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We went shopping for the best unlocked cell phones to help you choose which device best fits your lifestyle, allowing you to remain untethered to a carrier or plan. While testing out these products, we placed a majority of our focus on ease of use and advanced feature sets, choosing phones that offered unparalleled functionality, with great cameras, responsive and crystal clear screens, long battery life and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility when choosing a carrier or plan. We also considered if the smartphone had a headphone jack or not. The best unlocked phones allow you to have the best smartphone at a price that you can afford.
Of the seven best unlocked cell phones on the list, Google’s Pixel 3A was the absolute king, boasting a quick-charging battery that powers up in just 15 minutes, full integration with Google Assistant, a beautiful camera that excels while taking nighttime photos and a custom built security chip to help keep your information safe, all while offering compatibility with most US-based carriers. Keep reading to learn more about the Google Pixel 3A and the other phones on this list.
Award: Top Pick (GSM & CDMA)
WHY WE LIKE IT: Google’s Pixel 3A is one of the best phones money can buy, period, with this unlocked model bringing the high build quality and ease of use that the line has become known for. It boasts a quick-charging battery that gives you seven hours of juice in just 15 minutes, a fantastic camera that is perfect for HD video and full integration with Google Assistant.
The Google Pixel 3a is simply a fantastic phone, boasting one of the fastest charging batteries on the market and a versatile pair of cameras, 12.2MP rear-facing and 8MP front-facing, with the capacity to take HDR+ photos and featuring Google’s own Night Sight feature, which excels at taking nighttime photos. If you want a phone that’s a bit bigger, take a look at the 3a XL too. The phone, available in 64GB and 128GB, is fully integrated with Google Assistant, meaning it offers a suite of hands-free functionalities, including automated call screening, which we found extremely useful for avoiding telemarketers and scammers.
Google also makes it extremely easy to transfer your settings and contacts from an older device, thanks to the included Quick Switch adapter. Have a look at the best SIM cards for USA. It comes packed in with Android 9.0, a gorgeous 5.6” full HD display and free unlimited cloud storage for photos. It works with all major US-based carriers but does have trouble functioning in other parts of the world. This is the most expensive phone on this list but, as they say, you get what you pay for. If you want to upgrade even further, compare this with the newer Google Pixel 4. The Pixel 4 will be quite a bit pricer than the 3a, and will come with all of the newest upgrades an features. If you want to keep your phone safe from rain and other spills, check out the best waterproof phones.
Award: Honorable Mention (GSM)
WHY WE LIKE IT: The Samsung Galaxy A10 is certainly a capable phone, with a stunning 6.2” HD+ display and two high quality cameras, with the 13MP rear camera excelling at taking 1080p video. This is a great camera for consumers looking to jump into Samsung’s Android-based ecosystem at a lower than average price point.
The Samsung Galaxy A10 is light, clocking in at just 8.2 oz, and sturdy, with a plastic body that truly takes a licking, bouncing back from being dropped with nary a scratch or hiccup. The Exynos 7884 Octa-Core processor loads apps quickly and runs them smoothly. We loaded up some graphically demanding games and didn’t notice any drops in resolution or slowdowns. It also can be loaded with two SIM cards, allowing for two phone numbers at once.
The internal storage is, at 32GB, on the smaller side, but the phone accepts MicroSD cards, ballooning your storage options up to 512GB. This is an international model, however, and does not come with a US warranty. It is fully compatible, however, with all US-based GSM carriers. If you want to upgrade, take a look at the Samsung Galaxy S20 instead. With the addition of a micro SD card, the galaxy s20 can have up to 1.5TB of storage. Have a look at the best smartphone plan.
Award: Best for Power User (GSM & CDMA)
WHY WE LIKE IT: The Moto G7 is a powerful phone, featuring the Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 processor with 1.8 GHz octa-core CPU and Adreno 506 GPU, meaning it can do just about anything you throw at it, navigating its preloaded Android 9.0 OS with ease and multiloading apps without anything resembling slowdown. This is a great phone for the power user.
