Best value-for-money unlocked phones you can buy in the US (2016)

Oh, the glorious democracy we live in! Who would've thought just one cell phone contract ago that there will come a time in the bastion of two-year plans and $199 subsidized flagships, when you will have to pay for your own phone full retail? 

Well, after AT&T was the last one of the majors to make the staple two-year contracts bite the dust, the US is now officially the land of MSRP prices, or, in the best case scenario, paying your shiny new carrier phone off on installments, instead of pawning your left kidney for it.

What if you didn't have to sell redundant body parts to take advantage of the new carrier plans of AT&T, T-Mobile and the myriad of MVNOs that leech on their networks, though? While the carriers might have gotten rid of most phone subsidies, it has to be noted that the plan prices have also gotten lower, so the cumulative payments may stay largely similar. Moreover, the handsets that AT&T and the rest of the gang sell at full retail are usually priced higher than what you can find them for outside of carrier-anointed stores and websites, as those account for the vast majority of mobile-related purchases in the US, hence tag their wares in a bit of a monopolistic way.

If you bring a cheap unlocked device, and only sign up for the carrier plan, though, you might be in for a treat with smaller monthly outlays, yet more talk, text and data than you had before. That's why we are listing a few of the value-for-money unlocked phones in the sub-$450 range that you can get in the US, and start milking this bright new dawn of disappearing long contracts and hefty subsidies. Most of those are compatible with all carrier frequencies of AT&T, T-Mobile and their subsidiaries, but just in case we are listing what bands those carriers support to help you choose. As for Verizon or Sprint - well, if it's not an iPhone or perhaps a Nexus, you would be mostly out of luck trying to register a value unlocked phone to work on their networks in full throttle.

  • Voice (GSM): 850Mhz and 1900Mhz
  • 3G data speeds (UMTS/HSPA): 850MHz and 1900Mhz
  • 4G LTE data speeds: mostly Band 17 (700Mhz), but also Band 2 (1900Mhz), Band 4 (1700Mhz), and Band 5 (850Mhz)

  • Voice (GSM): 1900Mhz
  • 3G data speeds (UMTS/HSPA): 1700Mhz, 1900Mhz (rarely) and 2100Mhz 
  • 4G LTE data speeds: mostly Band 4 (1700Mhz), but also Band 2 (1900Mhz), and Band 12 (700Mhz)

Honor 5X ($199)

Huawei used this past CES 2016 to announce an official entry in the US market for its "honor" brand (yep, it's written in small letters), which has already been making strides across Europe in the past year. This makes the world's third-largest cell phone maker the only Chinese manufacturer with official presence in both the US and Europe, and to celebrate the occasion, it is issuing an amazing value deal at this side of the pond.

The Honor 5X can be preordered right now for $199 on Amazon or Newegg, and starts shipping by the end of the month, offering slim metal chassis with finger scanner on the back, 5.5" 1080p display, dual SIM slots, 13 MP/5 MP camera combo, and a 3000 mAh battery. 

Not only does the phone offer two SIM slots with support for the full suite of AT&T and T-Mobile 4G frequencies, but they are also dual active, so you can use data on one, while talking with the other, for instance. To cap it all off, the 5X comes with a separate, dedicated microSD slot for storage expansion as well. We have the feeling that this grand bargain won't last forever, but for now Huawei's direct sales push in the US is your gain, just look at this polished aluminum beauty below.

Nexus 6 ($249.99)

If you want to get a large Nexus phablet but don't feel like spending $499 on the 32GB Nexus 6P, you might want to check out last year's Motorola-made Nexus 6. As it happens, Amazon is currently offering the Motorola Nexus 6 at just $249.99 for the 32GB version, while the 64GB version of the phone is available at $299.99.

With specs such as a 6" AMOLED display running at a resolution of 1440 by 2560 pixels, a Snapdragon 805 chipset, 13MP primary camera with OIS and dual-LED flash, and the promise of timely Android updates throughout 2016, the Motorola Nexus 6 offers great value at this starting price. If you can stomach the huge form factor, that is.

Asus Zenfone 2 4GB/64GB ($279.99)

Supporting the US carrier-specific 4G frequencies, and being a true dual-active device, the Zenfone 2 is one of only few great choices if you need a dual SIM gear on this side of the pond. It might not be getting any awards in each separate category, but as a whole it is a fine handset with excellent value-for-money ratio.

We found our review unit to offer a decent 5.5" 1080p display, very good pics and video except in darker scenarios, good battery life, and very fast charging. The red model is a looker, too, and you can hardly beat the sub-$300 price you can now find the dual SIM version with 4 GB RAM and 64 GB of internal storage at now.

