Here at PCMag, we've long been a proponent of unlocked cell phones. Last year we reviewed 39 unlocked models available in the US, and our list of The Best Unlocked Phones offers options from $149 up to $700.
All the way back in 2006, I declared that the "unlocked cell phone revolution begins now." It didn't. According to Strategy Analytics, 14.6 million unlocked phones were sold in the US in 2015, for a total of about 10 percent of the US market, with Blu and Apple leading the pack at 36 percent and 12.3 percent respectively of that 10 percent total share.
There are several historic reasons for this. Verizon and Sprint have been hostile to unlocked phones in the past. Our country's diverse array of technologies and frequency bands used to mean that one carrier's phones simply wouldn't work on another, even unlocked. On all carriers, Americans aren't used to paying for phones up front, and for many years, phone prices were hidden in carriers' nearly universal two-year contracts.
But that's starting to change. More people are paying full price for their phones now, whether up front or through two-year payment plans. Alcatel executives told us last year that by the end of 2016, Verizon may start to accept LTE-only devices, which would make the carrier much friendlier to unlocked phones. And universal modems that support all carriers are becoming more popular.
You generally no longer need an unlocked phone to go abroad and use a local SIM card in a foreign country. Carrier unlocking policies have gotten better with time, and many carrier-purchased phones can now be unlocked on request. But they'll still contain carrier bloatware and may not be physically compatible with other carriers.
Factory-unlocked phones in the US now run the gamut from $25 voice phones to the flagship HTC 10 and Samsung Galaxy S7 models. If you haven't been convinced to go unlocked, these five reasons may help:
1. Unlocked Phones Let You Jump Carriers Quickly
Are you willing to port your number and bounce from carrier to carrier for the best deal? Nowadays, carriers are eschewing contracts for device payment plans. With an unlocked phone, you are beholden to no one. If you want to try MetroPCS, potentially give it up for Cricket, and then jump over to Verizon, the right unlocked phone will take you there with no lock-in and no additional purchases necessary.
2. Many Cheap Plans Use Unlocked Phones
All of the major carriers, and many of the cheaper virtual carriers, sell their own phones. But if you're interested in saving money with some of the more obscure small carriers, you have to bring an unlocked phone. US Mobile, Ultra Mobile, Lyca Mobile, ROK Mobile, TPO, Krew Mobile, and others strongly suggest that you bring your own phone to their show. Other carriers, like senior-focused Consumer Cellular, don't sell many flagship phones, but you can bring an unlocked device to them.
3. Unlocked Phones Get More Upgrades and Are More Secure
As our software analyst Max Eddy found, carriers tend to delay updates to Android software, even security-critical updates. Although you'll still be at the mercy of your phone's manufacturer, buying your phone unlocked gives you the best chance of getting the latest, and safest, software updates.
4. Unlocked Phones Have Less Bloatware
Carrier bloatware takes up space on your home screen and in your precious internal memory. Usually, it's undeletable. And even if you unlock a carrier-model phone and switch carriers, you'll still be stuck with the bloatware. That isn't the case with factory unlocked phones. While they still run their manufacturers' versions of Android, at least they aren't weighed down by carrier apps.
5. Unlocked Phones Remain Valuable Longer
If you intend to trade in or sell back an old phone for cash, unlocked phones tend to maintain their value better. We'd expect an unlocked phone to sell for $50-75 more than a carrier locked unit.
On trade-in site Gazelle, a 32GB Sprint or T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S6 in "good" condition trades in for $125. An AT&T unit gets you $140, a Verizon unit $150, and an unlocked model $170. On eBay, AT&T locked 32GB Galaxy S6 units tend to sell for between $200-250, while unlocked models sell for $300-375.
What About Price?
The biggest resistance to buying unlocked phones comes because Americans generally don't want to pay for phones up front. Carriers feed this desire with zero-interest financing plans. For instance, on T-Mobile, few people pay the full $679.99 for a Galaxy S7; generally, they pay $28.34/month over two years.
Financing plans are starting to spread outside carriers. Best Buy offers 12-month no-interest financing on mobile phones, so that $679.99 Galaxy would cost you $56.66/month. (And remember, after that, it costs you zero.) HTC offers its own financing plan for the $699 HTC 10, but it's unfortunately sketchy about how many months you'll have zero-percent financing for. Better financing plans could really help close the gap and boost the unlocked phone market here. No matter the price, though, you can't deny that buying unlocked is a good deal.
For advice on choosing a carrier for your unlocked device, see our results for The Fastest Mobile Networks and How to Save Money on Your Cell Phone Plan.