When it comes to smartphones, how you buy is as equally important as what you buy. And instead of going to your carrier to purchase your next device, there are a couple reasons you might want to go unlocked.
Unlocked phones are all about freedom. With an unlocked phone, you’re not beholden to a certain carrier. If you want to jump ship, you’re free to do so without having to pay off the remainder of the device or fork over hundreds for early termination fees. In many cases, you can even get cheaper phones, because manufacturers save money in bypassing carriers and can pass those savings onto you.
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. The $230 Moto G5 Plus is currently our favorite, thanks to its fast processor, upscale design, and premium software experience. If you want to go even cheaper, the Honor 7X delivers a premium-looking screen for a price that's less than $200.
But just because you're going unlocked doesn't mean you have to settle for less, even if one of our favorite picks — the OnePlus 5T — is now out of stock. The Honor View 10 provides strong performance, long battery life and lots of storage while keeping the OnePlus 5T's sub-$500 price tag. Both the $840 Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the $999 iPhone X are outstanding unlocked options if you're willing to pay up (though Android fans should also consider the still impressive Galaxy S8, especially with its price tag dropping now that the S9 is here).
Even iPhone fans have a great budget unlocked option, in the form of the $349 iPhone SE. This pint-sized powerhouse contains the same A9 processor as the iPhone 6S, but recently saw its base storage bumped to 32GB. You won’t find a better camera in any 4-inch handset. Some rumors suggested that Apple was working on a new version of the SE, but one prominent analyst now suggests Apple will concentrate its development efforts on three larger phones coming out this fall.
Unlocked Phone Benefits
- Your choice of carrier: Unlike some phone sold by carriers, unlocked phones aren't exclusively limited to one network. Some 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. 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.
- Moto G6 and E5 Series Unveiled: Last year's Moto G5 Plus still ranks among our favorite flagship phones, and now Motorola is following it up with two devices — the $249 Moto G6 and $199 G6 Play — as well as updates to its lower-end line with the E5 Plus and E5 Play. All four devices will support both GSM and CDMA networks, though this time around only the G6 duo will be sold unlocked. Each one comes equipped with Android 8.0 Oreo and Qualcomm Snapdragon 400-series processors. They'll be available beginning in June, and you can read our hands-on impressions here.
- Sony Phone Reviewed: We reviewed Sony's midrange Xperia XA2 Ultra and came away disappointed with the phone despite its solid performance and the fact it ships with Android Oreo. Camera performance just isn't good enough for a $449 phone. If you're interested in Sony's smartphones, better to hold out for the Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact, two flagship models now available for preorder. Sony also plans to ship a dual-camera phone, the Xperia XZ2 Premium, this summer.
- Waiting for the OnePlus 6: The OnePlus 5T, formerly our top pick for best unlocked value, has sold out, and OnePlus has no plans to make more versions of that phone. Your best option now would be to consider the similarly priced Honor View 10 or hold out for the OnePlus 6, which is reportedly arriving before the end of June. The phone's expected to have a Snapdragon 845 processor, with up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of onboard storage. It's rumored that the OnePlus 6 could cost more than the sub-$500 5T, though.
- The Best Phone You Can't Buy: One of the best Android camera phones out there is one that U.S. smartphone shoppers can't buy. We were impressed by how Huawei's P20 Pro performed in a camera face-off with the Pixel 2 XL and iPhone X. Unfortunately, this phone and its three rear cameras isn't for sale in the U.S.; if you do manage to track down an international version of the P20 Pro, there's a chance it won't fully work on U.S. wireless networks.
Go over the Honor 7X’s specs, and you might think the phone costs much more than the $199 Honor charges. Not only will you get dual rear cameras, you’ll also get a display that stretches from one end of the phone to the other with slender bezels — a design that’s been limited to pricey flagships up until this point. Apart from subpar battery life, you won’t have to make too many compromises for a phone this inexpensive, thanks to a Kirin 659 processor that’s built to hold its own performing most tasks. Since the Honor 7X is a GSM-only phone, look elsewhere if you plan on using a CDMA-based network like Sprint’s or Verizon’s.
MORE: Honor 7X Review
A bright, colorful screen, solid camera with dual-pixel autofocus technology and the latest version of Android highlight the latest version of Motorola's budget powerhouse. The Moto G5 Plus also lasts more than 11 hours on a charge and will work on both GSM and CDMA networks, giving you more carrier options. It's a good budget buy whether you opt for the $229 version with 32GB of storage and 2GB of RAM or pay up to double the RAM and storage on the $299 Moto G5 Plus. Amazon Prime members can enjoy further discounts on this phone. The Moto G5S Plus offers dual rear cameras and improved battery life with a 5.5-inch display, and while we like that phone, we think the less expensive G5 Plus is more appealing to bargain hunters.
MORE: Moto G5 Plus Review
For $400, you can't do better than Motorola's polished and easy-to-use Moto X4. We looked at the Android One version, which bears the distinction of being the only non-Pixel or Nexus device supported on Google's Project Fi, a carrier that combines multiple networks into one and utilizes a pay-only-what-you-use approach to data. We loved Project Fi when we tested it late last year, but we enjoyed our time with the Moto X4, too. Excellent performance from Qualcomm's midrange Snapdragon 630 processor, a long-lasting battery and Motorola's light touch on Android 8.0 Oreo lend a premium feel to one of the finest unlocked handsets money can buy. Better yet, for a limited time you can pick one up for just $249 from Google with a Project Fi service activation. The standard version of the X4 includes Amazon's Alexa voice assistant.
With OnePlus discontinuing its 5T to make way for the OnePlus 6, our pick for the best unlocked value goes to Honor's new View 10. Huawei's budget-focused brand has put together a well-rounded package with many of the same attributes we loved in the 5T, including a premium processor, generous amount of RAM, a 6-inch edge-to-edge display, dual cameras and even a headphone jack. On paper, the View 10 equals many of the best Android phones on the market while costing hundreds less than the Galaxy S9 or Pixel 2 XL. Although we weren't thoroughly impressed with the performance of its camera and found Huawei's EMUI interface poorly designed compared to the stock form of Google's OS or even Samsung's software suite, there's no denying the View 10's merit as a bargain for budget-minded power users.
MORE: Honor View 10 Review
If you’re looking to splurge on an unlocked device, the new Galaxy S9 and S9+ are your best bets, especially considering their reasonable price tags ($720 and $840, respectively) in an age of $999 smartphones. The S9 and S9+ support for both GSM and CDMA networks, while offering killer specs and feature sets for anyone who wants a no-compromise, premium smartphone that works on any network. The S9 retains the Galaxy S8’s innovative design, gorgeous 5.8-inch AMOLED display, headphone jack, IP68 water resistance and wireless charging support, but adds Qualcomm’s lightning-fast new Snapdragon 845 chipset and an all-new camera capable of 960 frames-per-second slow motion video. For those who want even more out of their phone’s camera, the 6.2-inch S9+ tosses in a second lens, great for shallow depth-of-field portraits.
MORE: Samsung Galaxy S9 Review
While the iPhone 8 Plus is a solid update over 2016's iPhones, if we had to pick just one iPhone to get, it would be the iPhone X — especially now that Apple's futuristic phone is available unlocked. The iPhone X offers a gorgeous display with realistic colors, and its A11 Bionic processor (the same one in the iPhone 8 Plus) makes it the most powerful smartphone on the market. The X's front camera can handle Portrait mode as adeptly as its rear cameras and features like Face ID unlocking and Animoji impress.
MORE: iPhone X Review
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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