The best unlocked phones for 2019

Smash your carrier shackles with the best unlocked phones

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The best unlocked phone right now is the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus. It has the best display you can buy, offers fast performance with plenty of stamina, and boasts an incredibly versatile camera. But we do have some tempting alternatives if Samsung’s smartphone is not for you.

We live and breathe smartphones here at Digital Trends. With hundreds of phone reviews under our belts, we’re always ready to debate the merits and weaknesses of a new device, and we take our time in selecting the very best to recommend. 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 smartphone bands guide explains how you can tell the difference.

Best unlocked phones at a glance:

Best unlocked Android phone

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

Galaxy S10 Plus
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s a beautiful, stylish phone with all the features you could want.

Who’s it for? Samsung fans after the best-looking global phone around.

Why we picked the Galaxy S10 Plus:

Samsung’s curved display design is gorgeous, and the Galaxy S10 Plus packs a spectacular 6.4-inch screen into a svelte body. The specs are not to be sniffed at either, with a fast processor, a long-lasting battery, and an excellent camera that boasts great low-light performance. Samsung also stirred water-resistance, wireless charging, the Bixby voice assistant, and a few other extras into the mix.

An unlocked Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus will work on all four major U.S. carriers, and a bunch of smaller ones, too. It will also serve frequent travelers well, thanks to support for countless carrier networks worldwide. However, there are a lot of different models of the S10 Plus, and you don’t want to buy the wrong one. Look for a model number that ends in AA, such as SM-G975UZKAXAA.

If you want something smaller and a little cheaper, you could go for the Galaxy S10 or the Galaxy S10e. You may also consider waiting for the 5G-compatible Galaxy S10 5G.

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus review

Best unlocked iPhone

Apple iPhone XS

iPhone Xs
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s the best iPhone on the market, thanks to that dual-lens camera and OLED screen.

Who’s it for? Apple fans who want an unlocked phone that works with any carrier.

Why we picked the iPhone XS:

The iPhone XS is the best iPhone that Apple has ever turned out. It’s the best choice for Apple fans because it’s powerful, secure, and sports a wonderful camera. Apple’s stylish design doesn’t hurt either. 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 X will work with all four major U.S. carriers and a long list of others. It will also work pretty much anywhere you care to wander, so globe-trotters 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 more affordable, then check out the iPhone XR. For something bigger and more expensive, check out the iPhone XS Max.

iPhone XS review

Best unlocked midrange phone

Google Pixel 3a

google-pixel-3a-screen
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? For a pure Android experience at an affordable price, Google’s Pixel 3a can’t be beat.

Who’s it for? Android fans seeking a slick, unlocked phone that will work on any carrier.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 3a:

Google matches the iPhone on every front with its Pixel line, and the Pixel 3 was our favorite phone of 2018. The Pixel 3a may lack the same powerful processor, but it does have a truly great camera and Google’s A.I. smarts to make it really compelling. It also ducks some of the usual Android problems, thanks to regular security updates and super-slick software that shows off Google’s elegant software design.

Buy the Pixel 3a unlocked directly from Google, and you can use it on any U.S. carrier and on many other carriers worldwide. The full list of supported bands can be found on Google’s website.

The Pixel 3a is also quite small, so you might consider the Pixel 3a XL as an alternative that offers exactly the same fully unlocked credentials in a bigger, slightly more expensive package. There’s very little difference between the two, apart from the size and screen.

Google Pixel 3a review

Best cheap unlocked phone

Moto G7

Moto G7 review
Simon Hill/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It boasts an impressive range of features and a stylish design at a reasonable price.

Who’s it for? Bargain hunters looking for a decent phone to work on any carrier.

Why we picked the Moto G7:

When you dive into the budget end of the pool, you should be careful, because deal-breaking compromises are common. Thankfully, Motorola’s Moto G7 is largely free of them. This phone ticks all the boxes, with a big, bright display, good performance in terms of speed, a fast-charging battery, and a dual-lens camera that easily outshines the budget competition.

With support for a wide range of networks and bands — including the big four in the U.S. — you shouldn’t have any trouble using the Moto G7 wherever you like. Buy it unlocked direct from Motorola. If you prize battery life over design, then save yourself $50 and opt for the Moto G7 Power.

Moto G7 review

Research and buying tips

Will the phone work 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).

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 “OnePlus 6T 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 another good resource to help you.

Where is the best place to buy unlocked phones?

You can buy unlocked phones from a variety of online retailers or direct from phone manufacturers. Perhaps the best place to start looking is Amazon, but you may also consider Best Buy, B&H, Newegg, or Walmart.

How do you tell if a phone is unlocked?

Many phones are sold unlocked nowadays and if you bought your phone SIM-free, then it’s almost certainly unlocked. If your phone is locked to a certain network then it won’t work with a SIM card from another carrier. Unfortunately, if you’re unsure about your phone, there’s no easy way to check. If you have a new SIM for another carrier already, then try inserting it and see if you can make a call. You could also try borrowing a SIM card for service on another network from friends or family to test your phone and find out if it’s unlocked. If you’re able to make a call with the new SIM then your phone is unlocked.

How much does it cost to unlock a phone?

The good news is that it should not cost you anything to get your phone unlocked provided your contract is up and the device is fully paid for. We have a complete guide on how to unlock a phone on every carrier. There are third-party services that offer unlock codes for a fee, ranging from a few dollars up to $50 or more, but we strongly advise caution. If you are going to try a service, then do your homework and read some reviews to ensure they’re reputable before you pay any money. You’ll also need to know how to check your IMEI number.

Can you unlock a phone under contract?

Carriers won’t unlock a phone for you unless it is paid for in full. You may be able to get your phone unlocked elsewhere, but bear in mind that this won’t impact your service plan or any payment agreement you have in place — you’ll still have to pay off the phone.

How do you activate an unlocked phone?

Insert your new SIM card and try using it, you’ll find that a lot of unlocked phones will just work without you having to do anything else. If it doesn’t work then simply look up the instructions for your carrier, for example, type “how to activate an unlocked phone with Verizon” into Google and you’ll find that you can do it through the Verizon website. It’s the same with AT&T, T-Mobile, and most other carriers.

Are prepaid phones unlocked?

They may be, but not necessarily. Check with your carrier and ask them to unlock the phone if you find it’s locked. There may be certain criteria you need to meet before they’ll unlock the handset for you. If you’re wondering, are Straight Talk phones unlocked? Or maybe are Metro PCS phones unlocked? The answer is yes, usually they are. 

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 caveats.

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