Great unlocked Android smartphones (roundup)

These unlocked handsets bypass the carrier overlords to let you talk, text, and browse (mostly) anywhere.

You may be a globe-trotter or just don't like to be tied down; at any rate, unlocked smartphones offer a sense of freedom and convenience we can all appreciate.

Because unlocked handsets aren't limited to working on any one specific carrier, you can simply buy a SIM card and stick it in your device, and you're good to go. There's no need to wait for activation or to get permission from your network provider. And better yet, you can keep your phone around as long or short a time as you'd like without any repercussions.

Here in the US, you can get GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile to unlock your phone after your contract is up, but we've picked some of our favorite handsets that you can purchase and use wherever you go.


Google's Nexus 5
Google's LG-made Nexus 5 is an incredible unlocked value. Josh Miller/CNET

Google Nexus 5
At just $349 for the 16GB version and $399 for the 32GB model, Google's Nexus 5 (actually made by LG) isn't just the best-value Nexus yet, it's also the best Nexus ever made. It helps that the smartphone folds in top-notch specs, like an ultrafast quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, a 1080p HD screen, and all-important LTE connectivity. The phone's crazy-affordable off-contract price (hundreds less than the unlocked Galaxy S4 , for instance) makes the good-not-great 8-megapixel camera a more than reasonable trade-off. Read the full Nexus 5 review.


Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition
Samsung's Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition swaps out the typical custom interface for a taste of pure Android. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition
When Google announced during its annual I/O conference that it would offer its own, pure-Jelly Bean version of the immensely popular , it seemed like the best had just gotten better for Android enthusiasts. However, if you're a TouchWiz fan, you'll lose a lot of those UI features in this unlocked version. Read the full Galaxy S4 Google Edition review.


HTC One Google Play Edition
HTC's Google Play Edition of the One beckons developers and more. Sarah Tew/CNET

HTC One Google Play Edition
Style for style, the HTC One already has it in the bag with its all-aluminum construction. In addition, as a Google Edition handset, the One will be able to get Android updates as they roll out (helloooo, Android KitKat !). However, similarly to Google's S4, the One won't carry any of HTC's special software goodies, like the camera's Zoe Share and the BlinkFeed news feed. Read the full HTC One Google Edition review.


Sony Xperia Z
You can get the waterproof Xperia Z directly from Sony. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony Xperia Z
US customers can buy the Sony Xperia Z through T-Mobile, but you can also pick it up unlocked, directly from Sony. Slim, subtle, and sleek, the Xperia Z is one of the sexiest waterproof phones we've seen in recent memory. But while it gets points for being able to survive a dip in the pool, be mindful that it's not the fastest handset we've come across. Read the full Xperia Z review.


LG Nexus 4
LG's Nexus 4 is now obsolete, but should be even cheaper. Josh Miller/CNET

LG Nexus 4
The wildly popular Nexus 4 still rates on this list. Its skinless Android experience, quad-core CPU, and solid construction will suit those looking for a midrange phone at a deal, now that the Nexus 5 has taken its place at the top of the line. Read the full Nexus 4 review.


Looking for specs and pricing? Compare these unlocked phones head-to-head.


Read the full CNET Review

HTC One Google Play Edition

The Bottom Line: The pricey HTC One Google Play Edition's unique blend of premium design, components, and pure Jelly Bean software will only tempt true Android fanatics. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition (unlocked)

The Bottom Line: Unless you're an Android enthusiast or demand total freedom from carriers, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition isn't worth the hefty price. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

LG Nexus 4

The Bottom Line: While the LG Nexus 4 wins on internal performance and user experience, anyone shopping for an unlocked phone should consider a comparable LTE handset first. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Google Nexus 5

The Bottom Line: Strong performance, high-end specs, and an ultra-affordable price make the Google Nexus 5 not just the best unlocked phone on the market, but the best Nexus phone by far. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Sony Xperia Z

The Bottom Line: The Sony Xperia Z makes sense if a water-resistant design and excellent photos are a priority, but skip it if you demand blazingly fast performance and long battery life. / Read full review

About the author

Lynn La is CNET's associate editor for cell phone and smartphone news and reviews. Prior to coming to CNET, she wrote for the Sacramento Bee and was a staff editor at Macworld. In addition to covering technology, she has reported on health, science, and politics.

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.

 

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