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Best Unlocked Cell Phones

Updated September 2018
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

  • 302 Models Considered
  • 8 Hours Researched
  • 2 Experts Interviewed
  • 298 Consumers Consulted
  • Zero products received from manufacturers.

    We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

    Why trust BestReviews?
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.

    Shopping guide for best unlocked cell phones

    Last Updated September 2018

    Nowadays, it’s not hard to find a good deal on a new cell phone. But every bargain you encounter is bound to come with the same catch: you have to sign up for a two-year agreement in order to realize any savings. In fact, many “deals” don’t offer any discounts at all. Instead, you’re simply placed on a monthly plan to pay off the phone over time – and in some cases, you end up paying more than the phone was worth in the first place.

    So what’s a savvy consumer to do? A highly economical option for the long term is to buy an unlocked cell phone. You purchase this device upfront and remain free of any contractual obligations to a wireless carrier.

    An unlocked cell phone is not as expensive as it sounds – or at least, it doesn’t have to be. Read on for our best advice on buying an unlocked cell phone that suits your life and your budget.

    Typically, when a new smartphone is released, the only way to buy an unlocked version is directly from the manufacturer; all other vendors require a contract with your purchase. But that changes six months to a year later, when third-party vendors start selling the newest models off contract.

    The perks of owning an unlocked cell phone

    Buying an unlocked cell phone isn’t just about saving money. It’s also about flexibility. Here are some common reasons why consumers opt to buy their smartphones outright.

    • No contract is required. This is the single biggest reason most people cite for buying an unlocked cell phone. If you choose, you can switch carriers to a different network without incurring any fees or contract buyouts. Users who are tied to a specific carrier with a contract usually have to pay exorbitant fees if they want to switch.

    • They’re ideal for international travel. Most U.S. wireless carriers require you to add additional international service fees if you want to use your phone abroad. When you have an unlocked cell phone that supports GSM networks, you can drop just about any SIM card in it. If you’re a frequent international traveler, that means you can use a local SIM card in any foreign country you visit and save on roaming fees from an American carrier.

    • Your credit score does not affect the price you pay. Many wireless carriers advertise payment plans that don’t increase the cost of the device over time. Essentially, they’re offering you a zero-interest loan on your phone. That can be an attractive offer, but the best terms are only available to those with excellent credit. It is, after all, a loan. Users with less-than-pristine credit typically have to pay interest, which ratchets up the overall cost of the new phone.

    • Cell phone bills stay low. Most cell phone bills are confusing and hard to decipher. That only gets more challenging when you’re paying for a phone along with your cell phone service. But if you have an unlocked, off-contract cell phone, you only have to pay your carrier for cellular service. As a result, your bill stays much lower.

    • You can upgrade your phone on your own schedule. When you have an unlocked, off-contract cell phone, you don’t have to worry about waiting to upgrade. If a new model comes out that you want, upgrading is simply a matter of transplanting your data, and in some cases a SIM card, from one phone to the next.

    Surprisingly powerful and affordable

    If you’ve ever been curious about switching to iOS, or if you simply need an iPhone that can keep up with your lifestyle without breaking the bank, the iPhone 7 Plus is an ideal entry point into Apple’s hardware ecosystem. We love the giant retina screen, but the real killer feature is the 256GB of storage, which is more than enough room for anyone.

    GSM phones, CMA phones, and universal phones

    There are three different types of unlocked cell phones, and depending on which wireless provider you want to use, you’ll need to pick the right one to get everything working. Here’s the information you need to know about the different kinds of unlocked cell phones.

    GSM phones

    GSM phones are based on the “Global System for Mobile communications” standard and typically rely on a SIM card – a small plastic card that’s tied to your phone number and account and inserts into your phone. In the U.S., Verizon and Sprint both operate GSM networks and require GSM phones for service. Most international cell phone networks use GSM.

    CDMA phones

    CDMA phones are built on the “Code Division Multiple Access” standard and don’t use SIM cards, instead opting to keep your unique account data on the phone itself. In the U.S., AT&T and T-Mobile use CDMA networks to deliver service to customers.

    Universal phones

    Universal phones support both GSM and CDMA networks and can be used with any carrier. Universal phones can be more expensive, but the value of being carrier-agnostic is worth it to many users.

    EXPERT TIP

    Migrating your data and settings from your old phone to a new one is easier than it used to be. In most cases, you will find backup and restoring options in your phone’s settings app. By syncing your content with the cloud, you can move everything to your new phone with just a few taps.


    Staff  | BestReviews
    EXPERT TIP

    If you have a phone that you’ve paid off, take it to your wireless carrier and ask them to unlock it. Even if you’re staying on the same carrier, unlocking your phone will increase its resale value and give you the option to switch carriers if you change your mind.


