The best unlocked phones may cost more upfront, but you’re also free from payment plans and contracts. 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. Of course, the downside is that you have to front your phone’s cost upfront in most cases.
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.
What are the best unlocked phones?
The best unlocked phone based on our testing is the Google Pixel 5a. Taking over from the Pixel 4a before it, the Pixel 5a offers users Google’s excellent cameras and screen that are capable of challenging much more expensive devices, although it’s a bit more expensive than last year’s model.
Apple has just announce a low cost iPhone SE follow-up, but until we can test the iPhone SE 2022, we’d suggest looking to the iPhone 13 models which are available unlocked through Apple. The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro offer more premium Android experiences than the the Pixel 5a does, and you also get stellar camera performance and excellent AI/machine learning capabilities thanks to the new Tensor chip.
Those willing to spend more should look into any of the three Galaxy S22 models from Samsung, which rank among the best unlocked Android phones. We also like the OnePlus 9, though that phone is giving way to the OnePlus 10 Pro, which is coming to the U.S. at the end of this month, after launching in China earlier.
If you’re primarily concerned about battery life, last year’s 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. In fact, we’d still recommend that device over the Moto G Power (2022) which takes a big step back in terms of performance.
The best unlocked phones you can buy today
Providing everything you could want for surprisingly little cash, the Google Pixel 5a replaces its Pixel 4a predecessor as our pick of the best unlocked phones. Even though it costs half as much as the typical flagship phone, the Pixel 5a’s 6.4-inch display and dual rear cameras can still keep up. It also boasts an IP67 water/dust resistance rating, important for keeping your device safe for as long as you own it.
There are a couple of limitations that are worth keeping in mind. First off, you can only buy this phone in the U.S. and Japan, so tough luck to U.K. readers who might have thought about picking this up. The other issue is a lack of computing muscle since the chip hasn’t been changed from the Pixel 4a 5G.
Nonetheless, you get a very capable camera phone — in fact, it’s the best camera phone under $500. Though the Pixel 5a doesn’t have flagship features like a high refresh rate display or a telephoto camera, it’s a great phone all around. But now the new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are here, which offer top-tier experiences thanks to the new Tensor chips and improved camera hardware.
Read our full Google Pixel 5a review.
While we think the Pro models are better all around, we picked the iPhone 13 as the best unlocked phone from the new lineup. It offers a compelling camera experience, much improved battery life, and all the things that made the iPhone 12 before it good.
Thanks to the new A15 Bionic chip powering it, the iPhone 13 can crush through any task you set before it. And with the Neural Engine upgrades, the iPhone 13 can pull off some impressive photography and video recording feats, notably Photographic Styles and Cinematic mode which rely heavily on the iPhone 13’s AI strengths.
This is the best iPhone for most people with its affordable price (and 128GB of storage on the base model). It’ll take some amazing pictures and videos, go for years to come, and offer you a top-tier 5G experience on whatever carrier you choose.
Read our full iPhone 13 review.
If you’re looking for a slightly upgraded experience over the Pixel 5a, then be sure to check out the Pixel 6. The latest phone from Google ticks all of the boxes with powerful hardware, superb cameras, and an affordable price starting at $599.
If there’s one problem with the Pixel 6, it’s the lackluster battery life. We saw it last several hours shorter than other flagship phones, but we suspect it might have something to do with the older 5G modem — we saw much better battery life on LTE.
Even with the disappointing battery life, the Pixel 6 is an impressive device thanks to its cameras and Tensor-powered smarts. This phone can do a lot, some of which no other phone can do thanks to enhancements in AI and Google Assistant.
Read our full Google Pixel 6 review.
Samsung’s Galaxy S flagships come packed with premium features, but that also means high prices — and that’s a lot to pay in one go when you buy an unlocked phone. The Galaxy S22 takes some of the sting out of that cost with a relatively affordable price tag. It only costs $799, a $200 discount from the Galaxy S22 Plus and $400 cheaper than the Galaxy S22 Ultra.
You’re not making may sacrifices to lower the cost of your Samsung phone. The Galaxy S22 comes with a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset in the U.S., the best silicon available for an Android phone. The S22’s screen is very bright, and camera improvements make this one of the better camera options out there, especially for low-light photos and zoom shots.
Other phones boast better battery life, but few can match the amount of high-end capabilities the Galaxy S22 offers for less than $800. And fans of compact phones will appreciate how easy it is to use this 6.1-inch device with just one hand.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S22 review.
The OnePlus 10 Pro proves how far OnePlus has come. The Chinese phone maker has given us its best device yet, one with beauty, brawn, and camera prowess that keeps pace with other great phones like the Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S22 Ultra.
With stellar battery life and peak performance, the OnePlus 10 Pro handles any task you could want. Thanks to the new cooling system, the phone is also a powerful gaming device. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor doesn’t get as hot, so it doesn’t need to throttle as much as some other Android phones.
In our battery life testing, the OnePlus 10 Pro went for nearly 12 hours in its adaptive 120Hz refresh rate mode. That easily beats the Galaxy S22 Ultra and comes close to the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max. And with 65W charging, you can nearly recharge the phone from empty to 100% in 30 minutes. The best part is that you get all of this for $899.
Read our full OnePlus 10 Pro review.
