Updated May 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
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.Read more 
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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.

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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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