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Unlocked phones: The pains and pleasures
Unlocked phones are gaining ground, even if locked devices continue to be the norm. An NPD Collected Intelligence report from July 2020 states that 50.1 million unlocked phones exist in the USA. That’s a significant percentage, as a 2021 Statista report claims there are just under 300 million smartphone users in the USA. The numbers come from different years, but you can get an idea of what’s going on.
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.
What is an unlocked phone?
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. 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.
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).
Why do cellular providers lock phones in the first place?
It’s crucial to note carriers have their reasons for locking devices. The main ones are ensuring customers stay with them. Carriers want to ensure you don’t go giving your business to competitors.
Carriers lock phones to ensure you don't go giving your business to competitors.
Carriers also want to avoid theft/fraud. People can sign cellphone contracts, default on them, and then keep phones. This would probably be a more common practice if all phones were unlocked and ready to use elsewhere. 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.
Unlocked phone advantages
Unlocked phone users have no restrictions, contracts, or ties to any company. They can shop around with no limits. 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.
You can even get better carrier pricing by going with one of the best prepaid plans around. 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?!
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.
We have a dedicated list of the best dual-SIM phones available if you’re looking for dual-SIM functionality.
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, making it harder to leave the network if you ever choose to. It’s always nice to be debt-free and keep your monthly expenses as low as possible.
And if you happen to like making smaller monthly payments on phones, you can always try to get financing outside your carrier. Plenty of retailers offer good deals, such as zero APR financing for specific periods of time.
You can save money!
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 Google Pixel 7a as an example.
Carriers will get discount money back from you eventually, and then some.
As of writing this article, the Google Pixel 7a costs $549.99 on Verizon. Meanwhile, you can get the same phone unlocked at Amazon for $499. We know the price difference isn’t huge right now, but discounts come often. 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 eventually get the money back from you, and then some.
Unlocked phones help avoid over-spending
See the device above? It’s a Google Pixel Fold, 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 something along the lines of $50 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 industry’s latest and greatest smartphone! After all, most people would do just fine with a good budget phone.
Not limited to carrier selection
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.
No carrier bloatware
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 smartphone apps. Most of these are useless, and sometimes they can’t be uninstalled.
Most carrier apps are useless, and sometimes they can't be uninstalled.
Of course, you might still need to deal with some manufacturer bloatware apps.
Unlocked phones get quicker updates
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
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?
We have already established that unlocked phone owners need to be tech-savvy, but it’s for more reasons than support. You must 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 carriers use. You must also 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
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. You can usually show up at your local retail location and take care of things. 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 or theft. 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.
Unlocked phones need to be paid for in full
Unlocked phones must be paid in full, unless you use a credit card or third-party financing. The point is you need to cover the cost of the phone right away, and we all know these gadgets can be expensive. Seeing your account suddenly drop by over $1,000 because of a high-end smartphone doesn’t feel good. 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.
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!
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 often 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
Exclusivity deals are not as common as they used to be, 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 they are usually 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?
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.
An unlocked phone is a device with no carrier restrictions. Locked phones are restricted to a specific carrier.
An unlocked phone will work with any carrier, given that it has the necessary technology to operate correctly. Does your carrier use CDMA? GSM? A mixture of both? You will also have to make sure your phone has the necessary radio bands to work with your network.
The MSRP is usually the same whether you get a carrier device or an unlocked one. That said, finding deals on unlocked phones is much more common if you’re paying them in full. On the other hand, many carriers also discount locked devices if you’re willing to sign into their contracts or device payment plans.
You’re more likely to get help from your carrier if you bought your device straight from them. They might offer small help, but anything more complex will have to be dealt with by the manufacturer or insurance provider.