The best cheap phones for 2021

A new smartphone can cost a lot of money. But you don’t always have to buy the latest and greatest. If you just use your phone to accomplish basic tasks and can’t justify buying a brand-new flagship model, there are some budget options to consider. An entry-level smartphone might not take stunning photos, but there are no differences when it comes to calls and texts. One of the best on our list, the Google Pixel 4a 5G, offers a dual-lens camera along with a large screen for all your daily needs.

When you’re looking for an inexpensive phone, nowadays you don’t have to give up 5G. Our top pick here has 5G, and we’ve also compiled a list entirely of cheap 5G phones if it’s a requirement for your next purchase.

We’ve compared different budget phones and selected the best devices in different price ranges. Our top picks are a great place to start if you’re in the market for a new phone and don’t want to overspend.

The best cheap phones at a glance

Best cheap phone: Samsung Galaxy A52 5G

Galaxy A52 Colors
Samsung Galaxy A52

Why you should buy this: With a modern design, solid camera, and good performance, this is the best phone under $500.

Who it’s for: Anyone that wants a powerful phone with a solid design and 5G support at a low price.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy A52 5G:

The Samsung Galaxy A52 5G is currently the best phone you can get for under $500. With a modern design, good performance, and a versatile and high-quality camera, this phone punches above its weight class for a device in its price range.

The performance in particular is one thing that makes the Galaxy A52 5G such a great phone. The device comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G processor, and the 7-series has proven itself as a solid alternative to Qualcomm’s flagship 8-series. That’s coupled with either 6GB or 8GB of RAM, which should be enough for most. And, there’s either 128GB or 256GB of storage, which again, is more than enough for most peoples’ files and music.

Perhaps even better is how incredibly versatile the camera is. The device comes with a quad-camera system, including one 64 main camera, one 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, one 5-megapixel macro camera, and one 5-megapixel depth camera. There’s no telephoto camera, which is a bit of a bummer, but it’s hard to complain given the price.

The display experience on the Galaxy A52 5G is awesome too. The phone comes with a 6.5-inch 1080p display with a hefty 120Hz refresh rate, which should make for an incredibly smooth and responsive experience. In fact, the display on the Galaxy A52 5G is very similar to that on the much-loved Galaxy S21.

Other details on offer include a 4,500mAh battery and the fact that it comes in a range of stunning colors.

The Samsung Galaxy A52 5G is a great way to get a nearly top-tier phone at a relatively low price.

Our full Samsung Galaxy A52 review

Best under $400 Android phone: Google Pixel 4a

Google Pixel 4a Front
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The Google Pixel 4a offers the stock experience and awesome camera that you would expect from a Pixel device.

Who it’s for: Anyone with a budget of $400 who simply wants the best phone they can buy at that price.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 4a:

The Google Pixel 4a costs $400 and it’s an impressive package for the money. There’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor inside with an ample 4GB of RAM. It won’t quite match higher-end chips, but it’s fast enough to run challenging games at high graphical quality, and most won’t notice a difference. You also get an excellent 5.81-inch OLED screen with a resolution of 2340 x 1080 pixels. It’s sharp, with amazing contrast, and you won’t find anything better at this price.

Perhaps the biggest attraction is the camera. The Pixel 4a is packing a single lens 12.2-megapixel camera with all the same A.I. features you’ll find in the Pixel 5. Google’s flagship is our camera phone champion right now as it’s capable of capturing great shots in a wide variety of settings. The Pixel 4a might not have the same raw processing power, so image processing is a bit slower than it is on the Pixel 4 or Pixel 5, but this is still easily the best camera you’ll find anywhere near this price. The front-facing camera is rated at 8 megapixels.

Naturally, Google’s Pixel 4a comes with the very latest flavor of Android and it’s guaranteed to get swift version updates and a steady supply of security patches. You’ll also enjoy super smart features like Now Playing, which recognizes music playing in your vicinity, and Call Screen, which filters out incoming spam calls for you.

This phone packs 64GB of storage and it has an audio jack, Bluetooth 5.0 support, and comes with a fast charger that can restore 7 hours worth of battery in just 15 minutes. There’s also NFC support for Google Pay, dual front-facing stereo speakers, and a fingerprint sensor on the back.

The Google Pixel 4a really raises the bar for what you can expect to get for $400.

Our full Google Pixel 4a review

Runner up: Nokia 7.2

The Nokia 7.2 is close to being the perfect budget phone and it’s $50 cheaper than the Pixel 3a. The build quality is superb, the 6.3-inch screen may be LCD, but it supports HDR10. Perhaps the best part of the Nokia 7.2 is the software because it runs Android One. It will get fast version updates for two years, and security updates for three years, which is rare for budget phones. Performance is solid, with the Snapdragon 660 processor and 4GB of RAM. The camera is quite capable too, combining a 48-megapixel lens with an 8-megapixel wide-angle lens, and a 5-megapixel depth sensor.

