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Unlocked phones vs carrier phones: What are the differences and benefits?
When smartphones were just starting to become a thing, the most obvious way to get one in the United States was simple: visit your wireless carrier of choice and buy whichever device the salesperson convinced you was the best.
Nowadays, things aren’t so simple — and that’s a good thing! Now, you are no longer dependent on what your carrier sells because you can easily buy unlocked phones from all over the world. But what exactly are the differences when you look at unlocked phones vs carrier phones?
Never fear, because we’re going to lay out all the info you need to know about the advantages — and disadvantages — to buying your next smartphone the classic way (through your carrier) or unlocked, which is quickly becoming the modern way.
Follow along as we break it down: unlocked phones vs carrier phones!
Unlocked phones vs carrier phones: A primer
Before we get into the advantages and disadvantages of either purchase method, you must understand the basic differences between each type of device.
In general, a carrier phone — also known as a locked phone — is sold through a wireless carrier or a third-party partner (such as Best Buy, for example). It is either already attached to your wireless account when you buy the phone or will immediately attach when you first set it up.
Carrier phones are almost always locked to that carrier. In other words, you can’t buy a phone through Verizon and then immediately take it to AT&T. You can remove this lockdown, but there are usually significant requirements involved (more on that in a bit).
Related: The best phone deals
On the other hand, unlocked phones are devices you buy without a carrier involved in any way. This could be buying directly from the manufacturer or through a third-party retailer (such as Amazon).
Unlocked phones usually come with no SIM card and no prerequisite to sign up with a service for any particular carrier. As the name suggests, unlocked phones are not bound to any particular carrier, so you can feel free to bounce from one carrier to another as you see fit.
Now that you understand the main differences between unlocked phones and carrier phones, let’s break down why you should (or shouldn’t) buy unlocked or carrier locked!
Carrier phones: Advantages
The biggest advantage to buying a carrier phone is that the carrier will help you pay for it. In most cases, if you buy a phone through a wireless carrier, you won’t need to pay for the device outright, which could be nice because the cost of that device could push the $1,000 mark.
Instead, your carrier will ask you to pay a portion of the cost upfront — kind of like a down payment— and then pay off the rest of the device over a period of time. This upfront deposit could be anywhere from zero dollars to hundreds of dollars, depending on the price and popularity of the phone.
Additionally, if you have good credit and an account in good standing with the carrier, you can earn significant device discounts. This could be anything from a percentage discount or even a buy-one-get-one-free deal, which we see quite often. You could also get some free gifts with your purchase, such as cases or other accessories.
The biggest reason to buy carrier-locked is that you likely won't need to pay for it all at once.
As an added incentive, once you buy a carrier phone, you now have an easy way to get support and service for that device. If you come across something that confuses you about your device, you can simply visit your local carrier shop, and they will gladly help you with it. If your phone has some physical defect, your carrier can help you get it fixed.
Speaking of getting phones fixed, carriers also usually offer their own insurance plans, which could be cheaper or more comprehensive than plans offered by manufacturers. This will give you some peace of mind if you are buying a very expensive new flagship!
Finally, if you buy a carrier device, you can be assured the device is specifically configured to work well on your carrier’s network. In other words, if you buy a Verizon device, you know that it will work well on the Verizon network, and you can take advantage of all the features you would expect.
Carrier phones: Disadvantages
The biggest disadvantage of buying a carrier-locked smartphone is just that: it’s locked to that carrier.
Because you are likely not buying the phone outright and instead paying for it over the span of many months, the phone technically isn’t yours until you pay it off. This makes it difficult for you to switch carriers, which, of course, is what the carriers are trying to avoid. This is why you shouldn’t buy a carrier-locked device unless you know for certain that the carrier in question is right for you.
Even after you have fully paid off a device, carriers can make it difficult for you to unlock that phone. In many cases, you need to contact the carrier and request an unlock, after which there could be a waiting period. This is especially annoying if you move to a new location in which your current carrier’s service is weak. It’s also bad if you do a lot of traveling and like to swap out SIM cards to use local wireless service in foreign countries.
You give up a lot of freedom with carrier-locked phones, both from the carrier and on the device itself.
Another disadvantage to carrier-locked devices is that you’ll sometimes pay more for a device than you would if you paid for it outright. Generally, carriers will charge you the list price for a smartphone, but that same phone’s price may be lower at other merchants. Since you are paying a small amount monthly for the phone, carriers can easily “hide” the overall cost of the device from consumers who aren’t savvy when it comes to price comparisons.
