How to Find Out If You Can Upgrade Your iPhone

Check the fine print before you try to upgrade

Most iPhone lovers can't wait to upgrade to the latest and greatest iPhone model. If pay full price when you buy your iPhone, get ready to line up outside the closest Apple store on release day: you can upgrade whenever you want. But people who buy their devices from Apple or their phone company using monthly payments need to check the fine print to know their iPhone upgrade eligibility.

The End of the iPhone Subsidy System

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

As part of this deal, phone companies made customers sign contracts—often for two years—that locked them into using that phone company. This strategy made financial sense for the companies because they make most of their money on monthly voice and data plans, and customers often stayed loyal after their contracts ended.

Under the subsidy system, customers were usually eligible to upgrade to a new iPhone every two years. The subsidy system no longer exists.

Almost no phones are sold with subsidies these days. Instead, customers pay full retail price for their phones. That's why the iPhone 12 Pro costs $999 and up, instead of a more appealing 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 more often.

Buying iPhones on the Installment Plan

The most common kind of phone-company contract these days relates to how you buy the phone. This is the contract that determines whether your iPhone upgrade eligible. Because customers now pay full retail price for their phones, and because not everyone wants to plunk down $1,000 for a phone, all the phone companies—plus Apple—sell the iPhone in monthly installments.

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

Learn more about how Apple sells iPhones with monthly payments in The Apple iPhone Upgrade Program: How It Works.

With that system, you can upgrade to a new iPhone when you've paid off the old one or at a point defined by the company selling the phone. For example, many of 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.

How to Check Your iPhone Upgrade Eligibility

With this new system, figuring out who's eligible for an upgrade is a little different than it used to be. You'll need to check with your phone company (or Apple, if you bought your phone directly). Generally speaking, you're eligible to upgrade to a new iPhone if you:

  • Haven't bought a new phone in two years or more.
  • Switch to a new phone company.
  • Pay off the balance on your current iPhone.
  • Use a monthly purchase plan that allows for regular upgrades (often after 12 months).

Check whether you can upgrade your iPhone with the following tools:

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