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Unlocked phones: The pains and pleasures

You can free yourself from carrier chains, but it comes at a cost.
By
October 6, 2021

Unlocked phones are gaining ground, even if locked devices continue to be the norm. An NPD Collected Intelligence report from July 2020 states 50.1 million unlocked phones exist in the USA.

We don’t see growth slowing down, as there are many benefits to owning an unlocked phone. Reasons to stick with carrier-locked phones also exist. Today we are giving you a rundown of the pros and cons that come with buying an unlocked phone.

All about unlocked phones


What is an unlocked phone?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, Sony Xperia 1 III, OnePlus 9 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max side by side
Robert Triggs / Android Authority

The best way to explain this is by telling you what a locked phone is. Locked phones have been blocked from working with other networks. Carriers do this to ensure you don’t go giving your business to competitors. Try putting a SIM card from another carrier in a locked phone, and you will get a message telling you this action is a no-go.

Carriers lock phones to ensure you don't go giving your business to competitors.Edgar Cervantes

On the contrary, an unlocked phone has no network restrictions. You can pop any SIM card into an unlocked phone and get it working with the carrier of your choice (given it’s compatible).

It’s crucial to note carriers have their reasons for locking devices. The main ones are ensuring customers stay with them, and avoiding theft/fraud. This is why they offer to unlock devices after your contract has ended, you have paid the smartphone off, or you have spent some time using their network.

For more details: What is an unlocked phone?


Unlocked phone advantages

Carrier freedom

Sprint Verizon T Mobile and Verizon carriers stock photo - Unlocked phones
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Unlocked phone users have no restrictions, contracts, or ties to any company. They can shop around with no restrictions. Whether they want T-Mobile deals, Verizon quality, or the lowest prices the market can offer, they are free to come and go from carrier to carrier as they please. There is a catch, though! Your phone needs to be compatible with the network (more on that in the cons section).

How about two networks?!

ROG Phone 2 SIM Card Easter Egg - Unlocked phones

Dual-SIM unlocked phones make it possible to use two networks at once. Say you want to use a carrier for calls/texts and another for data. Maybe you travel often and want to have a SIM card from another country. This is all possible with a dual-SIM unlocked phone.

Not all unlocked phones offer dual-SIM capabilities, but this is a feature you certainly won’t be seeing in locked devices. And if you have a single-SIM unlocked phone, you can also swap SIM cards at will.

Here: These are the best dual-SIM phones you can find

No monthly payments

Carriers offer phones on monthly payments, which is very convenient, but makes your bills pricier. Device payments keep you in debt with the carrier and make it harder to leave the network if you ever chose to. It’s always nice to be debt-free and keep your monthly expenses as low as possible.

You can save money!

Money Stock Photo 2 - Unlocked phones
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Carriers are businesses and obviously want to earn as much money as possible. Their smartphone prices are not always fair, and they are only ever cheaper if they can hook you into staying with them for a more extended time. Let’s take the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra as an example.

Carriers will get discount money back from you eventually, and then some.Edgar Cervantes

As of writing this article, the Samsung Galaxy Galaxy S21 Ultra costs $1,199.99 on Verizon. Meanwhile, you can get the same phone unlocked at Amazon for $1,189.05. We know the price difference isn’t huge right now, but discounts come often, and we’ve seen the same phone go for about $1,000 on special. You could also save more if you don’t mind buying a used unlocked phone!

Carriers often have deals that drive down their device prices, but they always want you to get these on device payments or take on a contract. This only means they will get the money back from you eventually, and then some.

Unlocked phones help avoid over-spending

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 open front bricks
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

See the device above? It’s a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, and it has a whopping $1799.99 MSRP. Any sane (non-rich) person would think twice or three times before forking out nearly two grand for a phone. But $59.99 a month? That’s much easier to swallow! The thing is, you’re still going to end up paying that money eventually.

Buying unlocked will not only get you lower prices on devices, but it will also help you avoid overspending when not considering the total cost of a phone. These carrier device payments make it easy for us to buy expensive smartphones we otherwise wouldn’t.

Device payment plans make people think it's ok to spend over $1,000 on a super-phone to... check their emails and use social media.Edgar Cervantes

Very few people take full advantage of what high-end phones have to offer, but you see people using them every day. Device payment plans make people think it’s ok to spend over $1,000 on a super-phone to… check their emails and use social media. Maybe if we had to pay for our devices outright, we would think twice about getting the latest and greatest smartphone the industry has to offer! After all, most people would do just fine without a high-end handset.

Also read: The best affordable phones that won’t let you down on performance

Not limited to carrier selection

ATT logo stock image 1 - Unlocked phones
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Carriers have a limited selection of devices. They all tend to have the most popular phones, but you might prefer other options out there. When buying unlocked, you can choose from many manufacturers worldwide, and there are many excellent phones with limited or no availability from US carriers.

