Buying one of the best unlocked phones gives you the freedom to choose the handset you want first and then bring it to the network that works for you.
Don’t worry if you want to switch carriers: It’s super easy to jump from one to another when you own an unlocked phone. And the best part is, you don’t have to pay any early termination fees.
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While most unlocked phones support GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, it’s best to look for devices that support all the major U.S. providers, including Sprint and Verizon. That way, you can freely choose to take your device to any carrier. And if you don't like your current service provider or another happens to be offering a better deal, you can always leave. To learn more, see our what is an unlocked phone guide.
The downside of unlocked phones is that they rarely come with the sort of massive promotional discounts you often see carriers peddling, especially to new subscribers agreeing to long-term equipment installment plans. The upside, however, is that there are many inexpensive unlocked options out there that won't break the bank, yet provide flagship-caliber features and experiences for less. We've hand picked some of these devices across a range of prices in the list below to help you find the perfect fit.
What are the best unlocked phones?
The best unlocked phone based on our testing is the Google Pixel 4a. Buyers get Google's best-in-class camera technology in a phone that costs hundreds of dollars less than flagships typically do, and even $50 less than Apple's iPhone SE. (Google just announced the Pixel 4a 5G, which brings 5G connectivity to the device; the $499 phone ships in mid-November)
Not that you should write off Apple's cheapest iPhone. At $399, the iPhone SE is a great value in its own right, especially since it packs Apple's industry-leading A13 processor into a compact phone. While every wireless carrier offers the iPhone SE, Apple also sells the device unlocked, giving you the freedom to take it to any carrier.
Those willing to spend more should look into the latest pair of phones from OnePlus. Although it's the more expensive option — and one of the priciest products OnePlus has ever made — the OnePlus 8 Pro is our pick of the two, as it includes premium features like quad cameras, wireless charging and a 120Hz display. The OnePlus 8 features the same top-of-the-line processor along with a 90Hz display, but it's $200 cheaper, so it's a better choice for especially budget-conscious shoppers.
And if both those OnePlus options are still too pricey, we'll remind you the phone maker has an even cheaper alternative out there — the OnePlus Nord. The Nord costs £379, though notably, it won't be offered in the U.S., at least initially.
If you're primarily concerned about battery life, the inexpensive Moto G Power, which costs just $249, is our undisputed battery life king thanks to a massive 5,000-mAh battery and energy-sipping CPU.
Finally, iOS loyalists who prefer phones larger than the iPhone SE should note that the 6.1-inch iPhone 11 is also available unlocked. Likewise, Samsung's Galaxy S20 series and new Galaxy Note 20 phablets can all be purchased unlocked, too. While you're less likely to save much by opting for Apple and Samsung's best models without a service agreement, you can at least reduce the price of your next device by trading in your old one.
The best unlocked phones you can buy today
1. Google Pixel 4a
The best unlocked phone overall
Display: 5.81-inch OLED (2340x1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 730G | RAM: 6GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB / No | Rear camera: 12.2MP (ƒ/1.7) | Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0) | Weight: 5.04 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:55
Not as powerful as the iPhone SE
Subpar battery life
The Google Pixel 4a is available for $349 unlocked and works on both GSM-based as well as CDMA-based networks, meaning you can take it to pretty much any carrier you like. That’s a big deal, because handsets this cheap typically lack universal connectivity.
Then you have to consider everything you get as part of the Pixel 4a experience — the bright 5.81-inch OLED display, quality design, solid performance (even if its not at the level of, say, the iPhone SE’s), excellent Google software and update support, and of course the Pixel’s trademark camera make for a phenomenally well-rounded midrange phone.
The Pixel 4a’s lone downside is its battery life, which pales in comparison to the iPhone SE’s ever so slightly, never mind the longevity you would get in more expensive models. But in every other way, the Pixel 4a really is the most complete phone out there under the $350 mark. Be on the look out for the larger Pixel 4a 5G for $499. It's coming in November and it brings 5G connectivity along with a lot of features that match Google's newly announced $699 Pixel 5 flagship.
