Products featured are independently selected by our editorial team and we may earn a commission from purchases made from our links; the retailer may also receive certain auditable data for accounting purposes.
Back in the early days of smartphones, options for unlocked ones were slim, and were usually lesser-known brands, while phones from the biggest tech players were locked up tight. But now, companies have come around, and even the major manufacturers are offering up unlocked options.
With an unlocked phone, you’re not bound by any contract. You’re free to go with a pre-paid setup, or a plan, but able to use the phone that you want instead of only what that carrier has to offer. You’ll also be able to upgrade and switch phones as much as you please, instead of waiting for a multi-year contract to be over.
Another huge upside to unlocked phones is future international travel. Whether you’re a frequent globetrotter trekking through multiple countries for months at a time, or just away on vacation for a week, an unlocked device can make it easier to get onto a country’s network and immediately use your phone. All you need is a simple SIM card, whereas with a locked phone, you’ll most likely need to contact the wireless company before leaving, and get on one of its often-overpriced international plans that limits your usage of data, texts and calls.
Most phones today are on 5G or 4G networks. In the United States, there are two types of networks to choose from: carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM (Global System for Mobile communications), which is more universal in nearly every country, while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access).
If you’re currently in a contract, you don’t always even need to wait until it’s up in order to switch to an unlocked phone.
What’s the Downside to an Unlocked Phone?
With a plan, you’re paying off your phone in monthly installments, but the wireless carrier’s got you under contract the whole time until it’s done. With an unlocked phone, you’re paying the full cost up front, and then it’s yours to do as you please.
But the convenience is the big selling point. Setting up an unlocked phone is as simple as taking out the SIM card and replacing it, as unlocked phones are compatible with most networks. You should still be able to keep your same phone number too, with no other major technical setups, and no time-consuming trips into wireless company’s stores.
With an unlocked phone, no matter how many networks or countries you hop over to in the future, you’ll have freedom to roam around the globe and from restrictive contracts, as well as your phone of choice.
1. Google Pixel 5
The Google Pixel 5 leads the pack here, loaded with the latest features ready to be taken anywhere. The phone comes unlocked, letting you choose the best carrier and plan that works for you. It’s an ideal device for travel especially, and the camera is outstanding – particularly in low light, as it auto-brightens up even a dark room using NightSight for a crisp pic nearly every time. HDR+ enhances color and lighting on photos as well, making any picture pop with detail.
Battery life is a lengthy 48 hours, while the body is still only 8mm thick. A 6-inch display in clear HD lets you stream your favorite shows and videos with 5G speed that you can share with friends, too.
It’s waterproof up to 1.5 meters deep for 30 minutes, meaning that all hope isn’t lost if you forget to take this out of your pocket when you dive in the pool.
2. Samsung Galaxy S21 5G
The Galaxy’s 6.2-inch, 120Hz display makes scrolling smooth and satisfying, with speedy 5G and fast processing. It comes unlocked, with the ultra-sonic fingerprint reader installed for extra security.
The three cameras contain the ability to shoot in 8K, and videos look stunning with twice the resolution of the usual 4K in other phones. For photos, this shoots in 64MP, with the capability of an insane 100x Space Zoom for capturing subjects at a far distance.
Wireless charging is sufficiently fast, with a battery life that will keep it alive all day, even under heavy-use tasks and apps.
3. Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G
The phone’s screen is instantaneously responsive, with a 90 Hz screen refresh rate and 240Hz touch sampling rate. Rounded corners help to stretch the display even more, and are as aesthetically pleasing as they are practical.
At IP68, it’s resistant to splashes, but not submersible. There’s no front camera, but the three rear cameras feature a 50 MP Ultra Vision Camera, 20 MP Cine Camera (for an Ultra-Wide Angle) and a 12 MP Telephoto Camera.
This is the latest, global version of the Mate 40 Pro, running on Android 10.0 and weighing in at just 7.7 ounces. But there’s also other similar options from Huawei, with varying prices and features, like the Huawei P30 Pro.
Note that this works with most GSM carriers, but not with CDMA carriers.
4. OnePlus 8T Lunar Silver 5G Unlocked
OnePlus has been creating smartphones since 2013, and is a major player in over 34 countries. The 48MP Quad camera is comparable to competitors like Samsung and Huawei, and though not officially listed, some users say the phone is water-resistant up to an IP68 rating.
Fueled by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor and Adreno 650 GPU for fast 5G, plenty of RAM (12GB) and 256GB of storage, the 8 Pro displays a wide range of colors using a 30-bit panel on its beautifully bright and smooth 6.55-inch screen.
Wireless charging of the 4500mAh battery is speedy, at 65W, and can go from 0 percent to full in under an hour – and wired charging is even faster, giving you a full day’s worth in about 15 minutes.
5. Motorola Moto G Play
For those who want a smartphone without a ton of bells and whistles, the Moto G will get the job done, and still have perfectly functional features ready when you need them.
The ultra-wide 6.5-inch screen is a similar size to others in its category, while the battery size is even stronger than some, at 5000mAh – enough to go for three days on a single charge, or even 30 days on standby. A 1.8GHz Qualcomm SnapDragon processor can multi-task simple apps, too.
The 13MP dual camera system may not have the same intense details and color capture of more expensive phones, but photos still look pretty great on the Max Vision HD+ display. It’s also water-repellent, and comes CDMA/GSM unlocked with all the major U.S. carriers.