When it’s time to get a new smartphone, you don’t have to turn to a wireless carrier to buy your device. Instead, you can pick up an unlocked version of the phone. Here’s why you would want to go this route.
Unlocked Phone Benefits
- Your choice of carrier: With an unlocked phone, you can get service from whatever carrier you want, more easily jumping to a new wireless provider if you’re dissatisfied with your service.
- You own the phone: You’ll also own your unlocked phone outright — no two year’s worth of monthly payments to manage — and you’ll likely get a better return on your unlocked phone should you decide to resell it.
- No carrier bloatware: Not a fan of apps you don’t need? With an unlocked Android phone, you don’t have to deal with bloatware, which can take up precious room on your phones
- You can save a bundle: Because phone makers bypass the carriers for unlocked phones, they can often pass the savings onto you. In fact, there are several very good Android phones under $200.
MORE: Top Phones Overall
• Alcatel Idol 5S, A50 and A30: Alcatel's 2017 phoneshit the U.S. in July, led by the $280 Idol 5S, which features a 5.2-inch full HD display and a Snapdragon 625 processor that makes the phone powerful enough to work with Alcatel's Uni360 virtual reality headset. The A50 ($150) and A30 ($130) are aimed at budget-minded users. All three Alcatel phones are available to Amazon Prime members at discounted rates, though the phones will include ads on their lockscreens.
• Nokia 6: HMD Global is bringing the first of several new Nokia phones to the U.S., starting off with the mid-range Nokia 6. The $229 phone arrives in July featuring a 5.5-inch display, Snapdragon 430 processor and 16-megapixel rear camera. While the phone is unlocked, only T-Mobile will offer full compatibility for the Nokia 6; AT&T will only feature partial 4G LTE data support, while the Nokia 6 won't work at all on CDMA-based networks.
• Moto E4 and Moto Z2 play: You've got a new budget option from Moto in the form of the Moto E4 (available for $129 unlocked). The 5-inch phone runs Android Nougat, but you'll have to make due with 16GB of onboard storage. (You can always expand capacity through the phone's microSD slot.) We'll have a review of the E4 shortly. Moto is also slimming down the original Moto Z Play with a thinner battery that still provides an all-day charge. While Verizon will sell the Moto Z2 Play when it launches in July, Motorola also plans to sell the phone unlocked.
You can find many of the best Android flagships available unlocked, and that includes our top phone overall, the Samsung Galaxy S8. Samsung is selling its 5.8-inch flagship unlocked for $625 — a $100 discount off the regular price. That’s quite a bargain for a phone with an expansive Infinity Display and top-performing camera.
Likewise, you can buy an iPhone directly from Apple without having to commit to a carrier. (Don’t expect a price discount, though.) We think the $769 iPhone 7 Plus is the better choice for an unlocked iPhone, thanks to its longer battery life — it lasted 10 hours and 38 minutes on our battery test, compared to 9:03 for the iPhone 7 — and dual rear cameras.
Our favorite option for people who want the best bang for their buck is the OnePlus 5. It has many features you’d find on either the Galaxy S8 or iPhone 7 Plus, including a sharp AMOLED display, Snapdragon 835 processor and dual rear cameras. You won’t find a high-price tag, though: the OnePlus 5 starts at $479 for a model with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
For even lower priced phones, one of our favorite unlocked devices from 2016 — Huawei’s Honor 8 — now runs the latest version of Android, and you can get it for less than $400. If you're on a tighter budget, the $229 Moto G5 Plus gets the nod as our favorite phone for less than $300 while the Blu R1 Plus is a good sub-$200 option.
What to Know Before You Go Unlocked
Most cheap unlocked phones can be purchased online, either through the phone makers themselves or via retailer such as Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg and others. 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 Google 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 considering which unlocked phones to recommend, we compare similarly priced models, with a particular emphasis on budget categories, as we look to recommend handsets that provide a lot of value for their specific price tag.