Read our full Google Pixel 4a review.
2. iPhone SE
The best unlocked phone for Apple fans
Display: 4.7-inch LCD (1334x750) | CPU: A13 Bionic | RAM: 3GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8) | Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 5.22 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:18
Top-of-the-line A13 processor
No Night mode on camera
Just as Google has done recently with the Pixel 3a and 4a, Apple has introduced a far less expensive version of its flagship handsets in the iPhone SE. However, in this device, Cupertino has still included the same processor you'll find in the iPhone 11 lineup — granting a ton of performance muscle for a modest $400 phone.
You'll make some trade-offs for that lower price. Unlike Apple's other phones, the iPhone SE features a single rear camera, though that 12-megapixel lens performed well in our tests. We wish that the iPhone SE supported Night Mode for low light photography, but photos in ordinary conditions match what Google's camera-focused Pixels can produce.
The iPhone SE also sports other features that typically pass over cheaper phones, like wireless charging. And despite its low price, the new iPhone SE will be supported with new software updates for years to come — a privilege that usually misses comparable Android phones in this segment. That includes iOS 14, which will add a host of new capabilities to the iPhone SE's repertoire when it launches this fall.
Read our full iPhone SE 2020 review.
3. Moto G Power
Epic battery life for under $300
Display: 6.4-inch LCD (2300x1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 665 | RAM: 4GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB / Yes | Rear camera: 16MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 8MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2); 2MP macro (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 16MP (ƒ/2.0) | Weight: 7 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 16:10
The best battery life we've tested
Low price tag
Good performance and photos for the price
Screen isn’t very colorful
No optical zoom
The Moto G Power retains two of the best things about the Moto G7 Power that came before it — the battery and the price. The former helps the latest Motorola phone produce the best result we’ve ever seen on our battery test, while the latter makes the Moto G Power a terrific bargain.
When we ran our battery test on the Moto G Power — continuous web surfing over LTE until the phone runs out of juice — the phone held out for a record time of 16 hours and 10 minutes. That’s more than a half-hour better than the long-lasting Moto G7 Power. It's nearly four hours better than the Moto G Stylus, a phone with similar specs and a built-in stylus — but a smaller battery — that costs $50 more than the Moto G Power.
Meanwhile, that $249 price on the Moto G Power means you won’t have to pay big bucks to enjoy epic battery life. You’ll also get a Snapdragon 665 chipset and triple camera array that keep pace with other phones in this price range.
Read our full Moto G Power review.
4. OnePlus 8 Pro
The best unlocked flagship value
Display: 6.78-inch OLED (3168x1440) | CPU: Snapdragon 865 | RAM: 8GB, 12GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.78); 48MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2); 8MP 3X telephoto (ƒ/2.4); 5MP color filter | Front camera: 16MP (ƒ/2.5) | Weight: 7 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:05
Bright and beautiful 120Hz display
Long battery life
Curved display causes accidental taps
You can only buy the OnePlus 8 Pro unlocked, either through the phone maker or Amazon. But if you want the best mix of features and price, you won’t hesitate to bypass a wireless carrier to get your hands on this phone. It packs in premium features while still keeping the overall price out of the stratospheric range that many high-end smartphones command today.
The OnePlus 8 Pro features a gorgeous, colorful display that’s augmented by an optional 120Hz refresh rate for smoother scrolling and move immersive video. While the feature can tax the OnePlus 8’s battery, at least OnePlus doesn’t make you choose between a faster refresh and scaled back resolution the way Samsung does with its latest flagships.
You’ll get a couple of OnePlus firsts with this Pro model — wireless charging and an IP68 water resistance rating. It’s the wireless charging support that has us excited, particularly since the OnePlus 8 can double the speed of most other wireless chargers. Throw in a top-performing Snapdragon 865 processor and cameras that can keep up with (though not quite exceed) the best camera phones, and you’ve got one of the best unlocked values around.
Read our full OnePlus 8 Pro review.