When buying an unlocked phone you can chose from a plethora of manufacturers all across the worldEdgar Cervantes

No carrier bloatware

Verizon carrier bloatware on smartphone
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

American carriers love throwing unnecessary apps on their phones. While some manufacturers are guilty of this, we don’t need carriers pre-installing even more apps in our smartphones. Most of these are useless, and sometimes they can’t be uninstalled.

Most carrier apps are useless and sometimes they can't be uninstalled.Edgar Cervantes

Unlocked phones get quicker updates

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus Update - Unlocked phones

Carriers update their own phones. This means your software needs to go through an extra filter before reaching your device. The process goes something like this: Google releases its software updates, the manufacturer optimizes it for its phones and hands it to the carrier, the carrier optimizes it for its phones and network, and then it gets to your device.

All these steps could take weeks or months, and that’s if it happens. Unlocked phones skip the last step and get software updates from the manufacturer. And if you care for timely updates, you can even get a Pixel device, which is updated straight by Google.


Unlocked phone disadvantages

Unlocked phones get no support from carriers

A T-Mobile employee wearing a black t-shirt with the T-Mobile logo.
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

This is easily the most significant disadvantage of going with an unlocked phone. Carriers will let you use unlocked phones, but they won’t offer support if anything goes wrong. When your phone starts failing, the network has issues, or you have any technical difficulties, you will be on your own. The manufacturer has its support team, but their knowledge is limited to their products, not carrier network technology.

Does your unlocked phone even work with your carrier?

Sprint logo stock image 2
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

We have already established that unlocked phone owners need to be tech-savvy, but it’s for more reasons than support. You need to figure out if your unlocked phone will work with your desired network(s). This can be confusing, as it requires you to know which radio bands are used by carriers. It’s also imperative that you understand the differences between CDMA and GSM network technologies.

Buying an unlocked phone requires a lot of research! On the other hand, carriers will only sell you phones that work perfectly in their networks.

Carrier warranties and insurances are better

E Waste smartphone on beach2
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Every new phone gets a warranty from the manufacturer, but we all know how painful the process of claiming it can be. You must call customer service, spend hours with them, ship the device, get it fixed or replaced, then they send it back. Dealing with your carrier is much simpler. Most times, you can show up at your local retail location and get things taken care of. At the very least, they can help you through the claim process.

Carriers also offer insurance through selected partners, and these can offer pretty good deals. You can cover your phone against malfunctions, drops, spills, theft, and even loss. This provides the peace of mind many customers like. Of course, there are also third-party insurances, but their experiences are never quite as seamless as going straight with your carrier.

Related: These are the best options for phone insurance

Unlocked phones need to be paid in full

Money Stock Photo 1 - Unlocked phones
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Unlocked phones need to be paid in full, unless you are using a credit card. The point is you need to cover the cost of the phone right away, and we all know these gadgets can be expensive. It doesn’t feel good to see your account suddenly drop by over $1,000 because of a high-end smartphone. Sometimes even affordable phone prices can hurt.

A monthly payment is easier to swallow than forking out hundreds or thousands of dollars on a phone.Edgar Cervantes

Carriers offer devices on monthly payments with 0% interest. Monthly payments are easier to swallow than forking out hundreds or thousands of dollars on a phone in one go.

Carriers sometimes offer sweet deals!

Verizon Wireless logo stock image 8 - Unlocked phones
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

In the unlocked phone advantages list, we mentioned you tend to pay more for carrier devices. We have seen carriers also offer some very sweet deals, though. There is a catch, as the deal will lock you to the carrier and usually requires signing up for certain plans. If you already want to be on that carrier and like their higher-end plans, though, your commitment to them can help you save cash.

Carriers are known to reduce smartphone prices and offer those discounts in the form of monthly credit to your bill. Sometimes they also have BOGO (buy one get one) deals, which means you end up saving 50% if you get two phones. We’ve also seen them highly discounting (and sometimes even giving away) cool accessories like headphones and smartwatches.

Carriers have exclusive phones

Moto Razr foldable folded sitting in box speaker

Exclusivity deals are not as common as they used to, but there are some around. For example, Verizon locked a lifetime exclusivity deal for the Moto Razr when it launched. They were also the only American carrier to offer the Palm Phone for a while.

Other carriers have similar exclusivity deals, but most times they are only exclusive for a limited time. AT&T had the Razer Phone 2, Sprint had the Essential Phone, T-Mobile had the OnePlus 6T, etc.

Importing is another option, but that also brings more complications and hassles.


Where can I buy unlocked phones?

Amazon stock photo 4 - Unlocked phones
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

So you now know what an unlocked phone is and are considering going that route. Now what? The most popular way to buy unlocked phones is online. Popular websites for purchasing unlocked phones include Amazon, eBay, and Swappa. Going to a manufacturer’s online store is usually another option. You can also find them in certain retail stores like Best Buy, Walmart, etc., but their selection isn’t commonly as wide.

If you are interested, we have created a list of the best unlocked phones, which tells you where you can buy them. Hit the link below to see which unlocked phone is best for your needs and budget.

Next: These are the best unlocked phones available today