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AT&T now offering home activation for iPhones sold online

In an unexpected move Thursday, AT&T began accepting online orders for Apple's iPhone 3G, allowing customers to have the device shipped to their doorstep for activation within the comfort of their own homes.

The exclusive US iPhone carrier is accepting orders from both new AT&T customers as well as existing AT&T and iPhone customers who may want to add an additional line of service to their monthly plans.

As part of the online buying experience, the carrier is offering customers the option of speaking live to an AT&T representative through an online chat. After selecting a specific iPhone model, shoppers can choose their rate plan and add features such as roadside assistance, VoiceDial, and Smart Limits for parental controls.

Overnight shipping is free with each order, and AT&T says shoppers have 8 days left to order an iPhone online and have it arrive in time for Christmas. The online ordering process provides for number porting and will include a credit check for new customers who must provide their social security number.

As such, each iPhone 3G ordered online will be tied to a users account before it ships but won't be fully functional until customers plug the handset into their computer and activate it through iTunes.

A move towards online sales on AT&T's part is surprising given that Apple has thus far chosen not to offer a similar service through its own website. The only way to purchase an iPhone 3G from the electronics maker is hit up one of its brick-and-mortar retail stores.

In neither case can iPhones be purchased as gifts for non family members due to the need for personal and number porting information required at the point of sale. The only way to safely give the gift of iPhone this holiday season is to purchase an iPhone Gift Card from Apple's online or retail stores.

However, it would appear that parents could potentially order an iPhone as a gift for their children through the online process.