My, my, how things have changed.
The way it used to be...
Any phone you wanted to buy in the US was tied to your carrier and a two-year contract. But in the last several years (prodded by T-Mobile), the marketplace has burst wide open.
- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile all sell phones contract-free at full retail price (in addition to phones with payment plans)
- Retailers like Amazon and Best Buy sell handsets you buy first, which you can then activate with carrier service after
- Phone makers like Motorola and Google sell handsets directly to you from their own websites
The vast majority of phone owners still buy phones from a carrier, but there's a lot more freedom and interest in no-contract and unlocked phones. This is good news for all of us because we now have more options than what you can get only in your carrier store. Some of which are quite affordable.
First, some quick definitions so we're all on the same page, and then a list of my favorite unlocked phones that you can buy today.
Editors' note: This piece was originally published on November 6, 2012, and is updated regularly.
What's an unlocked phone again?
An unlocked phone is one that isn't tied, or "locked" to a single carrier. That means you can pop in a SIM card for AT&T, for instance, swap it out for a T-Mobile SIM, and it'll still work. There's no artificial barrier that keeps you from using the phone on any other network simply because the carrier wants to forcibly keep you (and your phone) as a customer.
But. That doesn't mean that every unlocked phone you can buy is free and clear to use on any carrier, especially if you're buying a global handset that wasn't intended to work in the US (like if it's sold in Europe and Asia, and you buy it on Craigslist or eBay). You'll still need to check to make sure that your preferred network is compatible with your phone (look into the phone's connectivity and band support).
For an overly simplistic example, if the carrier only uses band X and the phone only uses band Y, the phone isn't going to work with that carrier (you'd still be able to use it over Wi-Fi, of course). Depending on the technology, some unlocked phones you can buy will only work with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US. Others will work with all of the Big Four and their prepaid branches -- for example Boost and Virgin Mobile for Sprint, Cricket Wireless for AT&T, and MetroPCS for T-Mobile.
Are unlocked and no-contract phones the same?
They can be, but there's a distinction. A no-contract phone is one that doesn't require you to sign a carrier agreement in order to buy and use it, so when the phone's paid off, it's yours. Most carriers now sell a no-contract option, either with our without a payment plan. When it's paid off, you can also ask the carrier to unlock it for you, so you can (potentially) use it with another phone network.
While most unlocked phones are also no-contract, it's common enough that one carrier will sell the phone exclusively (not other carrier store stocks it), but you're often able to buy the phone from the manufacturer as well.
For example, if you buy thefrom Verizon, you won't be able to use it on any carrier you want. But if you buy the unlocked version of that same phone from Motorola, it will work with all US carriers.
Is there a downside to unlocked phones?
A few cons balance out the pros. You won't be able to walk into a carrier store to get support (you'll need to contact the manufacturer instead) if something goes wrong. And you won't be able to use carrier-specific services like Wi-Fi calling or HD voice.
The best unlocked phones, according to us
Google Pixel and
If you want to buy a Pixel through a network, Verizon has the carrier exclusive ($650). But if you're the more adventurous type, you can also go to Google's website or Best Buy to get either Android phone on its own or with Google's Project Fi SIM. (Project Fi uses available spectrum from T-Mobile, Sprint and local Wi-Fi.) You aren't tied to Fi either.
Carriers like AT&T lure over Pixel owners with promises of a deal, or you could pop in another carrier SIM on your own. Google is expecting to update the Pixel around October.
You can buy the iPhone with practically any carrier. But did you also know you can get it unlocked? Head over to Apple's store (online or retail) and when you get to the carrier option, choose "buy without a carrier". Apple will ship it to you unlocked and SIM-free, so you can add your own SIM card for any carrier.
Read our full.
OnePlus has been consistently churning out our favorite midprice phones for the last two years. So this phone, which you can buy from OnePlus or Amazon, is one we'd ordinarily jump up to suggest.
However, OnePlus is days away from replacing it with the, which will be the first OnePlus phone to feature two cameras on the back.
While you wait, read up on the.
This is the best budget phone, period. Starting at $230, the G5 Plus is a heavy hitter that punches far above its weight.
True, your photos are never going to be as good, your speeds never as fast as on an $800 device, but everything about the G5 Plus is solid, and your compromises are surprisingly few, especially for the sub-$250 price. Snag one from Motorola's website.
Read the full.
To go a little more upmarket, the Z2 Play is a great midrange handset that works with Motorola's snap-on magnetic Mods.
If you're looking to skip Verizon, just apply a little patience. The satisfying all-arounder will pop up on Motorola's website in July, and you can use it with any US carrier.
Read the full.
We loved this Android phone's large screen, dual camera setup, powerful processor and long battery life.
It's fully unlocked with a US warranty, so you're not taking chances on an unknown if something goes wrong. Amazon, Best Buy and Jet.com are three places where you'll be able to pick it up.
Give the gorgeous U11 a squeeze to open the camera, or flashlight or your favorite app. The beautiful 5.5-inch Android phone also takes nice photos on the front and back, and has a zippy processor.
If you're not with Sprint, you can buy it unlocked for $650 from HTC.com or carrier versions on Amazon that will work with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, too.
For about $300 (now), you're getting a smooth midrange phone with two 12-megapixel cameras, and a fingerprint reader that doubles as a customizable button.
Although it's behind with Android 6.0, it's easy to use one-handed and is overall a comfortable phone. The next-gen version, the, has just been announced for China, but we aren't sure when and if we'll see it come to the US.
Article updated June 14, 2017, at 11:52 a.m. PT to include the Apple iPhone.