You don't need to buy a 5G phone, and probably won't for a few years

Key Points
  • There's a lot of hype about 5G, which could help transform many industries.
  • Wireless carriers are rolling it out in the U.S. now, but that doesn't mean you need to buy a 5G phone this year. In fact, you may not even need one in 2020.
  • Verizon's CEO said his network will only cover half of the U.S. by 2020.
A man stands next to a 5G sign at the Tencent Global Digital Ecosystem Summit in Kunming, China, May 23, 2019.
Stringer | Reuters

You've probably heard about 5G, the new and faster wireless networks that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are beginning to activate around the U.S. right now.

But, if you're buying a new phone, or even considering waiting for Apple's new iPhones in September, you don't need to worry about 5G just yet.

Pay attention to it – 5G is important – but you can ignore buying into the hype right now.

The 5G service is going to be great. It'll give you faster data speeds, which means you'll be able to download high-resolution movies in just seconds, instead of minutes. Higher res video chats will work everywhere. It'll help connect smart cities so self-driving cars will know if there's an accident on the road, or to slam on the brakes if someone is running a red light. It'll change how we get TV and internet at home and will touch almost every industry, and the true benefits probably won't be known until it's fully deployed and developers show us what we can do on our phones and other gadgets with faster speeds.

But 5G also won't be widespread very soon.

Verizon's CEO, Hans Vestberg, told CNBC on Thursday that his company's network will reach half of the U.S. by 2020. AT&T and T-Mobile have promised nationwide coverage by the same time, but that's if they stay on schedule. (T-Mobile is awaiting final approval to merge with Sprint, which it says will help it compete in 5G.) Currently, the carriers only have small pockets of 5G networks that don't do much other than promise faster data speeds when you're in the right area. And only a few phone makers — Samsung is the largest — are selling 5G phones today.

The Galaxy S10 5G

There's another trend at work that could affect the spread of 5G phones.

People are hanging on to phones longer than they used to, upgrading iPhones about once every four years according to Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi. If you need to buy a new phone, you're safe to buy one now or in September when Apple launches the new iPhone.

And you don't need 5G yet. If you hold on to your phone for a few years, you'll be ready to upgrade once 5G has matured.

Still, despite limited coverage, expect lots of marketing from carriers and phone makers about new 5G networks, because they always want you to upgrade now instead of later. Apple is expected to release a 5G version of the iPhone in 2020, which could spur a lot of upgrades, even if it won't be necessary for many people.

Plus, you'll save money by skipping 5G today. For example, Samsung's 5G phone, the Galaxy S10 5G+, costs $1,300, which is a huge premium over the price you'd pay for a "regular" $799 Galaxy S10+. The 5G service isn't worth a $500 premium today.

If you buy a new phone this year, you'll be perfectly fine for the next few years. And, when you're ready to upgrade next, you'll find 5G phones across all price ranges.

What is 5G?
What is 5G?