I tried buying Apple’s latest iPhone, the iPhone 6S, through the company’s new iPhone Upgrade Program.
It was terrible.
But first, let me back up a bit.
Before launch day
For those who don’t know, the iPhone Upgrade Program, introduced earlier this month, lets customers buy the latest iPhone each year — plus AppleCare+ coverage — by buying an unlocked iPhone through Apple in small monthly payments, thus allowing customers to choose their networks at will.
In the early morning on September 12, the day iPhone pre-orders went live, I went ahead and reserved my iPhone 6S through Apple’s site dedicated to the new upgrade program.
Reserving the phone this way was super easy to do: All I had to do was choose the phone I wanted, an Apple Store nearby, and a reservation time. Boom, I was done. My reservation was confirmed and I was ready for launch day.
Launch day arrives
Everything was going according to plan. I showed up five minutes before my 10:00 a.m. reservation time, and I was directed to a line on the left side of Apple’s Grand Central store in New York.
Once it hit 10:00 a.m., all of the lines moved. People from downstairs moved upstairs, and people at the front of our line crossed the store to get into the final line.
From entering the store to getting to the front of the line, it took a total of 30 minutes. No complaints at all, given the number of people there. In fact, I was quite impressed.
I’m assigned an Apple Store employee and the trouble begins
A friendly Apple Store employee named Erin comes to greet me, and takes me to a place in the store that’s “less crowded.” I tell her I highly doubt there’s anywhere in the store that’s not actually crowded.
We arrive at one of Apple’s display tables for the new phones. I tell her I’d reserved an iPhone 6S with 128GB of storage, but ask if it’s possible to change it to just 64GB of storage. She checks the inventory through her phone, and I’m good! She goes to the back and gets the phone.
As she’s taking me through the various agreements on the phone, I’m amazed that everything is progressing so quickly and smoothly. It’s only been three minutes since I met Erin and she’s already entering my financial information. It seems like Apple has finally mastered the process of selling iPhones.
And then, the trouble starts.
As I enter in the final bits of financial information like my credit card number, social security number, and my phone number, we reach the last screen in the process — but unfortunately, her phone says I’m ineligible for Apple’s offer, meaning I cannot go through with the iPhone Upgrade Plan.
Erin says this actually happened to one of her customers earlier this morning, but didn’t have an explanation. She begins to tell me a couple of alternatives: I can buy the phone on a two-year contract with my carrier, or I can buy the phone outright.
But this doesn’t sit well with me. I want to figure this out. I insist we try again, since both humans and electronics aren’t infallible: It’s possible one of us entered a piece of information wrong or the system simply read it wrong.
We go through the process again, and it takes another 10 minutes or so. Unfortunately, it says I’m still not eligible for Apple’s new iPhone Upgrade Program. It doesn’t appear to be a technical issue.
Erin says Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program is handled by Citizens One, the 13th largest bank in the US. I ask her why I was rejected, and she says the system doesn’t offer an official reason. I’d have to wait for an email from them that explains everything. (Spoiler alert: It’s several hours later and still no official email explanation from Citizens One.)
I call my dad and ask for advice. He’d successfully purchased iPhones for both himself and my mum through Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program earlier that morning, but I explained to him I was somehow ineligible. He recommends purchasing the phone outright, since it’s the same difference. I agree with him, and try to buy the phone at full price, unlocked.
At this point, everything starts to fall apart.
A full-scale meltdown
After entering all my information for a third time, we’re just about to confirm the purchase: One iPhone 6S in space grey with 64GB, unlocked and at full price, with AppleCare+.
She receives a notification that my credit card has been declined.
Of course, my natural reaction is to call my bank. Problem is, if you try doing the iPhone Upgrade Program, Apple deactivates your existing phone right there on the spot. So I try to call my bank, but fail.
I explain my issue to Erin, and she runs to the back of the store with another phone so I can call my bank and clear up this issue. The phone she returns with is an old crusty feature phone from Nokia.
It’s been such a long time since I’ve used a feature phone like this that I don’t even remember how to properly enter a phone number. Erin helps me out, and I eventually get my bank on the phone.
My bank clears up the payment issue — it recognised I was making a purchase (essentially a loan) that I don’t normally make, which it flagged as fraud.
With the bank issue cleared up, I ask Erin if there’s any chance we could try doing the iPhone Upgrade Program again. After all, that was my initial goal: to enter into the iPhone Upgrade Program and write about it. She agrees, though I can tell I just destroyed a piece of her soul by asking that question.
We try the iPhone Upgrade Program process again. After entering all the information again, of course, it doesn’t work. I don’t think to try calling Citizens One, since I don’t have a working phone and it’s been pretty nightmarish already. I tell Erin I’d be happy to buy the phone unlocked.
It’s been over an hour at this point, mind you. We’re both tired, despite the smiles plastered onto both our faces.
We enter all my financial information again for the fifth or sixth time, and of course, there’s an issue. Verizon says it can’t authorise the new phone because when we tried doing the iPhone Upgrade Program, it only partially transferred my number to a completely different device.
“Your phone number is not really there, and it’s not really here either,” Erin tells me. “It’s in limbo.” Great.
She runs to the back of the Apple Store again to find yet another clunky Nokia feature phone — how many of these things do they have back there?? — and I use my feature phone to call my bank again, just to let them know I’m about to attempt another purchase, and since I don’t have a working phone number, I wanted to stay on the line just to make sure the payment went through with no problems.
I imagine anyone looking over at our side of the display table got a kick out of seeing both me and an Apple Store employee using two feature phones to get help.
After a solid 10-15 minutes, Erin gets off the phone with Verizon and everything is finally working. We go through the process one final time — this is maybe the seventh time? — and thankfully, the payment goes through, and I’m all set.
Erin leads me to a different part of the Apple Store to unbox my phone and partially set it up. I thank her profusely for her patience and wish her luck with the rest of the day, hoping I’m the longest appointment she has to deal with today.
Three hours later
Standing in line at the Apple Store only took 30 minutes, but working with Erin to buy my iPhone — first through the new iPhone Upgrade Program, then at full price when that didn’t work — took about one hour and 45 minutes.
But the experience itself was probably more costly: I estimate this process, dealing with banks and carriers, took several months off my life.
Of course, one of the big issues was that my bank recognised Apple’s new iPhone Upgrade Program, which is technically a loan program, as fraud, and froze my credit card. This may have been the initial reason Citizens One said I was ineligible for Apple’s upgrade plan. I won’t know for sure unless I try this again, this time with my bank already on board.
I can’t blame the Apple Store or the employee: Honestly, Erin really did the best she could with the tools she had. I was impressed at the speed in which she tried problem solving even though it felt like an avalanche of problems. I give her major kudos, especially since she’s still at the Apple Store helping people get their new phones.
Despite my issues, I still believe the iPhone Upgrade Program is worth doing, assuming all the banks give you the green light. You might want to call your bank ahead of time to make sure they clear the loan before you give it a whirl at the Apple Store. Improved communication between the Apple Store and Citizens One could have saved me from this experience — I was mystified as to how I was ineligible, but after my credit card was declined, it all started to make sense.
I wish I had all this knowledge going into today, but over the next week or so, I aim to get in touch with Citizens One and outline all the issues that could prevent someone from being eligible for Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program. Maybe this could save you — and probably a few Apple Store employees — some future headaches.
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