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 new 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. The OnePlus 5T offers the kind of features you'd expect from a high-end flagship — a Snapdragon 835 processor, dual rear cameras, an AMOLED display and 6GB of RAM — but for hundreds of dollars less. 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.
- Galaxy S9 Debuts: Samsung has taken the wraps off its new flagship, the Galaxy S9, which features major improvements to the phone's camera, along with Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 845 processor. Samsung will sell the Galaxy S9 unlocked for $720, with preorders live right now. The larger Galaxy S9+, which features dual rear cameras, will cost $840 unlocked. You can read our full review here.
- Budget Phones Reviewed: On the opposite end of the spectrum, we've just reviewed a pair of sub-$200 phones. The $129 Blu R2 Plus is the better option of the two, with a pretty decent camera in a budget phone, though its battery life underwhelms. The Nuu Mobile X5 has a low $150 price tag, but you'll find better features in rival budget phones.
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
The curved 2.5D glass that covers Huawei's phone and its curved metal frame give the $399 Honor 8 the kind of striking looks you'd expect from a much more expensive phone. But beauty is more than skin deep here: you also get a very capable smartphone with a sharp display and peppy performance. The Honor 8's standout feature, though, is its dual-rear cameras, which let you adjust the focus of your shot even after you've captured it. You'll sacrifice a little bit on battery life, but in exchange you'll get a capable handset with a sparkling look and feel. Huawei has rolled out Android Nougat to this phone, keeping this 2016 release somewhat current. A successor, the Honor 9 has been released in other countries, but we're not expecting this phone to reach the U.S., especially with Honor about to release the Honor View 10 in this country.
MORE: Huawei Honor 8 Review
Starting at $499, the OnePlus 5T has it all: a new 6-inch edge-to-edge AMOLED display, a Snapdragon 835 processor with up to 8GB of RAM, a pair of solid dual cameras, premium aluminum design and even a headphone jack (which is getting harder and harder to find on new phones). Many budget phones force you to make compromises, but the 5T manages to match the best devices on the market in a multitude of ways while costing hundreds less than the Pixel 2 XL, Galaxy Note 8 or iPhone 8 Plus. You won't get the latest version of Android or a water-resistant device, and a software bug prevents the 5T from streaming Netflix in HD as of this writing. (OnePlus says it will issue a fix via a software update.) But the 5T doubles down on its predecessor’s strengths and brings OnePlus’s flagship up to current design standards with an edge-to-edge screen. The new $559 Sandstone White variant improves the look and feel of the 5T even more.
MORE: OnePlus 5T 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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