How to get a free iPhone, using trade-in or contract bundles

Free iPhone
(Image credit: Apple / TechRadar)

Tech deals that sound too good to be true usually are just that. But is it possible to pick up a free iPhone?

Our best answer is no. Well, sort of. Technically, yes; but not really. Has that cleared things up? You can't just head to our list of the best iPhones, choose your favorite, and magically acquire one for zero cost. But there are some workarounds.

Free iPhone promotions that you see advertised online usually come from mobile phone networks. However, the sting in the tail is that you have to sign up for a service agreement, which comes with a monthly payment that covers your calls and data. 

Some of the best deals will also be tied to a trade-in. You send your phone to the network, and in exchange for it you get to save a whole heap of cash off the up-front cost of the phone. Ideally, this would be the entire up-front cost of the device. 

It’s a “free iPhone” in the sense that you don’t pay for the handset. However, you’ll be tied into a contract that you can’t simply back out of once your shiny new iPhone 13 Pro Max is delivered. 

Free iPhone

(Image credit: Apple)

Other free iPhone tactics

If you were expecting something better, we apologize for dashing your hopes. The truth of the matter is, if you see a website or advert claiming to offer a free iPhone with no strings attached, it will almost certainly be a scam. It may be that you’re directed to a website with malware, or asked to fill in a form that results in your data being harvested as part of a phishing scheme; it’s where your personal data is used to try to scam you out of your money. 

Of course, iPhones are also routinely offered as prizes in competitions. There’s nothing particularly shady about this, apart from the fact that they’re used as an enticement to get you to sign up to marketing emails and newsletters. You’re unlikely to win – although there are folk out there who have entered competitions and have won a bunch of prizes. Hope springs eternal, right?

So, “free iPhone” deals with phone networks may still be worth a look. The specifics of these deals will vary from month to month, but we’re going to check out a few that are available as of mid-June 2022 to see if they’re worth jumping on. 

AT&T’s free iPhone deal

Our first free iPhone deal comes from AT&T. It offers up to $700 off a new iPhone on trading in your current phone or another handset, meaning you can get the iPhone 13 mini for free, or pay just $99 for a standard iPhone 13. 

Note, too, that the trade-in device isn’t restricted to just last-gen iPhones that are still worth a significant chunk of change on the used market. An iPhone 11? That’s $700. iPhone X? $700.

Trade-in value drops to $350 for the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7; but those models are pretty ancient. There are a few conditions, however. The device has to be in working order, which seems like a reasonable ask. The touchscreen and back glass should be free of any damage, which again is fair. However, AT&T also asks that the phone should be “free of dents and scratches”. 

Free iPhone

(Image credit: AT&T)

Send in your trade-in device and AT&T will give it the once-over; it will be rejected if it isn’t in suitable condition. We presume this ominous wording is designed to deter people from trying to trade-in phones that look as though they have tumbled down the Grand Canyon. 

Be aware that you’ll only get these inflated trade-in values if you sign up for one of AT&T’s Unlimited mobile plans, which start at $65 a month. Plus, you have to pay sales tax on the full cost of the iPhone. 

Consider how this actually works behind the scenes, too. By trading in a device, you’re given roughly $20 credit each month for a 36-month device payment plan. It will take you three years to “pay off” your iPhone’s cost, even if you aren’t actually paying anything beyond service charges.

If you decide you want to leave AT&T after a year, those discounts will disappear and you might still owe AT&T around $500 for the phone you thought was free. At that point, you’d have already traded in your old phone for a couple of hundred bucks — which may or may not be an OK deal. 

Verizon’s free iPhone deal

Free iPhone

(Image credit: Apple)

Verizon has a free iPhone deal at present that’s just slightly different. You can get the last-generation iPhone 12 or iPhone SE with no trade-in; or, similar to AT&T, a newer generation iPhone if you trade in a somewhat recent phone. 

The premise is the same as the AT&T deal, though. You’re effectively signing up to a finance plan that discounts the usual $19.44-a-month payment to $0. 

However, this plan runs for 36 months. If you choose to leave the network before that time, you’ll still owe Verizon the remaining $19.44-a-month payments on the clock. Verizon also offers $200 to customers who switch networks in some deals, but this is delivered a couple of months after you’ve signed up, and is sent as a Verizon gift card. This means you can only use it in Verizon stores.

Are these actually good deals?

These deals from AT&T and Verizon are slighty misleading, – but we’re here to clear up the realities of the situation, rather than to clear out your bank balance. Just because those deals aren’t quite as appealing as they may have initially appeared, it doesn’t mean they’re flat-out poor. 

Let’s analyze AT&T’s offering. We’ll use the scenario of trading in a relatively old iPhone X and buying a 128GB iPhone 13, which gives AT&T a better chance of coming out ahead. 

If you sign up for the $65 mobile plan, your bill will end up at $71.27 a month as a result of residual phone payments and additional charges. Stay for three years and you’ll have paid approximately $2,595.72 (not including sales tax) in total. And you’re free. 

Free iPhone

(Image credit: Apple / TechRadar)

Take the SIM-only route and you can get an unlimited data plan for $50 a month, although this doesn’t include the 3GB of hotspot data that comes with the iPhone deal. That amounts to $1800 over 36 months. Add the $799 iPhone 13 and we’re at $2,599. However, we could sell the iPhone X on eBay for around $200. Minus eBay fees and that’s $180. We’re down to $2,419. 

The DIY route is a little cheaper, but that switches around if you buy the $10-a-month 5GB hotspot add-on. 

How about if we want to switch things up and start fresh after a year? The DIY route costs us $1,218. With the trade-in method, you pay $1,419. 

There are craftier ways to save money, too. AT&T didn’t really have any great SIM-only deals at the time of writing. Let’s buy the iPhone 13 from the Apple Store and use Mint Mobile instead of AT&T. We get the first three months of unlimited data (with 35GB at 5G speeds) for $15 a month, which increases to $30 per month if we agree to hang around for 12 months at a time. 

Over three years we’ll have spent $1,654 (after selling our hypothetical iPhone X on eBay), instead of $2,595 with the AT&T trade-in deal. And we’re free to hunt around for deals as each term of service ends, rather than being locked into one deal for three years. 

Free iPhone? Not really. While these deals may be handy if you can’t afford to buy a phone outright, sign up in the knowledge that there are ways to spend less in the long run. 

Andrew Williams

Andrew is a freelance journalist and has been writing and editing for some of the UK's top tech and lifestyle publications including TrustedReviews, Stuff, T3, TechRadar, Lifehacker and others.