Upgrading to the iPhone 6s: How to Get the Best Deal on Your New iPhone Plan

In the past, all the major carriers offered new iPhones for $199 as long as you signed a two-year contract with them. But starting two years ago with T-Mobile and ending most recently with Sprint, all the major carriers have moved away from subsidizing phones. In fact, AT&T is the only one left still offering a two-year contract option. Instead, the carriers now structure their plans around data.  

This is more of a technicality at this point, however. While you can pay the full price for your phones upfront, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon will also let you lease or pay for the phone in monthly installments, which isn’t included in the price of the plan. But without a contract, you’re no longer locked in for two years.

Often the price from the major carriers under the new offerings works out to about the same amount of money over two years compared to the previous contract model. The big savings with the new, no-contract plans would come after two years, when one is no longer paying off one's phone. But most people don't keep their phones more than two years. Currently, if one is looking to save money, carriers other than the four major ones may be the best value, depending on how much you use your phone and how much data you need.

We'll first take a look at the major carriers, and then some lower-cost options. And we'll also consider factors to take into account when choosing  a plan.

Verizon

Individual

Verizon’s new plan structure comes in four sizes, all with unlimited talk and text: $30 for 1 GB of data, $45 for 3 GB, $60 for 6 GB, and $80 for 12 GB. You’ll also pay $20 per month for your smartphone access fee or $10 to connect a tablet. If you’re already under contract with Verizon, you will have the option to keep your current plan if you choose.

While Verizon has dropped subsidies, you can pay for an iPhone in installments if you want to. If you cancel your plan or upgrade to a newer model, you must pay for the rest of your phone if you’re on a payment plan. 

Family

You can share your data across as many devices as you like. You’ll just have to pay an additional $20 per month for each smartphone you add.

Sprint

Individual

Sprint has jumped on the no-contract bandwagon as well with its iPhone Forever leasing program, which lets you lease an iPhone starting at $22 a month. Customers can upgrade to the latest iPhone each year as soon as it is available without any extra cost. Add $60 per month for unlimited data and you’re sitting at $82 per month for the latest phones and unlimited data.

Family

Sprint offers four lines with unlimited talk and text and sharing 10 GB of data for $100

T-Mobile 

Individual

With T-Mobile, options range from $50 for unlimited talk and text and 1 GB of data up to $80 for unlimited data. T-Mobile is unique in that all its plans cover not only the U.S. but Mexico and Canada as well, and that music streaming doesn’t count against your data allowance.

T-Mobile doesn’t subsidize its phones, meaning you have to pay the full retail price or finance your phone for $20–$30 extra per month.

T-Mobile’s Jump plan lets you trade in your old phone and lease a new one up to three times a year for $15 per month.

Family

For family plans, T-Mobile lets you choose how much data you want to pay for each line individually. A plan for four family members using 1 GB each costs $100.

AT&T 

Individual

AT&T still lets you get a subsidized iPhone by signing a two-year contract, but that option is now available only from an AT&T store. However, AT&T is really pushing its new AT&T Next, which has you pay for your phone either up front or via no-interest monthly payments that are added to your bill.

There are four versions of AT&T Next, each dividing into a different number of monthly installments, and each allowing you to upgrade after a different number of installments. Next 12 has 20 installments and lets you trade in for an upgrade after 12 installments; Next 18 is 24 installments, with trade-in after 18 installments; and Next 24 is 30 installments, with an upgrade after 24 installments.

In addition, AT&T Next with Down Payment has you pay 30 percent up front and is divided into 28 installments, with an upgrade available after 12 installments. However, you'd probably do better by paying off the phone and then selling it to a service like Gazelle rather than trading it in for a new phone after you've paid the required number of installments.

With AT&T Next, the monthly smartphone access fee is $25 for individual, whereas it’s $40 with a contract. Adding 2 GB per month for $30 would bring the monthly fee to $55.

Family

AT&T’s latest deal lets you share 15 GB between as many as 10 devices for $100, with a $15 access charge.

Finding Low-Cost Alternative Carriers

If you're a light user, or if you're often connected to a Wi-Fi network such that you don't need a large amount of data, then definitely consider carriers other than Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. A good way to find these alternatives is to use the WhistleOut search engine. It calculates your cost over a two-year period, factoring in all up-front and monthly costs except for taxes. This two-year cost then serves as a basis for comparison across all the different options. The cost for major carriers is generally over $2,000 over a two-year period. But alternative carriers can be many hundreds of dollars lower than that.

A search on a 16 GB iPhone 6, for example, produces 193 different plans at time of writing.

