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Updated January 23, 2017

Did you know it’s much cheaper to buy unlocked phones? Big cell companies sell contract phones at a tremendous markup, disguising their overpricing through subterfuge: The true price of the phone gets rolled into your monthly cellular bill.

Never buy a smartphone from a carrier — ever. Most consumers don’t know that they can purchase contract-free phones. Unlocked phones can work with MVNO plans Get Your Prepaid Mobile Phone Plan As Cheap As Possible: Four Tips To Save Hundreds! Get Your Prepaid Mobile Phone Plan As Cheap As Possible: Four Tips To Save Hundreds! In the United States, T-Mobile made history by becoming the first cellular carrier to not force customers into buying multi-year contracts. After the policy shift, T-Mo users can purchase subsidized phones independent of a monthly... Read More , with plans costing half that charged by major carriers.

The six phones presented in this article provide excellent value. The prices start at $20 and run as high as $650. However, if you are looking to sign a contract with a carrier (and I strongly suggest that you do not), check out Riley Dennis’s list of the best Android smartphones What's the Best Android Smartphone in 2016? What's the Best Android Smartphone in 2016? Buying an iPhone is simple -- if you want the best device, you buy the newest one. If you want a cheaper one, you buy one that's a year or two old. Read More — she’s absolutely correct. However, if you need reasons to dump your carrier and hook up with an MVNO, read about it here The 4 Best Android Phones Available Right Now The 4 Best Android Phones Available Right Now Buying an Android phone is more complicated than buying an iPhone. There are literally thousands of choices, most of which are terrible (but also inexpensive). Homing in on the best requires time, research, consideration and... Read More .

Two Kinds of Phones

As I’ve mentioned before The Future Is Prepaid: How To Save Hundreds On Your Mobile Phone Bill In 3 Easy Steps The Future Is Prepaid: How To Save Hundreds On Your Mobile Phone Bill In 3 Easy Steps Cutting your mobile phone bill in half takes only three simple steps - first, find a carrier that offers discounted plans, such as an MVNO. Second, get an unlocked phone. Third, and optionally, you can... Read More , there exist two kinds of unlocked phones—those that work with GSM networks and those that work with CDMA. Other cellular technologies exist, but they’re not entirely mainstream and are largely based on the ubiquitous GSM standard. Also, a rare number of phones work on both GSM and CDMA networks, such as the Google Pixel Google Pixel XL Review and Giveaway Google Pixel XL Review and Giveaway Google's first branded device delivers one of the best devices in the Android ecosystem: the $770 Pixel XL. The XL launched with similar specs as the $500 Nexus 6P, but is it worth $770? Read More .

CDMA: CDMA technology semi-locks phones into a single network, so while these phones can unlock, there are all kinds of hassles in transferring them between carriers. For GSM phones, however, phones can migrate to another network by simply changing the SIM card. Note, though, that many CDMA phones do not use SIM cards.

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  • In the US: Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, MetroPCS, and US Cellular.
  • In Japan: DoCoMo.

GSM: Internationally, GSM remains the dominant cell technology. CDMA does exist in almost all markets, although it’s generally associated with third tier carriers. It’s only in the US that it possesses the lion’s share of the market. Consequently, most dual-SIM international phones are GSM based.

  • In the US: T-Mobile and AT&T.
  • In India: Airtel, Reliance Communications, and Idea Cellular
  • In the United Kingdom: O2, EE, and Vodafone

The phones presented in this article are specifically labeled with the correct network that they function on. When purchasing a phone, always make sure you’re buying the right model for your network. If you’re switching to an MVNO, the MVNO will correspond with a particular network—for example, Airvoice Wireless (which rents spectrum from AT&T) only works with GSM phones. MVNOs cost very little The Future Is Prepaid: How To Save Hundreds On Your Mobile Phone Bill In 3 Easy Steps The Future Is Prepaid: How To Save Hundreds On Your Mobile Phone Bill In 3 Easy Steps Cutting your mobile phone bill in half takes only three simple steps - first, find a carrier that offers discounted plans, such as an MVNO. Second, get an unlocked phone. Third, and optionally, you can... Read More per month. Oftentimes, you can save between $20 and $100 per month.

