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How to buy an iPhone in America

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It's not easy if you go to most major carriers

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Here's a weird thought experiment I've been noodling on for the past couple of weeks. When Apple announces the next iPhone next month, what are the prices that it's going to flash on screen?

Since last September, we've experienced a kind of revolution in wireless plans here in the US. Following T-Mobile, the big carriers have essentially jettisoned contracts and contract pricing for most of their new customers (though you can find them if you know where to look). So Apple probably can't put up that traditional $199 on-contract starting price up on the big screen. Instead, it may have to put up the full price, or maybe the cost of the full price divided by 24. Or maybe something else entirely.

We finally know how much phones really cost

Our whole concept of how much an iPhone — or any phone — costs is getting blown up here in the US. Or better said: it's getting normalized, so that we know the actual cost of a phone instead of having it hidden in the depths of monthly service plans.

Knowing that price would be great, but carriers can't seem to help themselves when it comes to creating complicated and opaque payment plans. The latest come from Sprint and T-Mobile, who want you to buy an iPhone right now even though they know, and you know, and they know that you know that a new one is right around the corner. So they're offering you the chance to upgrade a mere month or two after you buy an iPhone.

These shenanigans apply to more than just the iPhone, of course, but right now it's at the epicenter of these leasing and early-upgrade options. And so far as we can tell, most of these plans end up being bad deals unless you're so eager to not have to resell your old phone that you're willing to pay extra for the privilege. It's the car leasing model on a smaller (or maybe bigger) scale, with all the consumer confusion and head games that go with it.

So here, forthwith, is a guide to buying an iPhone from a major US carrier. We didn't follow every path down to the final cost — in part because the final cost with many of these plans depends on your credit and the phase of the Moon when you buy it. But maybe, just maybe, we nailed the confusing experience you're in for when you walk into most of these stores.

Or, you know, you could just buy the phone outright. Increasingly, more and more consumers are finally figuring out that's the best option for them.

Update and correction: turns out that the pricing information for T-Mobile's Jump On Demand program is available if you go into a store or talk to the right customer service rep on the phone (we had no luck with the latter and didn't do the former.). It's also available on this "Media Fact Sheet." We've updated the flowchart below, and T-Mobile will be adding clearer Jump On Demand pricing information to its website soon.