you sign up with a new carrier or are due for an upgrade, you qualify for a subsidized phone. These phones are either free upfront, or sold at a steep discount. In exchange, you agree to stay with the carrier for two years or pay a hefty fee to leave. When your contract is up, you own the phone.
Financing: With this type of plan, you pay off the full retail price of a phone over time. Typically the cost of your phone is divided over 24 months. As long as you still owe money on your phone, you can’t leave your carrier. When you’ve paid the phone off, you own it. Unlike the subsidy model, this usually also means your monthly bill is cheaper once your phone is paid off.
Lease: A relatively new option, cell phone leasing plans add a monthly charge to borrow a phone from your carrier. Some carriers lease plans allow you to upgrade much more often than the usual two years. However, you won’t own any of the phones unless you pay a large fee to buy it out. If it breaks and you don’t have insurance, you’ll also be on the hook for the full price.
Early upgrade: Early upgrade plans tend to be the most convoluted options. These are kind of a halfway point between leasing and financing. They typically allow you to upgrade sooner than every two years. Unfortunately, the details of the contracts make them confusing. If a carrier is offering an early upgrade plan without calling it a lease, you need to take a hard look at the fine print.
Buying outright: Nearly every carrier will let you pay upfront for a phone, and you can always buy from someone else. This is always going to be your most expensive option upfront, but it also means you own your device. Your monthly service plan will usually cost less as well, since you’re not paying for hardware.
Not every carrier will offer every one of these options. Some may offer all of them, while others only have one or two. There is no one perfect plan for everyone. Some prefer to own all their devices, while others only care about having the latest and greatest, regardless of whether they get to keep their phones.
Of all the carriers, Verizon has some of the most simplified plans that are the most similar to the old model. Recently, Verizon decided to kill of all of its subsidized phone plans, as well as its complicated early upgrade plan, Verizon Edge. Now, you have two very simple options: either pay for your phone now and be free to leave Verizon any time, or pay for it over time and be locked to Verizon.
Option #1: Finance Your Phone With Monthly Payments
Verizon’s carrier financing is simply called “Device Payments.” It’s the only way to buy a phone short of paying full price up front. With Device Payments, you pay for your phone over the course of 24 months. This means that the monthly cost of a phone will always be its full retail price, divided by 24. For example, an individual line on Verizon with 3GB of data currently costs $65/month. If you wanted to add an iPhone 6, which costs $650, your monthly phone payment will be $27.08. Your total bill would be $92.08 until that phone is paid off, at which point your monthly bill for service will drop back down to $65 (until you get a new phone).
Verizon requires that you continue paying for service until your phone is paid off. That means if you want to leave at any point, you’ll have to pay off the rest of the phone. This is a bit more fair than the exorbitant ETF fees you’re probably used to, but the effect is still largely the same. If you want to leave early, it will cost you.
Unlike the other carriers below, you cannot pay extra towards the balance of your phone each month. You can choose to pay off your phone entirely at any time, but you can’t raise your monthly payments voluntarily to pay it off earlier.
Option #2: Buy Your Phone Outright
The only other option for getting a phone on Verizon is to buy it outright. While Verizon offers a selection of phones that are compatible with their network, you don’t have to buy directly from Verizon. However, if you decide to buy from a third-party, you’ll need to make sure your device is compatible with Verizon’s network first. Verizon is one of two US carriers that use CDMA networks, which means it may be slightly harder to find compatible phones. You can check out our guide to finding a compatible phone here.http://lifehacker.com/how-to-find-a-...
No matter which option you choose, you have to pay full price for a phone, and you own said phone. There are only two questions to ask. The first is, can you get a better deal on a phone elsewhere? You can often save money by purchasing a phone from a third party rather than Verizon itself. While there are exceptions (for example, Amazon’s iPhone 6 for Verizon is about $100 more expensive right now), third-party sellers typically have more motivation to give you a discount.
Secondly, will you be happy with Verizon’s service long term? Verizon’s financing doesn’t give you the option of making extra payments towards your device—for example, you can’t choose to pay $100 every month towards that iPhone 6 and be free to leave Verizon in 6 or 7 months—but it does make it easier to buy a new phone that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive. If you’re comfortable staying with Verizon long term, financing is a perfectly fine deal.
