Updated June 11 11:08 a.m. ET: Samsung has unveiled the $349 Galaxy A50, which looks to be a solid contender to Pixel 3a for $50 less than Google's recently-released bargain. The A50 arrives June 13, though for the moment it's limited to Verizon customers only. You can learn more here.
The best unlocked phones are all about freedom. With an unlocked device, you’re not beholden to a certain carrier. If you want to jump ship, you’re free to go to one of the best phone carriers without having to pay off the remainder of the device or fork over hundreds for early termination fees.
If you’re looking for an unlocked phone, you’re likely hunting for a bargain. Fortunately, there are more than a few options out there, including the $249 Moto G7 Power and its impressive 15-hour plus battery life. We'd recommend paying up for Google's newly released Pixel 3a, though, as this sub-$400 phone also has long battery life — nearly 12 hours — and it features the same great camera you get from Google's more expensive Pixel 3. You can buy the Pixel 3a unlocked through Google's online store and use it with any carrier.
OnePlus has made a habit of offering premium features for hundreds of dollars less than high-end flagships, and though the OnePlus 7 Pro now costs more than $600, it's still a great value compared to other , more expensive flagship phones. The modular Moto Z3 Play also does a good job of offering attractive features while also keeping its price tag below $500, and with the newly-released 5G Moto Mod, Motorola's phone is one of the first to offer 5G connectivity, even if that network isn't widespread yet.
The Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus is an outstanding unlocked option if you don't mind paying a premium; on the iOS side, the same could be said for the iPhone XS. Shoppers who don't want to pay top dollar could consider unlocked versions of either the Galaxy S9 or iPhone 8 Plus now that those phones cost less than their successors. Alternatively, if getting something unlocked isn't as much of a priority for you, check out our favorite overall smartphones.
The best unlocked phoneRating: 4.5/5 stars
Screen: 5.6-inch LCD (2280x1080) | Processor: Snapdragon 670 | Cameras: 12 MP (Rear); 8 MP (Front) | RAM/Storage: 4 GB/64 GB
Pros: Powerful Camera; Sub-$400 Price; Long battery life; OLED display
Cons: No wireless charging; Display could be brighter; No water resistance
Google's latest smartphone is available from more carriers than any Pixel phone before it, but you can still buy the Pixel 3a unlocked from Google's online store. That's a good thing, because this $399 phone is a bargain-hunter's dream. It's got the same great camera as the flagship Pixel 3, but the 3a costs $400 less. It also delivers the best battery life ever from a Google phone, lasting nearly 12 hours on our test. You'll make some compromises on processor speed and the display, but if you want the best value from an unlocked phone, the Pixel 3a is hard to beat.
Read our full Pixel 3a review.
Moto G7 Power
The best under $300Rating: 4/5 stars
Screen: 6.2-inch LCD (1512x720) | Processor: Snapdragon 632 | Cameras: 12 MP (Rear); 8 MP (Front) | RAM/Storage: 3 GB/32 GB
Pros: Incredible battery life; Solid performance; Quality software; Low price; Works on all networks
Cons: Bland design; Not great for gaming; Low-res display
Unlike some unlocked smartphones, the Moto G7 Power boasts the capability to work on any network in the U.S. — whether GSM-based carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, or CDMA ones like Verizon and Sprint. And that's a fortunate thing, because the G7 Power has the sort of epic battery life that everyone can appreciate, no matter what network you subscribe to. Motorola's latest bargain topped 15-and-a-half hours of endless website streaming over T-Mobile's LTE towers in our testing. Most handsets are lucky if they reach 10 hours. And on top of that, the G7 Power boasts serviceable performance from a Snapdragon 632 chipset, pure Android software that rivals Google's Pixels and a super-bright 6.2-inch screen, all for the low, low price of $249.
Read our full Moto G7 Power review.
The best under $350Rating: 4/5 stars
Screen: 5.8-inch LCD (2280x1080) | Processor: Snapdragon 636 | Cameras: 12 MP and 5 MP (Rear); 8 MP (Front) | RAM/Storage: 4 GB/64 GB
Pros: Stunning, solid design; Android One software; Great display; Good cameras for the price; Premium-caliber performance
Cons: Not available on Verizon or Sprint; Battery life could be better
For $350, you can't do better than the all-around excellent Nokia 7.1. Short of the phone's Snapdragon 636 processor — which is plenty capable in its own right — there's very little budget buyers can take issue with in Nokia's latest Android One-backed midrange offering. Customers get a gorgeous 5.8-inch LCD display with HDR support, that can even convert SDR content to the panel's wider color gamut, which is something you don't often see on such inexpensive handsets. The Nokia 7.1 also sports a premium design that elegantly mixes matte aluminum, glass and metallic accents that make the device look more expensive than it is, as well as serviceable dual cameras, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage built in. If you want to spend as little as possible on a device while compromising as little as possible, too, the Nokia 7.1 is the smartphone you've been waiting for.
Read our full Nokia 7.1 review.