Criteria

I use three factors in determining the phone’s final grade: First, the best features of the phone are weighed. Second, the worst features of the phone are weighed. Third, I divide the price of the device by the aggregated consumer feedback scores from Amazon, Newegg or other smartphone review websites (whichever was available). The final result shows how much you pay per star of rating. This measure isn’t intended as a serious metric, although it should indicate better overall value, rather than raw performance.

BLU Tank 2 T193 ($21 via Amazon)

Technically the Tank 2 is a dumbphone with limited smart capabilities. You might call it a semi-smartphone. I consider it among the best phones for the elderly as it doesn’t require interacting with a touchscreen and the features are limited to the essentials. On top of that, its battery life is ridiculously long, so it makes the perfect gift for someone with failing memory.

Networks: GSM

Pros:

  • Amazing battery life
  • Super low cost
  • Small size; easy to carry around
  • Physical buttons make it easy for the elderly to use

Cons:

  • Limited feature set; lack of apps
  • Tiny screen

Per star rating: $21 / 3.8 stars = $6 per star

BLU Advance 5.5 HD ($90 via Amazon)

BLU Products’ Advance 5.5 HD is the lowest priced Android 6.0 smartphone you can buy unlocked, anywhere. BLU made a name for itself by reselling China-based Gionee smartphones in the United States. Their phones generally emphasize value over performance.

Networks: GSM

Pros:

  • Lowest priced, unlocked Android phone with Marshmallow (Android 6.0)
  • Dual SIM for international travelers
  • Good performance, particularly for the money
  • Great value and lowest total price for a brand-new smartphone
  • microSD card support

Cons:

  • Won’t ever receive a firmware update
  • Weak support from chipset vendor
  • Average battery life

Per star rating: $90/3.7 stars = $24 per star

NextBit Robin ($165 via Amazon)

Startup NextBit released the Robin to widespread cheers. It managed to squeeze modern smartphone guts into an inexpensive package totaling less than $165. It comes with all the bells and whistles that you need, including 802.11ac wireless connectivity, 32GB of storage, and the Snapdragon 808 processor. Overall, you get a lot for your money. Some shortcomings include a plastic frame prone to warping, and average battery life.

In all honesty, this is the phone that I would have purchased had Google not tricked me into buying the Pixel XL.

Networks: GSM

Pros:

  • Elegant and sleek design
  • Modern smartphone guts
  • Excellent hardware (particularly for the money)
  • Best value out of all smartphones on today’s market

Cons:

  • Snapdragon 808 processor runs a little warm
  • Battery life is average
  • No microSD card support

Per star rating: $174.94 / 2.8 stars = $62 per star

Motorola Moto Z Play ($400 via Amazon)

The Moto Z offers a high powered processor, modularity (what’s a modular smartphone? How Modular Smartphones Will Change Mobile Computing How Modular Smartphones Will Change Mobile Computing Google's "Project Ara" is going to do for hardware what Android did for software. Read More ), and overall outstanding performance. Motorola’s Moto Mods program allows consumers to add a high powered camera, projector, or speaker to their device. The extensibility also adds additional battery life.

Networks: GSM

Pros:

  • Excellent features, including gesture support and voice recognition
  • Uses one of the fastest processors on smartphones
  • Modular design enables long battery life via Moto Mods

Cons:

Per star rating: $400 / 4.5 stars = $89 per star

OnePlus 3T ($439 via OnePlus)

OnePlus’s 3T is a refresh of the OnePlus 3 series OnePlus 3 Review and Giveaway OnePlus 3 Review and Giveaway OnePlus One and OnePlus 2 were tricky to get hold of, despite attracting favorable reviews. This time around, things are different. Read More . It’s not that much different from the OnePlus 3, with the exception that it dispenses with a torrid (and potentially unreliable) Snapdragon 810 processor. The 3T uses a Snapdragon 821 — the same in Google’s Pixel — but for $200 less! Both CNET and the Verge regard the OnePlus 3T as one of the best Android smartphones of 2016.