The bottom line: Verizon’s plans are easily the simplest of any carrier right now. T-Mobile is the closest second in terms of simplicity, but AT&T and Sprint require some complex math to figure out the best deal. If you want a solid major network without a silly upgrade rigamarole, Verizon’s a good choice.
AT&T hasn’t always had the most cost-effective plans. While the situation has improved, you still have to do a heck of a lot of legwork in order to determine what your best option for buying a phone is through AT&T. Here are your choices.
Option #1: Subsidize Your Phone the Old-Fashioned Way
The subsidized plan on AT&T is still much like the ones you’re likely used to. You get a phone for a steep discount in exchange for signing a two year contract. However, AT&T’s new plan also comes with a pretty big caveat: the cost for service on a subsidized plan is $25 higher per phone, no matter how much the phone costs—because all of their other plans come with a $25 “discount”. AT&T charges $40 per phone as an “access charge” when on a subsidized plan, but for AT&T Next, or a month-to-month plan, this charge is discounted to $15. Yes, it’s bloody confusing. This is important to keep in mind, though, as it affects how much of a “deal” AT&T’s other plans are.
Just remember that the subsidy is a contract, and if you want to leave early, you’ll have to pay an early termination fee, which varies depending on how long your contract has run.
Option #2: Finance Your Phone With AT&T Next
AT&T Next acts as both a financing option and an early upgrade option. This can be complicated, so we’ll break it down into a couple of use case scenarios. For this first scenario, let’s assume you want to finance a phone over a period of months. With AT&T Next, you have a choice in how long it will take to pay off your phone. You can’t get much shorter than two years, but there’s at least an option. Your three choices are:
AT&T Next 24: Pay off your phone over 30 months, or upgrade after 24.
AT&T Next 18: Pay off your phone over 24 months, or upgrade after 18.
AT&T Next 12: Pay off your phone over 20 months, or upgrade after 12.
Ignore the part about early upgrades for now—in this scenario, we’re merely discussing financing your phone for 30, 24, or 20 months. You’ll notice that the names of the plans refer to how long you have to wait for an early upgrade, not how long the contract itself is. The shortest financing contract length is Next 12, which will have your phone paid off in 20 months. You’ll still be locked to AT&T for a little over a year and a half (or until you buy out your phone), but this gives you a little wiggle room to shorten your commitment.
As mentioned in the last section, the major complication with AT&T Next is that you receive a discount on your service when you have a Next plan. That means, depending on the phone you choose, a subsidy may be the more cost-effective option. You’ll have to use math to figure out which is better. After a lot of research and calculations, we’ve come up with a simple trick to figure this out:
Divide the subsidized plan’s upfront cost of the phone by 24.
Add 25 to that number.
If the total is higher than the monthly payment on AT&T Next 18 for that phone, you should finance through AT&T Next. Otherwise, use the subsidy.
If AT&T Next is more cost effective, you can use whichever Next plan you want—it doesn’t have to be Next 18. We simply use Next 18 in the calculations to make a comparison between comparable plans.
Option #3: Use Your Early Upgrade Option With AT&T Next
With me so far? Let’s talk about the second scenario: you want to finance your phone for a number of months and upgrade to a new phone somewhere within that timeframe. After you’ve made a certain number of payments towards the phone you’ve purchased (specified above), AT&T allows you to trade it in and upgrade to a new phone. This will reset the counter, which means you’re not allowed to leave AT&T until you either wait out your new Next plan or pay the remaining cost of your phone.
You might also notice that you can only get an early upgrade with AT&T after you’ve paid off more than half of the device. In fact, the longer your Next plan, the more of your phone you’ve paid off, which means the longer the plan, the less worthwhile that early upgrade is. For example, if you bought a $600 phone with Next 24 you’ll have paid $480 before you can upgrade. Giving that phone right back to AT&T wouldn’t be a great idea if you can finish paying it off for $120 and sell it for $300-400.