5. Samsung Galaxy Note 20
The best premium unlocked phone
Display Size: 6.7-inch AMOLED (2400x1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus | RAM: 8GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 64MP telephoto with 3x lossless zoom (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 10MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 6.77 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:26
Useful note-taking features
Battery life just okay
Display only 60Hz
If you're looking for one of the best unlocked phones and money is no object, treat yourself to the Samsung Galaxy Note 20, which offers a 6.7-inch OLED display, Snapdragon 865 Plus processor and versatile S Pen stylus for $999.
In fact, the Note 20 is such a well-rounded phone, we'd recommend it over the similarly-priced 6.2-inch Galaxy S20, which has the benefit of a 120Hz display but lacks the Note 20's better processor, bigger battery and of course, its S Pen. And that S Pen helps you get more from apps like Samsung Notes, which now syncs across a multitude of devices and allows for appending audio recordings to written or typed notes. The Note 20's wireless DeX Mode and Windows Your Phone projection also helps you get more out of it on bigger displays.
The Note 20 also has a phenomenal set of triple cameras that may lack the pricier Note 20 Ultra's advanced sensors and optical zoom but still take great shots in any condition. Overall, it's one of the finest handsets you can buy unlocked and take to any network.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 review.
6. TCL 10 Pro
A midrange phone with a premium design
Display: 6.47-inch OLED (2340x1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 675 | RAM: 6GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB / Yes | Rear camera: 64MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 16MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4); 5MP macro (ƒ/2.2); 2MP low-light (ƒ1.8) | Front camera: 24MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 6.6 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:47
Impressive OLED display
Strong battery life
Cameras are hit-or-miss
Gaming performance not the best
TCL has been making smartphones for years under the Alcatel and BlackBerry brands, but the TCL 10 series marks its first global handset release under its own marque. The most powerful model, the $449 TCL 10 Pro, is our favorite of the trio, because it combines a high-quality glass-and-metal design with solid performance and amenities like 128GB of built-in storage, as well as a headphone jack.
The TCL 10 Pro's biggest concession concerns its quad-lens camera system. It comprises wide-angle, ultrawide and macro optics, but doesn't take photos appreciably better than those you get from the likes of the iPhone SE or Pixel 3a in most cases. Still, if you can see past that, this is a compelling option in the realm of midrange unlocked handsets — not to mention a strong debut for TCL as a phone maker in its own right. If you're interested in the TCL 10 Pro, it's also worth noting a 5G model is expected to debut this fall for roughly $500.
Read our full TCL 10 Pro review.
7. OnePlus 8
Nearly as good as the OnePlus 8 Pro, for far less
Display: 6.55-inch OLED (2400x1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 865 | RAM: 8GB, 12GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2); 2MP macro | Front camera: 16MP (ƒ/2.0) | Weight: 6.3 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:04
Very good battery life
No optical zoom
Curved screen is prone to accidental touches
The OnePlus 8 isn’t quite as feature-packed as its Pro sibling. The most significant trade-offs you’ll have to make are a screen that refreshes at 90Hz instead of 120Hz, no wireless charging and — most significantly — no telephoto lens. But you’ll also only pay $699 for an unlocked OnePlus 8, and that’s a really tempting value considering the features you do get in return.
For starters, a screen with a 90Hz refresh rate still offers smooth scrolling and an immersive experience. The 6.55-inch display on the OnePlus 8 also happens to be bright and colorful. And while you may have to plug in your phone to charge it, it won’t need to charge for long — after just 30 minutes, we got a fully drained OnePlus 8 up to 68% of its battery capacity. Not bad for a phone that lasted more than 11 hours on our battery test (albeit it with the less power-hungry 60Hz refresh rate turned on).
The OnePlus 8 will see a successor shortly when OnePlus unveils the OnePlus 8T on Oct. 14.
Read our full OnePlus 8 review.
8. iPhone 11
Another unlocked iPhone option
Display: 6.1-inch LCD (1792x828) | CPU: A13 Bionic | RAM: 4GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) / 12MP | Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 6.84 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:20
Ultra wide camera
Excellent Night Mode
A13 Bionic is fast
Skimpy storage in base model
Fast charger not included
The iPhone SE 2020 may be one of the best unlocked phones you can get, but it's not the only unlocked phone available from Apple. If you're looking for something a little larger, the iPhone 11 is the way to go.