The lowest-cost service had been from Virgin Mobile, at $1,029 over 24 months. It has apparently been discontinued since I began writing this article. The current lowest-cost service is H2O's plan, at $1,247 over two years. You pay $599 up front for a refurbished phone and $30/month for unlimited talk and text along with 500 MB of data. H2O uses AT&T's network.

If that amount of data is too limited for you, another low-cost choice is BoostMobile, which comes in at $1,269 over two years. It uses the Sprint network. You pay $549 up front for your iPhone and then $30/month for unlimited talk and text and 2 GB of full-speed data (after which you get unlimited 2G data).

If you're not able to pay for an iPhone up front and would prefer installments, then a good option may be T-Mobile's Simple Choice plan, which comes in at $1,485 over 24 months. The plan comes with unlimited talk and text and 1GB of full-speed data (after which you get unlimited data at a slower speed). You pay $50/month for service, plus $15 a month for your phone, plus a $15 fee up front as part of their JUMP On Demand offering.

These are just a few of the many options available. Try doing a search at WhistleOut to see if there's a plan that exactly meets your needs. You could save a lot of money.

Best Plans for Heavy Data Users

The above plans, while cost-effective, may not be the best for those who do a lot of emailing, web browsing, streaming music, uploading photos, and downloading apps. If your usage is in the range of 5 GB, an article in the New York Times suggests AT&T's no-contract Next 18 plan, which would cost $2,565 over two years. One nice feature of this plan is that any unused data rolls over to the next month — a feature not usually available from other plans.

The article also recommends the Next 18 family plan, which would cost $6,900 over two years for a family of four. It comes with 15 GB, and it, too, rolls over unused data to the next month.

The Times's recommendation is more based on network coverage than cost. If T-Mobile's network suits your needs, you can save a significant amount of money. T-Mobile's plan with 5 GB of data comes in at $1,965 over two years. Extra perks with this plan include unlimited music streaming from services such as Spotify and Pandora, and free international texting and data. If you have unused data, you can roll it over for up to a year. 

The T-Mobile family plan for a family of four comes with 10 GB of data per line and a 24-month total cost of $5,940. Compared to AT&T, you get more data at a lower price.

Finding the Carrier with the Best Coverage for Your Area

Of course, the most important factor in choosing a carrier and cell phone plan is which carrier has the best coverage in your area. In the corner of Iowa where I live, AT&T's coverage is problematic. I had to step outside my home to make a call when I had AT&T as my carrier. Verizon, on the other hand, has a good signal wherever I am. Plus, it has the advantage of having the broadest coverage nationwide. US Cellular is also good here in Iowa, but has limited national coverage. So Verizon is really my only choice.

OpenSignal is one of the many websites that help you determine which carrier has the best signal in your area. A search on my Zip Code tells me what I already new: Verizon is the best choice. It also compares the quality in this area to the national average, and finds that it's 3 percent worse than the national average, which isn't too bad.

Networks with Fastest Data Speed

When you're making a choice, you'll also want to take into account which networks have the fastest data speed. According to PCMag.com, testing shows that Verizon is the champ overall, having the fastest speeds in the largest number of geographical areas. Again, however, you'll want to take into account where you live. The article explains that while all four major carriers have greatly ramped up their networks so that all four are competitive, some are better than others in certain areas. Testing showed that AT&T came out on top in the Southeast and in Texas, while T-Mobile is the best in Western cities. The only city where Sprint was shown to have the fastest data speed was Denver.

Finding the Best Family Plan

In some ways, the cellular carrier landscape is now more complex than it has ever been, and it can get even more complicated if you're trying to identify the best family plan for your needs. Fortunately, Consumer Reports has put together some tables that let you easily compare the family plans offered by the four major carriers. (And they update these tables as the carriers come out with new plans.)

The tables let you compare the costs for one to five family members and for light, medium, and heavy data usage. So, for example, if you determine that your family of three needs 3GB of data per phone per month, the tables let you quickly compare the costs of that amount of service among the four carriers.

Determing How Much Data You Need

In addition, Consumer Reports also gives a helpful rule of thumb for figuring out how much data you need. You should be able to get by with 500 MB—1 GB of data if you mainly use your cellular data for browsing the web, checking email, using news apps, etc. Of course, if you want to make video calls or stream media or upload large files, then you'll want to wait until you have Wi-Fi access. However, if you use your iPhone or iPad for activities such as streaming music and video when you're traveling, then you'll need 2 to 3 GB per month. And if you tend to use cellular data to watch videos and movies, then you'll need 4 GB or more of data, and may want to consider an unlimited data plan.

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Jim Karpen's picture

Author Details

Jim Karpen

Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.