Samsung Galaxy S6 ($449)

All these above are fine and dandy, but they are huge, so if you are longing for something more manageable in the hand, the excellent Galaxy S6 just got a price cut in the anticipation of the Galaxy S7. The unlocked S6 with 32 GB of internal storage can be found for less than $450 now, which, for one of the best Android handsets around, can be considered a true bargain. What you will be getting is a premium chassis, great mobile camera with OIS, luminant 5.1" Quad HD display, and ultrafast battery charging technology.

ALCATEL ONETOUCH IDOL 3 4.7 ($179.99) and 5.5 ($249.99)

Billed as "the world's first "reversible smartphone", the OneTouch Idol 3 has been enjoying successful sales since last spring in the US, and is still one of the best values for unlocked phones around here, before Huawei came in last week, and spoiled the party with its metal Honor 5X at the unbeatable $199. The OneTouch Idol 3 comes in versions with 4.7" HD and 5.5" 1080p displays, which differ a bit in specs, but keep the overall design language featuring a metal side frame, as well as a JBL speaker system on both. What about that "reversible" part? Well, the dual SIM Alcatel smartphones have a "100% reversible" interface that adapts to the way you're holding it, so it doesn't really have up and down sides, as it can use either of the front stereo speakers as an earpiece. Neat.

Motorola Moto X Pure Edition ($399.99)

Given the large, super-sharp Quad HD display, and the fact that the Moto X Pure Edition (also known as the Moto X Style) is a relative hardware heavyweight, you'll probably draw the conclusion that this is a pretty reasonable price. In the past few years, Motorola has been consistently strong in this thriving category of value-for money devices, and the Moto X Pure Edition is the living proof once again,  The 5.7-inch 1440p display and Snapdragon 808 processor won't leave you longing for much more, plus it holds its own against the very best with the 21 MP camera, and the ability to customize its exterior to your heart's desire with Motomaker.

Nexus 5X ($349)

The Google Nexus 5X, the successor of probably the most popular Nexus phone of all times, the Nexus 5, was launched at a fairly affordable price starting at $380 for the 5X model with 16GB of storage. It is even cheaper now, as Google slashed its tag down to $349. To freshen up your mind, the Nexus 5X is a 5.2-inch phone with a rather large for its screen size footprint. It runs on the Snapdragon 808 system chip, features 2GB of RAM, a 12 MP shooter with large sensor, and runs on Android 6.0 Marshmallow. 

It also comes with a natively supported fingerprint scanner on the back and charges via a conveniently reversible USB Type-C port. With this price and specs, it's one of the best ways to explore the world of stock Android and be among the first to get the newest updates to Google's venerable mobile OS.

Microsoft Lumia 640 ($59.99)

Although the Microsoft Lumia 640 is definitely not the fastest Windows smartphone that you can get your hands on, the device still has a lot to offer, especially at this dirt-cheap price and after the Win 10 Mobile update. The Lumia 640 comes with a 5-inch IPS display running a resolution of 720 by 1280 pixels, a 1.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, 1 GB of RAM, and 8 GB of expandable internal storage. In the camera department, Microsoft fitted in an 8MP primary camera and a 0.9 MP selfie shooter on the front. A 2500 mAh battery is tasked with keeping the lights on, and our battery benchmarks show that it does a decent job. At $60 with no contractual obligations, the Lumia 640 is a steal for AT&T and other subscribers on the lookout for a secondary smartphone, or a primary phone on a very thin budget.

BLU Vivo 5 ($199)

The Miami-based smartphone maker BLU has been making great strides over the course of the last year, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re stirring the pot once again. Known for its affordable set of smartphones, they’re continuing the trend with the BLU Vivo 5, which, interestingly enough, comes with its most premium design to date. Good metal looks combined with great pricing, what more can you ask for? 

Almost hard to fathom, the BLU Vivo 5 will launch with an outright cost of just $199, and the only reason we aren't placing this offer at the same level as the Honor 5X, is that the Vivo 5 won't arrive before next month, and the 5.5" screen is HD, not 1080p.. 

Taking into consideration its thin metal design, though, it’s something that’s worth commending because it doesn’t look or feel like most phones in the sub-$200 range. Not only that, it’s an unlocked GSM phone with dual-SIM slots and LTE compatibility on T-Mobile, AT&T, as well as their MVNOs, plus VoLTE support.

Needless to say, this is a curated but by no means an exhaustive list, so if you have spotted a good deal on unlocked handset with wide carrier bands support, share it with your fellow visitors to take advantage of.


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