COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

What the cellular carriers won’t tell you

If you are considering buying a new iPhone for use on Verizon or AT&T, you might want to select the T-Mobile version instead, or a special new model that Apple has just introduced. I’ll explain why.

When buying a cellphone, we normally select a model designed specifically for our carrier of choice. Should we decide to change carriers, we’ll need to buy a new phone compatible with the new cellular company’s radio frequencies. The carriers have always liked this arrangement because we’ll be less likely to switch, even if we become dissatisfied with their service or rates.

But if your phone could work on another carrier, it normally comes locked, preventing it from being used on compatible carriers you might find in the United States or overseas. You can request the carrier to unlock your phone, but they usually require several months of use and that it be fully paid up.

Now that’s all changed. The new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus for T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are identical phones and capable of being used on each other’s networks.

Unlike the phones from Verizon and AT&T, only the T-Mobile version comes unlocked if it’s bought from Apple, which allows a SIM card from any of the three carriers to work on their respective networks.

It’s no more expensive to do this. The T-Mobile iPhone 6 costs $649 with 64 GB memory, the same as the other carriers’ locked phones. The iPhone 6 Plus costs $100 more.

Why is this important? If you can use one phone on all the carriers, you now have the ability to switch carriers without needing to buy a new phone. You can buy local SIM cards while traveling, and change carriers if you move to an area where your current carrier has poor reception.

It’s also important because some carriers and reseller offer monthly plans without commitments.

With an unlocked iPhone, you can change carriers at will, depending on the best rates; the carriers cannot lock you in. If you travel overseas, you can even get a T-Mobile SIM card to use their unlimited data and 20 cents per minute international rates for just a short time.

The carriers don’t publicize this, and in fact, prefer we don’t know. They still are selling what appear to be unique models, but the uniqueness is simply the software that locks the phone and provides some of the carrier’s apps.

So for those who want to maintain flexibility with plans and be able to use the phone outside the country, buy the T-Mobile version of the iPhone 6 (A1549) or the iPhone 6 Plus (A1522) from Apple’s store or from their website. If you purchase it from T-Mobile it comes locked.

If this isn’t confusing enough, Apple has just begun selling its own SIM-free unlocked iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, models A1586 and A1524.

The A1586 supports a few more LTE bands than the A1549, but is nearly the same. The main difference is it doesn’t come with software from any of the carriers; it’s carrier-agnostic. The phone sells for the same price: $649 and $749 for a 6 or 6 Plus with 64 GB memory. This phone is an equally good choice as the unlocked T-Mobile version.

In short, buy these phones from Apple if you want the ability to switch carriers if a better deal comes along and use any SIM card from anywhere in the world:

Slowly but surely, we are gaining our freedom from the carrier’s restrictive policies meant to limit our flexibility and freedom of choice.

What about Android phones? I checked two of the most popular models, the HTC One (M8) and the Samsung Galaxy S5. They each offer carrier-specific models and no one-model-fits-all version.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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1 UserComments
Charlie 5:03pm February 4, 2015

There is an issue with buying the phone direct you don't get the benefit of the carrier offsetting the cost of the phone. When I bought my I phone 5 (when it came out new) I paid only $100.00 Charlie