The best unlocked phones keep you free from carrier 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?
The best unlocked phone based on our testing is the Google Pixel 5a. Taking over from the Pixel 4a before it, the Pixel 5a offers users Google's excellent cameras and screen that are capable of challenging much more expensive devices, although it's a bit more expensive than last year's model. Of course, the new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are here to push the envelope with the new Tensor chips and camera prowess, though we're still in the review process.
While it looks old-fashioned, don't ignore Apple's cheapest iPhone, the iPhone SE. At $399, the SE is a great value in its own right, especially since it packs Apple's still-powerful A13 processor into a compact phone. While every wireless carrier offers the iPhone SE, Apple also sells the device unlocked, making it one of the best unlocked iPhones and giving you the freedom to take it to any carrier.
Those willing to spend more should look into the latest phones from OnePlus, which makes some of the best unlocked Android phones. The OnePlus 9 features the same top-of-the-line processor as many top Android flagships with even faster 65-watt charging.
If you're primarily concerned about battery life, the 2021 version of the inexpensive Moto G Power, which starts at $199, remains our undisputed battery life king thanks to a massive 5,000-mAh battery and energy-sipping CPU.
Finally, iOS loyalists who prefer phones larger than the iPhone SE should note that Apple usually sells its phones unlocked. That includes the iPhone 13. But the arrival of the new iPhones have meant price drops for the remaining models, which means less money to pay up front. Likewise, Samsung's Galaxy S21 phones can be bought unlocked, though the Galaxy S20 FE offers a cheaper way to get one of the best unlocked Samsung phones.
The best unlocked phones you can buy today
Providing everything you could want for surprisingly little cash, the Google Pixel 5a replaces its Pixel 4a predecessor as our pick of the best unlocked phones. Even though it costs half as much as the typical flagship phone, the Pixel 5a's 6.4-inch display and dual rear cameras can still keep up. It also boasts an IP67 water/dust resistance rating, important for keeping your device safe for as long as you own it.
There are a couple of limitations that are worth keeping in mind. First off, you can only buy this phone in the U.S. and Japan, so tough luck to U.K. readers who might have thought about picking this up. The other issue is a lack of computing muscle since the chip hasn't been changed from the Pixel 4a 5G.
Nonetheless, you get a very capable camera phone — in fact, it’s the best camera phone under $500. Though the Pixel 5a doesn’t have flagship features like a high refresh rate display or a telephoto camera, it’s a great phone all around. But now the new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are here, which offer top-tier experiences thanks to the new Tensor chips and improved camera hardware.
Read our full Google Pixel 5a review.
Like Google's Pixel 4a, Apple features a far less expensive version of its flagship handsets in the iPhone SE. However, in this device, Cupertino has still included the same processor you'd find in the iPhone 11 lineup — granting a ton of performance muscle for a modest $400 phone.
You'll make some trade-offs for that lower price. Unlike Apple's other phones, the iPhone SE features a single rear camera, though that 12-megapixel lens performed well in our tests. We wish that the iPhone SE supported Night Mode for low light photography, but photos in ordinary conditions match what Samsung's high-end Galaxy S devices can produce.
The iPhone SE also sports other features that typically pass over cheaper phones, like wireless charging. And despite its low price, the new iPhone SE will be supported with new software updates for years to come — a privilege that usually misses comparable Android phones in this segment. That includes iOS 15, making the iPhone SE a powerful little phone.
Read our full iPhone SE 2020 review.
While we think the Pro models are better all around, we picked the iPhone 13 as the best unlocked phone from the new lineup. 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.
The OnePlus 9 is a fantastic phone, especially for the money. You get a flat 6.65-inch FHD+ 120 Hz display that looks amazing, the same 48MP wide and 50MP ultrawide cameras as the OnePlus 9 Pro, and the best processor you can get with an Android device, the Snapdragon 888.
Battery life is another major plus, with the OnePlus 9 lasting for 10 hours and 51 minutes in the Tom’s Guide battery test with the 120 Hz mode enabled. Best of all, the OnePlus 9 starts at $729 for the 8GB/128GB model. That’s a lot of phone for the money and it offers a real challenge to Samsung’s Android crown.
Read our full OnePlus 9 review.
If you're looking for one of the best unlocked phones and money is no object, treat yourself to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, which offers a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display, Snapdragon 888 processor and optional versatile S Pen stylus, all for $1,199.
