Before You Choose an iPhone, Be Sure to Unlock All the Details

When the iPhone first went on sale in 2007, the toughest choice you had to make was what kind of case to buy.

So much has changed in the past 10 years (almost), from storage size, to types of contracts, to color, to shiny or matte finish, and now most recently locked or unlocked. In the beginning, your only choice was to buy from AT&T and you got an iPhone locked for use only on the AT&T network. Then when AT&T’s exclusivity period ran out other carriers joined the fun, still offering phones locked to their respective networks.

Now things are changing on the locked front too. Depending on where you buy the phone and how you choose to pay for it, you can walk out with an unlocked phone ready for use on any U.S. network.

But of course it’s not really that easy. Each carrier is different in terms of how it approaches unlocking. Verizon, for example, specifically states on its website that it doesn’t lock its devices while other carriers like AT&T have a multi-step process that you need to complete to unlock them.

If this seems like a lot of extra work (and in many ways it is), the best way to purchase an iPhone these days, in my opinion, is directly from Apple, which will sell you an unlocked phone ready for use on your choice of networks — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint. So technically you can go back and forth, although it’s been my experience over the past almost 10 years that people tend to stick with the carrier they have, at least until they switch phones. A lot of this can be contributed to 2-year carrier contracts, creating a necessity to stick to one carrier in order to avoid early termination fees. However, the world is now moving away from those types of contracts and more toward installment plans. So there’s more freedom than ever. Personally, I’ve been with AT&T since 2007 and don’t plan to switch, although I never like to say never. It is good to know that there are options, though. (For more information on Apple’s trade program, which I really like, click here)

Here’s a question: How much do you really understand about unlocking? I appreciate this excellent definition in the fine print on Verizon’s website, because I think many of us are guilty of believing it means more than it really does.

 “PLEASE NOTE: Carriers typically use different frequencies and air interface technologies to provide wireless network access. Accordingly, a device that works on one carrier’s network may not be technologically compatible with another carrier’s network. “Unlocking” a device refers only to disabling software that would prevent a consumer from attempting to activate a device designed for one carrier’s network on another carrier’s network, even if that network is technologically compatible. In other words, “unlocking” a device will not necessarily make a device interoperable with other networks – a device designed for one network is not made technologically compatible with another network merely by “unlocking” it. Additionally, unlocking a device may enable some functionality of the device but not all (e.g., an unlocked device may support voice services but not data services when activated on a different network.)”

That’s seriously helpful, Verizon, because for most of us an unlocked device is most useful if we know we’re going to have it for a long time and therefore could eventually need it to work on multiple networks. But because so many of us trading in and trading up, unlocking seems cooler than it is. But there’s also the principle of not having a device that’s limited in any way, especially one that doesn’t come cheap.

Another important thing to note: If you have an older phone from a carrier or one where you’ve fulfilled your contract, you might be entitled to a free unlock right now. Contact your carrier and confirm that you have a device that’s paid in full and no longer tied to a contract and they should comply.

So which phone should you buy for the best trade-in value? While it’s fair to say that an unlocked phone should have a better resale value, that is going to ultimately depend on how you choose to resell it. Apple, for example, has a trade-in program that you can take advantage of either in store or via mail. There’s a general price list that is determined by the model you are trading in. In general, a more expensive model should carry the highest resale value, but more might depend on the amount of storage in the phone than the ability to roam between networks. It seems that there’s a new site popping up every day that’ll pay you money for your used iPhone, but do your research before making a decision so you get the best deal.

You can call me lazy, but my idea of a good trade in experience is one that’s quick and easy, even if that means shaving a few dollars off the price. I have friends who have gone to 10 different websites looking for an extra $10 here or $20 there. But by the time you’re done with the work that goes into comparison shopping you really aren’t saving much. To me, it’s the same as driving 20 miles out of the way to save a nickel on a gallon of gas. How much did you really save by doing that?

So I would approach your next iPhone this way: be aware that an unlocked phone is likely to be more appealing to more people, but remember that you are the person who will be using the phone for the next year or two or more. So don’t buy for them, buy for you. And at the end of the day, I’d say that buying from Apple — either online or in person — is going to be the easiest way to get it all done in one place with the most knowledgeable people. But since that idea is far from original and everyone else will be doing it too, know that your mileage may vary in terms of availability. There are all kinds of reports that the new jet black iPhone ship date has slipped to November at apple.com but it may be available much sooner through a carrier or some random retail store on the day it goes on sale. Only you can decide how to proceed — wait for convenience or go a different route and take your chances.

Soon, we’ll all be pros at upgrading and unlocking. Then we can turn our attention to what color Apple Car we want. Jet black for me, please.

What are your iPhone 7 Plans? Are you going to trade up or switch carriers, why?

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