The advantages of buying an unlocked smartphone are clear. You get the freedom of not being tied to a specific carrier or contract. Plus, choice: you can pick between nearly any model for your next smartphone. Finding an affordable unlocked smartphone, however, isn’t as simple as you might think. After some quick searching, you might find a great deal that won’t end up working with your carrier. Bummer. Compatibility with your SIM aside, you should also consider performance price. Sound like a handful? Don’t worry.
Which Phone Will Work with Your Plan?
First, you need to understand the difference between GSM and CDMA — the technologies a smarphone uses to connect to a specific carrier. GSM (Global Systems for Mobile Communication) smartphones are set up to work mainly in Europe (and with select U.S. carriers), while CDMA smartphones are more widely accepted in the U.S. There are exceptions to these standards. You can find more info on the differences here, but for simplicity’s sake, the two options can be broken down like this:
CDMA: works mainly with Verizon, Sprint, and US Cellular
GSM: works mainly with AT&T, T-Mobile, and MetroPCS
Some sites, like Amazon, will provide a table indicating whether the phone will work with your carrier or not. Be sure to check the fine print for every device you’re considering. If you’re still not sure, oftentimes the comments or reviews will have others’ experiences around carrier compatibility.
What Specs Should You Care About?
For a smartphone to perform well today, it probably needs to have 2GB to 4GB of RAM, at least 32GB of storage and a decent 10+MP camera . When searching on Amazon, Best Buy or eBay, you’ll likely see a lot of smartphones with comparable processors, but the RAM, storage and camera will be the biggest differentiators. These devices won’t have the same level of functionality as the latest smartphones from Apple, Samsung and Google, but for the price, you really can’t beat them.
For the iMessage Diehard
The iPhone SE has the body of an iPhone 5s, but the internals and camera of the iPhone 6s. It has a four-inch Retina display, Apple’s speedy A9 chip, a 12MP camera and a fingerprint sensor. A 16GB refurbished model will run for about $230, but if you need more storage (which is likely), a 32GB goes for $380. GSM only.
iPhone 6 Refurbished
Apple doesn’t sell it anymore, but the iPhone 6 is still a high-quality device; it’s snappy, it shoots great photos, and $300 for the 16GB model is a very good deal. GSM only.
Anything But Apple
Samsung Galaxy S7
The Galaxy phones are on the pricier side of the unlocked smartphone market, but 32 GB of storage, a 5.1-inch AMOLED display and 4GB of RAM hits all the marks for a quality phone today. Compatible with all four major U.S. carriers.
Moto G Plus (5th Gen)
At $300, you can get a model with 4GB of RAM and 64GB (!) of storage; or, you can order the smartphone with less RAM and memory for $230. Plus, Amazon Prime members can get the lower-spec’d version with lock screen ads for only $185. Compatible with all four major U.S. carriers.
Moto E (4th Gen)
The Moto E is possibly the most affordable smartphone out there at $130. (If you’re cool with lock screen ads, it’s $100.) It has a 5-inch display, a fingerprint sensor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. It really is a baseline phone with no specs or features that make it shine, but for $100, it will get the job done. Compatible with all four major U.S. carriers.
Moto G+ (4th Gen)
The Moto G strikes a middle ground between Motorola’s E and G smartphones. It has a good camera, TurboPower charging (for 6 hours of battery life in 15 minutes), 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. This is a device you can count on. Compatible with all four major U.S. carriers.
The LG G5 has high-end features like a 16MP camera, 32GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. It can charge from 1 to 50 percent in 20 minutes, and if you want more battery life, you can swap out the stock battery for a bigger one. CDMA only.
ASUS Zenfone 3
The Zenfone 3 has a massive battery (5,000mAh), a rear dual-camera system, 4GB of RAM to keep things snappy and 64GB of internal storage. GSM only.