If you want to upgrade early, shorter contracts are better. In that same example, using a Next 12 plan, you’ll only pay $360 towards that $600 phone before you trade it in. Keep in mind that this is almost always less cost efficient than simply selling your old phones. However, if you know that you won’t, you’ll at least save money by going with a shorter contract length.
Option #4: Buy Your Phone Outright
Buying outright is an attractive option for AT&T if for no other reason than it’s not complicated. Phones have price tags, you give the cashier money, and you’re done. Whether you buy a phone directly from AT&T or bring your own, you’ll still get the $25 discount on service, so your monthly bill will be lower. You’ll also be free to switch carriers or upgrade whenever you have the money to do so.
Finding a phone that works with AT&T is also much easier than it is on Verizon or Sprint. AT&T uses a GSM network for everything, and GSM is overwhelmingly more popular worldwide than CDMA, so as long as the phone you buy supports the correct radio bands, you can choose nearly any store, manufacturer, or phone model and find a device that will work on your network. You can also use WillMyPhoneWork to find out if you’re not sure.http://lifehacker.com/willmyphonewor...
If you want to own your phone, your choices right now are subsidies or AT&T Next. Which one is cheaper depends on the phone you choose, and you can use the steps we detailed in Option #2 to figure out which is which. The early upgrade options complicate things, but if you’re the type who sells your old phones (and we really advise it), AT&T Next will almost surely not be worth your time.
Next’s early upgrades can be a good option for some people, provided you have good credit, don’t mind waiting for upgrades, and never plan on selling or keeping your old phones. Selling your old phones is always a good idea financially, but it is a bit of a hassle—so if you know you won’t do it, and have no plans to repurpose your old devices, the early upgrade plan could be worthwhile.
The elephant in the room, though, is that AT&T is one of only two carriers that still has subsidies, and the only one that hasn’t given them an expiration date. Next may be your only option before long. Hopefully they’ll make Next less confusing before that happens.
The bottom line: AT&T’s plans are a confusing mess right now. Easily the most confusing of any carrier we’ve looked at. We’ve simplified it as much as possible, but it took a lot of time and math to figure out. AT&T’s weird approach to “discounting” your plan, instead of simply adding a charge for your phone, makes things unnecessary complicated. You can find some decent plans with AT&T, but don’t go shopping without a calculator.http://lifehacker.com/where-should-i...
If you’re looking for who to blame (or thank) for the changes to carrier contracts, it’s T-Mobile. The carrier started the trend back in 2013 by ditching subsidies altogether. Now, the primary way of buying a phone through T-Mobile is financing, but they also have some options for upgrading early if you don’t want to wait.
Option #1: Finance Your Phone With Monthly Payments
Much like Verizon, when you want a new phone on T-Mobile, you’ll pay for the full price of the phone divided across 24 months. They refer to this as their Equipment Installment Plan (EIP). You may have to pay a down payment, depending on your credit and the cost of the handset. If you do, the down payment will go towards the full price of the phone, reducing your monthly payments.
Unlike Verizon, however, you can pay extra each month to pay it off sooner, if you so choose. You can also make a larger down payment up front, or you can make optional payments towards your EIP on top of your monthly bill. You can’t just overpay your regular bill, though. You’ll have to log in to your T-Mobile account, navigate to the EIP section and make a separate, specific payment to your device payment plan. This will lower your overall EIP balance and thus reduce your next overall monthly payments to T-Mobile. Once your device is paid off, the EIP charge goes away and you just continue paying for service.
You can also finance multiple devices on the same line of credit. When you’re first approved for an EIP, you’ll get a spending limit. You can add as many devices to this plan as you want, as long as you don’t go over that spending limit. So if you want to finance a phone, a tablet, and a watch all on the same line, or if you want to upgrade to a new phone after a year, you can do so within that limit. T-Mobile won’t make you pay the full price of any previous devices when adding a new one. However, if you want to sell your old devices, you will have to pay that particular device off in full before they can be transferred to another person’s account or a different carrier.
Option #2: Get An Early Upgrade (and Phone Insurance) With Jump!
