How to Find Out If You're Eligible for an iPhone Upgrade

Making a purchase at the Apple Store
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If you own an iPhone, you may already be looking forward to the day when you can upgrade to the latest and greatest model. This could especially be true if you haven't bought a new phone in a few years. In either situation, as you plan your purchase, you may be wondering whether you're eligible for an upgrade and how to find out.

That's a good question, but also one whose answer has drastically changed over the last few years.

The End of the Subsidy System

In the past, cell phone companies used to discount, or subsidize, the price of the phones they offered. The price they advertised for the phone was almost never the actual cost of the phone. For example, if a new iPhone actually cost US$699, the phone companies would often sell it to customers for $399. The companies paid Apple the between the full price and what they charged customers.

In doing this, they required that customers sign contracts (often for two years) that locked them into using the phone companies' services. This made financial sense for the companies because they make most of their money on their monthly calling and data plans, and customers often stayed on even after their contracts ended.

Under that system, customers were usually eligible to upgrade to a new iPhone every two years. That system no longer exists. Almost no phones are sold with subsidies these days. Instead, customers generally pay full retail price for their phones (that's why the iPhone X costs $999 and up, instead of a more eye-catching price hundreds of dollars lower). To make up for paying more money up front, customers rarely sign contracts anymore. Instead, they now pay month-to-month and are free to switch phone companies, and upgrade to new phones, virtually whenever they want.

iPhones on the Installment Plan

The only sort of contract that generally still exists with phone companies, and that can influence whether you are eligible to upgrade your iPhone, has to do with how you buy the phone. Because customers now pay full retail price for their phones, and because not everyone wants to plunk down $1,000 all at once for a phone, all the phone companies—and Apple—now sell the iPhone in monthly installments.

So, instead of spending $1,000 upfront for an iPhone, you can spread the cost out over 24 payments that are charged monthly along with your bill for service.

With that system, you can upgrade to a new iPhone whenever you've paid off the old one or in a time period defined by the company selling the phone. For example, many of these monthly purchase plans let you upgrade to a new phone once a year, even if the old phone isn't paid off. You simply trade in the old phone and keep paying for the new one.

Who's Eligible for an iPhone Upgrade?

With the subsidy system gone, figuring out who's eligible for an upgrade is a little different than it used to be. To be absolutely certain, you'll need to check with your phone company (or Apple, if you bought your phone directly). More on that in a minute.

Generally speaking, though, you're eligible to upgrade to a new iPhone if you:

  • Haven't bought a new phone in two years or more.
  • Are switching to a new phone company.
  • Have paid off the balance on your current iPhone.
  • Have a monthly purchase plan that allows for regular upgrades.

How to Check Your iPhone Upgrade Eligibility

When the subsidy system still existed, both Apple and Amazon had online tools that let you check your upgrade eligibility. With the change in the system, those tools are gone. But there are still ways to check whether you are eligible to upgrade your iPhone by doing the following: