Apple now sells contract-free iPhones

iPhone buyers in the United States will no longer have to sign a two year contract with AT&T, provided they’re willing to pay a hefty premium.

Apple Stores quietly began selling contract-free iPhones for $400 more than their subsidized price, Engadget reports. That means the 8 GB iPhone 3G costs $499, the 16 GB iPhone 3GS costs $599 and the 32 GB iPhone 3GS costs $699.

Note, however, that the phones are not unlocked from AT&T. Without relying on unofficial methods, that means you’ll still have to use AT&T, and you won’t be able to pop in another SIM card when overseas to get cheap local service.

Apple now sells contract-free iPhones

Of course, a contract-free iPhone that can’t be used on other networks isn’t much more useful than an iPhone with a two year contract, unless you’re planning to get a new phone in the short term. Even then, you might be better off paying AT&T’s $175 early termination fee to cancel the service before your contract expires.

As TechCrunch points out, the contract-free iPhone isn’t even a new concept. Apple did the same thing last year, in the months before releasing the iPhone 3GS. If history is repeating itself, Apple is simply following the patterns that ultimately lead to a new iPhone model in June or July. Rumors about a 4G iPhone and an updated operating system have circulated since before Apple’s iPad event in January, but this is the first sign from Apple that a new phone is on the way.

That’s not to say an unlocked phone wouldn’t make international travelers happy, but I wouldn’t count on it as long as AT&T has the iPhone exclusively.