Many people still buy their smartphones directly from a carrier with a service contract attached, but buying phones unlocked is growing in popularity. You’ll usually have to pay the full price upfront, but some companies even offer payment plans, so you can pay your phone off month by month. An unlocked phone can potentially be used on different networks, and that means you can switch carriers when you feel like it, simply by changing your SIM card. With an unlocked phone, you can also sell or trade up whenever you want, instead of having to wait for the end of your contract.
Before you buy one of these phones from our list, be sure to double check that the phone you’re buying works on your carrier’s bands. Our guide explains how you can tell the difference.
iPhone 7 Plus
Why should you buy this: It’s the best iPhone on the market, thanks to that dual-lens camera.
Who’s it for: Apple fans who want an unlocked phone to work with any carrier.
How much will it cost: $770+
Why we picked the iPhone 7 Plus:
The iPhone 7 Plus edged the win in our best smartphones roundup because it’s powerful, secure, and sports a wonderful camera. Apple’s classic aluminum design doesn’t hurt and it’s also the first iPhone to be water resistant. The complete package is slick and there are no major weaknesses (aside from the lack of a headphone jack).
Buy unlocked directly from Apple, and your iPhone 7 Plus will work with all four major U.S. carriers and a long list of others besides. It will also work pretty much anywhere you care to wander, so globetrotters will be well covered. You can find the full list of supported carriers at Apple’s website.
It’s an obvious pick for anyone invested in Apple’s ecosystem, but it is expensive. If you want something smaller and cheaper, then check out the iPhone 7 or even the iPhone SE. If you’re happy to look beyond Apple’s wares, keep reading for plenty of great alternatives.
The best unlocked Android phone
Google Pixel XL
Why should you buy this: For a pure and powerful Android experience, the Pixel XL can’t be beat.
Who’s it for: Android fans seeking a slick, unlocked phone that will work on any carrier.
How much will it cost: $770
Why we picked the Google Pixel XL:
Google matches the iPhone on every front with its Pixel line and the Pixel XL is the best Android phone on the market right now. It has a stunning display, a powerful processor, and a truly great camera. It also ducks some of the usual Android problems, with regular security updates, and super slick software that shows off Google’s elegant software design.
Buy the Pixel XL unlocked directly from Google, and you can use it on any U.S. carrier and on many, many other carriers worldwide. The full list of supported bands can be found on Google’s website.
The Pixel XL is also a pricey phone and it’s quite big, so you might consider the Pixel as an alternative that offers exactly the same fully unlocked credentials in a smaller, cheaper package. There’s very little difference between the two, apart from size.
The best unlocked Samsung phone
Galaxy S7 Edge
Why should you buy this: It’s a beautifully stylish phone with all the features you could want.
Who’s it for: Samsung fans after the best-looking global phone around.
How much will it cost: $650+
Why we picked the Galaxy S7 Edge:
No one sells more phones than Samsung, and this is the current cream of the crop. Samsung refined its innovative curved display design with the Galaxy S7 Edge and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The specs are not to be sniffed at either, with a fast processor, vibrant display, and an excellent camera. Samsung also stirred water resistance, quick charging, expandable storage, and a few other extras into the mix.
An unlocked Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge will work all four major U.S. carriers and a bunch of smaller ones, too. It will also serve frequent travelers well, with support for countless carrier networks worldwide. However, there are a lot of different models of the S7 Edge, and you don’t want to buy the wrong one. The model number to look for is SM-G935U. You can find the full list of supported bands at Samsung’s website.
If you want something smaller and less expensive, and you don’t care about the curved edges, then you could go for the Galaxy S7 — the model number to look for is SM-G930U.
The best $400 unlocked phone
ZTE Axon 7
Why should you buy this: You get an amazing flagship phone for a lot less money.
Who’s it for: People who don’t care about the big brands.
How much will it cost: $400+
Why we picked the ZTE Axon 7:
After glancing at the spec list for the Axon 7, you’d be forgiven for expecting a premium price tag, but you can actually snap it up for $400. It’s a speedy performer with a decent display and solid camera, though the highlights are the battery life and the superb audio quality. In terms of features and design, the Axon 7 holds its own with the current flagship line-up.
The ZTE Axon 7 supports a wide range of bands, and you’ll have no problems with it on AT&T, T-Mobile, and many other GSM carriers. It does also support CDMA, and so technically, it can work with Verizon or Sprint service, but that doesn’t mean it will. Neither carrier officially supports the device. Some people have got it working on Verizon, but not flawlessly, and it doesn’t seem to be working with Sprint at all right now.
Make sure that you check that it will work with your carrier before you buy. There are also a couple of different model numbers; the one you want is A7G333.
If you recoil at the idea of paying $700 or more for a smartphone, then the Axon 7 is well worth taking a chance on. If your budget doesn’t stretch to $400, but you like the look of the Axon 7, then you might consider the Axon 7 Mini at $300. But be warned, there are a few compromises, most notably the drop to a mid-range processor. ZTE also offers a payment installment plan, so you can pay the phone off in monthly payments.
The best budget unlocked phone
Moto G4 Plus
Why should you buy this: It boasts an impressive range of features and outperforms more expensive phones.
Who’s it for: Bargain hunters looking for a decent phone to work on any carrier.
How much will it cost: $250+
Why we picked the Moto G4 Plus:
When you dive into the budget end of the pool, you should be careful, because deal-breaking compromises are common. Thankfully, Lenovo’s Moto G4 Plus is mercifully free of them. This phone ticks all the boxes, with a big, bright display, good performance in terms of speed and battery life, and a camera that easily outshines the budget competition.
Buy this phone unlocked directly from Motorola, and you’ll be able to use it on a wide range of carrier networks, including the big four in the U.S. You can find the full list at the Motorola website; the only notable omissions are Boost and Virgin.
If you don’t care about the fingerprint sensor, and you’re willing to accept a slightly worse camera, then you can save yourself $50 and get the Moto G4. It offers the same wide array of carrier support.
How we test
We are obsessed with smartphones here at Digital Trends and we test them to the limit. The phones we review serve as our main devices for at least a week, usually longer, and we use them for everything from messaging and calls, to photos and gaming. They go to work with us, they go to bed with us, and they even go to the toilet with us. We never recommend a device that we wouldn’t be happy using ourselves.
When it comes to unlocked phone testing, we make sure that the phones we recommend actually work on the majority of networks and warn you if there are caveates.
Will the phone works on your carrier?
You must be careful when buying an unlocked phone. Some retailers will advertise phones as unlocked, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will work with any carrier. Some carriers have stricter controls than others, and even if a phone could technically work on their network, they might not allow it.
Start by checking which bands your device supports and what carriers they correspond to. The vast majority of unlocked handsets will work with GSM networks (like AT&T and T-Mobile), but many won’t work with CDMA networks (like Verizon and Sprint). You should also consult our full guide to unlocked phones and the bands they work on.
Ideally, you’ll be able to find someone talking about using your chosen phone with your chosen carrier simply by searching in Google. For example, search “Axon 7 Verizon” and you’ll see a number of forum posts about the issues people have had. If in doubt, check with your carrier and do further research.
Manufacturers also sometimes produce different models of the same phone with different band support, so you must do your homework to ensure that your pick will work on your preferred carrier. The Will My Phone Work website is a good resource to help you, as is our guide.