You'll make some tradeoffs with this lower-cost version of the Pixel 3, but not where it matters. The Pixel 3a's battery and camera are both superb.
Moto G7 Power
The Moto G7 Power may be the middle child in the family, but it also happens to be the best cheap phone in Motorola's lineup.
Samsung Galaxy A50
The Galaxy A50's camera won't dazzle you like the Pixel 3a's, but it's still an excellent value with a class-leading display.
Updated Aug. 23: Our Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus review is live for those interested in the larger, 6.8-inch version of Samsung's new phablet. If the 6.3-inch model is more your size, our Samsung Galaxy Note 10 review is in progress, and has just been updated with benchmarks.
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. For those still looking to save a bit more, the Asus ZenFone 6 offers innovative dual cameras and extra-long battery life, yet keeps its price tag below $500.
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 phone
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.
The best under $300
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 $350
With the Galaxy A50, Samsung has undercut the Pixel 3a by $50. And while the A50 doesn't have Google's trademark camera, it does have a trio of lenses that help it achieve ultrawide and shallow depth-of-field shots. It also happens to have the finest display we've ever seen on a phone this inexpensive: a 6.4-inch Full HD+ AMOLED panel with slim bezels and an Infinity-U notch. The A50 looks like a flagship and runs nearly as well, thanks to Samsung's sturdy Exynos 9610 silicon and 4 GB of RAM. And unlike the Pixel 3a, Samsung thoughtfully includes a microSD slot inside the A50, meaning you should never run out of space. For Verizon and Sprint customers, it's our top recommendation if the Pixel 3a doesn't impress you.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy A50 review.
The best under $500
There's nothing out there quite like Asus' ZenFone 6. On the back, you'll find two cameras: one main 48-megapixel sensor mated to a 13-MP ultra-wide shooter for landscapes. That's not particularly special in and of itself, but what makes the ZenFone 6 unique is that these are the very same cameras the phone uses for selfies as well, thanks to a hinged design that allows the entire photography stack to swivel up to 180 degrees. It's a novel approach with an immediate benefit, in that you're getting the same quality in front-facing photos as you would out the back of the device. Bundle in a speedy Snapdragon 855 chipset, massive 6.4-inch LCD panel with very scant bezels and astonishing 15-hour battery life (thanks to a 5,000-mAh power pack), and you could certainly make the argument the $499 ZenFone 6 is the best handset Asus has ever made.
Read our full Asus ZenFone 6 review.
The best unlocked value
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.
The best unlocked premium phone
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 iPhone
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