The 10 Best Unlocked Cell Phones
We spent 47 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top options for this wiki. 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 picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best unlocked cell phone on Amazon.
Unlock Your Potential
Over the course of those four weeks overseas, I couldn't seem to get any option to work.
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.
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.
Finally, while we're talking about operating systems, look for something with which you're familiar.
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 $800 in 1993 (roughly $1,500 today adjusted for inflation), 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 $500 in technology for less than $100, never 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.
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