Iphone: contract or no?
October 7, 2011 2:09 PM   Subscribe

Is it cheaper (including contract costs) to buy the IPhone upfront and go without a contract?

I'm planning on getting myself a new Iphone, as my old one has died.

It's old enough that I'm out of contract, and I sort of like being there. Of course up front it's cheaper to get the phone with a new 2 year contract- but I can't even find pricing for what a pay-per-month, no-contract plan would be on at&t. I can find the phone cost, but not the data+voice+text cost if I *don't* get a contract.

I've heard in some cases it's cheaper to buy the phone yourself and do a pay-per-month setup, because often the per month cost is actually less than the contract per month cost. Also not having a contract with at&t (my likely provider) would be a nice bonus.

So, where can I find the information to run the numbers for a new 4s phone?
posted by nat to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The plans cost the same contract or no. The only advantage you get from not having a contract is that you cancel anytime with no fee.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:21 PM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have been sort-of trying to figure this out today. This is by no means definitive, but this is where I'm at so far. Short answer: No.

The iPhone 4S has one super-irritating limitation: you can't use the unlocked version on any CDMA carriers. This means that all the super-cheap MVNO plans you see, like Virgin Mobile's $35/month deal, are off-limits for the iPhone 4S. Pretty much all the cheap MVNO deals are on networks that buy their minutes from Sprint or Verizon, and that means CDMA.

So that leaves the GSM providers, which, at the national scale, are AT&T and T-Mobile. There's apparently some issue with the particular block of frequencies T-Mobile uses for 3G service and the bands the iPhone 3G radio is compatible with, so you can't get 3G data on T-Mobile w/ the iPhone 4S. I am not totally sure about this and I really really hope someone comes along and says I'm wrong here.

With AT&T, the freaking GoPhone plan is a ripoff. To use data on a smartphone, you have to buy a data plan. The best option as far as I can tell is the $20 500MB/mo plan. The data and text message packages on GoPhone are more expensive than they are on the postpaid contract plans.

On AT&T, there's no "I'm not buying a new phone" plans that is cheaper than just taking the carrier subsidy. You basically are paying for the AT&T iPhone subsidy without getting anything back if you bring your own phone.

This is extremely frustrating.

- Assumes you aren't grandfathered into some sort of contract that you can port to a new iPhone that is way cheaper than you could get now (like if you have the old AT&T international unlimited data option that they don't even sell any more).
- There could be a carrier in your area that is small but a better deal that I've never heard of
- If you have really weird usage patterns, like you don't care about 3G data, or you basically use data really rarely and always just use wifi, it's possible that GoPhone works for you, or T-Mobile works for you.

But it's not the same thing as with a Nexus, where if you buy the unlocked Nexus you can sign up with T-Mobile and be easily ahead of the game.

It also means if you don't really live in the USA but spend a lot of time there, there's basically no way to use the iPhone 4S at a reasonable price, since essentially your only option is AT&T GoPhone. I really thought building the CDMA function into the 4S would open up access to the no-contract CDMA MVNOs, but no such luck.

Like I said, I could be totally wrong about this, and I really hope I am and someone comes along and tells us about some new MVNO that the iPhone 4S works with and is really cheap and doesn't have contracts, but...I'm not that optimistic.
posted by jeb at 2:24 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Addendum to me previous comment: I mean for AT&T, I have not looked at Verizon or Sprint.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:33 PM on October 7, 2011

How much do you use your phone? I don't have a data plan, and I only use my phone a little, but my cell service averages $10-$15/month (using T-Mobile with an iPhone). Any overall difference in cost would of course depend on what your liberated rate plan costs.
posted by amtho at 3:09 PM on October 7, 2011

Unless you are willing to forgo 3G data and use T-Mobile, there's not really any reason to buy the unlocked version for use in the US.
posted by The Lamplighter at 3:12 PM on October 7, 2011

In fact, I don't think the unlocked iPhone for sale here are even intended for Americans - they're for foreign tourists who may have only gray-market access to iPhones in their home country.
posted by The Lamplighter at 3:14 PM on October 7, 2011

You might consider just contracting with Sprint for the relatively cheaper contract plan and subsidy benefits. At least crunching the numbers might help your decision. Their unlimited everything is $80/month.

