The best unlocked phones may cost more upfront, but you're also free from payment plans and contracts. Not only do you get to pick the device you want, you can then bring that unlocked handset to the best phone carrier for your needs. Of course, the downside is that you have to front your phone's cost upfront in most cases.
Don’t worry if you want to switch carriers: It’s super easy to jump from one to another when you own an unlocked phone. And the best part is, you don’t have to pay any early termination fees.
While the best unlocked phones almost certainly support GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, it’s best to look for devices that work with all the major U.S. providers, including Verizon. That way, you can freely choose to take your device to any carrier.
What are the best unlocked phones?
Up until recently, our pick for best unlocked phone based on testing has been the Google Pixel 5a. It's still a good phone, but it's on its way out — Google's Pixel 6a arrives in July, with promised improvements over the current budget phone. The Pixel 5a is still worth getting if you want a great camera phone for less than $500, but if you want more current hardware, it's best to wait until July.
So what takes the Pixel 5a's place atop the list of best unlocked phones? We think it's the iPhone 13, since its among the best iPhones Apple has to offer, even though it costs a lot unlocked. The iPhone SE (2022) might be a better option now that it has 5G connectivity.
Android fans may prefer the premium experience of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, while those willing to spend more should look into any of the three Galaxy S22 models from Samsung,. All of these devices rank among the best unlocked Android phones.
The Galaxy A53 and Galaxy S21 FE are lower-cost options for Samsung fans. And Android fans should also consider the OnePlus 10 Pro, which vastly improves upon an already great predecessor.
The best unlocked phones you can buy today
While we think the iPhone Pro models are better all around, we picked the iPhone 13 as the best unlocked phone that Apple has to offer. It offers a compelling camera experience, much improved battery life, and all the things that made the iPhone 12 before it good.
Thanks to the new A15 Bionic chip powering it, the iPhone 13 can crush through any task you set before it. And with the Neural Engine upgrades, the iPhone 13 can pull off some impressive photography and video recording feats, notably Photographic Styles and Cinematic mode which rely heavily on the iPhone 13’s AI strengths.
This is the best iPhone for most people with its affordable price (and 128GB of storage on the base model). It’ll take some amazing pictures and videos, go for years to come, and offer you a top-tier 5G experience on whatever carrier you choose.
Read our full iPhone 13 review.
If you’re looking for a slightly upgraded experience over the Pixel 5a, then be sure to check out the Pixel 6. The latest phone from Google ticks all of the boxes with powerful hardware, superb cameras, and an affordable price starting at $599.
If there’s one problem with the Pixel 6, it’s the lackluster battery life. We saw it last several hours shorter than other flagship phones, but we suspect it might have something to do with the older 5G modem — we saw much better battery life on LTE.
Even with the disappointing battery life, the Pixel 6 is an impressive device thanks to its cameras and Tensor-powered smarts. This phone can do a lot, some of which no other phone can do thanks to enhancements in AI and Google Assistant.
Read our full Google Pixel 6 review.
Samsung’s Galaxy S flagships come packed with premium features, but that also means high prices — and that’s a lot to pay in one go when you buy an unlocked phone. The Galaxy S22 takes some of the sting out of that cost with a relatively affordable price tag. It only costs $799, a $200 discount from the Galaxy S22 Plus and $400 cheaper than the Galaxy S22 Ultra.
You’re not making may sacrifices to lower the cost of your Samsung phone. The Galaxy S22 comes with a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset in the U.S., the best silicon available for an Android phone. The S22’s screen is very bright, and camera improvements make this one of the better camera options out there, especially for low-light photos and zoom shots.
Other phones boast better battery life, but few can match the amount of high-end capabilities the Galaxy S22 offers for less than $800. And fans of compact phones will appreciate how easy it is to use this 6.1-inch device with just one hand.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S22 review.
The Google Pixel 5a has provided just about everything you could want for surprisingly little cash, though with the Pixel 6a arriving on July 28, this $449 phone's time is growing short. Still, you can't help but be impressed with how the Pixel 5a's 6.4-inch display and dual rear cameras keep up with other more expensive phones.
