The best unlocked iPhones keep you free of carrier payment plans while giving you the best Apple experience. You can just snap up the iPhone that's caught your eye, whether it's one of Apple's ultra powerful flagships or an older model that's dropped in price.
This gives you more freedom around how much you'll pay for a phone, how long you sign up for wireless service, which carrier you end up choosing and more. Combine all these factors, and the best unlocked iPhones are the obvious route when you're in the market for a new handset, especially when you then pair one with one of the best cell phone plans.
Because Apple only releases a handful of phones each year, you don't have quite a much choice as you would see with the best unlocked Android phones. But there's still a good number of Apple devices to choose from if you don't want to commit to a carrier, especially now that Apple has introduced a new version of the iPhone SE that brings 5G connectivity to the company's least expensive handset.
What are the best unlocked iPhones?
This is a bit of a difficult question to answer, since it depends on your budget. Obviously, the best unlocked iPhones will be from the newest iPhone 13 family, with the Pro models being the best phones you can buy right now. All four iPhone 13 models offer stellar cameras, 5G, and great battery life.
But if money is more of a concern, we'd normally recommend the iPhone SE, which is the least expensive phone in Apple's lineup. We're still in the process of evaluating the just-announced iPhone SE (2022), but the early signs are promising. The new phone runs on the same processor found in the iPhone 13 models and adds 5G connectivity.
We can't include the iPhone SE (2020) in our best unlocked iPhone rankings until we finish our review, but for now, we have a list of reasons to buy and skip the new iPhone SE when it arrives in stores on March 18. If you need a cheap iPhone without 5G, you can still get the iPhone 11 for $499; it offers excellent battery life and great software support.
You have a wide spread of options for unlocked iPhones, so find the one that fits your budget.
The best unlocked iPhones right now
We think the iPhone 13 is the best unlocked iPhone to buy because it packs in a lot of features while keeping its price around $800. That’s important when buying an unlocked phone, as you’ll likely have to buy the device outright to enjoy the freedom of taking it to a carrier of your choosing. While the iPhone 13 starts at $799, be aware Apple charges $30 extra over the carrier-tied versions for an unlocked model.
Still think of what you get for that price. The bigger battery in the iPhone 13 helps it last longer than the iPhone 12 did. A power efficient A15 Bionic chipset helps, too, and that processor offers a performance boost over the previous generation of iPhones. Photos are much better now that Apple boosted the camera sensor size for the main shooter.
All told, the iPhone 13 is a vast improvement over its predecessor, even if it lacks some of the more advanced features found in the iPhone 13 Pro models.
Read our full iPhone 13 review.
There’s little difference between the two iPhone 13 Pro models this year, and that’s great news for unlocked phone fans. That means you can get all the great additions to the Pro lineup with the $999 iPhone 13 Pro instead of paying up for the more expensive iPhone 13 Pro Max.
Those additions include a ProMotion display that can ramp up the refresh rate to 120Hz when you’d benefit from smoother scrolling and immersive game-playing. The cameras now feature bigger sensors than before for better low-light photography, and the telephoto lens offers an improved 3x optical zoom. A bigger battery helps makes the iPhone 13 Pro last a very long time.
Buying the iPhone 13 Pro unlocked means having to pay the full $999 upfront, which is a tall order. But the device you get in exchange is well worth the money.
Read our full iPhone 13 Pro review.
Apple really put some effort into improving the iPhone 13 mini over last year's effort, boosting the battery size and using larger sensors for the camera. Battery life is longer than what the iPhone 12 mini offered, though it's still below average for a smartphone. The camera improvement is more successful, as the iPhone 13 mini takes better pictures in low light.
You won't get the advanced features of the iPhone 13 Pro series, like a fast-refreshing display, though Apple did increase the brightness of the mini's 5.4-inch panel. Just be aware that there's an additional $30 tacked on to the iPhone mini's relatively low $699 starting price for unlocked versions of this compact phone.
Read our full iPhone 13 mini review.
It wasn't that long ago that the iPhone 11 was the leading choice for the best unlocked iPhone. And while it has faded into the background slightly with the arrival of both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13, the iPhone 11 remains a top choice for anyone considering a new iPhone.
That's mainly due to the drop in price. The iPhone 11 now starts at $499, making it a more affordable option with a still-powerful A13 Bionic chip. You also get a dual camera set-up with excellent night mode features and AI, a full day battery capacity and a pretty sleek design.=
While it does lack more recent iPhone features like 5G compatibility and a telephoto lens with optical zoom, the iPhone 11 does hold onto most of the key features we see with Apple.
Read our full iPhone 11 review.
You'll have to pay $1,099 up front for an unlocked iPhone 13 Pro Max, but you'll find that it's well worth the money. This is Apple's best phone by some measure.
Like the iPhone 13 Pro, this model features a fast refreshing display that adjusts automatically to what you're doing, ramping up the speed when you'd benefit from smoother scrolling. The cameras are outstanding, too, and the A15 Bionic inside the phone powers the best performance of any handset.
Apple's largest phone isn't for everybody, but people who want the very best Apple has to offer should opt for the iPhone 13 Pro Max.
Read our full iPhone 13 Pro Max review.
If budget is a concern when you’re looking for your next unlocked iPhone, then look no further than the iPhone SE (2022). This is the little phone that could, providing a mostly premium experience in the compact iPhone 8 body. It has some drawbacks and compromises, but all told, it’s a great device.
