Shopping for a new smartphone can be overwhelming. There are cheap smartphones that are terrible buys, and inexpensive smartphones that are great values. And just when you’ve decided that you’re ready to upgrade to a new phone, you start wondering whether your carrier actually has the phone you want, or if you even want to buy a phone that’s compatible with your current carrier’s network or would prefer to plan for the possibility of switching carriers — which makes choosing how you buy your phone a more complicated question. Fortunately, unlocked phones can solve a lot of your problems.
You can get just about any phone unlocked, and unlocked phones are a great choice if you want to upgrade anytime, avoid overpaying via a leasing program or installment plan, or sidestep the bloatware that carriers pack onto even the best Android phones. To buy an unlocked phone, you’ll need to pay for the device upfront, which can require a little more planning than paying for a device over the space of months or years. But shoppers who buy unlocked phones can easily resell those phones when they’re ready to upgrade again, which helps to offset the cost.
Of course, there are a few things that you should keep in mind when shopping for an unlocked device. Make sure that you check the network compatibility, since not all unlocked phones will work with the networks of all of the major carriers. If a phone will work on AT&T and T-Mobile, for instance, it’s unlikely that it’ll also work with Verizon and Sprint. Also check the bands to ensure that the phone can support 4G LTE connectivity in the United States. The majority of unlocked phones can access most 2G and 3G networks, but are less likely to support all the LTE bands used in the U.S. Some don’t support the latest frequencies that carriers have activated, which means that you might not be able to get the fastest speeds available.
AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and many smaller carriers make it easy to use unlocked phones (though Sprint requires activation, which often involves paying a fee and visiting a store). You can transfer the data from your old phone to your new, unlocked phone pretty easily on your own or with a store’s assistance, and you won’t have to spend a lot of time uninstalling carrier bloatware. Convinced? The smartphones ahead are our top choices of unlocked phones. A few will work on all four major carriers, while most work only on GSM networks. Make sure that you do your research before you buy, and ensure that the device you’re considering has everything you need.
1. Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3
The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 may not be a phone that every carrier in the U.S. is advertising, but it’s a great one to consider nonetheless. The device is powered by an octa-core Snapdragon 615 processor, features a 5.5-inch full HD display, and integrates a 2,910 mAh battery. It’s also equipped with a 13MP rear-facing camera and an 8MP front-facing camera. It also features JBL award-winning audio with dual front-facing stereo speakers.
2. Asus Zenfone 2 Laser
The Asus Zenfone 2 Laser is an affordable phone with long battery life and a decent camera. The phone features a 5.5-inch IPS full HD Display, a Snapdragon 615 processor, 3GB of RAM, and a removable 3,000mAh battery. The device’s camera system is also equipped with fast laser autofocus for the 13MP rear-facing camera. The major drawback of the device is its software, but otherwise, the Zenfone 2 Laser offers an attractive combination of features at an affordable price.
3. Blu Life One X
The Blu Life One X is a budget-friendly unlocked phone that runs Android 5.1 Lollipop and features a 5.2-inch full HD display. It’s also equipped with 16GB of internal memory and 2GB of RAM, and is powered by a 1.3 GHz Octa-Core Mediatek 6753. Its 13MP rear-facing camera features phase detection autofocus, and the body is constructed of aircraft-grade aluminum — a nice contrast with other affordable phones that feature plasticky builds.
4. Google Nexus 6P
The Nexus 6P is a great choice for any smartphone shopper who wants the pure Android experience. Manufactured by Huawei, it’s the higher-end of the two devices that Google unveiled last year, and while it’s pricier than some of the other phones that made the list, we think the price tag is well justified by its impressive specifications and build quality. The device features a 5.7-inch quad HD AMOLED display, a Snapdragon 810 processor, a 3,450mAh battery, and a 12MP rear-facing camera. The best quality of a Nexus phone is that it will always have the latest version of Android, including Google’s monthly security updates. This particular one also benefits from being able to run on Google’s Fi network, which offers the coverage of T-Mobile and Sprint combined.