T-Mobile’s first early upgrade plan is called Jump! It costs $10 a month to add this service to your account, which means it’s the only early upgrade plan among the major carriers with an admission fee. However, that also includes device insurance. Normally, T-Mobile’s insurance costs $8 per month, so if you were planning to insure your phone anyway, you’re only spending $24 extra each year. If you were not planning to get insurance, however, it’s an extra $120 per year.
Once you’re signed up for the plan, you’ll make monthly payments towards your device like normal. Much like with the financing option, you can pay extra towards your balance if you want to upgrade earlier. Once you’ve paid off more than half of the phone’s cost, you can trade in your old device for a new one.
Whether or not this plan is worth it depends largely on whether or not you want to keep your old phones or sell them. For example, let’s say you start with a $600 phone and pay off $300. For another $300, you could own the phone. If you then sold it for more than $300, you’d save money versus trading it in. Keeping in mind, of course, that you’ll also have paid an extra $10 a month for this privilege.
If you’re willing to put in the effort to sell your old phones, trading in phones via Jump! is probably not going to be the most frugal option. However, you’ll also always have the option of buying out your phone entirely, so you don’t have to trade it in. Given that Jump! also doubles as device insurance, you’ll only pay a small premium to give yourself the option of trading in your phone (again, assuming you would have paid for insurance anyway, which isn’t always necessary). This can be handy if you end up with a phone that doesn’t retain it’s value well over the long term.http://lifehacker.com/5369321/create...
Option #3: Lease Certain Newer Phones With Jump! On Demand
T-Mobile’s newest plan is technically a lease. Under this plan, you can upgrade much more frequently than any other plan from the other carriers: up to three times a year. You make your monthly payments on the phone as normal, but at absolutely any point, you can walk into a T-Mobile store, hand in your old phone and get a new one. Of course, since this is a lease, there are a few caveats.
First, you won’t actually own the device unless you buy it out. After 18 months of the normal payments (the cost of the device, divided by 24 months), you can either return your phone and walk away, or pay the remaining balance (6 months worth) to own it. If you decide to upgrade at any point during this 18 month period, the clock starts over.
Also, this only applies to certain phones. According to T-Mobile’s website, at the time of this writing, the only phones you can upgrade to using this lease program are as follows:
iPhone 6 Plus
Galaxy S 6
Galaxy S 6 Edge
Galaxy Note 4
While those are some nice phones, it’s certainly not a wide selection. The carrier can and likely will add more devices to this lineup, but it still may be hard to find three phones per year you would even want to upgrade to. Particularly if you’re an iPhone user, since Apple only comes out with a new line of phones once per year.
The major downside is that you’re basically throwing away money on the phones you trade in. If you want to use a Note 4 for six months, it will cost roughly $30 per month, for a total of $180. When you trade that phone in, that money’s gone. You have nothing to sell and you’ll start your payments on a new phone all over again. If you’d otherwise resell or reuse your old phones, you’ll be wasting money every time you trade it in.
That said, there are still some advantages here. For starters, you can walk away from T-Mobile at absolutely any time. Unlike most carrier’s plans, you’re not required to pay off your phone or fork over a huge fee just to leave. You’ll have to turn in your old phone, but you’re not forced to come up with a huge amount of money on the spot just to switch carriers.
Additionally, some people simply may not want to sell their old phones. While buying outright and reselling your devices is a cost-efficient way to stay up to date, it’s also a huge hassle. Your old phones may not sell for much, you have to deal with online stores or selling to friends, and it’s probably best that you keep all the original packaging. If you know you’re not going to do all of that, then you’re not getting value out of your old phones anyway. This lease program can at least keep you up to date, while putting your old phones to better use.
Option #4: Buy Your Phone Outright
Yep, this is still an option. Like AT&T, T-Mobile has a GSM network which means it’s easier to find a compatible phone. Additionally, T-Mobile’s service plans are going to cost the same no matter how you buy your phone. Whether you drop $500 for a phone on Amazon, or pay $20.83 every month for two years to T-Mobile, your cell service has a simple monthly cost so you never get confused.
