The best unlocked phone right now is the Samsung Galaxy S20 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 S20 Plus
- Best unlocked iPhone: Apple iPhone 11 Pro
- Best unlocked midrange phone: Google Pixel 3a
- Best cheap unlocked phone: Moto G7
Best unlocked Android phone: Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus
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 Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus:
So it’s not the best camera phone, the most powerful phone, or even the cheapest phone — but the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus is one of the best well-rounded smartphones you can buy right now, and it’ll work on pretty much every network out there. The latest hardware means it’s a powerful beast, thanks to the Snapdragon 865, up to 12GB of RAM, and a hefty 4,500mAh battery that’ll easily last a day on moderate use. A triple-lens camera on the back provides strong shots in a variety of circumstances, and it’s all underlined by a svelte design that’s neither too big nor too small. It nestles perfectly in the hand, and it feels reassuringly solid to boot.
Samsung is a global brand, so it makes sense that it makes its biggest flagships available pretty much everywhere and on every network. You won’t have an issue putting your unlocked Galaxy S20 Plus on any U.S. network, so you can jump between carriers as you wish. The only issue is making sure you get the correct model. Most will be sold as “unlocked,” but just to be sure, make sure the model number of the phone you’re buying ends in AA — like SM-G986UZAAXAA.
But keep in mind that the Galaxy S20 isn’t exactly a cheap phone. Prices start from $1,200, which is a lot, even when the phone comes with 128GB of storage and enough power to see it through more than a few years. If you’re looking for something slightly cheaper, check out the smaller Samsung Galaxy S20. Or, if you want the largest screen available, consider getting the super-sized Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus review
Best unlocked iPhone: Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Why should you buy this? It’s the best iPhone on the market, thanks to that triple-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 11 Pro:
How could we not pick the iPhone 11 Pro? The iPhone XS was a fantastic phone, but Apple has really dialed everything up to 11 with 2019’s iPhone range. The iPhone 11 Pro is truly deserving of the new (to iPhone, at least) “pro” moniker, and Apple has delivered a smartphone with a stunning design, quite possibly the most powerful mobile processor, and easily one of the best camera systems you’ll come across. Add a long-lasting battery and Apple’s signature level of polish, and you have an incredible iPhone that’s worth hanging onto as you bounce between carriers.
Buying an unlocked phone is generally never hard, but it helps a lot that buying from Apple is such a great experience. Buy directly from Apple’s website, and you know you’re getting an unlocked phone, plus the advantage of one of Apple’s finance plans, too — and with prices starting at $1,000, paying it off in pieces is a good idea. It’ll work with all four major U.S. carriers, and you can access the full list of supported carriers on Apple’s website.
If you’re invested in Apple’s ecosystem or are looking to make the jump, then the iPhone 11 Pro is the best way to do so. However, it is expensive, and if you want a similar flagship iOS experience, check out the iPhone 11. Or, if you love a big screen and the iPhone 11 Pro just isn’t big enough, check out the iPhone 11 Pro Max instead.
Best unlocked midrange phone: Google Pixel 3a
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.
Best cheap unlocked phone: Moto G7
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.
Research and buying tips
- Will the phone work on your carrier?
- Where is the best place to buy unlocked phones?
- How do you tell if a phone is unlocked?
- How much does it cost to unlock a phone?
- Can you unlock a phone under contract?
- How do you activate an unlocked phone?
- Are prepaid phones unlocked?
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. If you are looking for more savings, don’t forget to check our collection of the best Black Friday smartphone deals.
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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