The 10 Best Unlocked Cell Phones
This wiki has been updated 25 times since it was first published in July of 2015. If you want the flexibility to choose your own mobile carrier without getting stuck in lengthy and costly contracts, try one of these unlocked cell phones. They give you communication with freedom and can also work overseas, so are good for frequent travelers who want to stay connected. We've included some of the best premium models as well as some budget-friendly options. When users buy our independently chosen editorial choices, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
December 16, 2020:
First of all, we want to help out as many prospective buyers as possible, so we've omitted most of the super-high-end phones that cost so much. A lot of buyers love those models, and for good reason, but we want to provide options that might not have so much media coverage, so we can give everyone a chance to enjoy high-end modern smartphones.
To that end, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE garnered the top spot because, honestly, it's barely distinguishable from the more high-end models in many ways, and will easily satisfy almost any Android user for years. The OnePlus Pro 8 is in a similar boat, demanding a high price, but not as high as some, and offering a host of premium features. As far as Apple fans are concerned, it's not as easy to find unlocked late-model iPhones, but the Apple iPhone SE makes that almost irrelevant, because it's not only among the best-performing options, but it's also one of the smallest models released this year, by far. Plus, for an Apple device, it's actually well priced.
Of course, we'd be remiss to not mention the Google Pixel 5 and Google Pixel 4a. Both are excellent mobile devices, with great performance and great cameras - especially the 5 - although, curiously, Google still refuses to offer expandable microSD storage. Nonetheless, if you don't need a ton of extra onboard memory, both are widely considered top-quality options.
But the real gems of the modern releases are the mid-range, affordable smartphones. Options like the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro and Xiaomi Poco X3 are awfully hard to top. They boast many of the same features that come with phones twice as expensive, but they work great in almost all respects, especially photography. The Realme 6 is another top contender at a good price, and the Moto G Stylus is a surprisingly strong contender against Samsung's vaunted Note series.
April 26, 2019:
There are so many smartphones to choose from that it can be a pretty intimidating task. And while it's not economically feasible for most people to upgrade their phone on a regular basis, the fact is that there are enough new models to ensure that there's something for everyone's needs, and in everyone's price range. In that vein, one of the reasons behind buying an unlocked phone is the versatility that comes with it. You won't however, have access to the common carrier-based discounts or payment plans when buying a standalone device, and that requirement for a lump sum payment can limit some people's choices. If price is no object, by all means, go ahead and get the Samsung S10, or if you're even more adventurous, the iPhone XR. They're both amazing pieces of equipment, if you can afford them. The Google Pixel XL 3 is slightly less expensive, though, and many users report being absolutely thrilled with its display and especially its camera performance. Speaking of cameras, the Huawei Mate 20 boasts a fantastic triple-lens imaging system, which has been the subject of many positive reviews. The Xperia XZ3 and OnePlus 6T are in the entry-level flagship price range and offer all-around fantastic and snappy performance, and as they fit in your pocket and their battery life suffices, you won't be disappointed.
If you're more into a functional phone than a trendy one, though, there are some really great options on our list. The Xiaomi is an excellent budget-oriented option for international travel. It's lightweight, accepts two SIM cards, and performs just about as well as any. The LG V35 ThinQ performs even better, and in fact is pretty reasonably priced in light of the powerful hardware inside it.
Finally, two models stand out for very specific reasons that don't always get a lot of press in the modern world of smartphones. The Moto G6 costs next to nothing compared to most others, especially considering its support for GSM and CDMA networks. It doesn't bring along buzzwords or eye-catching features like a massive and expensive flagship design would, but it's almost unbeatable as far as bang for the buck.
And the Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact, while not even the latest of Sony's line, is likely one of the last compact flagship-level phones that will ever be released. If you're like me, and you value functionality and ease of use over the ability to binge-watch TV on your phone, I'd strongly consider this model. It has incredible battery life, a 3.5-millimeter audio jack, and squared off sides that are easy to grip and hard to lose hold of. Its successor, the XZ2 Compact, can claim none of those three things. The XZ1C is remarkably small and will fit unobtrusively into many pockets where a Galaxy-sized model could never dream of going. In fact, after extensive research in early 2019, I switched to an Xperia XZ1 Compact after my Moto Z2 Force was pickpocketed in a music venue. It's more than powerful enough to support a slick Android Pie experience, and as a phone, navigational device, and occasional web browser, it's every bit as functional as anything else. Also, we'd recommend springing for the international version, as the US variant has had its fingerprint reader disabled, and the only way to enable it is to flash the unit with an international version of Android, which is something we definitely would not recommend, as that could mess up the phone's automatic updates. While its small screen is not ideal for watching media, that's probably its only drawback, and it's why we recommend it over a large handful of newer models. Unfortunately, Sony has discontinued its Compact line, so unless you want to downgrade to the iPhone SE, it's just about the last truly pocket-size option you may ever have.
