How to Choose the Right Mobile Phone
What’s the Difference Between Locked and Unlocked Smartphones?
In the US, many phones are sold locked to a wireless carrier—either through a software lock that prevents you from using the phone on other carriers, through a payment plan that doesn’t permit you to leave that carrier, or through hardware frequency restrictions that exclude other carriers’ transmission bands. Unlocked phones, paid for upfront, are different. The day you buy an unlocked phone, you can use any carrier it’s compatible with, and switch carriers at will.
This list gives you the best unlocked phones available in the US at a range of price points. We’ve tried to offer something here for budgets from $150 to $1,200, running Android and iOS.
If you’re interested in 5G, look to the Samsung Galaxy S20 phones and the OnePlus 8 series. The unlocked Galaxy S20+ and S20 Ultra run on every form of every US 5G network; the other phones run on low- and mid-band 5G, which means they don’t work with Verizon’s high-speed short-range 5G network. For more, see our list of The Best 5G Phones.
Why Buy Unlocked?
With an unlocked device, you can trade up or sell your phone whenever you want, without waiting for the end of a leasing or equipment installment plan—because you’re not in one. You can own multiple handsets and swap your SIM card between them. You can also take advantage of super-cheap prepaid plans from virtual operators piggybacking on compatible networks. You can pop in a local, pay-as-you-go card overseas and never pay horrendous international roaming charges. And you don’t have to deal with carrier-installed bloatware.
At the same time, there are a few downsides to going the unlocked route. If you change SIM cards overseas, you won’t have your US phone number while you’re there. Some unlocked handsets only work on AT&T and T-Mobile, not Verizon. All of the phones on the list above work on all three major carrier networks.
One thing to watch out for: AT&T does not permit Wi-Fi calling on many unlocked phones. This is annoying, and it’s also difficult to nail down. If you want Wi-Fi calling on an unlocked AT&T phone, stick with iPhones and Google Pixels.
There’s a new technology out there making unlocked phones even more exciting: eSIM. Electronic SIMs mean you can pick your carrier from a menu or by scanning an online QR code, rather than having to go get a physical chip. On our list, the Pixel 3a, Pixel 4, and iPhone 11 Pro all support eSIM and dual SIM, which lets you have two lines attached to one phone. That’s great for having a work line and a personal line, or a foreign line and a home line. I used a Pixel 4 with a US Mobile eSIM on a recent trip to Japan.
The Google Pixel phones support having two lines at once
Where to Buy Unlocked Phones
Shopping for an unlocked handset can be a bit tricky, since carrier stores don’t stock them. If you’re looking for one, the Apple Store, Amazon, Best Buy Mobile, and manufacturers’ online stores are good bets. In some cases, you can even unlock the phone you already own, although the particulars depend on the handset and carrier.
Our most recent picks for unlocked devices in each major price category include the Samsung Galaxy S20+ at the high end; the OnePlus 8 in the midrange; and the Motorola Moto e for an inexpensive option. Unfortunately, we currently do not have an unlocked voice phone pick because the carriers are demanding unique voice phone models for their voice-over-LTE networks; for a simple voice phone, you need to go with a carrier-specific option.
Ready to break free? Pick up one of these handsets and don’t feel tied to your carrier any longer.
And if you’re looking to get the best deal, check out our 9 tips for getting the price on a new phone and our picks for the best cheap phones.
Where To Buy
Apple iPhone 6s (Unlocked)
Pros: Best coverage and speeds on all four U.S.
3D Touch feature shows potential.
Average battery life.
Bottom Line: The unlocked Apple iPhone 6s lets you freely switch between all the major U.S. and foreign carriers, with no loss of coverage.
Apple iPhone SE (2020)
Small, one-hand-friendly form factor
Cons: No camera night mode
Bottom Line: The 2020 Apple iPhone SE is a petite powerhouse with no-compromise performance for hundreds of dollars less than other recent iPhones.
Google Pixel 3a
Pros: Best-in-class camera.
Gorgeous OLED display.
Excellent battery life.
Cons: Not waterproof.
No microSD slot.
Bottom Line: Google’s well-rounded Pixel 3a is quite simply the best Android phone you can buy for $399.
Google Pixel 4
Pros: Attractive design. 90Hz display.Solid battery life. Excellent cameras. Live Caption and Recorder are excellent accessibility additions.
Cons: Not enough storage options.
Bottom Line: The Google Pixel 4 offers powerful hardware, innovative software that actually makes your life easier, and the best cameras you’ll find on a smartphone.
Samsung Galaxy S10e
Pros: Amazing screen color and clarity.
Industry-leading processor and modem.
Just the right size for most hands.
Cons: Low-light camera performance not as good as the Google Pixel 3.
Fingerprint sensor could be more accurate.
Bottom Line: The Samsung Galaxy S10e has the best overall price, performance, and size for a flagship smartphone today.
Samsung Galaxy S20+
Pros: Best 5G of any phone available today. Fast. Solid camera. Attractive design.
Cons: Expensive. In-display fingerprint sensor can be a bit picky. No headphone jack.
Bottom Line: The Samsung Galaxy S20+ is pricey, but it’s the first phone that’s a solid investment in the 5G future.
Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Pros: Three cameras for great flexibility.
New Night mode for low-light photos.
Excellent LTE options, including dual SIM.
Long battery life.
Next year’s iPhone will probably bring much bigger changes.
Bottom Line: The pricey iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max bring more cameras, longer battery life, and better LTE capabilities to Apple’s flagship phone line.
Moto G Power
Pros: Solid performance for the price
Excellent battery life
Good audio and call quality
All networks bands for global usage
Cons: Mediocre camera performance
Bottom Line: Solid performance, multi-day battery life, and a gorgeous 6.4-inch display make the $249 Moto G Power the best budget-friendly phone you can buy right now.
Motorola Moto E
Pros: Solid performance
Long battery life
Surprisingly good audio
Cons: Mediocre camera performance
Screen could be sharper
Bottom Line: With an attractive design, long battery life, and solid performance for the price, the $150 Motorola Moto e is one of the best affordable phones you can buy.
Pros: Most affordable 5G phone
Cons: Camera not quite as good as more expensive phones
Lacks millimeter-wave 5G on T-Mobile
No wireless charging
Bottom Line: The OnePlus 8 delivers 5G flagship performance at a fair price, making it the right phone to buy for a new network in an economically uncertain time.
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