Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program: The ultimate guide to everything you need to know

Whether you're considering signing up for the Apple Upgrade Program for the first time, or upgrading your iPhone using your Upgrade Program rights, this guide has the answers. If you're doing this for the first time, be sure to read the tips at the end of the article. It could save you a long, repeat trip.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

A $2,000 iPhone? Don't roll your eyes, it can happen

It's almost September, that magical time of year when pundits and prognosticators polish up their crystal balls for the autumnal event we all know as the annual iPhone launch. All indicators seem to point to an Apple event in early September (I predicted September 12).

As surely as night follows day, if there's an iPhone event in early September, new iPhones will be available for you to paw and cherish just a few weeks later.

Also: A $2,000 iPhone: It's coming. It's inevitable

For those of you who bought iPhones last year on the Apple iPhone Upgrade Program for the express purpose of getting a new iPhone every year, Christmas is coming early.

But what exactly has to happen for you to get your new iPhone? What steps will you have to take? How will the transfer work? What hoops will you have to jump through? All these questions, and more, will be answered right here, right now.

As our definitive source for all the rules, we'll be using Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program Terms & Conditions as our guide.

What if I love my current iPhone and don't want to trade it in?

When I first signed up to the Apple Upgrade Program back in 2016, I thought I'd be turning in my phone the very next year. But when Apple killed off the headphone jack on the iPhone 7, I decided to stick with my trusty iPhone 6s Plus. I am still using that phone as my daily driver. Even though I had the Upgrade Program, there was no real downside to keeping the phone.


The Orlando Apple Store.

Fortunately, you never actually have to turn in your current iPhone to Apple if you don't want to. Once you pay for the 24 months on your iPhone program, your current iPhone is yours to keep. So, if you don't want to trade it in now, you can hang onto it forever, or until you're ready to upgrade.

Can I trade in my iPhone for a new iPhone on launch day?

You need to have paid for 12 months of your installment plan before you can upgrade. Apple's T's and C's says "the equivalent of 12 months", so if you bought your iPhone 8 or X in November, you might have to eat two months of payments, pay that in a chunk, and then be eligible for upgrade.

Frankly, going to the Apple store at any time can be a hellish experience. Been there. Done that. But if you do plan to put yourself through that hell, you're probably best off saving a few bucks and waiting a little while anyway -- at least until the crowds die down.

What if my iPhone is broken or beaten up?

The terms of the Upgrade Program require your phone to be in "good physical and operating condition". That means your iPhone must:

  • Power on and hold a charge;
  • Have an intact and functioning display;
  • Have no breaks or cracks; and
  • Have Activation Lock disabled (you may be asked to disable at the time of upgrade).

If you've broken your phone and you want to upgrade, now might be the time to exercise your AppleCare+ program. After all, you paid for that added level of protection. Get your phone in good order, then trade it in.

Also: Is AppleCare+ really worth it?

Be careful, though. Apple's Terms & Conditions explicitly state that "All repairs to the Financed iPhone must be done at an Apple Store or through an Apple Authorized Service Provider." So don't bring it to the cheapo fixit place down the road. Use Authorized Service Providers only.

Will I have to go through the financing application process all over again?

But of course. Do you think they'd make this easy? You have to apply for, and be approved for, a new 24-month loan.

Does that mean I'm signing up for another 24 months of payments?

Yepperoonie. The iPhone Upgrade Program is really a 24-month loan. The only bright spot is that you can cancel that loan after 12 months, get a new phone, and do it all over again.

The other bright spot is that the iPhone Upgrade Program is really a zero percent interest loan. So you're making payments, yes, but you're just dividing the cost of the phone (plus AppleCare+) over the 24 months.

To get your new iPhone on the iPhone Upgrade Program, you're starting the clock all over again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

So, does this mean I'll have two loans open at once, the remaining 12 months of the first one and the new two-year loan?

No. Once you exercise your upgrade option (and it all goes through), your old loan will be closed out.

Will I have to go back to the Apple Store to get my new phone?

Probably. When I asked Apple, I was told it doesn't comment on new products. I was unable to get them to provide me with even a hypothetical. Apple says you may use a "Trade-in Service Provider to facilitate the trade-in of your Financed iPhone." So what is a Trade-in Service Provider, you ask. Well, I haven't found a list, but the most likely are the carrier stores and a few select retailers.

Also: Pixel, iPhone, Galaxy, oh my! Why pay a premium when every phone runs the same apps?