Our full Nokia 7.2 review

Best under $400 iPhone: Apple iPhone SE 2020

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Why you should buy this: It’s affordable for an iPhone, with the same A13 Bionic processor as the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants an iPhone, but has limited cash.

Why we picked the iPhone SE (2020):

This is the best choice for bargain-seeking Apple fans who have their hearts set on an iPhone. The new iPhone SE takes the timeless design of the iPhone 6, iPhone 7, and iPhone 8, then puts the latest Apple A13 Bionic processor inside. Yes, that’s the same one as in the iPhone 11, and iPhone 11 Pro. It’s the compact iPhone many have been waiting for.

The 4.7-inch screen is sharp and clear, the latest iOS 14 software is easy to use, and you get access to an excellent library of slick apps and games, plus features like Apple Pay. The battery is only small, but it generally lasts for a day with moderate use, and there’s support for wireless charging.

There is a great 12-megapixel main camera that takes sharp, crisp, natural-looking photos, and has support for Live Photos. There’s a solid 7-megapixel front-facing camera. There’s a portrait mode on the front and rear cameras too, plus support for Apple’s most recent camera improvements including Smart HDR and improved stabilization for video.

There’s 64GB of base storage inside, which is sufficient for most people. The Apple iPhone SE 2020 is also IP68-rated, which means you don’t need to worry if it goes for a dunk. It’s small by modern smartphone standards, and the battery life isn’t the best, but otherwise, it still gives you that superb Apple iPhone experience for very little money.

Our full iPhone SE (2020) review

Best under $300 phone: Moto G Power (2021)

Why you should buy this: The Moto G Power is a bargain that looks much more expensive than it is and has few weaknesses in this price range.

Who it’s for: Anyone seeking a stylish budget phone with a big screen.

Why we picked the Moto G Power:

The Moto G range has been our go-to budget smartphone pick for the past few years, and while Motorola is facing more competition every year, the Moto G Power is still excellent value for the money. In fact, this year’s model is even cheaper than last year’s, starting at $199. We, however, suggest buying the $249 model, which ups storage to 64GB and RAM to 4GB. It’s a great-looking phone, with a strong build and a hole-punch cutout for the front-facing camera. And, it has a massive 5,000mAh battery, which should last at least two days of use.

Plenty of screen real estate is a definite draw for this phone and the Moto G Power boasts a 6.6-inch display. Even though it has a 720p resolution, that lower resolution should help make the battery last even longer — and it still does the job just fine. Take a look under the hood and you’ll find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 662 processor inside with either 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, or 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.

The Moto G Power also has a triple-lens camera, with a 48-megapixel main camera with an f/1.7 aperture, a 2-megapixel macro camera, and a 2-megapixel depth sensor. In good conditions with plenty of light, it can capture some lovely shots and the portrait mode is great for snapping shots of friends and family with blurred backgrounds. The front-facing camera is rated at 8 megapixels.

Motorola has always offered a relatively stock software experience, and that remains true with the Moto G Power. The device comes with Android 10, and while Motorola hasn’t made any announcements yet, we do expect it to eventually get Android 11.

If you have a strict budget of $300, then the Moto G Power will give you the most for your money right now. It offers a big display, strong performance, and a decent camera wrapped in a stylish body.

Our full Moto G Power review

Runner up: Nokia 6.1

The Nokia 6.1 has a chunky body that’s elevated by eye-catching anodized copper, iron, or gold accent lines. You’ll find a 5.5-inch IPS LCD screen with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. It’s a little dull, but perfectly legible in most conditions. The processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630, backed by 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage or 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Like most budget phones, the camera is a bit of a weak link, but the 16-megapixel lens with an f/2.0 aperture and Zeiss optics is capable of capturing occasionally great shots — if you’re in good lighting. As an Android One phone, there is no manufacturer skin and you can expect speedy, long-term software updates, which is a rarity for budget phones. You will also find NFC, offering support for Google Pay.

Best under $200 phone: Nokia 5.3

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The Nokia 5.3 has a huge battery, a big screen, and a relatively clean software experience.

Who it’s it for: Anyone who wants a clean software experience and a big enough battery to get through two days of use for under $200.

Why we picked the Nokia 5.3:

If you’re looking for the best phone you can get for $200 or less, then the Nokia 5.3 is the way to go, even though the Nokia 5.4 is out. The device has a relatively clean software experience, and while it’s not the most powerful phone out there, it should still be able to handle most day-to-day tasks.

Under the hood, the Nokia 5.3 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor, coupled with 3GB, 4GB, or 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. In case that storage isn’t enough, you can upgrade it with the MicroSD card slot.

