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, led by the $249 Moto G6. 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. The OnePlus 6 is a perfect example of that, and while it's slightly more expensive than its predecessor, it packs in enough features for $529 to make it our favorite value among smartphones. If you'd like to stay below that $500 threshold, the modular Moto Z3 Play is a good alternative.
Both the $840 Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the $999 iPhone XS are outstanding unlocked options if you're willing to pay up (though Android fans should also consider the still impressive Galaxy S8 and iOS users could turn to the newly discounted iPhone 8 Plus if they don't want to pay top dollar).
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 Z3 Play, 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.
Latest News (September 2018)
- October's a Big Month: Many, many smartphones are expected to be revealed over the next four weeks, from the long awaited (and frequently leaked) Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL to the OnePlus 6T, a successor to the Razer Phone and new flagships from LG and Huawei. In other words, this list will likely look very different come November — so keep your eyes peeled for updates.
- iPhone XS and XS Max Reviewed: The iPhone XS and XS Max hit stores on Sept. 21, and we've got the full verdict here. Both phones are available unlocked from Apple, though you should be prepared to pay more than $1,000 for the XS Max and its giant 6.5-inch screen. A third model, the $749 iPhone XR, arrives Oct. 23.
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
How do you top a value like last year's Moto G5 Plus? If you're Motorola, you take a colorful display with noticeably thinner bezels, pair it with a dependable processor, add dual rear cameras and keep the price tag under $250. The Moto G6 provides all of this, while making worthwhile software tweaks like one-button navigation. The Snapdragon 450 powering the G6 may seem like a step down from the Snapdragon 625 in last year's G5 Plus, but the new phone fared well in our testing. Best of all, the Moto G6 works with both GSM and CDMA networks so you still get your choice of carrier.
MORE: Moto G6 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.
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.
MORE: Moto Z3 Play Review
OnePlus has buit a well-deserved reputation for building phones that have flagship features while costing substantially less than higher profile phones. The OnePlus 6 is only going to enhance that reputation, with its class-leading display and unrivaled performance. Like its predecessor, the OnePlus 6 charges quickly, though we wish its battery would have lasted longer than 10 hours, 33 minutes on our test. Improvements to the dual rear cameras mean you won't sacrifice heavily in image quality if you opt for this $529 phone over the best that Apple, Google and Samsung have to offer.
MORE: OnePlus 6 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
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.
MORE: iPhone XS 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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