5. HTC 10
The HTC 10 is an excellent phone for music fans, since the device offers a great audio experience with BoomSound speakers and a powerful DAC that can power high-end headphones. It also features a super-sharp screen, two great cameras, and a gorgeous metal body. It’s powered by a Snapdragon 820 chip and 4GB of RAM, and features a 5.2-inch IPS LCD. The rear-facing 12MP UltraPixel 2 camera features large 1.55μm pixels, laser autofocus, optical image stabilization, and f/1.8 aperture. The device also integrates a 3,000mAh battery and runs Android Marshmallow out of the box, though it’s lightly customized with HTC’s Sense UI.
6. Huawei Honor 5X
Huawei’s Honor 5X is a surprisingly full-featured phone given its sub-$200 price tag. It features a 5.5-inch full HD display, a Snapdragon 616 processor, 16GB of storage, and microSD support for expansion up to 128GB. It’s also equipped with a 13MP rear-facing camera and a 3,000mAh battery, and its metal build and fast fingerprint reader are welcome additions. It runs Huawei’s EMUI on Android 5.1 Lollipop out of the box, but should be updated to Android 6.0 Marshmallow in the near future.
7. iPhone 6s
One of Apple’s latest iPhones, the iPhone 6s, is available SIM-free, which means that you can equip it with a nano-SIM from any supported carrier, including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, or Sprint. The device features a 4.7-inch IPS LCD display (equipped with Apple’s new 3D Touch pressure-sensitive feature), and is powered by the new A9 chip. Its rear-facing camera is a 12MP system with an f/2.2 lens and phase detection autofocus. The device also features Apple’s latest Touch ID fingerprint sensor, and is equipped with NFC for Apple Pay.
8. LG G5
Despite the somewhat gimmicky nature of the modular “friends” for the LG G5, this high-end smartphone is well worth considering, particularly if you’re willing to spend a significant amount of money to get impressive specs and the latest version of Android. Fans of modular technology will appreciate the ability to swap in modular components, and users concerned about power will appreciate the removable 2,800mAh battery. The phone features a 5.3-inch screen, a Snapdragon 820 chip, 4GB of RAM, and an impressive 16MP camera. It also runs Android Marshmallow out of the box.
9. Motorola Moto G (2015)
The Motorola Moto G is a popular phone that’s now on its third generation, which has been updated with a 1.4GHz quad-core Snapdragon 410 processor. You can choose a model with either 8GB of storage and 1GB of RAM or 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM (though we’d recommend the latter). Both are equipped with a 13MP rear-facing camera, a 5MP front-facing camera, a 5-inch 720p LCD, a 2,470mAH battery, and microSD support. The third-generation model is also waterproofed and has LTE support.
10. Nextbit Robin
The Nextbit Robin is unique in that it takes full advantage of the cloud. The device features 32GB of internal storage as well as 100GB of online storage, and automatically backs up your apps and photos to archive the things that you don’t need and restore them when you need them. It’s equipped with a 5.2-inch 1080p LCD display, a 13MP rear-facing camera with phase detection autofocus and a dual-tone flash, and while users have noted that there are a few quirks and bugs that need to be worked out, the device is a unique option among unlocked phones.
11. OnePlus 2
The “flagship killer” OnePlus 2 is a middle-of-the-road option in terms of price. It’s not among the cheapest unlocked phones, but it doesn’t cost nearly as much as the most expensive options. The device features an impressive build and design, and has a highly-rated camera as well as an excellent fingerprint sensor. It’s equipped with 64GB of storage, a Snapdragon 810 processor, a 3,300mAh battery, and a 5.5-inch IPS LCD display. While the OnePlus doesn’t have wireless or fast charging capabilities, and also doesn’t have NFC, it does offer high-end performance at a reasonable price.
12. Samsung Galaxy S7
Samsung’s Galaxy S7 is an extremely impressive high-end phone. It’s not the right phone for you if you’re looking at unlocked phones primarily to save money, but it’s a great choice if you want a smartphone that you’ll enjoy using for years to come. It’s equipped with a 5.1-inch quad HD Super AMOLED display, a Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 12MP rear-facing camera, IP68 rating, a 3,000mAh battery, and the latest version of Android.