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Best unlocked iPhones in 2021

best Unlocked IPhones
(Image credit: Future)

Choose one of the best unlocked iPhones, and you can pick up your favorite Apple device without making any commitment to a wireless carrier. Instead, you can just pick up the iPhone that's caught your eye, whether it's  an ultra powerful flagships or one of Apple's low-cost options.

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.

The iPhone 12 range leads the pack as Apple's most advanced devices, offering 5G, the best mobile processors and cameras and of course, high price tags. Last year's iPhone 11 range follows close behind with similar designs and specs, but lower prices.

For those on a tight budget, both the iPhone SE and iPhone XR are excellent unlocked iPhones that both come considerably cheaper than Apple's current flagships.

Here are the best unlocked iPhones available.

The best unlocked iPhones right now

Best unlocked iphones: iPhone 12

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

1. iPhone 12

The best value from Apple's latest range

Specifications
Display: 6.1-inch OLED (2532x1170)
CPU: A14 Bionic
RAM: 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 5.78 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:25
Reasons to buy
+Comprehensive 5G coverage+Impressive dual cameras+Incredible performance
Reasons to avoid
-Only 64GB of base storage-No charger or headphones in box

While Apple's iPhone 12 family features four devices, the overall best value option is the iPhone 12, which is not as expensive as the iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max. But it gives you more screen space than the compact iPhone 12 mini.

So what are you actually getting with the iPhone 12? The most important feature is the phone's A14 Bionic chip — currently the leading processor on the phone market. 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.

While you will get a more powerful performance out of the Pro or Pro Max models, the iPhone 12 keeps all of the device's most important features and comes in at a much lower price. Just be aware there's a $30 markup for the unlocked iPhone 12 that you wouldn't have to pay if you buy the phone for $799 through a wireless carrier.

Read our full iPhone 12 review.

best unlocked iPhones: iPhone 12 Pro Max

(Image credit: Future)

2. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Apple's most powerful device

Specifications
Display: 6.7-inch OLED (2532x1170)
CPU: A14 Bionic
RAM: 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256, 512GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4), 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.2)
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 8.03 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:53
Reasons to buy
+Best Apple camera available+Immersive 6.7-inch display+Powerful processor
Reasons to avoid
-No 120Hz refresh rate-Very expensive

Right now, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is not just Apple's most powerful handset but also one of the most powerful devices of all, battling with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for the top spot.

As Apple's most powerful handset, it will be no surprise that the iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn't come cheap; its price tag tops $1,000. Because of that, the iPhone 12 Pro Max won't be for everyone.

But people who can swing a $1,099 starting price for the best unlocked iPhones will be thrilled with everything the iPhone 12 Pro Max offers. It has a stunning 6.7-inch display, the best Apple camera on the market with a triple lens set-up and a host of AI camera boosts.

Internally, the iPhone 12 Pro Max makes use of the same A14 Bionic chip as the iPhone 12 but uses a more powerful battery, getting you over a full day of usage. Like most other top handsets, the iPhone 12 Pro Max comes with 5G compatibility.

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review.

Best unlocked iphones: iPhone SE 2020

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

3. iPhone SE

The best cheap iPhone yet

Specifications
Display: 4.7-inch LCD (1334x750)
CPU: A13 Bionic
RAM: 3GB
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8)
Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 5.22 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:18
Reasons to buy
+Affordable price+Fast A13 processor+Compact design
Reasons to avoid
-No Night mode on camera-Big bezels

The iPhone SE is a unique Apple device — it is Apple's one and only budget handset. Where Samsung, OnePlus and Google all have a couple of lower-cost choices, Apple simply offers the iPhone SE. It's a good thing, then, that this phone packs in so much value for its $399 starting price.

It does take a few sacrifices to get the price down, using a similar body and design to the older iPhone 8. The battery is one of the smaller ones you'll find in an iPhone, and this phone features an LCD screen. (The iPhone 12 marked Apple's complete switch to OLED panels.) More significantly, you get only one rear camera, but at least the iPhone SE remains one of the best camera phones available, thanks to powerful software. 

The biggest and best feature here is the processor. Where most affordable phones use midrange processors to get the price down, Apple opted for the A13 Bionic chip —the same as the iPhone 11. While that's no longer Apple's top-of-the-line chipset, the A13 still delivers impressive performance in gaming and photo processing, out-muscling more expensive Android models.

Read our full iPhone SE review.