The Moto G7 contains a suite of features that are on par with phones that cost twice or three times as much, including 4GB of ram, a speedy processor, facial recognition and fingerprint sensing technologies and a 6.2” HD+ 2270 x 1080 Max Vision display that boasts a 19:9 aspect ratio. The whole thing is housed in an IP54 certified water resistant casing that is scratch-resistant and easy to hold, thanks to its contoured 3D Corning Gorilla Glass design. The battery also charges the device quickly, with its only competition in that arena being Google’s Pixel 3A. Compare this with the Samsung Galaxy S10 to determine which model is right for you.
The Pixel 3 is also fully integrated with Alexa, which we found to be pretty useful when playing music or opening apps. It comes preloaded with a bunch of Amazon apps, actually, which cannot be deleted through normal means, forcing you to root the phone and do it manually if these apps are not your cup of tea. Additionally, some carriers, such as Verizon, block out some features, including WiFi calling, reserving them for customers that are not using an unlocked model. If you don’t want to go with the pricier Galaxy S10, the Moto G7 is a choice you’ll love.To learn about cameras, read our best smartphone cameras list.
Award: Best Battery (GSM)
WHY WE LIKE IT: The OUKITEL OK6000 Plus is a powerhouse of a phone with several features that other items on this list do not possess, including a massive 6080 mAh battery, which is good for two days of use on a single charge, and the ability to use it to send juice to other gadgets and phones. This is the ideal product for those of you who find yourself running out of power as you go about your workday.
In our search for the best unlocked smartphone, here is #4. The OUKITEL OK6000 Plus offers a huge 6080 mAh battery, which can actually be used to charge other devices, thanks to OTG reverse charge technology. The phone is no slouch in other departments, either, coming with a 16MP rear-facing camera that takes gorgeous photos and uses proprietary tech to focus quickly, in less than 0.1 seconds, so you don’t miss an important shot. The Asahi glass 5.5” display is more than adequate and the aluminum exterior is quite pleasing on the eyes, with the back being easy to grip, helping to reduce accidents. The hard drive is 64GB (expandable to 128GB) out of the box, with MicroSD support for extra storage, and 4GB of ram that will keep apps and games running smoothly.
This is a heavy phone, however, the heaviest on this list, clocking in at a full pound. It is also not functional with CDMA carriers and several popular 4G bands. Also, it comes preinstalled with Android 7.0, an older version of the operating system. If you want to upgrade your operating system to Android 10, take a look at the Samsung Galaxy Note 10. The Galaxy Note 10 is a pricier option, that will include all of the newest upgrades. If you don’t need the full upgrade of the Note 10, you’ll be more than happy with the OUKITEL.
Award: Best Value (GSM)
WHY WE LIKE IT: The UMIDIGI Power has a ton of features for a phone in this price range, including a quick-charging 5150 mAh battery, which can last two days of average use, a massive 6.3” LTPS LCD display and a 16MP rear-facing camera that delivers high quality photos. The features on display, and the relatively low price point, make this the best value on the list.
The UMIDIGI Power is a fantastic value, offering just about all the phone you are likely to ever need at a fraction of the cost of competing models. The large battery can withstand nearly two days of average use before needing to be recharged and it can be juiced to maximum in just two hours. It has facial recognition software and fingerprint identification for fast and secure unlocking and comes with a minimum of 64GB of hard drive space, which can be expanded to a whopping 256GB. The rear-facing 16MP camera delivers stunning photo clarity and the front-facing 5MP camera is great for selfies on the quick, despite lacking a flash. The large and crisp 6.3” screen is also a selling point, as is the ability to load two SIM cards at once.
The phone does come with a one year US warranty, but the product is GSM only and is not compatible with several major US carriers, such as Verizon. Speaking of Verizon, read the best Verizon smartphones. This is offset, however, by it being functional in nearly every global market, making it a great phone to take on your next trip abroad. It even comes with a screen protector and case, further increasing its value.
