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Phones can be purchased in two ways. You can buy it from a carrier, which means you get it for a lower price, but you are tied to using that mobile service provider alone for the full length of your contract, and usually end up paying more for your service.

Or you can buy an unlocked phone, which means it’s yours to do with as you please. Unless you’re super happy with your mobile carrier and are willing to pay more for that service, it almost always makes more sense to buy an unlocked phone.

Why Buy Unlocked?

There are a few advantages to buying unlocked, off-contract smartphones No Longer Tied to a Cellular Contract? 10 Reasons You Should Switch To An MVNO No Longer Tied to a Cellular Contract? 10 Reasons You Should Switch To An MVNO Are you out of contract with your cellular provider? Rather than upgrading your phone, and signing a new contract, consider switching to a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO. You can save hundreds, even thousands,... Read More :

  1. You can change your carrier whenever you want. No restrictions.
  2. You can change your phone without worry, without needing to activate your SIM card in a new phone.
  3. You can sell your old phone with zero hassles. Locked phones need to be unlocked before being sold.
  4. You can travel internationally without worry. Locked phones need to be unlocked to use outside your country, with local SIM cards.
  5. Your phone won’t have any bloatware installed by your carrier.
  6. You usually get lower monthly costs with carriers like Straight Talk

So with that in mind, what are the best unlocked phones you can purchase right now? We rounded up a few of your best options, although this is not an exhaustive list.

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition

The HTC One M8 is a fine smartphone, and arguably the best Android phone around. One thing’s for sure: none of the other phones match up when it comes to design. Well, HTC made it just a little bit better by offering a Google Play Edition of the handset, which means it comes with stock Android and not Sense UI, a custom Android skin Android Skins Explained: How Do Hardware Makers Change Stock Android? Android Skins Explained: How Do Hardware Makers Change Stock Android? Hardware makers like to take Android and morph it into something that is entirely their own, but is this a good or a bad thing? Take a look and compare these different Android skins. Read More . Apart from its ravishing looks, the One M8 also has two cameras on the back (the second one is used for image depth), and two grills above and below the screen on the front to make for the best speakers in a smartphone today.

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Price: $699 for 32GB (microSD card slot available)

Main specifications:

  • 5-inch 1920 x 1080 Super LCD3 display (441 ppi) with Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Snapdragon 801, 2.3GHz quad-core CPU; Adreno 330 GPU
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • Dual 4 megapixel rear camera; 5MP front camera
  • 2600 mAh battery
  • Android 4.4 KitKat

Google Nexus 5

The Nexus 5, made by LG in partnership with Google, is still the Android maker’s flagship device. Our Nexus 5 review Google Nexus 5 Review and Giveaway Google Nexus 5 Review and Giveaway Approximately a year after Google released the Nexus 4, the company behind Android has come out with its successor -- the Nexus 5. Read More is adamant that this is among the best smartphones you can buy today, with a fantastic screen and superb build quality (but which you should still protect with a case My Quest For The Best Nexus 5 Case (and Screen Protector) My Quest For The Best Nexus 5 Case (and Screen Protector) Looking to protect your Nexus 5? There's no such thing as "the best" case, but rather, there are cases that fulfill specific niches. Read More ). Plus, Google pushes latest versions of Android first to this phone. All of it comes together in an affordable package.

Price: $349 for 16GB | $399 for 32GB

Main specifications:

  • 4.95-inch 1920 x 1080 HD IPS display (445 ppi) with Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Snapdragon 800, 2.26GHz quad-core CPU; Adreno 330 GPU
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • 8 megapixel rear camera; 1.3MP front camera
  • 2300 mAh battery
  • Android 4.4 KitKat

OnePlus One

Perhaps you haven’t heard about this company called OnePlus, and that’s understandable. It’s new, has only one phone on the market, and it requires an invitation to buy it. But boy, it has some awesome features Top Six Best Features Of The OnePlus One -- And One Drawback Top Six Best Features Of The OnePlus One -- And One Drawback I've been living with the OnePlus One for a few weeks now, and it's amazing, but it's not perfect. Let's run through some of the best features -- and one downside. Read More that outclass phones twice its price. In fact, the price is what makes this such a cool purchase. At the same $349 as the 16GB Nexus 5, you can get a 64GB OnePlus One—and it’s got better hardware overall too. To top it off, it comes with Cyanogenmod 11S installed, a third-party fork of Android that allows you to customize the OS to your liking. Sure, you can install Cyanogenmod on most phones How To Install CyanogenMod On Your Android Device How To Install CyanogenMod On Your Android Device A lot of people can agree that the Android operating system is pretty awesome. Not only is it great to use, but it's also free as in open source, so that it can be modified... Read More , but that voids your warranty, unlike with the OnePlus One which keeps its warranty intact even if you choose to root it and flash a custom ROM.