With rare exception, T-Mobile’s plans are simple. You just have to pay for your phone. Financing is a straightforward way to do that. Jump! is almost exactly the same as financing, except you pay a premium to give yourself the option of trading it in. Jump! is ideal for anyone who was going to buy phone insurance anyway, particularly if you’re going to buy a phone that might not retain its value long-term. If you decide it’s not worth it to upgrade early and trade in your old handset, you don’t have to. Just keep paying your monthly installments until your phone is paid off, then keep it. You’ll pay a little bit more than you would if you just bought device insurance, but it’s a small enough amount of money to be up to your discretion.
Jump! On Demand is geared towards rapid upgraders who also won’t sell or use their old phones. However, the limit on which handsets actually qualify for the plan makes it less attractive. In fairness, the program has only been around for a month, and T-Mobile has added one new phone to the list since then, but it’s not a wonderland of phone hopping forever. Unless you’re hopelessly devoted to Apple or high end Samsung phones, it’s probably best to wait on this plan right now.
The bottom line: T-Mobile’s plans are a little confusing, but generally fair. In nearly every situation, you have the option to buy your phone outright if you decide you want to keep it, without paying extra fees. Only Verizon’s plans are simpler, but that’s also because they don’t have any early upgrade options at all. AT&T and Sprint’s plans are considerably more complicated and make it much harder to find a decent deal.
Currently, Sprint offers a variety of options for getting a new phone. However, the carrier has announced that it plans to phase out most of its options in favor of leases by the end of this year. We’ll cover all of the options that are available now, but keep in mind that some of these will be gone before long.
Option #1: Lease Your Phone Over Two Years
Sprint’s lease option is soon to be the default, so we’ll start there. You can lease a phone from Sprint by paying a certain amount per month for 24 months. It’s unclear exactly how Sprint determines the monthly lease price, but it’s less than the formula other carriers use (total device cost divided by 24). We’ll come back to that in a moment. At the end of your two year lease, you have three options:
Turn in your old phone and upgrade: As long as your old phone is in good, working condition, you can turn it in and start a brand new lease.
Pay off the phone and own it: You can exercise the Purchase Option to buy out the phone and keep it. This is typically between $150-200, though it’s unclear if this amount is directly tied to the price of the phone.
Continue paying a month-to-month lease: If you can’t decide on a phone to upgrade to, and you don’t want to buy it out, you can continue paying monthly lease payments. It’s unclear if these will count towards your Purchase Option payment if you decided to exercise that later.
With the exception of special promotions like the iPhone Forever plan, Sprint’s lease program doesn’t actually seem to be much better than existing (but terminal) two-year subsidized contracts. You’re still locked to the same phone on the same carrier for two years. However, at the end of the term, you have to spend more money to own your phone.
The one area you do save is upfront payments. Subsidized plans often require you to pay an amount upfront to qualify for the subsidy. Instead, you pay that cost (often up to $200) at the end of the program, if you want to keep your phone.
Additionally, Sprint’s lease programs currently aren’t available for all phones. As we said earlier, Sprint plans to switch entirely to leases by the end of the year, but until then many cheaper phones don’t even qualify for leases. The only way to get them is either through financing or a two-year contract.
Option #2: Finance Your Phone With Monthly Payments
Sprint’s financing plan is called Easy Pay. Just like T-Mobile and Verizon, Sprint’s financing plan will charge you a set amount every month on top of your base service plan cost. In most cases, this is pretty straightforward. In most cases, the monthly charge is equal to the total cost of the phone divided by 24 months, though there are exceptions. However, Sprint still has subsidies (for now), so how much you’ll pay for a phone can get complicated.
As an example, Sprint is currently selling the HTC One M9 for $27/month under Easy Pay. Over the course of two years, you’ll pay $648 for the phone (which you’ll then own). This is the same price you’ll pay if you buy the phone outright today. Whether you buy it outright or use Easy Pay, you’ll also pay $60 per month for phone service.
However, Sprint also offers this phone on a subsidy. Under the normal two-year contract plan, your total monthly price will be $85/month, no matter which phone you get. This is $25 more than the basic phone service you’d pay if you bought your phone or used Easy Pay. In effect, you’re paying $25 per month for the phone itself. That’s slightly cheaper than Easy Pay, right? However, the M9 also requires a $99 down payment. With this payment, plus the extra $25 per month over two years, you’ll end up paying $700 for the same phone over two years. It’s also unclear if your monthly payment would be reduced at the end of those two years under the regular subsidized plan. Presumably, you would be able to get the off-contract plan price if you ask, but it’s not clear if that price adjustment will happen automatically.