Award: Best for Selfies (GSM)
WHY WE LIKE IT: The ZTE BLADE Z MAX Z982 is a neat little phone, with a 6.0” full HD 1080 x 1920 display, dual rear-facing cameras, clocking in at 16MP and 2MP respectively, combining to create unrivaled image depth. The front-facing 8MP camera is also of a much higher quality than the competition, making this one heck of a phone for taking selfies.
The ZTE BLADE Z MAX Z982 not only offers a trio of fantastic cameras and a 6.0” full HD display, but comes packed in with 2 GB of RAM and 32GB of internal hard drive space, though it is compatible with MicroSD cards, up to 128GB. The 1.4 GHz Octa-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8940 processor is speedy, helping to run apps and games at comparable speeds to phones with higher specs. It also comes with a one year US warranty, which is always nice. You can also purchase the Snapdragon 855 to further upgrade your phone.
The phone is preloaded with the older Android 7.1 OS, though it is updateable, if you find yourself needing a newer operating system. It is also only compatible with GSM carriers, meaning AT&T and T-Mobile are in and CDMA carriers, like Verizon and Sprint, are out.
Award: Best Budget (Select 2G GSM Only)
WHY WE LIKE IT: The BLU Tank II T193 is cheap, lower than the price of a meal or a tank of gas, while still offering several competitive features, including an adequate 1900 mAh battery, Bluetooth functionality and a MicroSD slot, expandable up to 32GB. This is a phone for people looking for bare bones features with a bare bones price.
The BLU Tank II T193 is a budget product that is perfect for the kinds of tasks that phones used to be known for, such as sending out texts and making phone calls. It has actual, tactile buttons that are great for those of you who hate composing messages on a touchscreen. The battery is adequate and, despite its 1900 mAh size, can last throughout an entire day, due to the phone not needing a whole lot of energy. The VGA camera won’t win any awards, creating images with a resolution of 640 x 480, but we found it to be highly functional and intuitive, considering the extremely low price point. We also had fun with the FM receiver, which delivered some nice audio.
The phone offers no WiFi capabilities, though it is Bluetooth capable, and the 2.4” screen makes it difficult to stream video content. It is also only compatible with 2G GSM carriers, winnowing out carriers such as T-Mobile and AT&T.
There are plenty of options out there for those of you looking for an unlocked phone, with many high quality models that wouldn’t have existed just a few short years ago. In keeping in line with the ethos behind unlocked cell phones, we wanted to make sure, first and foremost, that you could get yourself connected with a major carrier. All of the above products are compatible with GSM carriers, with the Google Pixel 3A being compatible with both GSM and CDMA.
Of course, merely finding a compatible carrier is not enough. We wanted to make sure these phones could go toe-to-toe with the latest and greatest devices, choosing products with fast processors and plenty of RAM, so it won’t break a sweat while using even the most demanding apps and games. Hard drive space was also high on our list of features, choosing models that featured a good amount of space right out of the box, or allowed for the use of MicroSD cards.
We also wanted to make sure the phone was sturdy, erring on the side of products that were easy to grip, often with plastic bodies that shouldn’t break with a single fall off of your living room couch. Other than that, we looked for crisp HD displays, high quality cameras and batteries that will keep you powered throughout the work day, some lasting even longer than that.
The difference between a locked and an unlocked phone is that a locked device has a software code on it that prevents you from taking it and using it on another carrier's network. An unlocked phone is not bound by the same restrictions, allowing you to switch carriers at will, which is really useful if you are experiencing bad service. Other than that, there are no major differences between locked and unlocked phones.
Yes, for the most part. In the past, devices like the iPhone were automatically locked to a carrier for good, as these carriers feared you’d buy it and move on to another company. Nowadays, however, most major carriers will let you unlock a phone after purchase, with some, like Verizon, forcing you to wait 60 days and others, like AT&T, forcing you to meet certain criteria, like being a customer in good standing. Note, that if you’re still “paying off” your device (i.e. you’re paying for your phone in installments) or it’s not purchased outright, a carrier won’t unlock it.