Price: $299 for 16GB | $349 for 64GB

Main specifications:

  • 5.5-inch 1920 x 1080 LTPS LCD display (401 ppi) with Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Snapdragon 801, 2.5GHz quad-core CPU; Adreno 330 GPU
  • 3 GB of RAM
  • 13 megapixel rear camera; 5MP front camera
  • 3100 mAh battery
  • Cyanogenmod 11S (Android 4.4 KitKat)

Runner-up: In case you don’t have an invitation for the OnePlus One but want a similar smartphone, check out the Blu Life Pure XL. At $380 for 32GB, it’s not as good a deal, but it’s the one that comes closest.

Motorola Moto G

Both the OnePlus One and the Google Nexus 5 aren’t budget phones, although they are far cheaper than most unlocked handsets with such good hardware. Still, what if you’re looking for something less than $200? Well, the Motorola Moto G would like to make your acquaintance. This is the perfect smartphone for someone who isn’t a phone geek. It’s got 16GB of storage, long battery life, a screen that actually can be used with a single hand, and good enough performance for most tasks. There’s an 8GB version for $179 The Moto G Is Officially Here For Only $179 Unlocked The Moto G Is Officially Here For Only $179 Unlocked Motorola has just announced the rumored Moto G, a cheaper cousin to the Moto X that will cost $179 for the 8GB model and $199 for the 16GB model. Read More , but we recommend the 16GB version just so you don’t run out of space. Plus, those removable back covers let you choose a colour of your liking to snazz it up.

Price: $179 for 8GB | $199 for 16GB

Main specifications:

  • 4.5-inch 1280 x 720 IPS LCD display (326 ppi) with Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Snapdragon 400, 1.2GHz quad-core CPU; Adreno 305 GPU
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • 5 megapixel rear camera; 1.3MP front camera
  • 2070 mAh battery
  • Android 4.4 KitKat

Motorola Moto E

If even the Moto G is out of your budget, get the Moto E and don’t buy something cheaper. The Moto E has the bare essentials that go into making an Android smartphone “good enough”—a decent screen with scratch-resistant glass, a decent processor, and big battery life. It misses out on some important things, like a front-facing camera (no selfies!), no HD video recording, and only 4GB of memory (which makes app installations difficult). Still, it works well enough for that luddite friend or family member who just cares about a working smartphone that lets them play Angry Birds and talk with friends on Whatsapp.

Price: $129.99 for 4GB (microSD card slot available)

Main specifications:

  • 4.3-inch 960 x 540 display (256 ppi) with Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Snapdragon 200, 1.2GHz dual-core CPU; Adreno 302 GPU
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • 5 megapixel rear camera; no front camera
  • 1980 mAh battery
  • Android 4.4 KitKat

Any Phone You Want

Most smartphones have an unlocked version available for purchase, including the Apple iPhone 5s, Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8 (regular, non-Google Play Edition) and more. However, they are quite expensive, going as high as $800. But if that’s what you want, yup, you can get it. Head to Amazon or your local Best Buy and grab one.

With that in mind, which unlocked smartphone are you likely to pick up? Why? Like we already noted, this isn’t an exhaustive list, so if you have a better option, drop a line in the comments below!

Image credits: icevikingLoboStudioHamburg

  1. Dale M
    September 11, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    Blu makes some really good phones. I have the Blu Dash 5.0 and it is a good unlocked phone. All Blu products are unlocked and the company is in Florida, USA.

    • James Oltmans
      June 17, 2015 at 5:30 am

      I've had mixed luck with the Blu Dash 5.0. The screen is sub par and one of the two I got for my kids is boot looping. I also had to send one back for a replacement due to the screen pressuring the LCD leaving a weird rainbow like oval. You get what you pay for with Blu. Maybe the 5.5 is better...

  2. Kevin M
    September 11, 2014 at 2:00 am

    I think the bigger problem is that unlike almost everything else with high ticket prices like this is they last for longer than 1 to 3 years. All cell phones are designed to fail and not only that but by the time it does fail it is likely that no matter how much you loved your phone it will be obsolete and you will be forced to purchase yet another grossly over priced disposable phone.