In some cases, the variance between an Easy Pay plan and the typical subsidized plan can be quite dramatic. The Galaxy S 5, for example, would cost only $15/month under Easy Pay, resulting in a total cost of $360 over two years. Meanwhile, the subsidized plan requires a $50 down payment and the standard $85 per month subsidized plan price, which means you’ll end up paying an insane $650 for the same phone over two years. Even buying the phone outright from Sprint only costs $552. Not all phones from Sprint have this wild discrepancy. Flagships in particular seemed to at least have agreement between the overall financing price and the full purchase price. However, it’s still something to watch out for during the few months that these options remain available.
Option #3: Get a Subsidized Phone (While You Still Can)
Sprint’s two-year contracts are still available for a while longer. Functionally, they’re not much different from Sprint’s financing plans, though their price is standard. On an individual plan, service normally costs $60 per month. With a subsidized phone on a two-year contract, that monthly price is $85. No matter what phone you get on this contract, you’ll essentially be paying $25 per month extra for that phone.
As we discussed in the last section, choosing the “best” plan depends on which phone you get. Just like we did with AT&T, here’s a way to simplify the math:
Divide the subsidized plan’s upfront cost of the phone by 24.
Add 25 to that number.
If the total is higher than the Easy Pay monthly payment on the financing plan, choose Easy Pay. Otherwise, use the subsidy.
For some reason, only some of the phones listed on Sprint’s website have consistent pricing. As mentioned previously, the older Galaxy S 5 had wildly different prices just for financing vs. buying outright. So, be sure to check your math for every phone just to make sure.
Option #4: Buy Your Phone Outright
As long as Sprint’s financing plans still exist, buying outright can occasionally be a poor choice. As mentioned under Option #2, there are some cases on Sprint where financing a phone over 24 months will actually cost less than the full sticker price of the phone. In those semi-rare cases, it’s more financially prudent to go with financing.
Of course, you won’t be able to leave Sprint until your financing agreement is paid off. However, if you want to get the lower price while maintaining that freedom, you can cancel your financing contract early. Just like with the other carriers, when you cancel, you’re required to pay the remaining balance on your phone. If the total of your monthly payments is lower than the full retail price, this can be an even cheaper (if more convoluted) way to buy your phone outright. Just be sure to take any activation fees into account, as well.
Regardless of how you like to buy your phones, the sooner you’re able to get on a given plan with Sprint right now, the better. Financing and subsidized plans are going away, which means soon the only way to keep your phone at the end of your two years will be to pay $100-200 to buy it outright. Which, to be fair, isn’t much different from paying from $100-200 when you first sign up, but it’s also a lot harder to stomach shelling out so much cash for a two-year old phone.
Subsidized phone plans still aren’t ideal, and financing locks you in until you pay off your device. However, with the way Sprint has priced its devices, certain phones cost less depending on which option you choose. Check the math for each device and see if you can get a deal over the long term. If you’re not willing to stick with Sprint for at least two years, though, it’s probably best to avoid all three long-term options and just buy outright.
The bottom line: Sprint’s plans are less confusing than AT&T’s in terms of how they’re structured, but their inconsistent pricing means you still have to do just as much math. Also, some of Sprint’s best options are about to disappear by the end of the year, so if you really want a favorable deal with Sprint, upgrade as soon as you can.
Don’t Forget the Other Carriers, Either
This is a basic rundown for each of the four big US carriers, but they aren’t the only carriers. Remember: if you’re looking to save money, off-contract carriers often have much cheaper service prices, as long as you’re willing to make a tradeoff or two (like limited data plans or less roaming). You’ll have to buy your phone outright every time, and there are no early upgrade plans or leases, but you can often save money in the long run compared to the big four. When you do your math, be sure to research other carriers and run them through Prepaid Finder to see if they’re a better deal altogether.http://lifehacker.com/i-finally-swit...