CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Best phone gifts for graduates in 2018

These phones will help prepare your grad for the next stage of life.

Jessica Dolcourt
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Jessica Dolcourt
1 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

Air horns have been blown and hats have been thrown. After the confetti settles, your graduate will need a reliable phone to take them through the next stage of life. 

2 of 23 Josh Miller/CNET

Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are terrific, stylish and pricey all-arounders that take great photos and will let your grad go crazy customizing the phone. Excellent speakers are great for making an impromptu party in a dorm room or quad. You'll definitely want a case to protect your Galaxy S9 from accidental drops on campus.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus
3 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The larger Galaxy S9 Plus (right) has a second camera on the back for taking portrait shots, which captures moments well at high school campuses, college dorm rooms, and the first day of a new job.

4 of 23 Josh Miller/CNET

Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The Galaxy S9 phones also have a feature called AR Emoji that makes 3D avatars of you (yep, just like on the iPhone X). I'm not a huge fan of their quality, but new grads won't have to miss out if their friends brag about the trick on iPhone.

5 of 23 Josh Miller/CNET

Galaxy Note 8

Samsung's costliest phone, the Galaxy Note 8 has one thing no other phone has: a digital pen you can use to write notes and draw if you leave the laptop at home. Samsung's priciest phone, its large, 6.3-inch screen gives you lots of room for reading and watching.

6 of 23

Galaxy Note 9...?

Keep in mind, Samsung is expected to release the new Galaxy Note 9 some time in August or September. If you can wait, it means either getting the freshest phone skills, or a slight discount on "last year's" Galaxy Note 8. Don't worry, the Note 8 will still be a great choice.

7 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

iPhone X

There's no way around it: the iPhone X is a splurge. iPhones work best with Macs, and if you get it, there's peace of mind in the cutting-edge face unlocking feature that's secure enough to also pay for items with a glance (the previous Samsung phones can also do that with their own proprietary tool).

iPhone 8 Plus
8 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

iPhone 8 Plus

The slightly cheaper iPhone 8 Plus is hefty in the hand, but has the exact same terrific photo skills as the iPhone X, including portrait mode with dramatic lighting scenes.

9 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

iPhone 8

It'll still cost a bundle, but the most affordable iPhone introduced this year is premium enough to do everything well, yet familiar and easy to use. For a limited time, you can also the iPhone 8 in red

10 of 23 Josh Miller/CNET

Motorola Moto Z2 Play

What makes the Moto Z2 Play so great is its looooong battery life -- and if you need more, there's a snap-on Mod for that. It performs very steadily for a midrange phone, and it still looks good. Moto has my favorite alarm clocks on a smartphone, which is important for making those morning commitments. 

11 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

Motorola Moto G6

We've only briefly seen the just-announced Motorola Moto G6, but we're already hopeful that this budget phone is worth the $250 price tag. Moto has a good track record here, and we like the looks of that dual camera on the back. The Moto G6 sells in "late spring."

12 of 23 Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Motorola Moto G6 Play

The similar Motorola Moto G6 Play ($200) has a much larger battery for longer life, which promises to extend a safety net if your grad can't get to an outlet to recharge. Otherwise, it has simpler hardware than the Moto G6, and is shaping up to be a good option for wallet-watchers, or first-time phone users.

13 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

Motorola Moto E5 Plus

Even less expensive are the Motorola Moto E5 Plus and Moto E5 Play. The details start getting a little cloudy among all these Moto phones, but here's a handy guide to help you figure out which is which.

14 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

Motorola Moto E5 Play

Here's one example: The Motorola Moto E5 Play looks much more plasticky.

15 of 23 Sony

Sony Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact

Small phones are hard to find, but the Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact is one of them. It's joined by the Xperia XZ2, which is larger and has more advances specs. Sony phones fly under the radar in the US, though they're typically reliable workhorses. You won't be able to buy them with a carrier, but you can get one at Amazon or Best Buy.

16 of 23 Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact

The phones can shoot HDR photos in 4K resolution and super slow motion video at a higher resolution than the Galaxy S9.

17 of 23 Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung Galaxy S8 Active

We got 24 hours of battery life from our Samsung Galaxy S8 Active lab tests (we run down a looped video on airplane mode). While the Galaxy S8 Active is just as water-resistant as the regular Galaxy S8, its tougher exterior makes it more resistant to those inevitable drops.

18 of 23

Samsung Galaxy S8

Don't discount the Samsung Galaxy S8 even though its successor is already on sale. It's still a great phone and it'll cost less now than it did a few months ago.

19 of 23 Josh Miller/CNET

Google Pixel 2 and 2XL

It's too early for the Google Pixel 3, which we think will come in October if Google keeps to its schedule. In the meantime, the Google Pixel 2 and 2XL take great photos and have a clean, simple Android interface.

20 of 23 @evleaks

LG G7 ThinQ

Keep your eyes peeled for this one. We know LG is launching its next big phone May 2, but apart from the name, we don't know for sure what we're getting. Here are the most important LG G7 ThinQ rumors we know.

21 of 23 @evleaks

OnePlus 6

Similarly, we know that the OnePlus 6 is coming -- even an Avengers-themed version -- but we don't know exactly when. These phones typically bring on top-notch specs at less than the cost of a premium phone. Here are all the OnePlus 6 rumors and facts.

22 of 23 Sarah Tew/CNET

iPhone SE 2?

Apple's low-cost, smaller iPhone SE is overdue for an upgrade, and rumors are pointing in that direction. If we do see it, we think it'd be around early June. The current SE is a great starter phone for Apple fans who just want to do the basics well, but we'd urge grads to hold out for the refresh.

23 of 23 Josh Miller/CNET

Huawei P20 and P20 Pro

If you've been hearing about the three-camera Huawei P20 Pro and regular Huawei P20, I'm sorry to say you're out of luck. Neither of these phones will sell in the US. But you can always gaze from afar...

See more from CNET's Grads Gift Guide.

More Galleries

My Favorite Shots From the Galaxy S24 Ultra's Camera
A houseplant

My Favorite Shots From the Galaxy S24 Ultra's Camera

20 Photos
Honor's Magic V2 Foldable Is Lighter Than Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra

Honor's Magic V2 Foldable Is Lighter Than Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra

10 Photos
The Samsung Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus Looks Sweet in Aluminum
Samsung Galaxy S24

The Samsung Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus Looks Sweet in Aluminum

23 Photos
Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra Now Has a Titanium Design
The Galaxy S24 Ultra in multiple colors

Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra Now Has a Titanium Design

23 Photos
I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

34 Photos
17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About
Invitation for the Apple September iPhone 15 event

17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About

18 Photos
AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

17 Photos