The Basics: Understanding AT&T Upgrade Policy

Ready for a new phone?  Are you eligible?  How does all this eligibility stuff work anyway?

Everyone knows that you get a good deal on a phone when you start service with a company and sign a two year agreement.  Every so often that same company your with will do the same thing for an existing customer.  This is called an “upgrade.”

Just when a line is able be upgraded varies on a line-by-line basis, but in all cases it will either be 13, 18, or 20 months since you signed your last contract. (all lines are now 20 months)

Read on to learn about the basics of AT&T’s upgrade policy…


Do I need to sign a contract?

Not necessarily, you have the option of buying your equipment at full price to get a new phone, but if you want your equipment subsidized it will always require a contract.  All upgrade contracts at AT&T are going to be 2 years.

What does a contract get me?

The immediate effect is it gets you a cheap phone, if you’re needing to cancel a line down the road it could get you an early termination fee.

Equipment Subsidization is as follows:

Basic phones – Your flips, candybars and sliders, with number pad only usually run in the $150 to $225 price range, depending on the sales channel you can usually find most phone in this category free with a 2 year contract.

Quick Messaging Devices – AT&T defines a quick messaging device as any phone with a physical qwerty keyboard or touch screen that is not a smartphone.  Maybe not the clearest definition but if you go to the website you can use the sort features to tell which is which.  Subsidization on QMDs is roughly the same as basic phones $150 - $225.  Depending on the sales channel there may also be a rebate (or online discount) that adds an extra $30 - $50 to the total subsidization.  At this time no features are required when you upgrade to these phones.

Smartphones – Because these are the phones that AT&T wants you to buy, subsidizations are huge.  You can most times get a smartphone for less than a quick messaging device and there are very seldom rebates.  Subsidization on smartphones is typically $300 - $450.  Smartphones require a data package.

What if I need to cancel?

Fees are tiered depending on the type of device you get.  Highly subsidized devices are on a higher fee schedule that devices with a lower subsidy.  All fees prorate.  Your upgrade date also becomes your proration date.  So, if you upgraded on the 10th, every month on the 10th your cancellation fee will drop.

Basic Phones & QMDs – Fees start at $150 and prorate by $4.  In the last month of the contract the fee is at $68

Smartphones & Netbooks – Fees start at $325 and prorate by $10.  In the last month of the contract the fee is at $95.

When do lines become eligible?

As I mentioned earlier, more expensive lines become eligible earlier than cheaper lines.  On a Family Talk plan the primary line will usually become eligible before the additional lines because it is billed at the highest rate.

Because eligibility is, in part, based on the cost of your plan it is possible for upgrade eligibility to change.  Adding or removing features, or if credits are place on an account it can cause the eligibility date to fluctuate.

(All lines now become eligible at 20 months)

You can check your eligibility in a number of different ways:

IVR (interactive voice recording) – dial 611, enter in your number and in the first set of options (all of which are automated) you have the option to “check upgrade eligibility”

My Wireless – AT&T’s name for their online account management service.

Star Services – Dial *new#  (*639#) and hit send from your cell phone.  AT&T will send a free text message telling your upgrade date.

Customer Service – If you’re on with customer service they can check your eligibility for you.

Retail Location – Any corporate or retail location can provide you with your eligibility date.

What’s the best place to buy?

Many places store and websites sell AT&T, there are pros and cons to any location.

AT&T Corporate Owned Locations – Will typically have higher prices and higher likelihood of having mail in rebates on phones.   What you get from buying from corporate is the most lenient return policy and (usually) the most knowledgeable sales staff


Over the phone – customer care or secondary sales is able to process upgrades over the phone, if you select the button for sales you’ll likely get someone more familiar with phones.  Not every customer care rep follows new phones closely.  Pricing will match AT&T corporate stores.

AT&T website – The best pricing AT&T will offer is on the website, To upgrade you’ll need to create a My Wireless account, if you haven’t already.  Rebates almost always become online discounts and there are frequent sales on different devices.  You also get free expedited shipping and the upgrade fee is waived on most devices.  Sale of refurbished phones has been suspended indefinitely for upgrades because of supply issues.  If you want a refurbished phone it may be available if you call in.  Over-the-phone stock does not match the website exactly.

Authorized Retailers – Pricing is comparable to AT&T stores but can vary.  Also the quality of these stores seems to vary on a store by store basis.  They are privately owned and may have a little more leeway on pricing that corporate.  Many of these locations require a secondary contract that you can’t change your plan, features, etc. for 6 months or they charge a penalty.

National Retailers – This would be your Best Buy, Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, etc.  Pricing will almost always be lower than corporate.  Again the sales staff and return policies at these locations may not be as good.

National Etailers – Wirefly, Let’s Talk, Amazon Wireless.  These sales channels have the lowest pricing around.  Their return policy is usually very strict.  An RMA usually needs to be requested within 15 days in order for a return to be possible.  In general these sites will also require a secondary service agreement where there can be penalty if you can your plan or features within the first 6 months.  AT&T has recently announced that Wirefly and Let’s talk will no longer be carrying AT&T.

What if I’m not satisfied?

With upgrades there is a 30 day return period where you can return the phone and opt out of entering into the new contract.  If you were billed an upgrade fee the upgrade fee still applies even if you return the phone.  Corporate locations charge a restocking phone on returned phones, for other retailers the policies vary.  No restocking fees are charged on equipment purchased over the phone or from the AT&T website.

In order to be able to return your phone it should be in like new condition with all the original packaging.  If you phone has been damaged a return is not possible.  Again the flexibility of the return policy will vary based on the point of purchase.

Phones need to be returned to the point of purchase.  If you purchased from an AT&T channel the phone can almost always be returned at an AT&T store if it’s more convenient than having to mail it in.  If AT&T mailed you a phone, return postage is provided at no cost.  Other retailers may let you return the phone to any of their locations (like any Best Buy) or may require you to take the phone back to the exact store you purchased if from.

AT&T locations will allow a one time exchange to a different model of phone.  A restocking fee may apply and there may be additional policies depending on the point of purchase.  Authorized retailers may or may not have an exchange policy in place.  When the phone is returned, any money paid up front for your phone, less any restocking fees, is refunded.

Wrap Up

If it’s time to replace your old phone there are a variety of options.  A little review is always a good idea to find the phone you want from a sales channel that will best fit your needs.  Always check the retailer’s policies on returns, exchanges and restocking fees.  If you find the phone you want at a price you want you can use the return period to try it out, but you may end up paying restocking fees if you change your mind.

If you’re ready to make the plunge, then make it; a new phone can be great.  Just make sure you know the exact terms of the sale, so there are no headaches later on.