Buy Unlocked Phones
Important: Pixel phones work with all major carriers. But not all Pixel 4a (5G) and later phones work on all 5G networks. Check with your carrier to make sure your phone works on its 5G network. See a list of certified carriers.
buy unlocked phones
I'm that 5G guy. I've actually been here for every "G." I've reviewed well over a thousand products during 18 years working full-time at PCMag.com, including every generation of the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S. I also write a weekly newsletter, Fully Mobilized, where I obsess about phones and networks.
These are our choices for the best unlocked phones available in the US, followed by what to consider when you buy an unlocked device. Our picks range from inexpensive basic handsets to powerful flagships. Most are 5G phones, including those in Apple's iPhone 14 series, Google's Pixel 7 lineup, and Samsung's latest Galaxy S and Z families. These run on every form of US 5G, including high-speed millimeter wave and C-band spectrum.
Google's Pixel phones have the smoothest software and are among the most future-proof Android handsets. The Pixel 7 also has an all-day battery and excellent cameras. Available unlocked from Google's store, it works on all three US carriers.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra has two unique features: a built-in S Pen stylus and a 10x optical zoom camera that goes to 100x digitally. If you buy the unlocked model from Samsung's website, it should work with all US carriers and you get to pick from some online-exclusive colors.
If you want the S Pen or a superzoom camera, you should get the S23 Ultra rather than the S23+. The S Pen is a great tool for doodlers and notetakers, and the 10x zoom is unique among phones in the US market and really does bring faraway objects closer.
iPhones are the most easily available, universally unlocked line of phones in America because of Apple's nationwide network of brick-and-mortar stores. Unlocked iPhones support every US carrier's frequency bands and you can easily switch them from carrier to carrier. Just remember, it's all eSIM in iPhone 14 models.
Google's phones have smooth, simple software and they always get updates first. The Pixel 6a also has the best camera on a midrange phone. It works on all three US carriers and you can buy it directly from Google.
People whose tastes outpace their budget. Technophiles generally love the software on Pixel phones, which keeps things clean. You can also rest easy knowing that the device will continue to get updates for several years. To top it all off, the Pixel 6a is quite affordable.
The Galaxy S23+ is our top pick for Android flagship phones: It offers class-leading power, excellent cameras, extensive battery life, and a standout display. And with the unlocked model, you can take advantage of its superb 5G connectivity on all the major US carriers. Like the S23 Ultra, you can even get it in some exclusive colors if you buy directly from Samsung online.
The Sunbeam F1 works on all three US networks and virtual carriers. It's a traditional flip phone from a small, focused start-up that has paid much attention to usability and user experience, which you don't generally get on voice-focused phones. The company offers three different models that accommodate different levels of disconnection.
With an unlocked device, you can trade up or sell your phone whenever you want without waiting for the end of a leasing or installment plan. You can also own multiple handsets and swap your SIM card between them. If you travel internationally, you can pop in a local, pay-as-you-go card overseas and never pay horrendous international roaming charges. You can also take advantage of super-cheap prepaid plans from virtual operators in the US that piggyback on compatible networks (for the best carrier where you live, see our story on the Best Mobile Networks).
On the plus side, with the growing number of phones with electronic SIMs (eSIMs), changing carriers is easier than ever. Simply select your carrier from a menu on your phone or by scanning an online QR code, and you won't need to wait for a physical SIM to arrive in the mail.
Shopping for an unlocked handset can be tricky because carrier stores don't stock them. If you're looking for one, Amazon, the Apple Store, Best Buy Mobile, and manufacturers' online stores are all good bets. Sometimes, you can even unlock the phone you already have, though the particulars depend on the handset and carrier.
Besides all the software and hardware features that one must consider when buying a smartphone, another consideration is whether to buy a locked or unlocked phone. This is something that you should give careful thought to before making a splurge.
Locked smartphones are those that include a software code that prevents you from using SIM cards from other wireless providers. For instance, if you buy a locked Galaxy S21 Ultra from T-Mobile, you can only use the device on T-Mobile's network. Your Galaxy S21 Ultra will not work on Verizon or other wireless careers. Carriers often sell locked phones to their network, but you can still find locked phones through third-party channels like Amazon and eBay.
