The Best Unlocked Phones
Break free of wireless carrier contracts with these top unlocked handsets.Apple made news this year when it introduced an unlocked version of the iPhone 4 in the U.S. (To be fair, just about anything Apple does makes news.) Still, the move brought attention to something that usually flies under the radar in America: In many ways, nothing beats the freedom of an unlocked phone.
Unlocked phones work with any AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card, even with no data plan. You can pop in a local, pay-as-you-go card overseas and never pay horrendous international roaming charges, and there are no carrier restrictions on the type of software you can install. Tired of your handset, or want to own a few and switch between them? With unlocked devices, you can trade up or sell your phone whenever you want, without waiting for the end of a carrier contract—because you're not in one. Or you can own multiple handsets and swap your SIM card between them.
At the same time, there are a few downsides to going the unlocked route. Unlocked handsets work only on GSM networks (AT&T and T-Mobile), since Verizon and Sprint handhelds don't use interchangeable SIM cards. If you do change SIM cards overseas, you won't have the same phone number while you're there. There are relatively few unlocked phones that support T-Mobile's odd 3G-frequency band, although AT&T-compatible phones are easier to find. And shopping for an unlocked handset can be a bit tricky, since AT&T and T-Mobile stores don't stock them. If you're looking for one, you'll need to shop at online stores like Dynamism, Mobile Planet, or Amazon.com.
Finally, the biggie: Carriers don't subsidize the devices, so prices can get quite high. If you're using T-Mobile's new Value Plans or forgoing a data plan entirely, though, you may make back the up-front cost of your phone in lower monthly fees.
So there's plenty to gain from buying an unlocked phone. In some cases, you can even unlock the phone you already have, although the particulars depend on the handset. Our Editors' Choices for unlocked phones are the Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone and the Nokia C3-01 Touch and Type feature phone, which are both as good or better than the best subsidized phones you'll find at U.S. carriers.
Ready to break free? Pick up one of these handsets and kiss those restrictive two-year contracts goodbye. Read the full reviews (linked below) or compare models side by side.
Unlocked Phones Included in This Roundup
Apple iPhone 4
Apple’s iPhone 4 adds a gorgeous screen, a terrific camera, and a faster processor to the already-awesome iPhone app experience, though voice calls still aren’t its forte. The iPhone supports AT&T's 3G bands; on T-Mobile it would be stuck on 2G EDGE.
Editors' Note: We didn't test the unlocked iPhone, but the AT&T version is symbolic of the phone's general performance. The biggest difference between the two models is price: You'll pay $199 for the AT&T-subsidized handset, but it requires a two-year contract.
This is as simple as phones get, with extras that make it especially appealing to seniors, as well as everyday technophobes. As a 2G phone, the J509 works equally well with AT&T and T-Mobile.
Nokia C3-01 Touch and Type
The Nokia C3-01 is a slim and slick voice phone with an excellent camera, music player, and Web browser, and it’s easier to use than the company’s real (Series 60) Symbian smartphones. The C3-01 works on AT&T's 3G network and T-Mobile's 2G EDGE network.
The Nokia E5 is one for the traditional BlackBerry fans; it’s a solid, affordable messaging smartphone, even if it feels a bit obsolete in a world of touch screen devices. The E5 works on AT&T's 3G network and T-Mobile's 2G EDGE network.
For die-hard Symbian fans, the Nokia E7 is a high-end, beautiful farewell as the company shifts to Microsoft’s mobile OS, but current Android and iOS devices owners will find the user interface baffling. The E7 works on both AT&T's and T-Mobile's 3G networks.
Samsung Galaxy S II
The top-of-the-heap unlocked Samsung Galaxy S II delivers in almost every way—that is, if you can afford its high price. It's also one of the few truly high-speed, HSPA+ 21 phones for AT&T's network, although it's stuck in the EDGE slow lane with T-Mobile.
Sonim XP3300 Force
The Sonim XP3300 Force is one of the world's toughest, most indestructible phones. As a 2G phone, it works equally well on AT&T and T-Mobile.