Best unlocked phones to buy in the US

Best unlocked phones to buy in the US
The vast majority of the US still gets their phones directly from the carriers, be it online or in their stores, but there is an increasing trend to source them in a different way - by paying for the full price of the device, and then bringing it to whichever carrier you'd like to use it with. Until recently, that was only possible with GSM carriers, but even that has started to change, with an increasing number of devices capable of running on all major US networks. 

Nowadays, Qualcomm and other cellular modem makers have gotten so good in stuffing tens of LTE bands and filtering them without interference in a single chip, that more and more phone makers are offering unlocked phones that can work with any US carrier out of the box, Verizon and Sprint included. We won't bore you with LTE bands and CDMA support details here, but will instead list the best of those unlocked phones you can get right now, pop a SIM card in, and just start enjoying your network of choice in all of its 4G glory.

High-end


Apple iPhone XS and XS Max

Smooth performance, great camera, pricey


Given that iPhones currently represent 45% of all smart handsets that Americans carry, we'd be remiss not to start with them as one of the most popular unlocked devices out there. While buying iPhones straight from Apple is not as popular of a pastime as buying them from carriers, there is a benefit to going the full-price Apple Store way, if you demand maximum flexibility.

The $1,099 iPhone XS Max is the flagship with a fresh design, an edge-to-edge screen and the Face ID tech. The two new iPhones have absolutely identical dual cameras, with a secondary "tele" lens that allows you to get clearer zoom and capture portrait photos with a blurred background like on DSLRs. 

Why should you get the new iPhones? They stand out with buttery smooth performance and a rich ecosystem of apps and games. Also, you can be assured that an iPhone will be supported for years with updates and those updates will not come a year after they are released, but on day one. You should buy them if you value the performance and want a good camera. And of course, if you don't mind those super high prices.


Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

Best Android performance, timely guaranteed updates, awesome camera, pricey

In the great Pixel tradition, these come unlocked, and are no hardware slouches, but come with bigger bezels than most new flagships and even midrangers and a rather high price for the hardware. They do have the smoothest Android performance, though and amazing cameras with great dynamic range and beautiful colors.

The other big selling point is, of course, stock Android and fast updates, plus the tightest integration with Google's services you can currently get, including Google's artificially intelligent Assistant bot. So, no matter if you get the Pixel or Pixel XL from Verizon, the Google Store, Project Fi or Best Buy, they all come unlocked and loaded for action.



Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+

Great camera, slick design, loaded interface


The Galaxy S9 and S9+ are some of the best pocket cameras you can always carry with you, as they offer awesome photo buff features like a variable aperture or 4K 60fps video recording. Samsung also equipped them with ultrafast chipsets, dual stereo speakers with wonderful sound, and added great looks and ergonomics to the mix. You can get the unlocked Galaxy S9 at $720, or the bigger S9+ at $840. The experience of setting up Samsung's top phones to work on any US carrier should be a piece of cake.



Mid-range



Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

Smooth Android, fast updates, great cameras


Yep, those two comes fully unlocked, and can be used on any carrier. The phones are no slouches, either - The Pixel 2 XL has an edge-to-edge screen (with slightly bigger bezels than most new flagships) and the slightly bigger battery. These two phones offer the smoothest performance of any Android phone, and they have one of the best cameras ever put on a phone with great dynamic range and beautiful colors.

The other big selling point is, of course, stock Android and fast updates, plus the tightest integration with Google's services you can currently get, including Google's artificially intelligent Assistant bot. So, no matter if you get the Pixel or Pixel XL from Verizon, the Google Store, Project Fi or Best Buy, they all come unlocked and loaded for action.



Apple iPhone 7 to XR




The iPhones 7 to XR are currently sitting in Apple's midrange and are very carrier-friendly, with more than 20 supported LTE bands. It's important to have the right model if you intend on switching carriers. The Unlocked models, available at Apple.com, can work with any carrier in the US. The only "trap" is if you purchase an AT&T model - those can't work with Verizon or Sprint, but that doesn't go for T-Mobile's unlocked XR.

