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. 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 new OnePlus phone features a fingerprint sensor embedded right in the display — the first phone available in the U.S. to offer that feature. The modular Moto Z3 Play also does a good job of offering attractive features while also keeping its price tag below $500.
Both the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the iPhone XS are outstanding unlocked options if you're willing to pay up, though prices are falling on the S9, depending on where you buy the phone from. And shoppers who don't want to pay top dollar could consider unlocked versions of either the Galaxy S8 or iPhone 8 Plus now that those phones cost less than their successors.
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.
Latest News (November 2018)
- OnePlus 6T Reviewed: We've reviewed the OnePlus 6T, and found it to be a worthwhile successor to OnePlus' lineup of feature-packed, affordable phones.
- Nokia 7.1 Is Here: Nokia's latest is our favorite phone under $400 as a result of its elegant design, adequate power, solid cameras and excellent software experience and support courtesy of Google's Android One program. Read the review here.
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 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 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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