If you are lucky enough to get a new iPhone 12 this holiday season, there are two things you need to do: Get a 20W USB-C power adapter and pick out the right case. And there’s one thing you don’t need to do: change to a more expensive wireless plan just to get 5G.
While it’s true that the new iPhone 12 is capable of mind-blowing wireless speeds thanks to its new 5G capabilities, you might not actually be able to get them. Depending on your plan and where you live, you might not be able to tap into 5G speeds under your current carrier plan, so you probably think you need to upgrade to one that does.
You don’t, at least not yet. While there are some benefits to 5G that can be enjoyed right now, the good stuff is likely years away. Even if you live in an area that can deliver sustained speeds of 1.5Gbps thanks to a close-range millimeter wave (mmWave) tower, you’re unlikely to use it for anything more than showing it off to your friends.
Besides, depending on your plan, you might already have access to 5G, but probably not the ultra-fast version of it. Like most 5G-capable phones, the iPhone 12 supports both mmWave and sub-6GHz 5G, the latter of which is significantly slower but also far more widespread.
Before you do anything, check your plan to see if 5G is covered. Here’s how it breaks down by carrier.
Supported 5G plans (sub-6GHz): All
Supported 5G plans (mmWave): N/A
Supported 5G plans (sub-6GHz): All
Supported 5G plans (mmWave): Play More, Do More, Get More
It’s a little confusing, but it basically breaks down like this: if you have an unlimited plan you’re in good shape. You’ll definitely get access to all three carrier’s sub-6GHz network, AT&T’s mmWave network, and possibly Verizon’s as well.
But unless you’re a T-Mobile subscriber, there’s a good chance you’re not on an unlimited plan. For one, they’re pretty expensive unless you have a big family, and for another, carriers are constantly changing plans, so unless you switched over within the past couple of years, your plan is likely capped at something like 4GB or 6GB. But that’s OK, since the average speeds that you’ll get using 5G on your iPhone 12 aren’t going to be life-changing anyway. In our testing, the fastest nationwide 5G is only slightly better than LTE and not worth switching or paying for.
The hype is still real
The good news is there’s a chance you have some sort of 5G already. Verizon offers nationwide 5G to all subscribers regardless of their plan, and T-Mobile does too. Granted, Verizon’s nationwide 5G network isn’t all that different than its excellent 4G network, so the speeds probably won’t be noticeable. The same goes for T-Mobile’s nationwide 5G network, though it is the fastest we’ve tested. But you’ll see a 5G logo in the status bar, so there’s that.
AT&T is the most restrictive with its 5G networks, so you need to be on one of the newer unlimited plans to get access. Plus, it’s more limited than either T-Mobile or Verizon, as well as being slower on average than its 4G speeds, which are very good. Like Verizon, the mmWave is significantly faster but also very limited.
All that’s not to say the 5G modem on your iPhone 12 is worthless, it’s just not worth jumping ship or changing plans just to get on board. Even if you’re on a plan that’s limited to 4G LTE or you’re in an area covered by T-Mobile and not Verizon, the gains you’re going to get by switching aren’t going to be noticeable.
And even if you’re lucky enough to be near one of Verizon’s mmWave towers that deliver 1.5Gbps-plus speeds, it’s not worth paying more for an unlimited plan just to get access to the network, even if it if mind-glowingly fast. You won’t be able to access it in your home, so unless you’re planning on downloading a lot of movies outside, the benefits just aren’t there yet.
That’s probably going to change in 2021 as networks continue to be built out and more 5G iPhones are in use, but for now, you can stick with your plain old 4G LTE plan. And your new iPhone 12 won’t suffer in the slightest.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.