How to Find Out If You Can Upgrade Your iPhone

Check the fine print before you try to upgrade

Most iPhone fans look forward to the day when they can upgrade to the latest and greatest iPhone model. If pay full price upfront 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 using monthly payments through their phone companies or Apple need to check the fine print before they try to upgrade.

The End of the iPhone Subsidy System

In the past, 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 from Apple, the phone companies would often sell it to customers for $399. The companies paid Apple the difference between the full price and what they charged customers.

As part of this deal, phone companies required that customers sign contracts — often for two years — that locked them into using the phone companies' services. This strategy 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 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 usually pay full retail price for their phones. That's why the iPhone 11 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 much more often.

Buying iPhones on the Installment Plan

The most common kind of phone-company contract these days, which is the kind that influences whether you can upgrade your iPhone, relates to 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 — plus Apple — 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.

Learn more about Apple's plan for selling iPhones with month-to-month payments in The Apple iPhone Upgrade Program: How It Works.

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 this new system, 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).

Apple Store - Palo Alto.
Apple, Inc

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.
  • Paid off the balance on your current iPhone.
  • Use a monthly purchase plan that allows for regular upgrades (often after 12 months).

How to Check Your iPhone Upgrade Eligibility

When the subsidy system still existed, both Apple and Amazon offered 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: