Everyone loves getting a new phone, but buying one can be stressful. You'll see deals from third-parties for unlocked phones, promos from the manufacturer if you buy through them, and options from a carrier that sound too good to be true. It should be fun to buy a new phone just like it is when you're using it! You can cut most of the confusion out of the picture by deciding if you should buy your phone from your carrier or if you should buy it elsewhere from whichever company has the best deal or the best freebies.

More: Smartphone Buyer's Guide

Financing models can also hide the real cost of a phone because it wants you to upgrade to a new phone every year or two.

The U.S. is finally moving away from the carrier subsidy model. That's great because it really only hid the true cost of buying a phone and didn't really save us money. Its replacement is a mix of different financing options or lease programs designed to do the same thing — disguise how much you're really spending.

And they can be tempting; even when you're not spending any extra money and getting a phone at the list price with no interest a carrier wants you to buy through them. It locks you in and keeps you paying for service unless you hand over the balance, which puts you right back at the beginning where you could have paid in full from any company. Getting you interested in financing or leasing is just as important as the subsidy model was, so the offers need to be enticing.

A carrier phone also means bloatware and a middleman between you and the manufacturer if there are any warranty issues. Everyone hates bloatware and there's not much we can say about it that's good, but having a warranty through a carrier might not be too terrible. Sure, talking to the company who built it when you have problems is great but remember, it's very important to keep you happy and paying for service every month to your carrier. They will often go the extra mile.

Your carrier is a business and businesses need to make money. Don't hate them for it.

Your phone carrier isn't evil. It's a business and it needs to make money. We want them to make money and be successful because we enjoy the service they offer. For the most part, all the information about all the ways to buy a new phone is available and representatives will do their best to answer your questions. What's important is that you go into it knowing it's a business deal that benefits them as much as you: you get a new phone, they get a monthly fee for their service. Quid pro quo and all that.

So buying your phone through a carrier is a bad idea, right? Wrong. There are a handful of reasons to buy your phone from the people who provide the service you'll be using.

  • Carrier optimizations. Every carrier does things like VoLTE (Voice over LTE) or Carrier Aggregation a little differently. And while we imagine sometimes there's a business decision involved, there are also technical limitations why a single model can't be made to support the advanced network features of every carrier. And the way network frequencies and wireless spectrum are distributed means it will probably remain this way for a while. these advanced features are pretty great, too. Who doesn't love faster network speeds or clearer voice calls, right?

  • Getting more than your money's worth. Sometimes you'll find a carrier offering a new phone at a ridiculously low price or even offering a buy-one-get-one offer. Getting two Galaxy S8 or LG G6 phones from T-Mobile and only paying for one was worth jumping through a few hoops. There will be hoops you can jump through the next time you buy a phone if you want a spare or one to sell. And in Europe, you'll often find the difference in contract price between a SIM-only plan and one that includes a phone is so small that you're better off taking the phone and selling it to offset the costs.
  • Carrier services. Like advanced network features, a mix of business practices and technical details can keep things like voicemail or Wi-Fi from calling unless you buy your phone through the carrier you're going to use it with. Some extras can also need a pre-installed app to properly work while the version in the Play Store can have features removed.
  • Exclusive colors or versions. This makes us really sad, but companies who make phones are more than happy to make a deal where some colors only go to certain carriers. These same contracts can happen for special editions with audio enhancements or wireless charging. This is why we can't have nice things.

More like this, please. But not tied to one carrier!

Finally, there are the leasing programs. You make a monthly payment every month and you get a new iPhone every year or can swap phones every 30 days or whatever carriers dream up next. While horrible from a financial point of view (you never stop paying for a thing you never get to own) the idea of getting a new phone without worrying about a down payment or changing any monthly fees is less horrible. Samsung or Best Buy aren't going to offer this option and most of us don't have the money to just run out and get a new phone whenever we feel like it.

We can all say that programs like T-Mobile Jump on demand aren't financially sound, but they are the only way to switch phones a lot without buying them outright. That makes them great for some of us.

So what should we do?

This is more of an opinion that a recommendation based on something more. That's because there are good reasons to buy your phone through your carrier and good reasons to buy it elsewhere. The way things work now means that if you're looking to pick up a new flagship phone from any of the popular brands, you're better off buying it through your carrier.

For now you need to buy from a carrier to use all of its features unless you buy an iPhone.

The biggest reason is the network optimizations you could be missing out on if you don't. Faster data speeds are always great, but network optimizations also can mean using less battery, having clearer calls and just staying connected better while moving from tower to tower. A phone isn't nearly as fun to use if you have no service, so anything that makes for better service is pretty important. Of course, the other reasons like special colors or BOGO deals aren't bad, either.

The exception here is the iPhone. There are a couple different models of iPhone that have carrier optimizations in place, but they are also unlocked and can be bought directly from Apple and used almost anywhere. Android phones like the Pixel series also have some network optimizations in place as well and, hopefully, this can continue until others can offer unlocked models with the very same features as carrier versions on every carrier.



This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure policy for more details.