Apple is making world travelers -- and some domestic customers -- happy this New Year by selling unlocked iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus smartphones to the masses. That means customers can use the device on any wireless carrier without signing on the dotted line of a two-year contract.
Of course, that option comes at a premium. Buying an iPhone 6 without a contract will cost you at least $649. But the freedom may be worth it to some hardcore Apple users who want the ability to move from Verizon to AT&T to T-Mobile to Sprint -- or take the phone to nations beyond the United States.
With the unlocked iPhone, there is no SIM card that ties you to any specific carrier. That means travelers can insert a SIM card that works with a carrier in France, for example, and avoid roaming charges that can run up the cellular bill in a hurry.
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According to Apple, the unlocked iPhone includes all the features of other iPhones. The company said if you don't want a multi-year service contract, or if you prefer to use a local carrier when traveling abroad, the unlocked iPhone is the best choice.
However, Apple explained, for consumers who choose T-Mobile as the carrier, your iPhone comes with a T-Mobile SIM card already installed and you would need to contact T-Mobile or visit an Apple Retail Store to activate your iPhone.
"Otherwise, the unlocked iPhone does not come with a nano-SIM card for iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 5s, or iPhone 5c so you'll need to get one from any supported carrier worldwide," Apple said. "To start using your iPhone, simply insert the SIM card into the slot and turn on iPhone by pressing and holding the On/Off button for a few seconds. Then follow the onscreen instructions to set up your iPhone."
The 16 GB iPhone 6 without a SIM card starts at $649. The iPhone 6 Plus starts at $749. Each increase in memory capacity raises the price $100. So an iPhone 6 with 64 GB of memory is $749, while the 128 GB model goes for $849. By comparison, carriers typically offer the base iPhone 6 on a two-year contract for $199.
We caught up with Michael Disabato, managing vice president of Network and Telecom at Gartner, to get his thoughts on Apple's move to unlock the iPhone 6 models. He told us Apple normally unlocks the devices almost immediately after the phone's release and said people who bought one before Christmas may be annoyed on Jan. 6.
"For people who travel it's nice to have an unlocked device so we can swap the SIM cards. I come back with four figure data bills when I go overseas," Disabato said. "You do what you have to do when you need to."
Disabato wonders how much pressure the wireless carriers put on Apple not to release the unlocked phones before Christmas, a prime time for new smartphone sales. Carriers don't get credit for unlocked smartphones but Apple still gains the financial reward.
"Unlocked phones give consumers the opportunity to, shall we say, migrate away from their current carrier," Disabato said. "Especially with T-Mobile, the no-contract deals are incredibly persuasive."