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, including the $299 Moto G7. If you want to go even cheaper, the Honor 7X delivers a premium-looking screen for a price that's around $200.
But just because you're going unlocked doesn't mean you have to settle for less. OnePlus has made a habit of offering premium features for hundreds of dollars less than high-end flagships, and the newly unveiled OnePlus 6T continues that tradition. Along with camera improvements, a bigger battery and a redesigned look, the latest OnePlus phone features a fingerprint sensor embedded right in the display — the first phone available in the U.S. to offer that feature (though Samsung's Galaxy S10 lineup one-ups that with an ultrasonic sensor). 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 5G Moto Mod now available for pre-order, Motorola's phone will be one of the first to offer 5G connectivity.
The new 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.
Latest News and Updates (Updated Mar. 18)
- New Phone Reviews: We've reviewed a trio of unlocked phones recently. The Moto G7 is our pick for best phone under $300, the 6.1-inch Galaxy S10 completes our look at Samsung's new S10 lineup, and the Nokia 9 PureView offers an intriguing five-lens array on its back.
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. 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.
Go over the Honor 7X’s specs, and you might be surprised that the phone only costs $199. 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 had been limited to pricey flagships but has become more common since the 7X's release. 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
The price of this year's Moto G phone has crept upward, but when you look at the 6.2-inch LCD screen on the Moto G7, you'll see where Motorola put the money. It's a sharp, consistent display that shows a captivating image no matter what angle you're looking from. The midrange Snapdragon 632 delivers strong performance of a phone in this price range, and we continue to be fans of Motorola's less-is-more approach to Android, with a clean interface that benefits from custom gesture controls. Our biggest complaint with the G7 is the big step back it takes with battery life, a problem we hope the forthcoming Moto G7 Power addresses. Finally, the G7 works on both CDMA and GSM networks, so you can use this unlocked phone with any carrier.
MORE: Moto G7 Review
For $400, 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.
MORE: Nokia 7.1 Review
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’ latest phone may now be available through a carrier in the U.S., but the OnePlus 6T is still a great value if you buy the $549 phone unlocked. You get the same powerful Snapdragon 845 processor that powered the OnePlus 6 along with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage in the base model. (Upgrading to 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage raises the price to $629 — still reasonable when compared to what other flagships cost these days.) OnePlus has improved the display on the 6T, opting for a teardrop style notch to house the front camera instead of a bigger, blockier design. And an embedded fingerprint sensor under the display lets you quickly unlock your phone. Plus, this phone is running Android 9 Pie, the latest version of Google’s operating system.
MORE: OnePlus 6T Review
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).
MORE: Galaxy S10 Plus 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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