The best unlocked phones grant you freedom from carrier payment plans, letting you go your own way. Not only do you get to pick the device you want, you can then bring that unlocked handset to the best phone carrier for your needs.
Don’t worry if you want to switch carriers: It’s super easy to jump from one to another when you own an unlocked phone. And the best part is, you don’t have to pay any early termination fees.
While the best unlocked phones almost certainly support GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, it’s best to look for devices that work with all the major U.S. providers, including Verizon. That way, you can freely choose to take your device to any carrier. That’s also a critical consideration now that 5G networks are up and running. Different carriers have launched their networks based on different technologies, so you’ll want to make sure that the phone you get works on the high-speed network of your choice.
While you may be eyeing up a premium unlocked phone such as the Samsung Galaxy S21 or an iPhone 12, be aware that unlocked phones can come with a downside — they rarely get the sort of massive promotional discounts you often see carriers peddling, especially to new subscribers agreeing to long-term equipment installment plans. The upside, however, is that there are many inexpensive unlocked options out there that won’t break the bank, while still providing flagship-caliber features and experiences for less, like the iPhone SE or Samsung Galaxy A51. We’ve picked some of these devices across a range of prices in the list below to help you find the perfect fit.
What are the best unlocked phones?
The best unlocked phone based on our testing is the Google Pixel 4a. Buyers get Google’s best-in-class camera technology in a phone that costs hundreds of dollars less than flagships typically do, and even $50 less than Apple’s iPhone SE. (Google’s Pixel 4a 5G adds 5G connectivity and costs $499 — $150 more than the standard 4a.)
Not that you should write off Apple’s cheapest iPhone. At $399, the iPhone SE is a great value in its own right, especially since it packs Apple’s still-powerful A13 processor into a compact phone. While every wireless carrier offers the iPhone SE, Apple also sells the device unlocked, giving you the freedom to take it to any carrier.
Those willing to spend more should look into the latest phones from OnePlus. The OnePlus 9 features the same top-of-the-line processor as many top Android flagships with even faster 65-watt charging.
If you’re primarily concerned about battery life, the 2021 version of the inexpensive Moto G Power, which starts at $199, remains our undisputed battery life king thanks to a massive 5,000-mAh battery and energy-sipping CPU.
Finally, iOS loyalists who prefer phones larger than the iPhone SE should note that the new 6.1-inch iPhone 12 and 5.4-inch iPhone 12 mini are both available unlocked, as is the iPhone 11 which is now $100 cheaper than it used to be . Likewise, Samsung’s Galaxy S20 series and Galaxy Note 20 phablets can all be purchased unlocked, too, and the Galaxy S20 FE is one of the most affordable flagships in that collection. However the Galaxy S21 has taken the splotlight, and it’s now on our list of best unlocked phones, thanks to a low price. Speaking of price drops, keep an eye on older Galaxy S flagships, which may be cheaper, too, now that the S21 is out.
The best unlocked phones you can buy today
(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)
1. Google Pixel 4a
The best unlocked phone overall
Display: 5.81-inch OLED (2340×1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 730G | RAM: 6GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB / No | Rear camera: 12.2MP (ƒ/1.7) | Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0) | Weight: 5.04 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:55
Not as powerful as the iPhone SE
Subpar battery life
The Google Pixel 4a is available for $349 unlocked and works on both GSM-based and CDMA-based networks, meaning you can take it to pretty much any carrier you like. That’s a big deal, because handsets this cheap typically lack universal connectivity.
Then you have to consider everything you get as part of the Pixel 4a experience — the bright 5.81-inch OLED display, quality design, solid performance (even if its not at the level of, say, the iPhone SE’s), excellent Google software and update support, and of course the Pixel’s trademark camera make for a phenomenally well-rounded mid-range phone.
The Pixel 4a’s lone downside is its battery life, which pales in comparison to the iPhone SE’s ever so slightly, never mind the longevity you would get in more expensive models. But in every other way, the Pixel 4a really is the most complete phone out there under the $350 mark. If you prefer a phone with 5G capabilities, grab the Pixel 4a 5G for $499, as it matches a lot of the features in Google’s $699 Pixel 5 flagship, while still costing less.
Read our full Google Pixel 4a review.
(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)
2. iPhone SE
The best unlocked phone for Apple fans
Display: 4.7-inch LCD (1334×750) | CPU: A13 Bionic | RAM: 3GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8) | Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 5.22 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:18
Top-of-the-line A13 processor
No Night mode on camera
Like Google’s Pixel 4a, Apple features a far less expensive version of its flagship handsets in the iPhone SE. However, in this device, Cupertino has still included the same processor you’d find in the iPhone 11 lineup — granting a ton of performance muscle for a modest $400 phone.
You’ll make some trade-offs for that lower price. Unlike Apple’s other phones, the iPhone SE features a single rear camera, though that 12-megapixel lens performed well in our tests. We wish that the iPhone SE supported Night Mode for low light photography, but photos in ordinary conditions match what Google’s camera-focused Pixels can produce.