It's big, it's beautiful, and it's very powerful. Despite its size, it's also a well-rounded phone with excellent photography performance, too. It's a battery life champ despite having a high-res, high refresh rate display. It also can use the newly redesign S Pen stylus.
And that S Pen helps you get more from apps like Samsung Notes, which now syncs across a multitude of devices and allows for appending audio recordings to written or typed notes. The S21 Ultra's wireless DeX Mode and Windows Your Phone projection also helps you get more out of it on bigger displays.
Overall, it's one of the finest handsets you can buy unlocked and take to any network.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is one of the best unlocked phones you can buy in 2021. Not only does it look really good, but it also offers an excellent camera experience with its triple lens setup. That means you get better portraits and the extremely impressive Space Zoom feature, which can give you 30x zoom photos. But that’s not all that the Galaxy S21 has to offer.
You also get the newest processor from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 888, which means improved speed and more power efficiency. The 1080p display can now clock up to 120Hz, making for a buttery smooth user experience. That refresh rate is also variable, meaning that the phone can adjust it to save battery life as the need arises. If you don’t care about having a higher frame rate, you can lock the display at 60Hz and leave it there.
Of course, to hit the $799 price tag — which is $200 less than last year’s S20 — Samsung cut some corners. The body is high-quality plastic instead of glass, which ultimately feels less premium. There is no charger included in the box and the microSD card slot is noticeably absent. While some may question these decisions, rest assured that you’re still getting a top-tier phone with the Galaxy S21.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review.
If you want the latest and greatest small phone, then look no further than 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.
Asus has tried to make a name for itself by providing high-tier Android experiences for lower costs — in effect, it is trying to fill the void left by OnePlus. The culmination of such efforts for 2021 is the Zenfone 8, a powerful and compact handset that wowed with its performance, price, and cameras.
With the Zenfone 8, you're getting the best small Android phone. It can hold its own with the likes of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, OnePlus 9 Pro, and even its ROG Phone 5 cousin. If anything, the only thing that we would have liked to see with the Zenfone 8 would be wireless charging, but that's mostly a minor inconvenience. The battery life is also quite good, even in the 120Hz mode.
All told, we really like the Zenfone 8 and we think it's an excellent choice for one of the best unlocked phones. If you crave a small yet powerful Android phone, this is the one to get.
Read our full Asus Zenfone 8 review.
When it comes down to it, sometimes you just want a phone that will handle the basics and last all day, if not longer. That’s where the Moto G Power (2021) comes in with its mammoth 5,000 mAh battery and power-efficient specs. This phone looks quite nice and runs laps around some of the top-tier devices in terms of battery life, going for more than 14 hours in our testing. That’s just about 4 hours longer than the average.
Last year’s Moto G Power was already set at an attractive price, but Motorola one-upped itself for 2021. If you’re okay with skimping a bit on RAM and storage, you can get yourself one of these phones for a mere $199. If you want to bump up to 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM, you need only fork over $50 more. Talk about an incredible price for an unlocked phone.
Read our full Moto G Power (2021) review.
The iPhone SE and iPhone 13 may be some of the best unlocked phones you can get, but they're not the only unlocked phones available from Apple. If you're looking for something a little larger, now at $200 off its debut price, the iPhone 11 is the way to go.
Other phones offer bigger OLED screens, 5G, and more cameras. But the lower price tag on the iPhone 11 — it now starts at $499 in the wake of the iPhone 13's unveiling — is too attractive to ignore. Besides, you're not giving up that much for those savings. You still get two rear cameras that offer the same features found in the iPhone 11 Pro series, like better photos in low light.
The powerful A13 Bionic processor is the same, too, and the iPhone 11 actually outlasted the iPhone 11 Pro in our battery test. The modem in the iPhone 11 isn't as fast and only connects to LTE. While the older phone supports fast charging, you'll have to buy your own charger to reap the benefits, But these are small sacrifices to make for an otherwise top-notch phone. You can order an unlocked version of the iPhone 11 from Apple.
Read our full iPhone 11 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
Every smartphone Tom’s Guide evaluates is tested for days in real-world use cases and benchmarked with a gamut of performance-measuring apps. We use a light meter to ascertain display quality data, like brightness and color accuracy, and our proprietary battery test determines longevity on a charge by streaming webpages over a 4G or 5G network.
We explore the software, test gaming performance and conduct live camera comparisons with rival handsets. We also factor in network compatibility, so you can be certain whether a device will be operational on your carrier before you buy. Each of these factors plays a part in our comprehensive verdict.