    Staff  | BestReviews
    EXPERT TIP

    lf you’re considering going with a smaller, “pay as you go” wireless provider, research what network each is using. The big four carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint) own the wireless networks that blanket the U.S. and rent them out to mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). If you have concerns about coverage, find out which networks are behind the MVNOs you’re considering.


    Staff  | BestReviews

    Unlocked cell phone prices

    Buying a phone outright may sound expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Keep these price ranges in mind as you shop for an unlocked cell phone.

    Between $300 and $499

    You’ll find some of last year’s top-of-the-line phones here. Phones in this price range offer strong value and all of the modern amenities: current versions of Android or iOS, full compatibility with current apps, and powerful cameras. If you’re looking for a practical phone but don’t need the latest and greatest tech, you’ll find solid options in this price range.

    Between $500 and $749

    You can expect to see the entry-level models of many current-generation phones in this price range. These unlocked cell phones typically have cutting-edge features and screens that are between four and five inches. If you love having the most modern phone available but don’t need a ton of storage or a larger screen, you needn’t spend more than this.

    Between $750 and $1,000

    Here, you’ll encounter the latest models with the largest screens and the biggest storage options. Cell phones in this price range don’t leave anything out – features, screen size, and capacities are all top-notch. If you absolutely must have the most modern cell phone available, expect to pay for the privilege.

    The perfect starter Android phone

    Chinese manufacturer ZTE’s Axon 7 is a middle-of-the-road phone that’s competent but not flashy. The giant battery and 20-megapixel camera are definite highlights, but the price point is the attention grabber. If you’re looking for a basic, inexpensive Android phone for yourself – or a good starter model for a teenager – the Axon 7 is a solid bet.

    Tips

    If you’re interested in buying an insurance plan for your unlocked cell phone, shop around before signing up for your carrier’s protection plan. Most wireless carriers offer device insurance for a monthly fee, but carrier-backed insurance plans often include expensive “gotchas.” These range from higher copayments in the event of a claim to circumstances that aren’t covered, like water damage. Many third-party smartphone warranties feature better benefits at a lower cost, so do some side-by-side comparisons before signing up for one.

    If you’re buying a GSM phone, try the SIM card from your old phone before purchasing a new one. Most wireless carriers will tell you it’s necessary to get a new SIM card if you’re using an unlocked GSM phone, but in many cases, that’s simply not true. If you’re moving to a different GSM carrier (or staying with your current GSM carrier), the SIM card from your prior phone can be inserted into your new one.

    If you’re buying a refurbished unlocked cell phone, only buy directly from a manufacturer or carrier. Not all refurbishers are equal. Some will go through painstaking efforts to restore a used phone to its brand-new glory, while others will make cosmetic changes and repackage the phone for a quick sale. Refurbished phones are a great way to save a few dollars on pricey hardware – just make sure to only buy them from manufacturers or carriers themselves. That way, you can work with your carrier or the manufacturer in the event of a problem.

    A jailbroken phone is one that has been modified to work with apps not approved by the manufacturer. It’s not the same thing as an unlocked phone, and it can make you vulnerable to security risks. Avoid buying a jailbroken phone.

    FAQ

    Q. Do unlocked cell phones include a warranty?

    A. Yes, although the duration may vary. Most cell phones come with a standard one-year warranty from the manufacturer. In rare cases, however, it will only be 90 days. If you’re looking to extend your coverage period, consider buying a third-party warranty. You may even be able to get a discount on one if you bundle coverage with an existing insurance policy.

    Q. Do unlocked cell phones receive carrier updates?

    A. It depends on the phone. If you buy an unlocked Android phone from a specific wireless carrier, they will send updates to your phone, but only after they’ve published updates to their customers with locked phones. That said, if you have an unlocked Android phone, you can download and install updates directly from Google without having to wait for your carrier to send them to you. If you own an iPhone, you’ll receive updates directly from Apple and won’t have to worry about carrier updates.

    Q. Can I trade in my old smartphone for a discount on an unlocked cell phone?

    A. It depends. Most wireless carriers offer trade-in programs to help consumers defray the cost of a new phone. However, trade-in programs are often linked to contract requirements, so while you may get a discount on a new phone from your trade-in, you’ll be obligated to stay with the carrier for up to two years. Selling an old phone to pay for a new one is usually a good idea, but if you want to maximize the money you receive, sell your phone privately. Carriers rarely offer top dollar for used phones.

    The team that worked on this review
    • Devangana
      Devangana
      Web Producer
    • Eliza
      Eliza
      Production Manager
    • Jaime
      Jaime
      Writer
    • Melissa
      Melissa
      Senior Editor

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