In contrast, unlocked phones are those that have no network restrictions. You can virtually use whatever service provider and switch whenever you want. You have all the control. Just swap one carrier's SIM card for another, and you're good to go. Unlocked phones can either be those sold without network restrictions or those first locked then later unlocked.
The major downside of buying locked devices is the inability to switch carriers as you wish. And that is, in fact, the goal of carrier phones; to ensure you stick with them for an extended period. While you can request your carrier to unlock your device after you have finished paying for it, there are usually hurdles that you will have to navigate.
Another setback is locked phones can hinder you from taking advantage of the best deals offered by a different carrier. And as you may have noticed already, carriers don't sell many smartphone models, leading to fewer choices to pick from. When you want to sell your locked device, the price is usually lower than unlocked devices of similar model and storage configuration.
Lastly, carrier-locked phones can be expensive despite the enticing promotions and discounts offered. While the flexible plans are convenient, it's cheaper to buy a phone elsewhere by paying for the full price. It's not uncommon to find a device on an online store cheaper than the retail price in a local carrier shop.
Freedom is one of the main reasons you should get an unlocked phone. It's why unlocked phones have grown in popularity in recent times. Unlocked phones allow you to switch carriers at any time. You also don't need to buy a new phone to do this. The process is simple; remove one carrier's SIM card and replace it with another.
Plus, if you're still on the hunt for the best mobile carrier, unlocked phones offer you the flexibility to try different carriers and make your judgment. If you travel often, you can use a local carrier than relying on expensive roaming services.
Unlocked phones also command relatively higher resale value than locked ones because of the freedom. It's also easier to sell an unlocked device than a locked one. If you go unlocked, you'll also have more models to choose from, as you'll not be limited to whatever is being sold by your wireless carrier.
The main disadvantage of buying an unlocked phone is that you'll have to do background checks to ensure the device supports radio bands used by local carriers. It's especially an issue if you're shipping a device from outside the US. Apart from the usual culprits (CDMA and GSM), you should consider network bands. The good news is modern smartphones have become more compatible than in the past. But still, you should do your research first.
Another downside is that unlocked phones aren't always available on payment plans. As a result, you're likely to pay the total price upfront, and with the ever-rising cost of smartphones, unlocked devices can be out of reach for many.
Overall, unlocked phones have more pros that outweigh their cons and even the pros of locked ones. But if you face the tough decision of choosing between the two, it boils down to a few factors. Buy unlocked if you're tech-savvy, have the money to buy the phone you want upfront, often travel internationally, and want the freedom of switching carriers as and when you want.
Also, locked phones prevent theft. Unlocked phones are more likely to be sold illegally or used overseas with different carriers. Verizon locks its new phones as a security precaution. (Users can unlock them; more on that below.)
To ensure voice and data work properly, only select BYOD devices with approved hardware and software for use on the Verizon Wireless network. To see whether your unlocked phone meets the criteria, check our Bring Your Own Device page.
The best unlocked phones let you get whatever device you want while remaining free from carrier payment plans. Although you have to buy them upfront, you can then bring that unlocked handset to the best phone carrier for your needs.
Best unlocked phone overall: iPhone 14 (opens in new tab)Apple's flagship phone is the best device to buy unlocked (though you will pay an extra $30 at Apple to get an unlocked iPhone 14 instead of one tied to a specific carrier.) It's got great cameras, the best performing processor we've tested and a stylish design. Plus, the software experience is second-to-none, with plenty of apps to make your phone even more useful.
Best overall value: Pixel 7 (opens in new tab)The Google Pixel 7 offers the best value of any unlocked phone, with flagship features in a device that costs $200 less than comparable premium handsets. With the Pixel 7, you get powerful cameras that are backed up by Google's excellent computational photography for photos that stand up well against the images produced by any other phone. A Tensor G2 processor also delivers unique features like real-time dictation and call screening. 041b061a72