The appeal of the Pixel 5a is with its cameras, as it takes great shots, especially for a phone at this price. Credit Google's flair for computational photography, which compensates for a lot, even the lack of a telephoto lens on this phone.
The big issue with the Pixel 5a is the Pixel 6a's looming release. Google's new phone features the same Tensor processor found in the Pixel 6. That means the 6a will be capable of more AI-powered experiences than its predecessor. Since the Pixel 6a keeps the 5a's $449 price tag, it's worth waiting for the newer model if you can hold out until July for a new unlocked phone.
Read our full Google Pixel 5a review.
Pending the Pixel 6a's arrival, the Galaxy A53 is a great choice if you’re shopping for an unlocked phone because of its low price tag — $449. That’s $50 cheaper than its predecessor, but more importantly, it means the Galaxy A53 costs hundreds of dollars less than the latest Galaxy S phones. And it hits that price with only a few compromises.
The Exynos 1280 chipset powering the Galaxy A53 doesn’t have the oomph of the leading Android silicon inside the Galaxy S22 models, but it will handle most taks for most smartphone users. The Galaxy A53 also has features you wouldn’t expect in a midrange phone like a 120Hz refresh rate. Battery life is solid and the phone’s design is better than what you’ll see from cheaper phones.
There are fancier options than the Galaxy A53, but few phones can deliver all the features this handset does offer for less than $500.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy A53 review.
The OnePlus 10 Pro proves how far OnePlus has come. The Chinese phone maker has given us its best device yet, one with beauty, brawn, and camera prowess that keeps pace with other great phones like the Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S22 Ultra.
With stellar battery life and peak performance, the OnePlus 10 Pro handles any task you could want. Thanks to the new cooling system, the phone is also a powerful gaming device. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor doesn’t get as hot, so it doesn’t need to throttle as much as some other Android phones.
In our battery life testing, the OnePlus 10 Pro went for nearly 12 hours in its adaptive 120Hz refresh rate mode. That easily beats the Galaxy S22 Ultra and comes close to the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max. And with 65W charging, you can nearly recharge the phone from empty to 100% in 30 minutes. The best part is that you get all of this for $899.
Read our full OnePlus 10 Pro review.
Coming in at hundreds less than the competition, the Pixel 6 Pro is one of the best premium Android experiences you can get. From a beautiful 6.7-inch OLED display with a dynamic 120Hz refresh rate to the incredible cameras, the latest flagship from Google seriously impressed us.
Of course, no phone is perfect and the Pixel 6 Pro’s weakness comes down to its battery life. Despite sporting a 5,000 mAh power pack, the Pixel 6 Pro turned in a disappointing battery life result in our testing. However, in our anecdotal experience, the phone lasts more than long enough to get through a day.
Starting at $899, the Pixel 6 Pro shows that Google means business this year. It’s the best Android camera phone, the Tensor chip is really good, and the phone feels premium — this is the device that Google fans have been asking for since the beginning.
Read our full Google Pixel 6 Pro review.
With the iPhone SE (2022), you can get a brand new Apple phone without having to pay top dollar. Even better, this updated iPhone SE comes with the A15 Bionic chip — the same silicon that powers the iPhone 13 lineup. That means you’re getting best-in-class performance and 5G connectivity from a phone that starts at $429.
There are some trade-offs for that price. Apple hasn’t updated the iPhone SE’s dated look, and there’s still just one camera on the back of the phone. (It also lacks a Night mode, which is our biggest complaint about the iPhone SE.) Still, it’s hard to beat that price for an unlocked phone that can hold its own against the performance of any handset on the market.
Read our full iPhone SE (2022) review.
There are certainly more powerful Samsung flagships, but the Galaxy S21 FE is a very appealing unlocked phone for the very reason that it delivers many of the same key features as other Samsung flagships, but for less money. The Galaxy S21 FE costs $100 less than the standard S21 and $500 less than the Ultra — not inconsiderable discounts when you're paying for a phone upfront.
For that price, you still get a phone with a powerful Snapdragon 888 chipset, a triple camera array and a 120Hz refresh rate. (Unfortunately, the refresh rate is not adaptive, so there's a hit on battery life.) Throw in a bright screen, and this is a very good value.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review.