It has the same A15 Bionic processor as the regular iPhone 13 models, though it lacks some staple features like Night mode. You also won’t get support for Verizon’s mmWave 5G network with the new SE, but at $429, you can’t have everything. For that, the iPhone 13 mini or iPhone 12 mini is a better bet. If money is still a concern, but you want more modern features like Night mode or an ultrawide camera, the iPhone 11 is the next best choice.
Still, the iPhone SE (2022) is a great entry on this list and it will make a lot of people happy. If you want a 5G iPhone under $500, this is it.
Read our full iPhone SE (2022) review.
With the iPhone 13 now available, the iPhone 12 sticks around, but at a lower price. Apple has dropped the phone down to $100, though you'll still pay an extra $30 for the unlocked iPhone 12. (Buy the iPhone 12 through a carrier, and you'll pay $699; it's $729 unlocked.)
The phone is powered by Apple's A14 Bionic chip — not as powerful as the A15 inside the iPhone 13 models, but still a top performer. The A14 inside the iPhone 12 delivers high-end gaming, the full potential of the phone's camera AI, 5G connectivity and more.
Past the processor, you're getting a dual camera with 12MP wide and ultrawide lenses, 5G capabilities, a 6.1-inch display and a battery life that will easily get you through a day.
Read our full iPhone 12 review.
The iPhone 12 mini is another unique handset, offering a small-bodied smartphone with market-leading specs. The iPhone 13 mini surpasses it, but you can now get the iPhone 12 mini for a lower price, making it an attractive option if you want the best unlocked iPhone.
In essence, the only noticeable differences between this model and the iPhone 12 are its size and price. The iPhone mini is the most affordable iPhone 12 handset and comes in at a size of 5.4-inches.
While that screen is going to be far too small for some, it is a great size for using your phone with a single hand. You also get 5G connectivity and a powerful A14 Bionic process — the same chip in the rest of the iPhone 12 lineup. Like the iPhone 12, an unlocked iPhone 12 mini costs $30 extra over the reduced $599 price Apple now charges.
Read our full iPhone 12 mini review.
What is an unlocked iPhone?
You might be thinking to yourself, what we actually mean by "unlocked" iPhones. This simply means that your handset isn't connected to any carrier yet, giving you the option of picking the carrier you prefer.
This could be a carrier you are already with or one you think would work well with the phone you have selected. Whether that is Verizon (opens in new tab), Mint Mobile (opens in new tab), T-Mobile (opens in new tab) or something else.
The benefits of this are the fact that you can completely choose who you end up with. And while you can in most cases simply go directly to a carrier and get a phone, choosing an unlocked model is often cheaper and gives you more choice. One exception to that rule — the unlocked iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 cost $30 more than the carrier-tied versions when you buy those phones through Apple. Apple is also charging that $30 premium for unlocked versions of the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini. There's no extra charge on the unlocked iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max.
Apple is as good a place as any to buy the best unlocked iPhones, as it has a trade-in program that lets you save on your phone purchase. Trade in an iPhone 8 or newer and you can save between $100 to $700 on any of the new iPhone 13 models. Newer phones are eligible for the bigger discounts.
How we test the best unlocked iPhones
With all of the iPhones on this list, we have made sure they have been put through multiple tests so we know where they rank. This not only involves us using each Apple phone for a set period of time but also running tests.
When it comes to performance, we rely on such synthetic benchmarks as Geekbench 5 and 3DMark to measure graphics performance. These tests allow us to compare performance across iPhones and Android devices. We also run a real-world video transcoding test on each phone using the Adobe Premiere Rush app and time the result.
|Geekbench 5 (single-core / multicore)||3DMark Wild Life Unlimited (FPS)|
|iPhone 13||1668 / 4436||56|
|iPhone 13 Pro||1733 / 4718||70|
|iPhone 13 mini||1733 / 4643||61|
|iPhone 11||1333 / 3251||N/A|
|iPhone 13 Pro Max||1720 / 4549||68|
|iPhone SE (2022)||1718 / 4482||50|
|iPhone 12||1593 / 3859||51|
|iPhone 12 mini||1602 / 4123||54|
To measure the quality of a phone's display, we perform lab tests to determine the brightness of the panel (in nits), as well as how colorful each screen is (DCI-P3 color gamut). In these cases, higher numbers are better. We also measure color accuracy of each panel with a Delta-E rating, where lower numbers are better and score of 0 is perfect.
|sRGB (%)||DCI-P3 (%)||Delta-E|
|iPhone 13 Pro||117||82||0.27|
|iPhone 13 mini||117||83||0.27|
|iPhone 13 Pro Max||110||74||0.21|
|iPhone SE (2022)||115||81||0.21|
|iPhone 12 mini||118||83||N/A|
One of the most important tests we run is the Tom's Guide battery test. We run a web surfing test over 5G (or 4G if the phone doesn't have 5G support) at 150 nits of screen brightness until the battery gives out. In general, a phone that lasts 10 hours or more is good, and anything above 11 hours makes our list of the best phone battery life.
|Battery life (Hrs:Mins)|
|iPhone 13 Pro||12:18|
|iPhone 13 mini||8:54|
|iPhone 13 Pro Max||12:16|
|iPhone SE (2022)||7:39|
|iPhone 12 mini||7:28|
Last but not least, we take the best phones out in the field to take photos outdoors, indoors and at night in low light to see how they perform versus their closest competitors. We take shots of landscapes, food, portraits and more, and also allow you to be the judge with side-by-side comparisons in our reviews.