If you’re shopping for a holiday or birthday, but you’re having finding the perfect gift, one thing you could consider is an unlocked smartphone. What are the advantages of buying unlocked? Generally, unlocked phones are GSM compatible, which is the international standard. Sometimes, they’re universally unlocked, meaning they work both on the international standard GSM (and AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S.) and CDMA in the U.S. (Verizon and Sprint). Universally unlocked phone can use any network around the world with the simple change and activation of a new SIM card.
Even if you use a locked phone you bought from your carrier, having a second, unlocked phone is great for travel. Whether you’re a businessperson or an avid tourist, having an unlocked phone in addition to your main unit is a great advantage. Also, you’re not locked into whatever phones your carrier sees fit to stock — you can choose exactly the phone with exactly the features you want, and much of the time, pay less for it. Finally, as a gift, unlocked smartphones are excellent for people still transitioning to their first smartphone in that you can buy them one without locking them into a particular carrier.
It’s absolutely true that you can get the Apple iPhone in one generation or another in unlocked form. Assuming you already know about the iPhone and are looking for something a little different and potentially cheaper, we’ve left that off our list. Most of our list is made up of Android-based options, including a few that were designed to be lower-cost alternatives to the big names.
To give someone the freedom to roam across countries and carriers, here’s our list of the top ten best unlocked smartphones.
1. BLU Advance 5.0
BLU are the cheap unlocked phone heavyweights. They have a large number of perfectly capable smartphones with respectable stats great for general purpose use. This one is no different. It’s a GSM phone with a MediaTek 1.3 GHz quad core processor with a 4GB internal memory that is upgradeable to 64GB with a micro SD card. The dual SIM function means that you can either have two numbers from the same carrier or use one domestically and one internationally. The main camera is five megapixel, while the front facing camera is two megapixel, and it ships with Android 5.1 Lollipop. This is the cheapest of them, but you can upgrade to the Advance 5.0 HD which has an HD screen and an aluminum body for $10 more, or the Advance 5.5 HD which offers a few upgrades for $30 more.
Need more options? Browse more BLU phones here.
Price: $59.99 (X percent off MSRP)
2. ASUS ZenFone 3 MAX
If you can spend $90 more than the BLU, you’ll get a few upgrades with this ASUS device. The HD screen is a touch bigger at 5.2 inches, and the main camera is a full 13 megapixels, complemented by a five megapixel front-facing camera. It uses a similar MediaTek quad core processor, though a touch slower at 1.25GHz. This is easily made up for with the 4100mAh battery, compared with the BLU’s 1800mAh. That means you can use it for web browsing for up to 18 hours. This is an aluminum body phone and features a fingerprint sensor function to top it off. You can also use two GSM network SIM cards in this one, but be aware that one of them is a Nano SIM and shares a slot with the MicroSD.
Need more options? Browse more ASUS phones here.
Price: $149.99 (X percent off MSRP)
3. Alcatel POP 4 PLUS
I have a certain fondness for these Alcatel phones. They’re usually cheap and cheerful and full of features relative to their price point. This one is even bigger than the ASUS, coming in at 5.5 inches, capable of 720p HD. It’s also very, very thin, made from brushed aluminum for a slick, high-end feel. The main camera in the POP 4 is an eight megapixel, while the unit is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 210 processor. It supports dual SIM on GSM networks, and is upgradeable to 32GB with an external micro SD card. Talk or browse time is about 15 hours.
Need more options? Browse more Alcatel phones here.
4. LeEco Le S3
This one might be contender for the best on the list. This GSM-compatible phone boasts a number of high-end stats relative to its price point, which is enhanced by a sale at the time of this writing. The Le S3 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 octa-core processor with 3GB of RAM. You get a 16 megapixel main camera and an eight megapixel front-facing, fingerprint recognition, 4K video, and on-board 32GB of memory. The 5.5-inch screen is made of Corning Gorilla Glass 3, and all this is packed into an ultra-thin aluminum frame body in your choice of gray or gold. Notably, the memory isn’t expandable, but that might not be a problem for some. This is a powerful option at this price.
Need more options? Browse more LeEco products here.