The uncontracted prices of the new iPhone 4S is fairly high -- in the $500-700 range depending on your desired memory size.
posted by erstwhile at 3:19 PM on October 7, 2011

Response by poster: Personally, I use about 250 weekend minutes a month. I may use 10 minutes a month during the weekdays. I send about 100 texts a month.

But I do want a fast data connection, so it looks like T-Mobile won't work for me.

I guess the real question in my case is- can I get a smaller voice plan? They start so much larger than I need, at least if we're counting nonweekend minutes.
posted by nat at 4:19 PM on October 7, 2011

In fact, I don't think the unlocked iPhone for sale here are even intended for Americans - they're for foreign tourists who may have only gray-market access to iPhones in their home country.

Or for Americans who travel abroad a lot, perhaps - assuming US carriers' overseas roaming rates are as high as European carriers' outside-EU rates.

OP, any chance it would help to get a cheap pay-as-you-go talk/text package and get a MiFi for data? (I am not American; sorry if that's an obviously bad idea.) I suspect it wouldn't be any cheaper than getting a data plan for the phone, but trying to get any useful information out of AT&T's website rapidly reduced me to the point of blind rage, so I gave up before I could prove it.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:56 PM on October 7, 2011

If you're going to stay on AT&T and don't travel a lot internationally, an unlocked phone is of little utility. As an existing iPhone customer (you still have unlimited data?) You may be able to buy an unlocked iPhone and continue to go month to month on your existing plan.

I guess the real question in my case is- can I get a smaller voice plan? They start so much larger than I need, at least if we're counting nonweekend minutes.

You can't get a smaller voice plan on post paid plans. So you're stuck.

This method may or may not work with the 4S. As it isn't supported officially by AT&T it could go away or not work at all. I've read other reports where people who tried it with an unlocked iPhone 4 from Apple and bought the PAYG SIM in than AT&T store got them home only to be told they can't do data on it. To me, this hack wouldn't be worth is since I'd need more data than.
posted by birdherder at 5:07 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess the real question in my case is- can I get a smaller voice plan? They start so much larger than I need, at least if we're counting nonweekend minutes.

We have two phones on our plan and still don't come close to using up our weekday minutes, ever. Know anyone who doesn't want much data and just wants voice/text? You could add them to your plan and have their contribution offset part of your bill.
posted by soelo at 5:46 PM on October 7, 2011

There is a case to be made for this option in countries with actual like-for-like competition in mobile service, where not having a contract gives you flexibility to move between carriers without sacrificing any core functionality.

In the US? No. They're going to claw back the subsidy from you in 24 monthly bills, even if you've already paid it yourself.
posted by holgate at 8:43 PM on October 7, 2011

It might be easier to walk into an AT&T store and ask, if you're partial to AT&T. I had an iphone through work and when the business shut down, they let employees keep the hardware (it was brand new!). I just walked into the store with the phone and they set me up with a plan. No contract necessary. It was straightforward. I know this may be different with the 4S, but someone should be able to give you the options and pricing. Just tell them you already purchased the phone without a plan and haven't received it yet. Plus, sometimes they have options that aren't published online as a selling tool for folks who wander into the store.
posted by getmetoSF at 7:42 AM on October 8, 2011

Response by poster: Yeah, sad to say, it looks like jeb was right. I guess I'll go back on contract- my old phone is well and truly dead (the home button, it does nothing). Thanks for all the creative ideas though, folks!
posted by nat at 9:59 PM on October 11, 2011

Response by poster: Oh, one more update, in case anyone still cares: if you go in to AT&T, they will let you keep your grandfathered plan (data and text). They said you aren't always able to keep it if you order the phone online.
posted by nat at 10:31 PM on October 19, 2011

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