If you're using any Windows Phone 8-based handset, you can get the final shipping version of Windows Phone 8.1 for free on the day that Microsoft announces it later this month. (And yes, it's available now.) Here's what you need to know.

The trick is to sign-up as a Windows Phone developer. The good news: You can do this for free. And-shhh!—you don't even have to be a developer.

Note: This won't be news for many Windows Phone fans, and these are the same instructions I provided for getting Windows Phone 8 Update 3 last year in Windows Phone 8 Update 3: Update Your Handset Today. It works the same way for Windows Phone 8.1, which is the next free update for Windows Phone 8.

First, a few notes.

It's (almost certainly) safe. If the Update 3 developer preview cited above proved anything, this kind of update can be done safely, easily, and without issue. Update 3 went swimmingly well. I expect Windows Phone 8.1 to do the same. But if you're worried about it, just give it a few days. I intend to update virtually every one of my own phones—and I have about a dozen Windows Phone 8 handets—to Windows Phone 8.1 immediately.

It's for all phones that run Windows Phone 8. Unlike Update 3, which was geared largely to 1080p phones with very large screens, Windows Phone 8.1 is for all phones that are currently running Windows Phone 8, from the lowliest Lumia 830 or 520 to the highest-end devices.

It's "only" Windows Phone 8.1. The version of Windows Phone 8.1 you will get from the developer preview is "final," but it does not include any device firmware or driver updates that will accompany the future, public releases of his update on specific handsets. Also, Microsoft typically delivers small post-RTM updates that handset makers include with their phones; this release does not include any of that.

It does require Update 2. That said, you must first have Update 2 installed before you can upgrade to Windows Phone 8.1. (I had previously reported this as Update 3, but Microsoft now says it's Update 2.)

It's a one-way street. Once you install Windows Phone 8.1 in this fashion, you cannot return to 8.0. You will later be able to update to the general release of Windows Phone 8.1, if available for your device (most will get it), which will include firmware and driver updates as well as post-RTM updates.

Ready? Here's how to get Windows Phone 8.1 as soon as possible.

1. Sign up as a developer. Technically, Windows Phone 8.1 is only available to those who have registered their Microsoft account—the same one you're signed in with on the phone—with one of Microsoft's developer programs. These include the Windows Phone Dev Center ($19 per year) or the free App Studio, which lets you create simple Windows Phone apps on the web. Since App Studio is free, head over there first, sign in with the same Microsoft account you used to sign in on your Windows Phone handset, and then register. That's all you have to do.

2. Download the Preview for Developers app. Now, download the Preview for Developers app from the Windows Phone Store to your handset. You can do this remotely, from your PC's web browser, or directly from the browser on your phone.

3. Run Preview for Developers. Once the app is installed, find it on your phone and run it. The app will step through a short wizard that explains what's happening, provides a Terms and Conditions document you must agree to, and a sign-in for your Microsoft account. Once that's all done, you agree to enable the Preview for Developers and click Done to complete the process.

4. Check for updates. Once Microsoft releases the Windows Phone 8.1 developer preview—it will be sometime this month—you can check for updates and then install it. To do so, navigate on your phone to Settings, Phone Update and tap the Check for Updates button. Phone Update will automatically find the update and begin downloading it. When that's done, it will prompt you to install the update now.

That's it. Now stayed tuned for news about when you can actually get Windows Phone 8.1. It won't be long, I bet.

 

REMINDER: Based on the comments, it's clear that many read the instructions carefully enough to go through the steps to get Windows Phone 8.1 as soon as possible, but didn't read the article carefully enough to know that YOU CANNOT GET WINDOWS PHONE 8.1 NOW. It will be released "later this month." Sometime. This month. Not today. That's why the title is "Get Windows Phone 8.1 as Soon as Possible" and not "Get Windows Phone 8.1 Now." --Paul