Unlocked phones are gaining ground in the United States, 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. This is a huge jump from the 38 million a late 2018 NPD report displayed.
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. Let’s help you find out what kind of phone you will get next!
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. 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.
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 important to note carriers have their reasons for locking devices, ensuring customers stay with them through contracts, and avoiding theft/fraud. This is why they offer to unlock devices after your contract has ended, you have paid the smartphone off, or have spent some time using their network.
For more details: What is an unlocked phone?
Unlocked phone advantages
Unlocked phone users have no restrictions, contracts, or ties to any company. They can shop around for the best deals and go to any carrier they want. 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?!
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. You can do it 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 too.
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!
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 longer period of time. Let’s take the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra as an example.
Carriers will get discount money back from you eventually, and then some.
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 $999.99. $200 is a significant amount of money, and the price difference can often be greater. You could save even more if you don’t mind buying a used unlocked phone!
Buying unlocked and outright commonly gets you better prices. 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
See the device above? It’s a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, and it costs a whopping $1799.99. 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 full cost of a phone. These carrier device payments make it easy for us to buy expensive smartphones we wouldn’t necessarily buy at full price.
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.
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.
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 amazing 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 world
No carrier bloatware
American carriers love throwing unnecessary apps on our phones. While some manufacturers are guilty of this too, 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.
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 really 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 biggest disadvantage of going with an unlocked phone. Carriers will let you use unlocked phones, but they won’t offer support if anything goes wrong. You will be on your own when your phone starts failing, the network has issues, or you have any technical difficulties. The manufacturer has its support team, but their knowledge is limited to their own products, not carrier network technology.
Does your unlocked phone even work with your carrier?
We have already established unlocked phone owners need to be more 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
Every new phone gets a warranty from the manufacturer, but we all know how painful the process of claiming it can be. You gotta 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 be pretty good deals. You can cover your phone against malfunctions, drops, spills, theft, and even loss. This offers peace of mind many customers like. Third parties can only insure unlocked phones, and those prices aren’t always as friendly. Of course, there are also third-party insurances, but it’s never quite as seamless as going straight with your carrier.
Unlocked phones need to be paid in full
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.
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 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
Exclusivity deals are not as common as they used to, but they happen. For example, Verizon has locked a lifetime exclusivity deal for the new foldable Moto Razr. They were also the only American carrier to offer the Palm Phone. This means that you will have to be on Verizon to get these phones in the USA. Importing is an 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 Amazon, eBay, and Swappa. Going to a manufacturer’s online store is usually an option too. 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.