If you are signing up for your first iPhone Upgrade Program, you are no longer required to go to an Apple store. But whether you'll be able to eventually renew it, or trade in your phone online, frankly, I have my doubts. I'm betting you're going to have to teleport your geeky ole butt right into your nearest store, stand in line, and question your will to live.

As for whether you can trade in your phone online, that's very much in doubt. A search of the entire Apple Terms & Conditions document turned up not a single use of the word "online."

I've had my iPhone for less than a year. Can I still upgrade?

This is pretty much the same answer I gave about trading in on launch day. You have to pay the equivalent of at least 12 installment payments before you can upgrade.

Does having the iPhone Upgrade Program give me any priority rights?

If you're asking if you can cut in line in front of the other supplicants, the answer is no. There is no guarantee of availability at the time you want to upgrade.

In other words, there probably won't be any new iPhones for you in the first few weeks. Relax. Your time will come.

I want to be the first on my block with a new iPhone. When do you suggest I start camping in front of my neighborhood Apple store?

Why not head over now? Next question.

What happens to all my data on my current phone when I trade it in?

Apple doesn't guarantee anything about data protection, which is ironic given their big fuss about not decrypting the FBI iPhone from the San Bernardino terrorist incident.

Basically, you should back up everything, delete everything, and then do a hard reset. I'll write more about this closer to the new iPhone launch.

How do I get my data from my current iPhone to the new one?

Cruel answer: iTunes. Better answer: iCloud.

Seriously, though, you should probably use both. You can get enough iCloud storage to back up the largest capacity iPhone for about three bucks a month. If you're not making cloud backups, don't wait until the last minute. It will take time for all those photos and videos to transfer to the cloud.

Also: How to set up two-factor authentication for iCloud TechRepublic

Even if you do have iCloud, you should probably (and I'm so sorry I'm saying this) make an iTunes backup before you leave for the store. I know it's painful to even think about iTunes. But having a separate local backup, as unreliable and forsaken by all that is holy that iTunes might be, is not a bad idea.

Why won't iTunes just die and put us out if its misery?

More great project ideas

I don't know. I truly, truly don't know.

What if I upgrade my iPhone to a new iPhone, decide I hate it, and want to return it to Apple?

Apple, surprisingly, allows for this. You can return your new phone. The only gotcha is you will (a) not get your old phone back and (b) "owe the difference, if any, between the prevailing Reuse and Recycling Program value at the time of exercising the Upgrade Option on your original Financed iPhone that you traded-in, as determined solely by Apple or its Trade-In Service Provider, and the remaining balance of your original Installment Loan".

In other words, think before pulling the trigger on a new iPhone. Oh, and definitely do it within the allowed-for 14 days or you might be scrod.

I'm not in the US. Can I still use the iPhone Upgrade program?

According to Apple, "iPhone Upgrade Program may not be available in all locations."

Any other tips or suggestions?

Sure. Here are a few other tips you might find useful:

Unlocked phones: Even though Apple claims some phones are unlocked, they may not be truly unlocked for the Apple Upgrade Program: You're going to have to declare a carrier and either move or create an account when you reach the Apple Store. I would advise you to have an account and number set up before you arrive.

Street address: Make sure your billing address is a street address. This is a ridiculous requirement, but if you're not visiting the Apple Store with my wife -- who can work miracles with banks -- you need to be prepared ahead of time. This goes both for your carrier's records as well as the billing address for your credit cards.

Bring lots of ID: Bring every piece of ID and credit card you have. Load on up. You might need it.

Also: Why Android's yearly OS updates are better for business

It's a loan: When we "bought" our iPhone 6s Pluses on the iPhone Upgrade Program, we discovered we wound up holding about another $2,500 in debt. The Upgrade Program is a straight-out bank loan for about $1150 for each phone purchase (that's what our models cost, including AppleCare+). At least it's interest-free.

AppleCare+: If you use the iPhone Upgrade Program, you're paying for the AppleCare+ service program whether you want to or not.

Bring protection: Bring ear protection and hand wipes. The Apple Store, at 80+ dB can be considered a relatively hostile environment. You'll also be touching floor model iPhones that have been touched by a thousand other people. Ick.

Be nice: Be very, very nice to the Apple Store employees. Despite the toxic hellstew of the Orlando store, the employees were amazing.

Reader suggestions: Readers over the years have suggested you might want to think about bringing a portable chair. Lunch. Something to read. Xanax.

Beyond that, enjoy.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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