On the downside, OnePlus’s operating system seems to be in limbo after CyanogenMod’s dissolution.

Networks: GSM

Pros:

  • Includes one of the fastest Android processors around
  • Modern smartphone internal components
  • AMOLED screen
  • Long battery life
  • 64GB of storage on the entry model

Cons:

Per star rating: $439 / 4.5 stars = $97 per star

iPhone 7 32GB ($650 via Apple; $715 via Amazon)

Apple created the smartphone market. The iPhone 7 offers one of the fastest and most reliable handsets around. But beware: Apple produced two models of iPhone! One is for CDMA carriers (Verizon and Sprint) and one for GSM carriers. Fortunately, an unlocked iPhone includes both CDMA and GSM compatibility. iPhone 7s sold on contract through either T-Mobile or AT&T won’t be able to function on Sprint or Verizon networks.

Networks: GSM and CDMA (with restrictions, see above)

Pros:

  • Latest, state-of-the-art product from Apple
  • Cutting edge features
  • iOS, if you are locked into the Apple app ecosystem
  • Water resistance

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Fewer features compared to Android
  • Unlocked model is substantially better than GSM-only model

Per star rating: $650/4.3 stars = $151 per star

Conclusion: What’s the Best Smartphone for the Money?

If you’re looking for an unlocked cell phone with excellent value relative to reviews, BLU Products Tank 2 T193 and the Advance 5.5HD provide the best low-cost products on the market. Unfortunately, because of the relative obscurity of their manufacturer, few reviewers have given credit to otherwise value-packed phones.

On the other hand, assigning a per-dollar ratio to reviews doesn’t fully capture the performance and features of higher end phones. One thing is certain, though: Consumers seem more satisfied when paying more money. However, there are big gaps in per-dollar satisfaction when going from a $90 smartphone to a $165 device. There’s an ever bigger drop-off in satisfaction-per-dollar when going from a $430 device to a $650 smartphone. The moral of the story: Spend your money wisely. Sometimes big things come in small (or cheap) packages.

Has anyone purchased a low-priced smartphone? What were your experiences? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credit: beeboys and Ganibal via Shutterstock.com

  1. Hollie Jones
    June 1, 2016 at 3:16 am

    Thank you for the great article, it was very informative! Since there seems to be quite a number of people who are having problems with unlocking their phones, I thought I’d share my recent discovery: *SITE REMOVED*. I tried it on my iPhone just recently. It surprisingly worked - and it didn’t even cost a penny.

    • Kannon Yamada
      June 1, 2016 at 10:59 pm

      That website is poorly rated. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend that anyone use that site.

  2. Bing
    October 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    What are options for cdma phones? i have an evo htc. It is out of contract.

    • Kannon Y
      October 25, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      If it's a Sprint CDMA phone, I believe you must first request that the carrier unlock the phone before moving it. Last I checked, their official policy was to unlock phones once the terms of the contract have been fulfilled. But Sprint may have additional steps required of you to unlock the device - I'm not sure if they can remotely unlock the device with the MSL code. But in short, contact Sprint and ask them to unlock the phone.

      After that you will need to contact a Sprint-network MVNO that permits BYOSD (bring your own Sprint device, sometimes referred to as BYOD). For this purpose, Ting.com is one of the best. There's a few other Sprint-MVNOs that also permit this, like PrePayd Wireless.

  3. Kannon Y
    September 22, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    I only know of two phones that work on both CDMA and GSM networks - The developer version of the Moto X and the iPhone 4S (and I think the iPhone 4).

