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Best unlocked phones 2020: Why buy an unlocked phone

Buying a new phone? Here are the advantages of buying an unlocked phone and the best ones to buy, including iPhone, Samsung, Google and more.
Samsung Motorola Apple unlocked smartphones
Unlocked smartphones are more cost-effective and flexible, argues one tech expert. Here's how to find the best one for your budget.Samsung; Motorola; Apple; Getty Images

When it’s time to buy a new phone, many people head down to their local Verizon, T-Mobile or AT&T store — or their respective booths at Best Buy — to see what’s on the shelves. This is an easy, straightforward way to buy a phone. But it’s not always the best way. You can also buy phones directly from the manufacturer, from a third-party retailer like Amazon, or through a used or refurbished marketplace.

And doing so comes with a lot of advantages.

You aren’t locked to one mobile carrier

When you buy a phone from your carrier, it’s locked to that carrier — that is, if you decide to switch carriers, you have to jump through a hoop or two first. This may not seem like a big deal, but I think we in the U.S. are too loyal to our carriers, probably as a result of the contracts we were once forced into. There are a lot of great carriers out there, especially the smaller sub-carriers (accurately known as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs) like Mint Mobile, Cricket Wireless, Google Fi and Ting, which offer similarly great service at much lower prices than the big four. Many allow you to bring any compatible phone you want, meaning you can just pop in a new SIM card, try out a carrier and move along with your life. If it doesn’t suit your needs, or if they jack up their prices unexpectedly, you can then hop on over to a new one with no fuss.

Google Pixel 4

Google offers some of the best Android phones you can buy today, with a clean interface free of pre-installed bloatware. While you can buy it from carrier stores like Verizon, it’ll be locked to that carrier for at least 60 days, depending on your agreement. The Pixel 4 is compatible with every major US carrier, though, so buying it unlocked allows you to take it wherever you want, whenever you want. You can also buy an unlocked edition of the recently released and budget-friendly Pixel 4a on Amazon and Best Buy, too.

If you have a carrier-locked phone, you can unlock it on your carrier’s website or at a brick-and-mortar store, albeit with some stipulations.

  • You usually have to wait 60 days after buying a phone
  • You need to have paid off the phone (which can cause some bumps if your financing plan doesn’t offer easy ways to pay it off early
  • And some carriers may limit how many phones you buy and unlock in any single year

These shouldn’t be huge roadblocks for most people but it’s a lot easier to just buy your phone unlocked to begin with — then take it to whatever carrier you want.

You can buy phones that carriers don’t carry

Some of the best phones aren’t even available at carrier stores — you can only purchase them from the manufacturer or from third-party retailers. In other cases, they may only be available from certain carriers even if they’re compatible with other networks.

OnePlus 8

OnePlus may not be a household name like Samsung and Apple, but it’s become a darling among Android fans for highly-specced phones at more affordable prices. The OnePlus 8 offers flagship performance for a few hundred bucks less than the big boys, and it’s compatible with all carriers — though it’s only sold at Verizon and T-Mobile’s stores. If you’re on AT&T, you can still use the phone (without 5G service) — but you just have to buy it from OnePlus or Amazon.

You can buy unlocked phones that are used or refurbished — and save

If I haven’t convinced you yet, here’s the biggest reason I don’t like buying phones from carriers: Buying a new phone is almost never a good value proposition. Forget promotions, forget Black Friday: The best deals in the land will almost always be on used or refurbished devices. Sites like Swappa allow you to buy someone’s used phone, while retailers like Amazon and Back Market offer refurbished devices in like-new state — all for a huge discount. Some carriers do offer pre-owned devices but the selection isn’t nearly as wide as at those other sites.

Samsung Galaxy S10e (Renewed)

Last year’s Samsung Galaxy S10e has everything I wanted in a phone: a big screen in a more manageable form factor, a great camera and (gasp) a headphone jack. It still keeps up with all the latest apps and, thanks to market forces in the world of Android phones, I was able to grab it for hundreds of dollars less than list price.

iPhone 11 (Refurbished)

Apple has some of the most stringent refurbishing standards in the business, so when you buy a refurb device from them, you can know it’s going to actually arrive in like-new condition. They’re currently selling refurbished versions of last year’s iPhone XS for a few hundred bucks off the list price, which is a great deal. It’s not as steep a discount as you’d see on Android phones since iPhones hold their value better, but a worthy discount nonetheless. If the phone you want isn’t available from Apple, third-party refurbishers on sites like Back Market can also provide hardware in great condition.

Counterpoint: The advantages of buying from your carrier

I haven’t bought a phone from a carrier in years and I don’t plan to anytime soon. But I’d be remiss not to mention that it does have a few advantages, particularly when it comes to the money you spend upfront. While any given phone has the same list price at a carrier as it would on Amazon, most carriers offer financing plans that let you pay off that phone over the course of two years. Paying $83 a month is much more enticing to some than paying $1,000 on day one, though I’d argue if you’re that strapped for cash, you might want to consider a less expensive phone instead — midrange devices are better than most people realize.

iPhone SE

Starting at $400, Apple’s iPhone SE is an incredible phone for the price. It has the same processor as the iPhone 11 (albeit clocked to slightly slower speeds), eschewing the edge-to-edge screen and multi-camera setup to pass on significant savings.

Motorola Moto G Power

If you have even less to spend, you’d be surprised what you can get for under $250. Motorola’s Moto G Power not only comes with an edge-to-edge display and three cameras, it has insane battery life compared to its competitors, thanks to a 5000mAh battery. It’s a bit slower than flagship Android phones but should still be perfectly adequate for most people.

That said, financing plans are fine if you feel the need to use one. I can’t say the same about early upgrade plans, which allow you to pay a monthly fee to regularly trade in your phone for the latest model. These are generally not cost-effective and you’d save more money by buying each phone outright and selling it on eBay when you’re ready to upgrade.

Some carriers also offer tempting promotions like buy-one-get-one-free deals on certain phones. Sometimes these can be worthwhile — just be sure to read the fine print and do the math yourself, making sure it works out in your favor long-term before you buy. (For my money, I’d still rather buy a like-new refurbished device and use it on a cheaper carrier, though.)

Finally, some carriers may only offer certain features on phones they sell — Cricket Wireless, my current carrier of choice, offers Wi-Fi calling on any iPhone, but Android users are stuck with the phones they sell in-store. Carriers may offer better tech support than a manufacturer would, too. You can just walk into the local AT&T store for help instead of dealing with LG’s online chat—but the quality of service can vary greatly from store to store.

In the end, choice is a good thing. But if you’re used to buying phones from your carrier, be sure to shop around next time—you might find some great phones for killer prices that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Check that model has a good warranty (international phones may not have a valid warranty in the U.S., for example) and that it’s compatible with your network. Some phones, like the aforementioned OnePlus 8, may require the carrier versions for 5G compatibility, though you can still buy these refurbished and unlocked. With a few minutes of research, you can likely buy with confidence.

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