FAQ: Does Apple Make Different iPhone Models for Different North American Carriers?

Does Apple Make Different iPhone Models for Different North American Carriers? Credit: NYC Russ / Shutterstock
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If you regularly shop around between carriers for the best deals it’s important to know whether you can take your current iPhone with you, since having to purchase a new one just because you want to move between AT&T, Verizon, and/or T-Mobile could definitely dissuade you from making a switch.

We hear this question fairly often, and to be fair the issue has some historical roots, since carriers often use different cellular frequency bands.

Further, once upon a time Verizon and Sprint both used completely different CDMA cellular technology on their networks, requiring a completely different iPhone model for Verizon users.

In fact, the original iPhone 4 released in the fall of 2010 wasn’t compatible with Verizon’s network at all, requiring Apple to release a special version of the iPhone 4 in early 2011 to accommodate Verizon customers who wanted to get their hands on Apple’s newest smartphone.

Although this continued to be a slight problem over the next few years, the good news is that with today’s iPhone 12 models, it’s pretty much a non-issue.

While Apple actually does make four versions of each of its iPhone 12 models, every iPhone 12 sold in the United States is fully compatible with all the major U.S. carriers.

The Death of 3G

In reality, the old distinction between the CDMA network used by Verizon and Sprint and the GSM networks used by AT&T and T-Mobile no longer exists.

Prompted largely by the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and all the lucrative roaming fees that foreign athletes would bring to their networks, the two biggest CDMA carriers in Canada, Bell and Telus, actually transitioned to GSM years ago, and as a bonus gained limited support for the early iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS models in the process (Bell and Telus never upgraded their older “2G” technology to GSM, so customers straying out of 3G coverage would end up with no service at all, rather than the slower EDGE speeds offered by other carriers).

On the other hand, Verizon and Sprint stubbornly stuck with CDMA, forcing Apple to produce separate CDMA iPhone models for those carriers, creating a rather odd situation in the U.S. iPhone market.

As 4G LTE emerged, however, this whole discrepancy started to become moot, since the new faster cellular technology was a universal standard, the only variations became which frequency bands each carrier would choose to operate its network on.

That said, in areas where LTE service wasn’t available, it was still necessary to fall back to the older technology, which meant AT&T and T-Mobile users landed on those companies’ 3G EVDO GSM networks, while Verizon and Sprint customers would fall back to CDMA.

In practical terms, this meant that if you tried to use a Sprint phone on AT&T’s network, you’d be fine as long as you stayed within LTE coverage, but you’d be left with no service at all if you happened to stray too far from a 4G tower, as there’d be no CDMA network available for you to fall back on.

Now that we’re moving onto 5G, however, 4G LTE service is pretty much ubiquitous, so not only should the cases where you don’t have LTE coverage be rare, but all the major U.S. carriers have begun turning off their old “3G” networks.

In fact, Verizon’s CDMA network is all but gone entirely — the company announced back in 2018 that it would be killing the older network by 2020, and while that’s been postponed indefinitely at this point, it exists solely for those users who are still stuck on ancient smartphones, as Verizon hasn’t allowed any new activations of 3G CDMA phones on its network since 2018, and hasn’t even offered prepaid CDMA service since 2019.

Meanwhile, AT&T has announced plans to kill off its legacy 3G GSM network by early next year, and T-Mobile is expected to make a similar move even sooner.

In other words, by the end of next year, there will be no distinction between CDMA and GSM phones simply because those networks will no longer exist. 4G LTE and Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) will become the minimum standards for every iPhone, and we wouldn’t be surprised if upcoming iPhone models similarly drop support for these older technologies entirely.

What About Cross-Border Shopping?

Although all the iPhone 12 models sold in the U.S. are identical in terms of radio frequency and carrier support, they’re actually unique among the rest of the worldwide iPhone 12 lineup.

Specifically, only iPhone 12 models sold in the U.S. support the ultra-fast mmWave technology. This means that if you want to take advantage of the fastest possible speeds on carriers like Verizon or AT&T, you’ll need to purchase your iPhone 12 in the U.S.

Of course, this only applies right now if you’re fortunate enough to live in one of the major urban centres that are covered by mmWave 5G technology. Otherwise, you’re only getting sub-5GHz speeds anyway,

The interesting wrinkle here is that any iPhone 12 model sold for use in Canada, Guam, Japan, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands is compatible with all the same 4G LTE and sub-6GHz 5G frequencies.

In fact, all the sub-6GHz 5G bands are identical between these iPhone 12 models, and in the case of the 4G LTE frequencies, the Canadian/Japanese models actually support two additional bands that the U.S. versions don’t, since those 1,500MHz frequencies simply aren’t used by any U.S. carriers.

This means that if you purchase an iPhone 12 in Canada, Puerto Rico, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, you’ll have no compatibility problems with any U.S. carrier on 4G LTE or sub-6GHz networks; you just won’t be able to use the faster mmWave 5G service.

Further, due to the need for mmWave support in the U.S., the iPhone 12 actually marks the first time in several years that a different model has been sold in Canada and the U.S. territories, so if you’re looking at an iPhone 11 or iPhone XR, or the 2020 iPhone SE, the models sold in Canada and all U.S. states and territories are completely identical other than region-specific packaging differences.

What About iPhones from Other Countries?

Apple does sell two more variations of the iPhone 12 for use outside of North America — one specifically for China, and one for pretty much every other country. You’ll definitely want to be warier about purchasing either of these versions, since although there is a fair bit of overlap, there are frequency bands that will be missing for U.S. users, and you could therefore run into compatibility problems.

For example, the “global” iPhone 12 models don’t support band n71 — the 600MHz frequencies used by T-Mobile’s Nationwide 5G network. This means that if you purchase an iPhone 12 in Europe, you won’t get 5G service on T-Mobile unless you happen to be in the range of one of its mid-band coverage areas.

There are also a handful of North American 4G LTE bands that are missing from the global models, which means that you’ll be rolling the device as to how well these will work on various U.S. carriers, particularly since most use multiple bands, so you might find that you get good coverage in some areas and little or no coverage in others.

So, although you’re perfectly safe buying any current iPhone model from anywhere in North America or Japan (as long as you don’t care about mmWave 5G speeds), we’d definitely recommend staying away from the models otherwise sold outside of North America unless you are absolutely certain you know what you’re getting yourself into.

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