    There are a handful of others, but these are the two best known. Unfortunately, you cannot simply move such a phone from a CDMA network to a GSM network. The CDMA network requires that they "flash" the phone with their own software. You must speak with a representative with Verizon in order to transfer the phone over. They might not even allow such phones on their network, for whatever reason.

    It's actually illegal for Verizon to disallow CDMA devices on their network, yet they do it anyway.

  4. Peter Koncz
    September 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Hi, I have a question. I am from Hungary.
    My daughter is in Bruce, WI, for 11 months. The only good network there is Verizon. She needs a smartphone that works both CDMA and GSM. Is that possible at all in one physical phone (like Samsun Galaxy S3) or not? Does BLU has such phone?

  5. Honeyeleven H
    September 18, 2013 at 8:20 am

    the post is great ,and i agree with it ,if you would like more phones or cards ,you could go to MoonarStore have a look ,great

  6. Wejustunlock
    May 5, 2013 at 12:47 am

    You can buy a locked phone and get it unlocked , it will be more cheaper

    • Daniel Dorilas
      May 5, 2013 at 12:50 am

      recommended website http://wejustunlock.com

      • wyguy
        July 31, 2013 at 8:23 pm

        while going with straight talk or others might save some people money it doesn't always work that way. for instance I can currently get Samsung galaxy s3 from Verizon for free if you order online and talk to the right people. cost for 3 phones under my current contract $180 brings the cost to 4320 for 24 months. Straight talk is $135 for 3 phones/ last time I looked anyway, $3240 saving $1080 over the 25 month period but it cost $428 each for the phones if you buy a new one unlocked, at $1284, costing me and extra $204 to use straight talk and have the hassle of getting dropped all the time as the cell towers get busy. Been there done that.

        • Kannon Yamada
          August 1, 2013 at 7:53 pm

          Call quality is an issue with any company reliant on the T-Mobile networks (and Sprint/AT&T to some extent). They generally have poorer call quality and their broadcast spectrum compares poorly to Verizon in terms of wall penetration. Wall penetration tends to be the greatest cause of call quality issues (with network traffic coming up pretty high, too).

          There are actually Verizon and Sprint based MVNOs, though, such as Ting.com and PagePlus Wireless.

          In your particular case, I would suggest trying out one of these alternative carriers, such as PagePlus Wireless (Verizon). They offer low prices and high quality. Unfortunately, because their cellular technology is CDMA, you can't migrate phones across networks with much success.

          I'm curious - this is for a family plan, right? MVNOs offer more than just unlimited plans - you can get limited and pay-go plans that customize to fit your needs. I rarely use my phone and consequently pay about $5 a month for the few things I do use it for. If you go by average usage, most people are in the same boat: They should be paying about $20 a month for their phone. The unlimited plans are easy to suggest to someone coming from a big carrier because they're universally cheaper, even to heavy users.

  7. David
    May 1, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Personally I have a Jiayu G2S and found it very good. Apart the GPS which can't really pick up signal. but it's fast and reliable.

    • Kannon Yamada
      May 1, 2013 at 5:43 pm

      Wow, that's a really nice phone! Jiayu does not manufacture phones in the United States, unfortunately, but something about carrying around a steel frame, high rigidity phone is really appealing.

      There's a fix for your GPS problem. It requires rooting and installing a custom ROM, but it makes the GPS useful. On the downside, an improperly done root will break your phone. :-(

      And if the ROM isn't exactly right, it will brick your phone. Lots of pitfalls here.

      There's some discussion about rooting here.

      And here.

      Thanks for sharing!

  8. Brian
    May 1, 2013 at 5:32 am

    I don't see how unlocked phone would save my family money.

    My parents both use feature phone, both would require unlimited talk (dad used 2361 minutes last month), and neither uses texting. My brother and I use smartphones; I used around 300 minutes while my brother used around 100. Neither of us texts, and we barely use data.