The iPhone 11 Pro Max has a bigger screen, and the iPhone 11 Pro models have more cameras. But the lower price tag on the iPhone 11 — it starts at $699, which is $300 less than the iPhone 11 Pro — is too attractive to ignore. Besides, you're not giving up that much for those savings. You still get two rear cameras that offer the same features found in the Pro series, like better photos in low light.
The powerful A13 Bionic processor is the same, too, and the iPhone 11 actually outlasts the iPhone 11 Pro in our battery test. The modem in the iPhone 11 isn't as fast, and while it supports fast charging, you'll have to buy your own charger, but these are small sacrifices to make for an otherwise top-notch phone. You can order an unlocked version of the iPhone 11 from Apple. Just remember that the iPhone 12 is merely weeks away at this point/
Read our full iPhone 11 review.
9. Samsung Galaxy A51
An iPhone SE alternative with a bigger screen
Display: 6.5-inch OLED (2400x1080) | CPU: Exynos 9611 | RAM: 4GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB / Yes | Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/2.0); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2); 5MP depth (ƒ/2.2); 5MP macro (ƒ/2.4) | Front camera: 32MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 6.07 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:16
128GB of storage
Camera struggles in low light
Between its 6.5-inch OLED display, 128GB of storage, quad-lens camera and 4,000-mAh battery, the Galaxy A51 offers almost everything you could want in a smartphone, but costs just $399. We love this budget Galaxy's design, which manages to be sturdy yet lightweight, with extremely slim bezels more befitting of premium handsets. And best of all, even though the A51 is available through most major carriers, you can also buy it unlocked.
However, it's not perfect. Unfortunately, paying iPhone SE money won't get you iPhone SE performance in the Galaxy A51, as Samsung's Exynos 9611 chipset can occasionally drag during routine tasks. And while it's nice to have all those camera perspectives, the quality of the A51's photography doesn't compare to what you'd get from the Pixel 3a. That said, this Galaxy offers a few perks those other midrange phones don't, and so it's worth a look for buyers with a rigid amount to spend who aren't tempted by Apple's or Google's propositions.
For a closer look at how the Galaxy A51 compares to Apple's new cheap iPhone, check out our Samsung Galaxy A51 vs. iPhone SE 2020 faceoff.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy A51 review.
How to choose the best unlocked phone for you
- Find a phone that works on your carrier: The vast majority of unlocked devices operate on GSM networks in the U.S. These include AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as discount carriers that run on those networks, such as Cricket Wireless, Metro by T-Mobile and Straight Talk. Some so-called multimode unlocked phones also work with CDMA carriers like Sprint and Verizon, such as all of Apple's iPhones, and the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 3a.
- Make sure the coverage map fits your needs: In terms of coverage area, there's less discrepancy between networks than ever before, but there are still gaps, especially in less-populated areas. "Make sure [the phone you're buying] works on a carrier that offers good coverage in your area," advised Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at market research firm Current Analysis.'
- Shop around, and don't be afraid to go used: Because some unlocked phone makers skip the carriers to sell their devices, they can often pass those savings onto you. However, don't be afraid to entertain buying one of the best used smartphones, as you can often find very tempting offers on previous-generation flagships from sites like Swappa, Decluttr and even Amazon for refurbished examples.
How we test unlocked phones
Every smartphone Tom’s Guide evaluates is tested for days in real-world use cases and benchmarked with a gamut of performance-measuring apps. We use a light meter to ascertain display quality data, like brightness and color accuracy, and our proprietary battery test determines longevity on a charge by streaming webpages over a 4G or 5G network.
We explore the software, test gaming performance and conduct live camera comparisons with rival handsets. We also factor in network compatibility, so you can be certain whether a device will be operational on your carrier before you buy. Each of these factors plays a part in our comprehensive verdict.
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