Finally, another big disadvantage to buying smartphones from carriers is the limited selection. For example, an unlocked OnePlus 9 Pro will work just fine on Verizon, but you won’t find a lot of other OnePlus devices in a Verizon store. Many other devices are unavailable at specific carriers, which leaves your selection pool limited.
Unlocked phones: Advantages
Buying an unlocked phone gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with it. If you want to try out one carrier for a month and then try out another, that’s totally possible. If you don’t want to have any carrier attached to it at all and instead use it as a Wi-Fi-only device, that’s fine, too.
Another distinct advantage to unlocked devices is that you can choose from hundreds of devices from dozens of manufacturers around the world. You are not limited by what you can find on your carrier’s website — in fact, you’re not even limited to what’s available in your own country. There are some limits to this (which we’ll discuss in the next section), but your choices will be exponentially larger buying unlocked.
This seemingly endless pool of options allows you to find the perfect device for you at the best price possible. With a carrier-locked device, you could be stuck paying the list price for a device that’s not even what you really wanted simply because that was your only option. With unlocked devices, that isn’t an issue.
Buying unlocked allows you to get nearly any device and use it on nearly any carrier. It's true freedom!
Buying unlocked also means you can buy used devices. Granted, you can buy used carrier-locked devices, too, but there are some dangers to this (buying devices connected to a blocked account, for example). Used devices are obviously cheaper than new devices, which could allow you to get a top-of-the-line device for hundreds less than you would pay through a carrier.
Another big advantage is that unlocked phones receive software updates directly from the manufacturer, which usually means faster and more frequent updates. Sometimes this can be reversed (Samsung is notorious for updating carrier-locked smartphones before unlocked ones), but in most cases, an unlocked phone will be more up-to-date than a carrier-locked device.
Finally, unlocked devices usually do not come with unnecessary apps — commonly known as bloatware — that carriers will force manufacturers to pre-install. In most cases, you can’t purge bloatware apps from smartphones without some software modifications that could negatively affect a device’s warranty. Most unlocked devices will come with minimal bloat, and even if they do, you can usually get rid of it.
Unlocked phones: Disadvantages
By far, the biggest disadvantage of buying unlocked is that you usually need to pay for the device in full, all in one transaction. This can be a daunting prospect since many flagship devices these days have a similar cost as one month’s rent for many folks.
Luckily, there are ways around this. PayPal has a credit plan which gives you six months of interest-free credit, for example. Credit card companies sometimes offer payment plans to help break down the price of high-ticket items into smaller chunks, and some manufacturers will even offer interest-free payment plans right on their websites. However, even with these options, paying for an unlocked phone can be tricky for many buyers.
With great freedom comes great responsibility, and unlocked phones require you to be savvy enough to use them.
Another disadvantage of buying unlocked is that certain phones don’t support specific network bands. This can be complicated for buyers who don’t know all about the differences between types of networks (CDMA vs GSM, for example) or which bands their carrier predominantly uses in their area. This can be especially confusing when importing devices from other countries. In general, you should do a lot of research on a device before buying to ensure it will work the way you expect it to.
Finally, a big disadvantage of buying unlocked is that getting help for that device isn’t always easy. If you try taking a Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra into a T-Mobile store because you don’t know how something works, you’ll likely get a rep who’s even more confused than you are, as they’ll likely never have seen that phone before (let alone heard of it). As such, people who buy unlocked phones need to be their own tech support and be pretty good at Googling solutions to their problems.
Unlocked phones vs carrier phones: The bottom line
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, buying carrier-locked phones used to be the norm. With buyers becoming more knowledgeable about smartphones in general, buying unlocked is becoming the “new” way to buy a smartphone.
Even when consumers choose to buy carrier phones, they are likely aware that unlocked phones exist, which is a huge shift from five or ten years ago.
So the big question then becomes: should you buy a carrier device or an unlocked device?
If you are tech-savvy and can afford the full cost of a smartphone in one transaction, we highly recommend buying unlocked. The pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to buying unlocked phones vs carrier phones.
On the other hand, if you are not tech-savvy or reluctant to spend the hundreds of dollars you would need to buy a smartphone outright, maybe buying carrier-locked is the way to go. Your ability to use the device will be limited, but at least you’ll know you’ll be able to get help when you need it, and you won’t have to spend a large amount of cash upfront.
Do you buy your devices unlocked, or do you prefer the simplicity of buying through a carrier? Let us know in the comments!