    Currently, the bill is around $115 to 116 a month (if we stick with ATT after our contract is up, this will be bumped up $10 a month due to data plan changes). My brother's phone was around $60, my dad's was around $30, and mine and my mom's were a penny each (all of this after taxes). In this scenario, this rounds out to around $30 a month over the course of two years for each person in my family.

    • Kannon Yamada
      May 1, 2013 at 6:50 pm

      Hey Brian, thanks for the comment - this is an important point to address.

      MVNO's also offer family plans, which are sometimes still cheaper than the family plans offered by big name carriers, depending on the network you're on. H2O, Cricket and Net10 all offer such plans, but I don't know if they're any better than what your family currently uses. I suspect that such plans are designed to get you on overage charges, though, since they oftentimes use a pool of minutes, data and SMS.

      I do know that individual plans including limited (or unlimited) SMS and data and unlimited talk time exist and for less than $30.

      http://www.prepaidphonenews.com/2011/02/best-prepaid-voice-plans.html

      So you could still save money, but unfortunately, the cheapest plans for unlimited talk are on the Sprint network. Sprint phones use CDMA technology, which makes transferring your phones across networks difficult. So depending on whether your phone is CDMA or GSM would determine whether you could take your phone with you.

      I think the best way of going about this would be to sit down with your family and discuss your options - which plans and MVNOs (or carriers) might save the most amount, while providing a service compatible with your needs. The bottom line, however, is that signing a contract is not worth it. You will ALWAYS save money by not signing a contract.

      • Brian
        May 2, 2013 at 12:35 am

        I will have to check out those companies then; I've heard of them all before.

        If I want to get a new unlocked phone with those plans every two years or so, it will most definitely be above $30 a month unless I wait a while and/or I get lucky on ebay/Craigslist.

        Sprint is the only major network I have not really considered. I would like a high-end WP8 phone as my next phone, and they do not have one at the moment. From what I have heard, the two that they will be getting will be mid-ranged ones. I think my wants severely limit my choices.

        I really do want to be free of contracts, but at this point, it does seem like one of the cheapest and lowest-hassle options available to me and my family.

  9. Martin Turner
    May 1, 2013 at 3:01 am

    G'day guys,
    I'm in Australia, and we call cells, 'mobiles'.
    Anyway, I have a plan with Virgin Mobile which is an MVNO, and I pay $39/month which includes a Sony Xperia acro S and you get, $450 calls & text, 1GB monthly data allowance, Unlimited mobile calls & text Virgin to Virgin, Rollover your unused plan credit, Free Voicemail in Oz, International calls & text included.
    And if you have your own phone it's $10 off, i.e. $29/month. Good one Kannon.
    Cheers boys.

    • Kannon Yamada
      May 2, 2013 at 2:48 am

      Thanks for sharing Martin! That's a pretty good plan.

      Rollover is something that few limited plans in the US offer. I think Ting in the US and Canada offers something similar to rollover, where discounts get applied for not fully using allocated minutes/SMS/data. Getting a discount for bringing an unlocked phone is super unusual. What's really unusual is that V-Mo in the US has purely locked phones - you cannot take a phone off their network or put an unlocked one on. But V-Mo's plans over here are among the best.

  10. Keith S
    May 1, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Kannon, you have done all of us who use cellphones a GREAT service! I admit that when it comes to anything but using a cellphone, I am DUMB! Thank you so very much! This is an invaluable guide.

  11. Onaje Asheber
    April 30, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Nice!

    • Donna
      March 14, 2015 at 5:00 am

      Hi I also agree. I have an unlimited talk and text with 1gb and I pay $34.00 a month and I got my phone from EBay. The the place where I get my service runs off of one of the largest cell company that is out there. ???? When I get a new phone I just call and they transfer my service and port my # and it does not cost anything.