Samsung just introduced the new Galaxy S22 lineup, which includes three phones: the Galaxy S22, Galaxy S22 Plus and the Galaxy S22 Ultra. And although the Samsung Unpacked event didn't include any new announcements on the affordable FE model, the S22 models are still worth considering buying as unlocked phones.
Rather than opt for the iPhone SE's older look, small phone fans should turn to the iPhone 13 mini. It’s a powerful little thing, thanks to its A15 Bionic chip. It’s also a great camera phone, thanks to upgrades in the sensor and lens hardware, plus new AI-based features.
Though it’s not the full premium experience that you’ll find on the Pro models, the iPhone 13 mini nonetheless offers a compelling option for people who like small phones. Rumor has it that this is Apple’s last hurrah with diminutive handsets, so be sure to snap this up while it’s around.
Read our full iPhone 13 mini review.
How to choose the best unlocked phone for you
- Find a phone that works on your carrier: The vast majority of unlocked devices operate on GSM networks in the U.S. These include AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as discount carriers that run on those networks, such as Cricket Wireless, Metro by T-Mobile and Straight Talk. Some so-called multimode unlocked phones also work with CDMA carriers like Sprint and Verizon, such as all of Apple's iPhones, and the Google Pixel 4a.
- Make sure the coverage map fits your needs: In terms of coverage area, there's less discrepancy between networks than ever before, but there are still gaps, especially in less-populated areas. "Make sure [the phone you're buying] 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.
- Shop around, and don't be afraid to go used: Because some unlocked phone makers skip the carriers to sell their devices, they can often pass those savings onto you. However, don't be afraid to entertain buying one of the best used smartphones, as you can often find very tempting offers on previous-generation flagships from sites like Swappa, Decluttr and even Amazon for refurbished examples.
How we test unlocked phones
In order for a smartphone to make our best phone list, it needs to excel on several tests that we run on every handset. We perform some of these tests in our labs and some in the real world.
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. (We unfortunately have to skip this test on some phones due to app compatibility issues, but we attempt this benchmark with each device we get in to review.)
|Geekbench 5 (single-core / multicore)||3DMark Wild Life Unlimited (FPS)|
|iPhone 13||1668 / 4436||56|
|Pixel 6||1029 / 2696||34|
|Galaxy S22||1222 / 3341||60|
|Pixel 5a||581 / 1345||10|
|Galaxy A53||745 / 1888||14|
|OnePlus 10 Pro||995 / 3482||61|
|Pixel 6 Pro||1027 / 2760||40|
|iPhone SE (2022)||1718 / 4482||50|
|Galaxy S21 FE||1101 / 3399||34|
|iPhone 13 mini||1733 / 4643||61|
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|
|Galaxy S22||213 (Vivid) / 112 (Natural)||151 (Vivid) / 80 (Natural)||0.33 (Vivid) / 0.24 (Natural)|
|Galaxy A53||204 (Vivid) / 123 (Natural)||145 (Vivid) / 87 (Natural)||0.32 (Vivid) / 0.31 (Natural)|
|OnePlus 10 Pro||174 (Vivid) / 119 (Natural)||123 (Vivid) / 84 (Natural)||0.32 (Vivid) / 0.23 (Natural)|
|Pixel 6 Pro||104||74||0.3|
|iPhone SE (2022)||115||81||0.21|
|Galaxy S21 FE||207 (Vivid) / 120 (Natural)||147 (Vivid) / 79 (Natural)||0.32 (Vivid) / 0.29 (Natural)|
|iPhone 13 mini||117||83||0.27|
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)|
|Pixel 6||8:13 (Adaptive) / 8:01 (60Hz)|
|Galaxy S22||7:54 (Adaptive) / 8:20 (60Hz)|
|Galaxy A53||9:48 (120Hz) / 10:38 (60Hz)|
|OnePlus 10 Pro||11:52 (Adaptive) / 12:40 (60Hz)|
|Pixel 6 Pro||7:43 (Adaptive) / 7:55 (60Hz)|
|iPhone SE (2022)||7:38|
|Galaxy S21 FE||7:40 (120Hz) / 9:15 (60Hz)|
|iPhone 13 mini||8:54|
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.