Coming in at hundreds less than the competition, the Pixel 6 Pro is one of the best premium Android experiences you can get. From a beautiful 6.7-inch OLED display with a dynamic 120Hz refresh rate to the incredible cameras, the latest flagship from Google seriously impressed us.
Of course, no phone is perfect and the Pixel 6 Pro’s weakness comes down to its battery life. Despite sporting a 5,000 mAh power pack, the Pixel 6 Pro turned in a disappointing battery life result in our testing. However, in our anecdotal experience, the phone lasts more than long enough to get through a day.
Starting at $899, the Pixel 6 Pro shows that Google means business this year. It’s the best Android camera phone, the Tensor chip is really good, and the phone feels premium — this is the device that Google fans have been asking for since the beginning.
Read our full Google Pixel 6 Pro review.
There are certainly more powerful Samsung flagships, but the Galaxy S21 FE is a very appealing unlocked phone for the very reason that it delivers many of the same key features as other Samsung flagships, but for less money. The Galaxy S21 FE costs $100 less than the standard S21 and $500 less than the Ultra — not inconsiderable discounts when you’re paying for a phone upfront.
For that price, you still get a phone with a powerful Snapdragon 888 chipset, a triple camera array and a 120Hz refresh rate. (Unfortunately, the refresh rate is not adaptive, so there’s a hit on battery life.) Throw in a bright screen, and this is a very good value.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review.
Samsung just introduced the new Galaxy S22 lineup, which includes three phones: the Galaxy S22, Galaxy S22 Plus and the Galaxy S22 Ultra. And although the Samsung Unpacked event didn’t include any new announcements on the affordable FE model, the S22 models are still worth considering buying as unlocked phones.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra is one of the most powerful (and expensive) entries on this list. It’s got almost anything you could ever want in a phone, including a built-in S Pen stylus. It has powerful cameras, the top-tier Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, plenty of storage options (including up to 1TB), and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous display.
We wish the Galaxy S22 Ultra had better battery life, though. In our testing, it managed 8 hours and 50 minutes in the 120Hz adaptive refresh rate mode. That’s well below the 10-hour mark we like to see from phones. For reference, the iPhone 13 Pro Max and its 120Hz adaptive refresh rate screen went for 12 hours and 16 minutes, well beyond Samsung.
But if you’re firmly in the Android camp, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is hard to beat right now. You’ll just have to pay a hefty $1,199 for the privilege.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review.
If you want the latest and greatest small phone, then look no further than the iPhone 13 mini. It’s a powerful little thing, thanks to its A15 Bionic chip. It’s also a great camera phone, thanks to upgrades in the sensor and lens hardware, plus new AI-based features.
Though it’s not the full premium experience that you’ll find on the Pro models, the iPhone 13 mini nonetheless offers a compelling option for people who like small phones. Rumor has it that this is Apple’s last hurrah with diminutive handsets, so be sure to snap this up while it’s around.
Read our full iPhone 13 mini review.
While we evaluate the new iPhone SE, it’s not the only low-cost option available from Apple. If you’re looking for something a little larger, now at $200 off its debut price, the iPhone 11 is the way to go.
Other phones offer bigger OLED screens, 5G, and more cameras. But the lower price tag on the iPhone 11 — it now starts at $499 in the wake of the iPhone 13’s unveiling — is too attractive to ignore. Besides, you’re not giving up that much for those savings. You still get two rear cameras that offer the same features found in the iPhone 11 Pro series, like better photos in low light.
The A13 Bionic processor that powers the iPhone 11 remains pretty powerful, even if the iPhone SE 2022 comes equipped with the same A15 Bionic found in the iPhone 13 lineup. Still, the iPhone 11 is a sub-$500 bargain that’s available directly from Apple unlocked.
Read our full iPhone 11 review.
How to choose the best unlocked phone for you
- Find a phone that works on your carrier: The vast majority of unlocked devices operate on GSM networks in the U.S. These include AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as discount carriers that run on those networks, such as Cricket Wireless, Metro by T-Mobile and Straight Talk. Some so-called multimode unlocked phones also work with CDMA carriers like Sprint and Verizon, such as all of Apple’s iPhones, and the Google Pixel 4a.
- Make sure the coverage map fits your needs: In terms of coverage area, there’s less discrepancy between networks than ever before, but there are still gaps, especially in less-populated areas. “Make sure [the phone you’re buying] works on a carrier that offers good coverage in your area,” advised Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at market research firm Current Analysis.
- Shop around, and don’t be afraid to go used: Because some unlocked phone makers skip the carriers to sell their devices, they can often pass those savings onto you. However, don’t be afraid to entertain buying one of the best used smartphones, as you can often find very tempting offers on previous-generation flagships from sites like Swappa, Decluttr and even Amazon for refurbished examples.
How we test unlocked phones
Every smartphone Tom’s Guide evaluates is tested for days in real-world use cases and benchmarked with a gamut of performance-measuring apps. We use a light meter to ascertain display quality data, like brightness and color accuracy, and our proprietary battery test determines longevity on a charge by streaming webpages over a 4G or 5G network.
We explore the software, test gaming performance and conduct live camera comparisons with rival handsets. We also factor in network compatibility, so you can be certain whether a device will be operational on your carrier before you buy. Each of these factors plays a part in our comprehensive verdict.