  12. erik
    April 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    I understand how the price of the phone is subsidized by the phone plan. But how does buying an unlocked phone save you any money? You still need a carrier plan with minutes and data correct? And the carriers dont reduce the cost of your phone plan if you use your own phone. Do they? If they did, I could see how you could save money but I dont believe this is the case. Am I wrong? The way I see it is if you buy a subsidized phone thru the carrier, you save upfront cost and you pay the same carrier rates regardless. What am i missing?

    • Kannon Yamada
      April 30, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      That's an excellent question - you can buy cell service from companies that lease spectrum from the big carriers. These companies are called MVNOs. They resell to the consumer at a much cheaper rate. There's plans where you get unlimited text, minutes and data for $45 (or less) a month.

      I wrote about how to switch over to an MVNO. It's simple, get a GSM phone and then you buy a prepaid SIM card, which goes in the phone.

      T-Mobile actually just started offering competitive prepaid plans, although it's a little hard to find those prepaid SIMs.

    • Kannon Yamada
      April 30, 2013 at 6:41 pm

      Oops, I should have elaborated a bit more.

      So here's what you pay under a 24 month contract:

      $200 up front for the phone.

      $80 a month each month + taxes.

      $200 + $80 * 24 = $2120 for the first two years.

      The best prepaid MVNO plan, in terms of call quality, price and simplicity, is Straight Talk's $45 (or as low as $41.50 for one-year prepay) plan. Here's what two years + a Nexus 4 would cost you:

      $300 + $45 * 24 = $1430 for two years but you can leave at any time.

      That's a difference of $690.

      However, you can get even CHEAPER plans. For example, if you have a $19 a month, limited minute plan from Ultra.me and just swap your SIM into a phone you already have, that's $456 dollars, a difference of $1664. If you bought a Nexus 4, you'd save $1,3064.

      And the ultimate in cheap plans - pay-go from Ptel.com - cost around $5 a month. This particular plan is for folks who rarely use their phones. But a two-year prepaid plan would cost you around $120, which provides savings of $2,000 relative to a plan from a carrier. Or, if you bought a Nexus 4, $1,700.

      I think that worst thing about carriers is that they continue to charge the subsidized price, even after your contact with them expires. So if you remain on the same plan for four years, you're paying thousands more than had you gone with an MVNO.

    • Danny
      April 30, 2013 at 6:41 pm

      I agree with Erik 100%. There is no way you can save any money by using an unlocked phone.

      • Kannon Yamada
        April 30, 2013 at 7:00 pm

        It's all in the math, Danny. If you have time, Read my article on MVNOs, which are companies that lease broadcast spectrum from major cellular networks. If you don't have time, here's why - you can get the same service for half the price from an MVNO. You only have to buy the phone and the plan.

        You can even buy the phone and the plan directly from the MVNO, although they will mark the phone up slightly.

        I realize why most people would be skeptical. That's because the carriers spent a lot on convincing us that a smartphone contract costs a minimum of $80 a month and comes with a legally binding contract.

        Does that make sense? I can see why a loan might be legally binding, but buying a cell phone shouldn't require anything more special than buying a candy bar or wristwatch.

  13. macwitty
    April 30, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    I think it depends on the country you live in. Still often cheaper from carrier in you live Sweden and most of the time you can get it unlocked very soon

  14. Tim Brookes
    April 30, 2013 at 1:24 am

    So wait, I'm confused - where did the star ratings come from? Are they aggregated?

    • Kannon Yamada
      April 30, 2013 at 3:09 am

      I stole ratings from other websites basically. Mostly from Amazon, but on some other phones (that didn't make it into this review), I took ratings from Newegg and BestBuy. "Aggregated" was a poor choice of words - I was referring to a compilation of stars from an individual site for a particular model of phone.

      I plan on recompiling these numbers in a future review to aggregate all reviews from most major retailers. There's some major unlocked handset manufacturers coming out with new phones in the near future, such as cheap quad cores from BLU and an entirely new manufacturer is entering the market.

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