Price: $169.99 (32 percent off MSRP)
5. OnePlus 2 Unlocked Smartphone
If 32GB is confining for you, this 64GB so-called “flagship killer” should do the job. This is another fully-featured phone that fights above its weight class. If you can accept the modest downgrade in cameras (13MP/5MP), you’ll be rewarded with an even faster 1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 1080p viewing experience. The screen is again Corning Gorilla Glass 3 measuring 5.5 inches. This phone has another advantage in that it’s dual-band and dual SIM, which means you can run on GSM and CDMA networks simultaneously or selectively. It seems like this was designed specifically to compete with the big names at a lower price point, so it might be worth looking into this stainless steel gem.
Need more options? Browse more unlocked phones here.
6. Cat Phones S60 Rugged Waterproof Smartphone
For some, the ultra-thin, aluminum-bodied phones won’t hold up to the abuse of many jobs. This rugged phone solves that problem, being IP68 certified, which means that it’s drop-proof up to 1.8 meters, waterproof up to five meters for an hour, with category four vibration resistance. The Corning Gorilla Glass 4 screen measures 4.7 inches and allows for use with gloves or with wet fingers. To take all of this to the next level, it has a FLIR thermal camera on-board to capture and share thermal imaging for a variety of uses. Anywhere you’d need to inspect heat or cold loss, you can use this phone to capture thermal imaging video, time-lapse, and photos. Otherwise, it has a 13 megapixel main camera (5MP front-facing) capable of 1080p video. It’s only single SIM, but it will work on either GSM or CDMA networks.
Need more options? Browse more Cat Phones here.
7. Moto G Play
Of course, most people don’t need a ruggedized phone, or even a particularly powerful one. If you’re in that group, you can score this universal unlocked phone from Motorola, the old guard in the pre-Apple cellphone days. This phone will work on any network worldwide, and while it’s only single SIM, the storage is upgradeable to a huge 128GB with the appropriate microSD card. Otherwise, it’s got a decent 1.2 GHz quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM and a five-inch HD screen. You can also opt for a Prime exclusive version with Amazon offers and ads and receive a $50 gift card when signing up as a paid Prime member.
Need more options? Browse more Motorola products here.
8. ZTE Axon 7
Similar in stature to the OnePlus, this ZTE offers some top-shelf specs in an extremely thin aluminum package. The price is higher, for sure, but the components appear to be commensurate with the increase. This device is powered by a 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor with 4GB of RAM. It ships with 64GB of internal memory, but that is upgradable (via microSD card) to 128GB. The 20 megapixel main camera is capable of 4K video, and the eight megapixel rear-facing camera is no slouch, either. Corning Gorilla Glass 4 covers the 5.5-inch screen, which can be configured with different fingerprints to launch applications or carry out other commands. It’s a dual SIM card phone meant for GSM networks. All that said, the focus of this device is really audio, with two hifi audio chipsets meant for recording and playback, augmented by a Dolby Atmos dual-speaker sound system. This is quite a lot of phone for the price, and you can take it with you to any carrier you like.
Need more options? Browse more ZTE products here.
9. Huawei Honor 5X
Here’s another solid option in the sub-$200 price point. Similar to a few of the others on this list, it’s a Qualcomm octa-core processor powered device with 2GB of RAM and an internal memory of 16GB, upgradeable to 128GB. It’s an ultra-thin aluminum phone with a 5.5-inch, 1080p display, a 13 megapixel main camera, and a fingerprint scanner. What sets this one apart is that there are three card slots, which means you can use a nano SIM, micro SIM, and microSD card all at the same time. Both SIM slots are 4G compatible for GSM network use. This phone doesn’t have the most horsepower, but it might just have the most flexibility.
Need more options? Browse more Huawei products here.
Price: $159.99 (20 percent off MSRP)
10. RCA M1 4.0
Did you know that a. RCA still exists and b. they make smartphones? They do, and this one compares favorably with the much more expensive Motorola and the BLU at the top of this list. Those are certainly better known options, but if you’re looking for a super-cheap phone (perhaps for a child?) with a few expected features, this is one to consider. This is a dual SIM, GSM phone with a 1.3 GHz dual-core processor. It ships with four gigs of internal memory, but can be expanded to 32GB. The screen size is a bit smaller than the BLU, measuring only four inches, but the five megapixel main camera is the same. In an era where smartphones are getting too large for some people, this simple, darkhorse candidate could be a good alternative, especially at nearly two-thirds off the price.
Need more options? Browse more RCA phones here.
Price: $57.99 (64 percent off MSRP)