Apple's free iPhone 4 case program: What you need to know

To help defuse the media frenzy around the iPhone 4 “Antennagate,” Apple announced that it would issue full refunds for Bumper cases to iPhone 4 owners and offer a handful of third-party cases for free. Apple claims that less than one percent of iPhone 4 owners have called AppleCare to complain about antenna or reception issues, but that it nevertheless wants to make every single customer happy. On Friday, Apple unveiled the free case program to the public, so it’s time to answer some questions surrounding how it works, who is eligible, and how you can get your slice of Apple’s free pie.

When does the program start?

On Thursday, Apple began e-mailing refunds to customers who had purchased iPhone 4 Bumpers from its online store. On Friday morning, it also released the iPhone 4 Case Program, a free iPhone app which allows iPhone 4 owners to place an order for a free case.

How long does the offer run?

Apple is offering free and refunded Bumpers, as well as free third-party cases, to customers who purchase an iPhone 4 by September 30. Customers who bought an iPhone 4 before Friday, July 23 have until August 22 to claim a case. New iPhone 4 buyers have 30 days from their date of purchase to claim a free case, so the program basically runs through the end of October.

Can just anyone apply for a free case, or do I have to own an iPhone 4?

You must own an iPhone 4 to be eligible. Apple did argue at its press conference that signal attenuation is by no means a problem exclusive to the iPhone 4 and even demonstrated the issue on the iPhone 3GS alongside other smartphones from competitors. But as the iPhone 4’s antenna is the subject of all the hubbub, it's model that Apple is offering free cases for.

Is the program available outside the US yet?

Judging by the Twitter replies from our international readers, it sounds like the iPhone 4 Case Program app is available in countries where the iPhone 4 is—France, Germany, United Kingdom, and Japan. This makes sense, since Apple requires customers to run the app from their iPhone 4 to verify that they qualify for a free case.

Presumably, Apple will make iPhone 4 Case Program available in more countries as the iPhone 4 arrives. At its press conference last week, Apple announced that the iPhone 4 would arrive in 17 more countries in July: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. In August, 24 more countries should get the iPhone 4, and 40 more should get it by September.

What cases are available?

As of Friday morning, Apple is offering its own Black bumper (no other colors are available, at least not yet), as well as the following third-party cases: the Incase Snap Case for iPhone 4 in Smoke, the Incase Snap Case for iPhone 4 in Clear, the Belkin Shield Micra for iPhone 4 in Clear, the Griffin Motif iPhone 4 Diamonds/Smoke, the Griffin Reveal Etch iPhone 4 - Black/Black Graphite, the Speck Fitted Case iPhone 4 - Black Tartan, and the Speck PixelSkin HD iPhone 4 - Black.

What if I don’t like any of those cases?

You might have an option—emphasis on “might.” Apple states that its lineup of free third-party cases is subject to change at any time, so it might swap out different brands and cases during the course of the program. There probably won’t be any warning, though, and shipping times are likely to only get longer than the current 3 to 5 week wait. You can try gambling on factors like manufacturers not being able to meet demand, but there is no guarantee that a brand or case you want will make the cut—or that Apple will switch things up at all.

How can I get my free Bumper or third-party case?

The first time you run iPhone 4 Case Program, it will ask you to enter your iTunes Store account password, then check your device’s internal International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) and serial numbers to verify that it is indeed an iPhone 4. Then you’ll be able to proceed with the program and pick a case.

Once you select a case, the app will verify that the name and home address on your iTunes Store account is correct, and you’re done.

How soon will I get my free case?

“Free” is most people’s favorite flavor, and the rush is already on to claim legitimately free cases that usually costs upwards of $20 to $30, or more. As of this writing, every case that Apple offers has a ship date of 3-5 weeks.

I already bought a Bumper from Apple. Can I get a refund?

Yes. If you bought your Bumper from the Apple Online Store, the company began automatically issuing refunds on Thursday. If you haven’t received a refund yet, just wait. The process is entirely automated, so there is no form to fill out.

If you bought your Bumper in a retail store, just bring it back with the receipt by September 30.

I bought my Bumper from AT&T. Am I out of luck?

Not at all. Apple is also reimbursing customers who purchased iPhone 4 Bumpers from AT&T. Fill out this rebate coupon (PDF link) to claim your refund.

I bought a third-party case, am I eligible for a refund?

Unfortunately, no. But the case you bought is probably a mighty fine case, right? Apple is only issuing refunds for its own Bumpers and it picked a handful of third-party cases to begin offering for free.

Can I pick out a Bumper or case in my local Apple retail store?

At this early stage of the program, it looks like Apple wants to manage this program entirely through its iPhone app. It makes no mention of being able to grab a free case in its stores, even if you’re buying a new iPhone 4. This might be Apple’s way of minimizing abuse of the system and ensuring that each iPhone 4 owner gets only one case.

Updated 9:22am PT to add a question about the program's international availability

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