The iPhone SE also sports other features that typically pass over cheaper phones, like wireless charging. And despite its low price, the new iPhone SE will be supported with new software updates for years to come — a privilege that usually misses comparable Android phones in this segment. That includes iOS 14, which has added a host of new capabilities to the iPhone SE’s repertoire.
Read our full iPhone SE 2020 review.
(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)
3. iPhone 12
The best premium unlocked phone
Display: 6.1-inch OLED (2532×1170) | CPU: A14 Bionic | RAM: 4GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) | Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 5.78 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:25 (5G), 10:23 (LTE)
Attractive new design with MagSafe
Comprehensive 5G coverage
Impressive dual cameras
Only 64GB of base storage
No charger or headphones in box
Sure, there’s the pricier iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max and the tiny iPhone 12 mini. But if you ask us, the best unlocked iPhone for most people is the 6.1-inch iPhone 12, as it offers many of the same features the Pro variants do, at a size that isn’t too compact or unwieldy for most users.
Starting at $829 unlocked, the iPhone 12 offers comprehensive 5G connectivity to more bands than any other smartphone, making it an ideal choice for anyone who wants 5G, but doesn’t want to be tied to one service provider in particular. The iPhone 12 also benefits from Apple’s new 5-nanometer A14 Bionic chip, the fastest ever in any phone, which blitzed the competition in our testing. A Super Retina XDR OLED panel and great dual-lens camera system complete the package.
If we had some gripes, the iPhone 12 does get pretty expensive once you factor in the potential need for a fast charging adapter, as Apple doesn’t provide one in the box with this handset. Additionally, giving users only 64GB of base storage is disappointing, if we’re being diplomatic. But in most other respects, the iPhone 12 is the best choice for anyone eyeing the premium iPhone experience at a reasonable price unlocked.
Read our full iPhone 12 review.
(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)
4. OnePlus 9
Another excellent Android performance value
Display: 6.65-inch OLED (2400×1080; 120Hz) | CPU: Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8GB, 12GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 48MP main (f/1.8); 50MP ultrawide (f/2.2); 2MP monochrome | Front camera: 16MP (ƒ/2.4) | Weight: 6.77 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:51 (120Hz); 10:53 (60Hz)
Ridiculously fast charging
Top-performing Android phone
Better cameras than previous OnePlus models
Solid battery life
Some color inconsistencies remain with cameras
The OnePlus 9 is a fantastic phone, especially for the money. You get a flat 6.65-inch FHD+ 120 Hz display that looks amazing, the same 48MP wide and 50MP ultrawide cameras as the OnePlus 9 Pro, and the best processor you can get with an Android device, the Snapdragon 888.
Battery life is another major plus, with the OnePlus 9 lasting for 10 hours and 51 minutes in the Tom’s Guide battery test with the 120 Hz mode enabled. Best of all, the OnePlus 9 starts at $729 for the 8GB/128GB model. That’s a lot of phone for the money and it offers a real challenge to Samsung’s Android crown.
Read our full OnePlus 9 review.
(Image credit: Future)
5. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
The best premium Android unlocked phone
Display Size: 6.8-inch AMOLED (3200 x 1400); 10 to 120Hz | CPU: Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 12GB, 16GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / No | Rear camera: 108MP wide (f/1.8), 12MP ultra wide (f/2.2), 10MP telephoto (3x zoom, f/2.4), 10MP telephoto (10x zoom, f/4.9), laser AF sensor | Front camera: 40MP (f/2.2) | Weight: 8.08 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:25 (60Hz), 10:07 (adaptive)
Dynamic 6.8-inch AMOLED display
Dual telephoto lenses
S Pen support
Great battery life
No charger or microSD card
If you’re looking for one of the best unlocked phones and money is no object, treat yourself to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, which offers a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display, Snapdragon 888 Plus processor and optional versatile S Pen stylus, all for $1,199.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is, in fact, the best Android phone you can buy right now. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it’s very powerful. Despite its size, it’s also a well-rounded phone with excellent photography performance, too. It’s a battery life champ despite having a high-res, high refresh rate display. It also can use the newly redesign S Pen stylus.
And that S Pen helps you get more from apps like Samsung Notes, which now syncs across a multitude of devices and allows for appending audio recordings to written or typed notes. The S21 Ultra’s wireless DeX Mode and Windows Your Phone projection also helps you get more out of it on bigger displays.
Overall, it’s one of the finest handsets you can buy unlocked and take to any network.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review.
(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)
6. Samsung Galaxy S21
One of Samsung’s best for less
Display: 6.2-inch OLED (2400×1080; 48-120Hz) | CPU: Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8) wide; 12MP (ƒ/2.2) ultrawide; 64MP (ƒ/2.0) telephoto with 3x optical zoom | Front camera: 10MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 6.07 oz | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:54
Excellent dynamic 120Hz display
No charger or microSD card slot
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is one of the best unlocked phones you can buy in 2021. Not only does it look really good, but it also offers an excellent camera experience with its triple lens setup. That means you get better portraits and the extremely impressive Space Zoom feature, which can give you 30x zoom photos. But that’s not all that the Galaxy S21 has to offer.
You also get the newest processor…