Best unlocked iPhones: iPhone 11

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

4. iPhone 11

An excellent choice with a lower price

Specifications
Display: 6.1-inch LCD (1792x828)
CPU: A13 Bionic
RAM: 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) / 12MP
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.84 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:20
Reasons to buy
+Ultra wide camera+Excellent Night Mode+A13 Bionic is fast
Reasons to avoid
-Skimpy storage in base model-First released in 2019

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 the iPhone 12 models, 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 $599, 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.

best unlocked iphones: iPhone XR

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

5. iPhone XR

An older handset with an excellent price

Specifications
Display: 6.1-inch LCD (1792x828)
CPU: A12 Bionic
RAM: 3GB
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8
Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.8 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:26
Reasons to buy
+Fast performance+Great battery life+Affordable price tag
Reasons to avoid
-Not as powerful as other iPhones-No optical zoom

The iPhone XR is now Apple's oldest device that remains available as part of the company's current iPhone lineup. While it isn't anywhere near as powerful as the rest of Apple's handsets, the iPhone XR does come at a price tag well below the iPhone 11 and 12 series.

The iPhone XR sports a 6.1-inch LCD display and makes use of the A12 Bionic chip. While that falls behind what newer iPhones have, the A12 is still an excellent processor and will work perfectly for most people's needs from a smartphone.

One of the best features of the iPhone XR is its battery. When it first launched in 2018, this model had one of the best batteries of any iPhone yet; thanks to its lack of 5G or any intensive drains on battery, you should be able to get through the day on a single charge.

You will find yourself slightly limited when it comes to the camera with the iPhone XR sporting just one rear lens, but that's to be expected with a handset from a few years ago. And Apple does have some pretty powerful computational photography features to produce good photos, even with this older device.

Read our full iPhone XR review.

best unlocked iphones: iPhone 12 mini

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

6. iPhone 12 mini

5G, small and very powerful

Specifications
Display: 5.4-inch LCD (1792x828)
CPU: A14 Bionic
RAM: 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 4.76 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:25
Reasons to buy
+Perfectly sized for small phone fans+Super powerful A14 processor+Affordable starting price
Reasons to avoid
-Shorter battery life than iPhone 12-No charger in box

The iPhone 12 mini is another unique handset, offering a small-bodied smartphone with market-leading specs. In other words, this is the best small phone on the market right now.

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 $699 version available from wireless carriers.

Read our full iPhone 12 mini review.

best unlocked iPhones: iPhone 12 Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

7. iPhone 12 Pro

Blend specs and price with this middle brother

Specifications
Display: 6.1-inch LCD (1792x828)
CPU: A14 Bionic
RAM: 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) / 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0)
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.66 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:06
Reasons to buy
+Fantastic A14 processor+Magsafe charging is great+Excellent camera
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive-Limited optical zoom

Like the iPhone 12, the iPhone 12 Pro sits comfortably in the middle of Apple's latest line-up. You'll pay a little bit more than you would with the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini, but you'll get a powerful phone with the best features that only come with Apple's Pro models.

That includes a triple camera set-up with a telephoto lens, even if the iPhone 12 Pro Max offers a slightly better zoom. The iPhone 12 Pro uses the same A14 processor as the rest of the range, works with 5G and features the same Dolby video technology found in the video camera of the Pro Max model.

However, while it is cheaper than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, you'll still have to pay $999 for the iPhone 12. The phone is certainly worth it, but you find some of the best unlocked iPhones are available for much less.

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro review.

Best unlocked iPhones: iPhone 11 Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

8. iPhone 11 Pro

An upgraded version of the iPhone 11

Specifications
Display: 5.8-inch LCD (1125x2436)
CPU: A13 Bionic
RAM: 4GB
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 256GB, 512GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) / 12MP telephoto
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.63 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:24
Reasons to buy
+A13 Bionic chip is excellent+OLED display is very bright+Great triple camera set-up
Reasons to avoid
-Still quite expensive-Battery life falls short

While the iPhone 11 is a powerful handset, the iPhone 11 Pro could be a worthwhile upgrade if you're looking for something a bit more powerful. It shares a lot of similarities with the newer iPhone 12 Pro but will cost a bit less.

The iPhone 11 Pro uses the same A13 Bionic chip as the iPhone 11 while offering an OLED panel instead of an LCD screen. It's also a more compact phone without being as cramped as the iPhone 12 mini.

The other crucial upgrade over the iPhone 11 is the addition of an extra lens. That's particularly appealing if you like to zoom in, as the iPhone 11 Pro offers a telephoto lens.

The iPhone 11 Pro is no longer available through Apple, so to find an unlocked version, you'll need to look to another retailer. (Apple has started selling refurbished iPhone 11 Pro models at its site if you don't mind getting a used phone.)

Read our full iPhone 11 Pro review.

What actually 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, Mint Mobile, T-Mobile 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.

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.

Our testing includes benchmarking using Geekbench 5 and 3DMark's Wild Life benchmark, among other tests. We measure the accuracy of the colors on the display as well as how bright each screen can get. We run a customized battery test to see how long a phone can last continuously surfing the web, and then we time how long it takes for a phone to recharge.

To test the cameras, we compare the iPhones we're reviewing with other phones in the same price range, looking at various photos to see which device takes the best images. Finally, we consider cost, availability and design in our reviews.

Alex is an editor at Future with a focus on phones and broadband. With an eye on the best prices across both of these areas, Alex is bringing you the must-have bargains right now.