here’s how much that free iphone really costs

© Sean Hollister Prices for iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone Pro Max, as announced at the 2021 Apple Event.

With all the carriers dangling sweet, sweet trade-in and upgrade offers to essentially give you a “free” iPhone 13 (or two) this year, one can’t help but wonder: which one is the best deal? In this case, that would be the offer that costs you the least money but gets you the iPhone you want. Between all the convoluted conditions and confusing industry jargon, the carriers certainly don’t make it easy to compare different offers or make clear what you’re signing up for.

Carriers might be eager to sign up new customers for their bottom lines, but you need to look out for yours too. After all, is it better to opt for a cheaper unlimited plan that requires a 36-month commitment or get instant trade-in credits to pay a little less sales tax upfront? Should you look for deals that give you instant trade-in credits or get trade-in credits in the form of bill credits over the course of your agreement? It’s sometimes hard to understand all the details until you’ve already signed the contract. To save you the trouble, I took a closer look at the fine print of these deals and did some back-of-the-napkin calculations to find out.

here’s how much that free iphone really costs

© Sean Hollister Many of the carrier trade-in offers are so aggressive that you can get an iPhone 13 Pro for “free.”

In this case, I wanted to figure out which deal offers the best overall value over the long term. For example, what are my upfront and long-term costs in getting the newest iPhone for as low as free? For the sake of this exercise, I pretended to be a new customer in New York City, shopping for a single phone line, who wants to trade her iPhone 11 for an iPhone 13 or an iPhone 13 Pro,

Some important caveats about the numbers I’ll be referencing: they are by no means definitive and only serve to demonstrate how these deals work. For one thing, these carrier offers are time-sensitive and may already be different by the time you read this. The specifics of your carrier plan are influenced by many personal factors, like your credit history, your local tax rate, how many lines you need, and any special discounts that you’re eligible for (e.g., military/veteran). I can only present a relatively basic set of numbers that don’t reflect all the many possible variations in the universe, so take my numbers with a grain of salt.

After comparing similar offers from AT&T, T-Mobile / Sprint, Verizon, Apple.com, I’ve noticed a few tips that would help you shop for the best deal for you.

My key takeaways...

here’s how much that free iphone really costs

© Sean Hollister In some scenarios, it might make sense to pay for a device in full and instant trade-in credits, rather than rely on trade-in credits in the form of bill credits.

Look at the plans, not the free phone

Most of the trade-in credits are so high that they basically cover the cost of an iPhone 13 or iPhone 13 Pro — assuming your trade-in device is from the past two years and in good condition. So when you look at these deals, you should not get distracted by the allure of a free iPhone. Instead, focus on the cost of the plan after 24 to 36 months.

Contract Length Matters Most

The duration of the contract has the biggest impact on separating the best value deal from the bad. While AT&T offers the cheapest unlimited plan among its competition ($65/month), after 36 months (the required length you need to have service for to get the best offer), it ended up costing the most money ($2,445.30). Since most of its rivals’ plans are only 24 months long, I did the math on the AT&T plan at 24 months just so that I could compare apples to apples. It turns out the $65-per-month plan is the least expensive one after 24 months ($1,630.20) and is even cheaper than the special promotion between Apple and T-Mobile / Sprint ($1,713.60), which includes an extra $500 discount on the phone when you sign up for the $85 Magenta / Sprint Max plan. It’s worth gaming out the full cost of the plan for the duration of the contract before you sign on the line because this is where you’ll be spending the majority of your money.

Instant Trade-in Credits

If you can pay for the balance of your phone in full at the time of purchase and live near an eligible Apple store, you might want to take advantage of the instant trade-in credits that Apple offers. The beauty of the instant trade-in credit is that you get the value right at the time of purchase, which lowers the sales tax you pay at checkout — unlike the online trade-in process where your device has to be mailed to a third party to be evaluated before its actual value will be credited to your monthly bills in a few months.

The Trade-offs with Trade-ins

Although my hypothetical trade-in credit for the iPhone 11 (between $800 and $1,000) effectively renders my monthly device payments to $0, because I am required to be on a monthly device payment plan as part of any trade-in offer, I may not terminate my device plan earlier than 24 months. If I do, I would be responsible for paying for the balance of this “free” iPhone, lose the remaining value from my trade-in device, and (potentially) pay an early termination penalty. Now, if I paid for the device upfront (ideally with an instant trade-in credit), I could choose a plan that better reflects my actual data consumption.

Hidden Fees

In some cases, the carrier might require you to pay a down payment or an activation fee and offer you different contract lengths based on your credit history. While you won’t be paying for your iPhone directly when your trade-in credit kicks in, you still have to pay the sales tax on the full price of the phone — there is no bill credit to reimburse that cost.

Overall Winner: Verizon

Out of all the carrier offers, Verizon actually had the lowest overall costs with its 24-month payment plans, even though it doesn’t have the cheapest 5G plan or the shortest agreement length. At $2,077.36 for the iPhone 13 and $2,086.36 for the iPhone 13 Pro, these totals don’t even include the $500 gift card that Verizon is offering to customers who switch providers. The most expensive carrier offer, on the other hand, is from AT&T and its extra-long 36-month contract. Not only does it cost more of your hard-earned money, but your iPhone 13 will be so out-of-date after three years that you may want to pay to end your contract early.

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