Powering it all is a 4,000mAh battery, and that’s a solid offering. In our review, we found that it got us through two days of use, which is pretty great. That could be thanks to the 720p display, which is a little lower than some of the other phones on this list, but not unexpected in the price range.

Nokia phones have had a pretty clean software experience over the past few years, thanks to the fact that they’re part of the Android One program, and the Nokia 5.3 is no exception to that rule. And, the phone will get two years of Android updates, which means it should get to Android 12. That’s not bad at all.

If your budget is limited to $200, while you’re not going to get the best phone out there, the Nokia 5.3 is a great option.

Our full Nokia 5.3 Review

Runner up: Nokia 3.1 Plus

The affordable Nokia 3.1 Plus boasts great build quality and battery life.

There’s a big, 5.99-inch screen with a 1440 x 720 resolution, a dual-lens camera, a 3,500mAh battery, and support for NFC. It also has near-stock Android, though it’s sadly not part of the Android One program. Unfortunately, the performance isn’t great, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 439 processor and 2GB of RAM. We also felt let down by the camera, and this phone is only available on Cricket Wireless.

Our full Nokia 3.1 Plus review

Best under $100 phone: Moto E5 Play

moto e5 play back top
Brenda Stolyar/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The Moto E5 Play is ultra-affordable, and it still provides a perfectly satisfactory smartphone experience.

Who it’s for: Those who want a phone capable of texting, calling, web browsing, and running social media apps without paying more than $150.

Why we picked the Moto E5 Play:

The Moto E5 Play is the most affordable phone Motorola offers, which means you have to accept a few compromises. For example, this phone won’t get updated to the upcoming version of Android, and the camera isn’t strong.

The Snapdragon 425 (or 427 depending on the carrier) and 2GB RAM do a good job of offering manageable performance — enough to scroll through apps like Instagram and Facebook without too many problems. There’s 16GB of storage onboard, but a MicroSD card slot lets you add more if you need it. There’s also a headphone jack and a fingerprint sensor on the rear (though some carriers have models without fingerprint sensors). The software experience is very close to stock Android without a lot of bloatware, running Android 8.0 Oreo.

There’s a 2,800mAh removable battery inside, and we found that it got through about a full day of use. It can stretch to two days with light usage.

The Moto E5 Play is available through a variety of different carriers such as Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint — though you can’t buy it unlocked yet — for as low as $70 (the price is even lower on other carriers if you sign up for a new service).

Our full Moto E5 Play review

Runner up: Nokia 2.2

It’s a bit more expensive, but as an Android One smartphone, the Nokia 2.2 will definitely get Android 10. In fact, you can expect a minimum of two years of OS upgrades and two years of monthly security updates.

It has a 5.7-inch screen, a MediaTek processor, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage. There’s also a 3,000mAh battery, a 13-megapixel main camera, and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. You can buy the Nokia 2.2 from Amazon.

Research and buying tips

Where do I buy cheap phones?

You can always find bargains at online retailers, but be careful to do your research and order the model number you need. In particular, check that the model you are buying supports the bands your carrier operates on. The major carriers sometimes run good promotions, but if you find a phone you like in-store it’s worth doing a quick search online to see if you can find it for less. You’ll often find cheaper options at MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) and we have a list of the best MVNOs to check out.

Who has cheap phone plans?

There are lots of different cell phone plans out there, so take your time and do some research before picking a plan. We have a breakdown of the best cell phone plans to help you get started. If you go for a family plan, then you can often secure good deals on additional lines. Consider the coverage in your area before deciding on a carrier.

How do you get a new phone for cheap?

The most obvious way to score a bargain is to buy second-hand. If that appeals to you, then we have a guide on how to buy used smartphones that you’ll want to read. You may also consider online retailers, just make sure that you check the model of the phone you are buying supports the bands your carrier operates on.

Should you buy a cheap phone or wait for last year’s flagship to get cheaper?

Flagships have been climbing in price recently, but if you’re willing to wait and look at flagship phones from a year or two ago, then you can get them much cheaper. Almost all Android phone manufacturers offer discounts on older flagships and those discounts get deeper the older the phone gets. On the other hand, the general quality of budget phones has improved greatly in recent years and phone design moves very quickly, so a midrange device today will likely match a two-year-old flagship on performance and may boast a more modern design.

How we test

We’re fanatical about our phones here at Digital Trends. Every phone we test serves as our main device for at least a week, often longer, so we can get a real feel for what life would be like living with it. We read on them, game on them, shoot video and photos, navigate, organize, and occasionally even make calls. Every facet is explored, every manufacturer claim is challenged, and we’re careful to take the intended audience and price tag into account when judgment time comes.

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Debates on the best phones in different categories are a regular occurrence and no one on the mobile team is shy about sharing their opinion. When we find flaws, we tell like it is. Ultimately, we’ll never recommend any phone that we wouldn’t be happy using ourselves.

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