Apple started this trend by providing a record number of LTE band support with each and every iPhone iteration since the 5s, and we are now at the 26-band mark with the unlocked iPhone XR models, which the globetrotter or carrier hopper in you will surely appreciate. We don't need to extol the iPhone XR virtues to you - great camera and battery life plus ultrafast A12 chipset, with the display resolution being the only ho-hum aspect.


Samsung Galaxy S8 or S8+



The Galaxy S8 and S8+ model numbers denoted with "U" at the end, for unlocked, would work on all US carriers, and are prime for the taking over at Samsung's USA store. They are currently discounted at that - the S8 goes for $600, while the S8+ is $690. Don't take our word for it, though, it's Samsung which tips that "wireless voice, data and messaging services compatible with GSM networks such as AT&T and T-Mobile and CDMA networks such as Verizon, Sprint and US Cellular." The phones are made with a premium glass and metal chassis, sport cameras with ultrafast Dual Pixel focusing technology, and are waterproof to boot.



Budget



Motorola Moto X4 and G5s Plus

Oodles of value for the money and universal carrier compatibility


Leave it to the pioneers from Motorola to offer a great affordable handset that can be hooked up to any carrier out of the box. Priced to move at sub-$300, the Moto G5s Plus is hands down one the best unlocked phone for the money you can currently get in the US, as it would work on all major carriers, including Verizon and Sprint, and our review didn't find any major reasons not to get it at this price tag. Unfortunately, its dual camera doesn't have the speedy Dual Pixel autofocus tech like the G5 Plus, but hey, you can't have it all. Enter the next affordable darling, the Moto X4, which can be had for way off its $399 MSRP now, but offers fast performance, all-day battery, fine camera, and compact design in this day and age of huge palm wasters.

Anker PowerLine II ON AMAZON

Bonus: Motorola Moto E4


Yep, this sub-$200 puppy can be brought to Verizon as a BYOD gear, or any other carrier thereof, and can work out of the box, all the while it offers you daily smartphone-ing with a good chance that it will be enough to cover most of your needs. Of course, there are compromises, namely the camera, but the near-stock Android, mated with Qualcomm’s savvy internals, make for a smooth and reliable user experience.



Motorola Moto E4 ON AMAZON

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11 Comments

1. burkett375

Posts: 51; Member since: Dec 19, 2017

No Essential?

2. Landon

Posts: 1245; Member since: May 07, 2015

Does anyone know if the S8 Active be used on Verizon?

4. someguy2261

Posts: 258; Member since: Feb 12, 2016

No it can't it's a GSM only

5. Landon

Posts: 1245; Member since: May 07, 2015

It's available at Sprint though...and Sprint and Verizon are both CDMA carriers...

6. matistight

Posts: 996; Member since: May 13, 2009

Nope. I tried with the Sprint one that was unlocked, just says roaming when I put my Verizon sim, and then when I put in a t mobile or att sim it works.

7. Landon

Posts: 1245; Member since: May 07, 2015

Ughh that sucks. It's just weird how the phone is available on Sprint yet can't work on Verizon, even though they are both using CDMA. Thanks for the info.

8. Dadler22

Posts: 241; Member since: Dec 11, 2008

Sprint and Verizon have different CDMA frequencies most sprint phones won't work on Verizon regardless, sprint doesn't want you to be able to take your phone with you once you realize how terrible they are

3. josephnero

Posts: 781; Member since: Nov 16, 2011

Best compact also XZ2 compact

9. DrakenFX

Posts: 19; Member since: Feb 05, 2016

ZTE Axon 7 can be use with Verizon if you know how to set it up.

10. Vokilam

Posts: 1258; Member since: Mar 15, 2018

iphone? hi-end? thanks for the laugh, a good midranger at best

11. collin3000

Posts: 70; Member since: Apr 28, 2015

Dear PA, I'm not one of the conspiracy people who would ever say PA is shills for any company. But I do have to say that an S8 recommend over an essential phone 1 (similar/higher specs but Pixel like update schedule at a lower price) seems to suggest this particular writer is not as familiar with phones as some other PA writers and veteran commenters. Not intending to insult the writer but that glaring a mistake indicates that perhaps the writer was too rushed for a content production schedule to do proper research before writing. Please give your writers more time so they can give articles more thought.

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