Best Cheap Unlocked SmartphonesGoing unlocked means you need to do a little bit of research — not every phone will work with every carrier. (Though a magical few do.) If you're a U.S. shopper, you won't be able to use any of these unlocked phones on Verizon, Sprint, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and other CDMA-technology networks (though compatible versions of some are offered by the individual carriers). And while things are getting better in this department, not all unlocked phones support the full range of carrier frequencies, you'll want to be sure that the phone you're looking at will work with the carrier you want to use. That said, the benefit of an unlocked phone is that you generally have your choice of carriers. Many lower-cost smartphones also don't include 4G LTE, so you'll find your download speeds limited in comparison to the higher ends of unlocked smartphones.
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly alternative to the pricy choices at your local carrier store, read on for our list of 10 smartphones that cost $100 or less. There are a few particularly important options to keep in mind. A few of these are no-contract smartphones tied to specific carriers, while others are unlocked. Most are 4G capable, while a few are only 3G-ready — a sufficient option for users who mostly rely on their smartphones for voice calls or use them primarily while connected to WiFi, but not for those who want top speed for faster browsing or downloads.
By no means is this a conclusive list of all unlocked smartphones, Android or otherwise, these are just those that are among the best available. They span the range of prices and are all generally capable — you wouldn't go wrong buying any of these phones. And though there's a bit of hassle with going unlocked, you'll also be entering a world of flexibility and choice that's simply not available from your local carrier store.
But there are a couple good reasons to instead buy an off-contract, unlocked phone (at full price, of course) rather than one that’s carrier subsidized. The first is that you’re not locked into a two-year contract with your carrier—you can easily switch to another at any time. The second is that an unlocked GSM phone can be used on AT&T or T-Mobile or any of the “virtual operators” that use the the two companies’ networks; it can also be taken with you when you travel to other countries. Verizon phones now ship GSM unlocked, too, so they’re good for international travel. (Most of the world uses GSM networks, so you can just buy a cheap prepaid SIM in the new country to get data and cell service without having to buy a second phone or pay exorbitant roaming fees.)
So now let's look at the best unlocked smartphones available today, in order from lowest price to highest. I tried to find the best under $500, but also included a couple Google Play Editions at the end that exceed this level.
Smartphones are awesome, there's no doubt about that. They take photos, play music, run apps, and do all kinds of neat things that weren't even imaginable just a few years ago. But at the same time, they can be pretty expensive. A top-of-the-line smartphone may cost well over $600 unlocked, and many people just aren't willing or able to pay that much to own one.
Like many of you, I used to be sucked into the endless black hole that was crazy expensive smartphones, complete with the two-year carrier ball-and-chain. Then I bought a Nexus 5. Not only did my monthly smartphone payments vanish completely, I discovered a cheap phone I could adore. (Sadly, you can’t buy a Nexus 5 anymore.) But it isn’t the only cheap smartphone out there, and it’s not always easy to figure out which worthwhile handsets won’t stick you with a monthly bill. I set out to find the best for the least, so I could share them with you.
Whatever your reasons for side-stepping your carrier, unlocked smartphones offer a sense of freedom and convenience we can all appreciate. Simply buy a SIM card, stick it in your device, and you're good to go. There's no need to wait for activation, and best yet, you can keep your phone around for as long or as short a time as you'd like without paying any surprise fees. Here are some of our favorite handsets that you can purchase and use wherever you go, contract-free.