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).
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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).
Watch this: What to Look for When Buying a Phone
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 the Motorola Moto Z2 Play from 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.
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
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.
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.
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 Honor 9, has just been announced for China, but we aren't sure when and if we'll see it come to the US.