In many ways, nothing beats the freedom of an unlocked phone. They work with any AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card, even with no data plan. You can pop in a local, pay-as-you-go card overseas and never pay horrendous international roaming charges. And you don’t have to deal with carrier-installed bloatware. If you’re looking for an unlocked phone, look no further than our top-rated choices here. But first, consider why you may want to go the unlocked route in the first place.
The Benefits and Drawbacks
Tired of your handset, or want to own a few and switch between them? With an unlocked device, you can trade up or sell your phone whenever you want, without waiting for the end of a leasing or equipment installment plan—because you’re not in one. You can own multiple handsets and swap your SIM card between them. You can also take advantage of super-cheap prepaid plans from virtual operators piggybacking on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks.
At the same time, there are a few downsides to going the unlocked route. If you change SIM cards overseas, you won’t have your US phone number while you’re there. And unlocked handsets generally work only on GSM networks (AT&T and T-Mobile), although there are some exceptions. The Apple iPhone 6s/SE/7 (factory unlocked and Verizon Wireless models), the Google Nexus and Pixel phones, the Moto G4 line, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge work on all four major carriers.
Where and What to Buy
Shopping for an unlocked handset can be a bit tricky, since AT&T and T-Mobile stores don’t stock them. If you’re looking for one, the Apple Store, Amazon, Best Buy Mobile, and manufacturers’ online stores are good bets. In some cases, you can even unlock the phone you already own, although the particulars depend on the handset and carrier.
Our most recent Editors’ Choice picks for unlocked devices include the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, the Google Pixel XL, the ZTE Axon 7, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. The iPhone 7 Plus has a blazingly fast processor and dual rear cameras that may become more powerful with software updates as time goes on. The Pixel also has an excellent camera, and it’ll be the first phone to get new Google software innovations. The ZTE Axon 7 has flagship performance and an all-metal body for only $399. And the Galaxy S7 Edge’s screen stands out for its brilliant color and sharpness.
Ready to break free? Pick up one of these handsets and don’t feel tied to your carrier any longer.
For more, check out our lists of the Best Smartphones and the Best Android Phones. If you’re deciding on a carrier, see How to Save Money on Your Cell Phone Plan and which one came out on top in our Fastest Mobile Networks tests.
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