The appeal of unlocked smartphones is that they provide features comparable to those on pricey flagships like the Galaxy S7 for hundreds of dollars less. You just buy the phone, pop in a SIM card (usually for a GSM network like AT&T or T-Mobile) and off you go. There's no contract or monthly payment plan required for the hardware.
Both the Pixel and Pixel XL from Google are terrific unlocked phones, if you've got money to spend on the ultimate Android experience. (The Pixel starts at $649 while the $769 XL has been in short supply.) But if you'd prefer to spend less than $500 on your next smartphone, you can't go wrong with the OnePlus 3T ($439), the latest phone from OnePlus which features a better processor and longer battery life than its predecessor, our former top pick, the OnePlus 3. And one of our favorite unlocked phones from 2016 — Huawei's Honor 8 — is now getting the latest version of Android.
If you're on a tighter budget, we also have recommendations for phones at lower prices, with the $229 Moto G5 Plus getting the nod as our favorite phone for less than $300. (Even if you pay up for extra memory and capacity, the G5's price tag is still lower than $300.) And with premium features now finding their way into budget phones, photography buffs will appreciate the dual-lens rear camera on the ZTE Blade V8 Pro as much as they'll like its $229 price tag.
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What to Look For
Most cheap unlocked phones can be purchased online via Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg and other retailers. Assuming you want 4G LTE speeds, the vast majority of these devices operate on GSM networks in the U.S. That means AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as discount carriers that run on those networks, such as Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS and Straight Talk. Some so-called multimode unlocked phones work with CDMA carriers like Sprint and Verizon, such as the Pixel and Pixel XL.
You can tell which networks an unlocked phone supports by looking at the bands on which it runs (e.g., 850 MHz; 900 MHz; 2,100 MHz; 1,900 MHz; 2100 MHz), but many online product descriptions will also tell you which providers are compatible. "Make sure it works on a carrier that offers good coverage in your area," advised Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at market research firm Current Analysis.
How We Test
We evaluate smartphones based on a wide range of criteria, including design, display, audio, features, performance, camera quality and battery life. Display evaluations include tests for brightness, color gamut and accuracy. For performance, we use a mix of real-world tests, as well as synthetic benchmarks. Our battery life test involves continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE with the display brightness set to 150 nits.
When reviewing phones in the unlocked value category, we place an emphasis on making comparisons to similarly-priced devices, as well as higher-priced handsets, to gauge their overall value.