Apple iPhone 12 Pacific Blue Press ShotSource: Apple

Best answer: Just as it has been in past years, the best way to pick up an iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12 Pro, or iPhone 12 Pro Max unlocked is to buy directly from Apple. For the most straightforward experience, if you can afford it, you should also buy the SIM-free version.

Going through Apple will mean you get an unlocked iPhone, with one exception

When you buy an iPhone 12 directly from Apple, whether you buy SIM-free or for a specific carrier (phone purchased through Apple can still be attached to your mobile account, for instance) it will come unlocked (with an exception we'll cover momentarily). This means that, should you decide move carriers, you'll be free to do so at any time.

The only exception to this is AT&T. If you purchase an iPhone at Apple through the AT&T installment plan, your iPhone will ship to you locked. You should only need to wait 14 days before it's unlocked, but just be aware that this limitation is in place.

There are many ways to buy an unlocked iPhone at Apple, and not all of them cost an arm and a leg up front

Perhaps the most obvious way to buy an unlocked iPhone from Apple is to buy it SIM-free. This means that your iPhone doesn't come with a SIM card for any carrier, nor is the digital eSIM connected with any carrier. You can just drop any compatible nano-SIM card into your iPhone, and activate with whatever carrier will accept the phone.

SIM-free comes with the downside, of course, of requiring you to pay up front. That means that you're spending a minimum of $699 before tax (assuming you're waiting until all the iPhone 12 line is available, including the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max). But, the phone will be yours, free and clear, so that might be worth it to you.

But there are options that don't require you to shell out all at once. First, of course, you can buy an iPhone on your Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint account, which let you pay through installment plans. These phones will come unlocked. You could also use Apple's own iPhone Payments Plan, which lets you pay for the iPhone over time, but to Apple directly, rather than your carrier.

Finally, there's the iPhone Upgrade Program. The iPhone Upgrade Program is like the Payments Plan, but with more features. You buy your iPhone directly from Apple, paying it off in installments each month. The difference is that the monthly payments are higher because the cost also includes AppleCare+. Additionally, after 12 payments, you're eligible for an upgrade to a new iPhone if you want it. You just turn your current iPhone in, the payment for it is closed out, and you begin the payment for your new iPhone. You can also move your iPhone to another carrier without having to get a new phone or pay your current carrier the remaining cost of the iPhone, as you would if you went through a carrier payment plan. It might be the best way to always get the latest and greatest iPhone without paying full price up front every year.

A note on Sprint

Just like with AT&T, there are considerations to make when buying a new iPhone on Sprint. Sprint, once one of the four major carriers in the United States, is now a part of T-Mobile. That means that if you select the Sprint option when purchasing through a carrier plan, you'll actually be buying an iPhone through T-Mobile. But if you're an existing Sprint subscriber, you'll still be able to sign in with your Sprint account on Apple's store to get your iPhone.

Best for most people

iPhone 12

The right iPhone for most people.

The 6.1-inch iPhone 12 is probably the iPhone in the 12 series most people should get. It's got a 6.1-inch display, like the iPhone 11, plus a new design, OLED display, and it won't have the same battery life compromises that undoubtedly come with the iPhone 12 mini.

Step up to Pro

iPhone 12 Pro

Better cameras, better materials, bigger price.

Like the iPhone 12, the iPhone 12 Pro features a 6.1-inch OLED display. Unlike the iPhone 12, the Pro model features three cameras instead of two, adding a 52mm-equivalent (62mm on the iPhone 12 Pro) telephoto lens. The band is also made of stainless steel, rather than aluminum, and it will record Dolby Vision video at 60fps, rather than being limited to 30fps like the iPhone 12 and 12 mini.

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