How To Maximize Apple's iPhone 5 Warranty Policies

By Norman Chan

Fewer types of damage are covered than on previous-generation iPhones.

Ok, so we've talked about how Apple checks to see if a damaged MacBook qualifies for warranty repair. But what about Apple's best-selling product, the iPhone? My hunch is that more people bring in their iPhones to Apple stores for service than any other Apple product, given the numerous ways you can break it. It's also a device that users seem to scrutinize more carefully--a light scratch on a MacBook may be something you can live with, but a scratch on the iPhone's case looks exceptionally garish. And with the iPhone 5's chamfered aluminum casing, the iPhone is more prone to scratches than ever before.

Photo credit: Flickr user msvg via Creative Commons.

Unfortunately, it's official Apple policy that scratches or chips on any of its aluminum products is considered normal wear and tear. Apple's Senior Vice President of Marketing Phil Schiller said as much in an email to a concerned user back in September. So you can't take your iPhone in for replacement or a free repair for scratches--fair enough. You also can't rely on Schiller to clarify about every point of Apple's iPhone damage policy. But here's the next best thing: Apple's Visual/Mechanical Inspection Guide for iPhones. This is the document that details what kind of damage is covered under warranty and teaches Apple store employees how to evaluate that damage. The VMI guide for every iPhone generation through the iPhone 4S was leaked earlier this year, but not the one for the iPhone 5. That's the document we recently received from an Apple repair technician.

Whereas the iPhone 4/4S VMI guide is identified as document number 070-2515E, the one for the iPhone 5 is 070-3037-D, dated March 28th 2013. It has numerous differences from the earlier guide since it covers only the latest iPhone model, and shows several key changes in warranty damage classification. Let's go over some of its highlights.

Cosmetic damage considered normal wear and tear

First, as seen in the image above, is the inclusion of a cosmetic damage damage section that reinforces what we already know: scratches, dents, and chips are considered normal damage for an iPhone, and aren't covered under the standard one-year warranty. You can't even pay to have this damage fixed in out-of-warranty service. The one type of external damage that is covered is a bulging case that's due to a swollen battery. In that situation, the entire phone can be replaced at no cost. And even if the phone is out of warranty, damage caused by a swollen battery is eligible for a whole unit replacement at the cost of a battery replacement ($80). That's reasonable.

Next, on to the water damage policy. This is where things get interesting.

As with almost every other Apple product, the iPhone has several Liquid Contact Indicators to let technicians know whether the product has been subject to possible water damage. We've discussed LCIs in MacBooks and other smartphones. On previous iPhones, it was well known that there were LCIs embedded in both the headphone port and 30-pin dock connector port. This placement was problematic for people who used their iOS devices during exercise, as body sweat could sometimes trigger these indicators. Apple even revised its water damage policy in 2011 to accommodate this complaint.

On the iPhone 5, however, there is only one external LCI, which has been moved to below SIM tray. The SIM tray has to be removed to see it, and Apple policy is to also check two LCIs inside the phone for signs of contamination.

Location of Liquid Contact Indicators for iPhone 5

Here's where what you say can affect your warranty status. According to the VMI guide, the technician is supposed to ask the user if their iPhone has been in contact with liquid, and if device failure occurred around that same time. If you confirm a correlation between liquid contact and failure, your warranty coverage is automatically denied. You're better off playing dumb than admitting to any possible fault. Additionally, Apple's LCI policy states that if you dispute the external LCI evaluation and the tech doesn't find electronics corrosion or triggered LCIs inside the phone, the iPhone is eligible for warranty service. So just because water hit the external LCI by the SIM card slot doesn't mean you can't get your broken phone replaced.

But there are two situations in which liquid damage still qualifies you for warranty service, and that's where we come to the most important diagram in the VMI guide: the Guidelines for Damage Classification. With the iPhone 5, a single dead pixel (denoted as pixel anomaly) or debris/dust seen under the display qualifies your iPhone for warranty service, regardless of whether liquid damage is present or not. That means even if your phone fell into the toilet (or was attacked by the ocean--hey, it happens), as long as you're seeking service for dead pixels, you can get your phone repaired or replaced. I had a dead pixel on my iPhone 5, and was able to replace it without charge late last year. The trick is that you have to call out the dead pixel; Apple Geniuses won't do that for you. I also like that Apple's dead pixel policy is based on screen size, not resolution or pixel density.

The other surprising situation where you can get your phone repaired under a standard warranty is if the phone has a singular hairline crack on the front glass or back inlay. Chris Pirillo discovered this when he cracked his iPhone 5 last November, and this VMI document confirms the policy. I'm willing to bet that most people who've accidentally damaged their iPhone with a single crack don't know about this policy, or just assume it's not covered by warranty.

Guidelines for damage classification for iPhone 5

While Apple iPhone 5 warranty policies sound generous, they're actually a step back from what was covered for previous-generation iPhones. Referring back to the VMI guide leaked earlier this year, we see that fewer defects are are now covered. In older iPhones, the rear cracks on the plastic case and broken ring/silent switches qualified for in-warranty repairs, but those attributes don't apply to the iPhone 5's materials and construction. However, a scratched camera lens was something that used to fall within warranty, and it's something that may still affect the iPhone 5.

Guidelines for damage classification for iPhone/3G/3GS/4/4S

Knowing what (and what not) to say when you take a damaged iPhone 5 in for service may affect how much you have to pay for its repair. And know that when all else fails, you can blame it on a dead pixel.

Update: A reader wrote in to correctly point out that a phone that has fallen into the toilet is classified as a biohazard since it has been in contact with biological fluids. Please don't bring toilet phones to the Apple store for service!