Unlock Your Potential
Over the course of those four weeks overseas, I couldn't seem to get any option to work.
The one time I traveled to Europe I thought I'd simply grab a burner and a SIM card from an overseas carrier, and that I'd be set to text and talk all I wanted for the duration of my trip. I couldn't have been more wrong. Over the course of those four weeks overseas, I couldn't seem to get any option to work. My cell phone from the states was about as useful as an electric paper weight, and I was useless in the face of emergencies going on at home that I barely knew were happening.
Go ahead and try dropping off the map to your friends and family for a month while they assume you're gallivanting about Europe without a care in the world. It's not great for relationships.
Which is all to say that staying connected is important, whether you're trying to do so while touring the globe or simply trying to save money on the prospect here at home. An unlocked smartphone operates without tying you to the intricate contractual clauses and international barriers that wireless companies set up specifically so that they can go about charging you more for your needs.
With an unlocked phone, all you need is a prepaid SIM card from any major carrier's pay-as-you-go service, like AT&T's GoPhone, for example, and you've got texting, call minutes, and data to surf the internet at your leisure. You can even re-up your data plan using the phone, so once you've got the SIM card and a prepaid plan in place, you're golden.
Overseas, the prospect is just as simple. There was a man standing on a street corner who promised he could unlock my factory phone for me for a mere £100, which seemed rather steep considering I was 100% sure he would make off with my phone and never return. With an unlocked phone, however, you could buy a prepaid SIM card from any shop or internet cafe in the land, pop it into your phone, and you're good to go.
Sure, the phones on our list may not boast the brand names with which you've become so familiar over the years, but their operating systems are the same and their technical specs–like the camera quality, battery life, and processing speeds–, are even better in some cases.
International Phones Of Mystery
Savvy consumers who don't need the latest and greatest cell phone technology often reach for unlocked phones for the flexibility they provide in choosing your carrier. If you've ever moved into a new house or apartment, only to find that your cellular carrier has terrible reception in and around your home, you know how frustrating it can be to be locked into a contract.
If you do intend to use your unlocked phone to international travel, all of the above still applies, but another question or two does come up.
If your interest in unlocked phones doesn't extend beyond the borders of your home country, then you can make your selection off of our list based on more traditional phone criteria. Some of the phones on our list have excellent battery life, which is great if you're out of the house for long stretches of time or if you have a tendency to lose your chargers.
Other phones have better cameras and faster processors, which are great if you do a lot of video chatting with friends and family who are far away from you. There are even phones on our list that are specifically designed to be more rugged and less "smart," or that have advantages for use in the hands of a child or an elderly customer.
If you do intend to use your unlocked phone to international travel, all of the above still applies, but another question or two does come up. If you move pretty freely and constantly between carrier areas in such a way that would necessitate a lot of SIM card swapping, you should look for a phone on this list that not only matches your other technical requirements, but that also has more than one slot for a SIM card, allowing you to switch between them from within the phone's operating system.
Finally, while we're talking about operating systems, look for something with which you're familiar. Most of these phones run either Android or Windows, and if you don't use a Windows machine at home, it'd be wise to stay away, as their connectivity with anything other than Windows can get a little wonky.
Smartphones, Not-So-Smart Consumers
From IBM's massive attempt at a cell phone with computing technology in 1993 to the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, mobile talk and computing went through a number of interesting shifts. That IBM device, known as Simon, cost the equivalent of thousands today, and all it had was talk, email, and fax.
Then, companies like Virgin Mobile and Cricket came along to upset the apple cart, and they offered a prepaid service with simple, inexpensive phones.
Well before the advent of the smartphone, however, cellular carriers discovered that they could lock consumers into lengthy contracts by massively subsidizing the cost of their cell phone purchase. You could walk into any wireless provider's store and walk out with high-end technology for a small fraction of the actual sale price, possibly not even realizing that they'd take the difference out of your monthly installments until you were "eligible" for an upgrade.
Then, companies like Virgin Mobile and Cricket came along to upset the apple cart, and they offered a prepaid service with simple, inexpensive phones. That model has led phone manufacturers to create smartphones with as much capability as possible for as little money as possible, that they might capture a chunk of the market not interested in tying itself down to any of the big cellular companies.