    We the people allowed this to happen because when these services first started showing up with unrealistic costs nobody said anything. So now we are trapped with a technology that is grossly over priced, services that are mediocre at best and cost 2 to 3 times more than they are really valued at. Complacency really does have a high cost associated with it, thanks to the ignorance of those that thought they was getting a steal!

    • pmshah
      September 11, 2014 at 1:56 pm

      I beg to differ on certain points. I have a 12 year old Sony Ericson phone which has GPRS, Email and Web browsing built in. Only thing I have changed in it is the battery. Still going strong.

      The tendency of majority of US public to own "bragging rights", keeping up with the Jones AND not really differentiating between WANTS and NEEDS had been the main cause of having to suffer the present day services.

      With exceptions, of course, we Indians have "value for money" and "total cost of ownership" concept included in our genes. So we will never suffer the same fate.

    • Kevin M
      September 11, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      You are a very small percentage. I have had a cell phone since they first came out and I have yet to have a single one last longer than 3 years and in most cases I was either taking a phone in under warranty or on insurance to get it fixed or get a replacement.

      I have yet to come across an Indian that valued anything since the government started giving all the handouts and free beer.

  3. Patricia C
    September 11, 2014 at 12:27 am

    OnePlus, for sure! Just got mine last week and the screen looks brilliant, the sandstone texture makes the phone non-slippery, Debating not getting a case since it feels good without one.

    It's got enough memory and is fast enough to not crash when playing more memory intensive games. At 64gb storage, I doubt I'll need anything more between the phone and my Google drive or OneDrive.

    The phone may be larger than other phones, but it weighs about the same as my much smaller HTC phone. Weight is important, especially when carrying it in a purse while standing in the bus for awhile. Also, the print on webpages is much more readable with that size. No more squinting.

    Overall, very good value for the price paid.

  4. Dare to be Different
    September 11, 2014 at 12:25 am

    What about Windows phones? The various Lumina phones are great quality and cheap - and don't disregard Windows phones until you have tied them. I am a former iPhone user who has converted and will take Windows phone over iOS any day!

  5. Hollywood
    September 10, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    If my contract is up, can't I unlock the phone myself? Unlocking is the same as rooting isn't it?

  6. Bill Kocken
    September 10, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Good article, BUT
    I'm on Verizon because I need their vast coverage. It seems like there are no economical unlocked phones that they support, like the Nexus 5, or Moto G or Moto E. Any ideas?

    • cwsnyder
      September 10, 2014 at 10:03 pm

      Verizon doesn't support these major models, and barely support Android without a contract, but they do have contract free phones available, including a few Android models, and there are some on Ebay and other 'refurbished' dealers that are older models, but are unlocked.

    • pmshah
      September 11, 2014 at 1:41 pm

      Its your bad luck that you live in a country where the phone companies own the congress and the senate. We in India are much better off. Absolutely ALL phones sold are unlocked AND at any given time or location you have a choice of more than 5 or 6 service providers. And now the numbers are freely portable.

  7. Howard B
    September 9, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    "You can sell your old phone with zero hassles. Locked phones need to be unlocked before being sold." Not true. Most cell phones on US eBay show they're locked to a carrier; you can reactivate these phones on their original carrier as long as you can prove you've bought the phone from the original contract holder, and as long as the original contract was paid off (giving the original owner the right to sell the phone).

  8. Aibek
    September 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    No mention of Xiaomi? It's better than most of smartphones listed here.

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 10, 2014 at 8:42 am

      I love the Mi3, but they don't have service outside of China and India. For a phone without China's apps ecosystem and preloaded with Google apps, you need to buy a Xiaomi from India, and it's notoriously difficult to purchase one. For me, while it's great hardware, I'll need to see better international support and easier purchase mechanisms from Xiaomi before whole-heartedly recommending their products.

  9. bob
    September 9, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Huawei ascend mate 2. Under $300 and battery lasts 3 days

  10. Sean O
    September 9, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Good list. Note that the new Moto G has a MicroSD slot now, so the 8GB model isn't as much of a sacrifice.

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 10, 2014 at 8:44 am

      Thanks Sean, that's a good point. This was actually written before the new Moto G was announced :) Before there are substantial reviews or I've had a chance to try it myself, I don't feel comfortable recommending the new Moto G. But once that happens, I'll definitely update the article.

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