Moto Z3 Play
The best under $500Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Screen: 6-inch OLED (2160x1080) | Processor: Snapdragon 636 | Cameras: 12 MP and 5 MP (Rear); 8 MP (Front) | RAM/Storage: 4 GB/64 GB
Pros: Works on all carriers; AMOLED display; Attractive, thin design; Comes with Power Pack mod
Cons: No headphone jack; Performance is just okay for the price; No water resistance; Poor low-light shots
The Moto Z3 Play brings some of the best features of Motorola’s flagship Z Force series — the expansive AMOLED display, glass-and-metal construction, stock Android software and, of course, compatibility with Moto Mods accessories. It then wraps all of those goodies up in a stylish package for just $499, with a Power Pack battery mod thrown in for good measure. While Motorola opted for a slower Snapdragon 636 processor rather than the Snapdragon 845 you find in more premium handsets, the Z3 Play is no slouch, and still performs about as well as a flagship from last year. Even better, the phone works on all four major carriers, unlike the bulk of unlocked phones on the market today. Although we weren’t overly impressed with the Z3 Play’s grainy dual cameras and average battery life, the overall package is a great deal for buyers looking to spend $500 or less, especially when you factor in the versatility of that battery mod.
Read our full Moto Z3 Play review.
The best unlocked valueRating: 4.5/5 stars
Screen: 6.67-inch OLED (3120 x 1440) | Processor: Snapdragon 855 | Cameras: 48 MP main, 16 MP wide, 8 MP telephoto (Rear); 20 MP (Front) | RAM/Storage: 6, 8, 12 GB/128, 256 GB
Pros: Powerful performance; Excellent fast-charging feature; Pop-up seflie cam; Excellent low-light photos
Cons: Ho-hum battery life; Lacks wireless charging
OnePlus continues to deliver premium features at prices that undercut flagship phones from Apple and Samsung with the OnePlus 7 Pro. While this new phone has the higest starting price of any OnePlus model, it still costs hundreds of dollars less than the Galaxy S10 and iPhone XS. In exchange, the OnePlus 7 Pro delivers a stunning 6.67-inch display with a smooth 90 Hz refresh rate, an impressive triple camera setup and performance that approaches the iPhone's pace-setting processor. Get the phone unlocked from OnePlus, and you can use the OnePlus 7 Pro on any GSM-based network as well as Verizon's network if you contact the carrier.
If you prefer a cheaper model, OnePlus continues to offer the OnePlus 6T, which now features 8GB of memory and 128GB in its $549 base model. Just be aware that phone uses an older Snapdragon 845 processor and lacks the refinements of the 7 Pro.
Read our full OnePlus 7 Pro review.
Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus
The best unlocked premium phoneRating: 4.5/5 stars
Screen: 6.4-inch OLED (3040x1440) | Processor: Snapdragon 855 (NA)/Exynos 9820 (WW) | Cameras: 16 MP, 12 MP and 12 MP (Rear); 10 MP and 8 MP (Front) | RAM/Storage: 8, 12 GB/128 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB
Pros: Immersive Infinity-O display; Ultrasonic fingerprint sensor works well; Excellent cameras; Very fast performance; Superb battery life; Headphone jack
Cons: Hole punch in display a bit distracting; Pricey; Confusing gesture controls
If money is no object, buy the $999 Galaxy S10 Plus, which is available unlocked from Samsung. This 6.4-inch phone provides the best Android experience, thanks to a Snapdragon 855 processor that leaves all other Android devices in the dust. The triple camera setup on the back of the S10 Plus approaches Google's Pixel 3 for image quality. And Samsung even added a few innovations, including an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor under the phone's display and a Wireless PowerShare feature that lets you charge other devices by placing them on the S10 Plus. If $999 is too much, consider the $899 Galaxy S10 or even the $749 S10e (which makes do with just two rear cameras).
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus review.
The best unlocked iPhoneRating: 4.5/5 stars
Screen: 5.8-inch OLED (2436x1125) | Processor: A12 Bionic | Cameras: Dual 12 MP (Rear); 7 MP (Front) | RAM/Storage: 4 GB/64, 256, 512 GB
Pros: Faster A12 Bionic chip; Improved cameras in low light; Depth Control improves portraits; Gigabit LTE; Robust audio
Cons: Fast charging requires more accessories;l; Battery life could be better
The iPhone XS not only shares the original iPhone X's 5.8-inch display but also its $999 price tag. For $100 more you can get a 6.5-inch screen with the massive iPhone XS Max, otherwise, Apple's latest iPhones are exactly the same. That means you get the same A12 Bionic processor, improved cameras and IP68 dust- and water-resistance, and you can use the money you save to spring for some extra storage on the iPhone XS.
Read our full iPhone XS review.
Unlocked Phone Benefits
- Your choice of carrier: Unlike some phone sold by carriers, unlocked phones aren't exclusively limited to one network. Some, like the Moto G6, are compatible with all of the Big Four carriers, though most are limited to GSM networks only like AT&T and T-Mobile. This means you may not have to change your phone if you want to change your service provider.
- 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 carrier bloatware, which can take up precious room on your phone's storage. (And if you do run out storage space, you can always move apps to an SD card, assuming your unlocked device has a microSD card slot.) However, bloatware provided by the manufacturer or seller, in the case of Amazon's Prime Exclusive phones, may still be present.
- You can save a bundle: Because phone makers skip the carriers for unlocked phones, they can often sell devices at a reduced cost. In fact, there are several very good Android phones under $200.
What to Know Before You Go Unlocked
- Where to buy: Most cheap unlocked phones can be purchased online, either through the phone makers themselves or via retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg and others.
- Which carriers are supported: 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.
- Your carrier's coverage map: 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.
How We Test Unlocked Phones
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.
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Credit: Tom's Guide