Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)
Smartphone prices have gone nuts. You need look no further than the latest high-end models from companies like Samsung, LG, and Sony (especially Sony) to reach that depressing conclusion.
But before you consider selling a kidney on the black market, rob a bank, or start an elaborate SIM swap scam to afford one of the latest and greatest handsets out there, you may want to take a look at these ten budget-friendly champions available in the US right now.
We’re talking sub-$250 unlocked mobile devices officially released stateside by their manufacturers, covered by standard 1-year limited warranties, which you can choose to activate on your favorite (GSM) network, be it AT&T, T-Mobile, or one of the smaller, prepaid carriers. We even have a few options for hardcore Verizon and Sprint fans out there.
These are obviously not the world’s most powerful smartphones, but all in all, they deliver plenty of bang for your buck, generally performing the same exact tasks as the $1,000 Galaxy Note 9 or iPhone X in an adequate manner, at the very least.
Without further ado, here are our top ten picks in the unlocked sub-$250 category, ordered from priciest to cheapest:
You can love or hate the high-end modular Moto Z lineup, regret or simply fail to understand exactly what parent company Lenovo is doing with the upper mid-range X family, but the low-cost G series has always been worthy of universal respect.
The first trendy 2:1 iteration is obviously no exception, sporting a fairly large and sharp 5.7-inch 2160 x 1080 screen with decently thin bezels (and no notch) even in its non-Plus variant.
While Motorola is no longer owned by Google, its proprietary UI alterations are still kept to a minimum, which means the close-to-stock Android device should be looking at a relatively swift (and clean) 9.0 Pie upgrade.
Available as cheap as $280 for Amazon Prime subscribers in a 4GB RAM/64GB ROM configuration, the Moto G6 fetches 30 bucks less without any sort of an obligatory membership, as well as a downgraded 3 gig memory count and 32GB internal storage space.
Asus ZenFone Max Plus M1
Clearly, Asus needs to work on its smartphone branding scheme. But if you do manage to remember that impossible name and locate the ZenFone Max Plus in a store near you (beware there’s also a ZenFone Max M1 and a ZenFone Max Pro M1), you might end up pleasantly surprised by this bad boy’s massive 4,130 mAh battery. And its very compact, premium metal-and-glass body. And its secondary wide-angle rear camera. The primary 16MP shooter on the 5.7-incher’s back is itself no pushover, and the same goes for the 8MP selfie cam with f/2.0 aperture.
Too bad Android Nougat still runs the software show here, and that MediaTek MT6750T processor is not quite what we’d call a screamer either.
Sony Xperia L2
If you want to encourage a smartphone manufacturer that deserves to stay in business for a multitude of reasons, but don’t have a lot of money to spend, the Xperia L2 is basically your only option. Unfortunately, just like its costlier cousins, this modest 5.5-incher is arguably overpriced, even when available for less than its $250 RRP.
The Xperia L2 is also the company’s only “modern” device that’s yet to benefit from a truly stellar software support policy. There are no Oreo goodies in sight, which understandably makes us skeptical of a Pie update down the line. On the bright side, the plastic build looks surprisingly attractive, and our battery life tests yielded satisfactory results.
Moto G6 Play
This is obviously a very similar phone as the standard G6, especially from a design standpoint, but the 50 bucks you can save by opting for the Play version equate to a lower-res display, humbler SoC, just one rear-facing camera, a less capable selfie shooter, and even a cheaper construction, with a bland plastic back rather than a shiny glass coating.
Are all those compromises worth it? Absolutely, as long as you care about battery life more than anything in this world.
Huawei’s Honor sub-brand is far from what we’d call a household name in the US mobile industry, which actually makes the regional popularity of the 7X that much more remarkable. Frequently listed among Amazon’s unlocked best sellers, the “Full View” 5.9-incher is no longer available from the e-commerce giant in anticipation of a larger, speedier sequel with a screen cutout... of some sort.
This might be your last chance to purchase the popular dual camera phone from either Honor or B&H, with both facial and fingerprint recognition support, a decently sized battery, 3GB RAM, and 32GB internal storage space. Alternatively, you could pick up the $240 Huawei Mate SE, which is basically a rebranded Honor 7X with twice the digital hoarding room and an extra gig of memory.
The respectable 5.5-inch mid-ranger that kicked off the unexpected Nokia brand revival way back in January 2017 might be growing old, but at a nice discount, it definitely holds its own. Yes, the Nokia 6.1 is officially available stateside as well, and there’s even a 6.1 Plus slowly ramping up its global availability.
Still, the OG Nokia 6 comes with a sharp (16:9) screen, a glass and aluminum construction combo that feels nice and solid in the hand, Android Oreo software (with Pies undoubtedly on the way), a not-so-terrible chipset, and enough memory for smooth multitasking.
Moto E4 Plus
This fairly ugly 5.5-incher is not as old as that name suggests (the G6 family is just one year younger), packing however a decidedly outdated quad-core chipset (the same as the G6 Play), while waiting (in vain) for an Android Oreo promotion.
There’s really only one reason making the E4 Plus worth considering today - an exceptionally large battery that’s ironically made even more impressive by a frugal screen and SoC.
This is one of those phones that feels just good enough for its price point. It’s certainly not great or special in any obvious way, apart perhaps from its participation in Google’s fast-growing Android One program.
If HMD’s amazing software support work was not enough, that guarantees the Nokia 3.1 will receive timely updates (both major and minor) for plenty of time to come, while promising a pure and secure Android experience.
Largely made from plastic, the 5.2-incher rocks exquisite “diamond-cut” aluminum sides, making the most of a 2,990 mAh battery with an energy-efficient MediaTek MT6750 processor.
HTC 10 Evo
To say that a 5.5-inch handset with a super-high-resolution 2560 x 1440 screen and a flagship Qualcomm chipset from 2015 feels out of place on a list of 2018 low-cost champions would probably qualify as a major understatement.
Frankly, we’re not sure how this ancient powerhouse, initially released as a Sprint exclusive under the HTC Bolt name, is still up for grabs. But we’re pretty certain there aren’t many units left in stock, and bargain hunters may want to add a classic HTC design to their collection before the company inevitably ends up throwing in the towel.
The most obvious flaw of the 10 Evo (aside from its unattractive age) is the pre-installed Android Nougat software (no Oreo update hopes, obviously), but its strong points include a number of high-end 2016 specifications that haven’t aged so poorly.
How good can a sub-$100 device be? Not very good, we’ll be honest. Or pretty, or fast. But incredibly enough, the Nokia 2 has both Android Oreo (build number 8.1) and 9 Pie updates on the way, looking to squeeze every little drop of raw speed from an otherwise unremarkable (to say the least) Snapdragon 212 SoC.
Those ghastly bezels wrap around a 5-inch IPS LCD panel that’s not terrible (all things considered), sporting 1280 x 720 resolution, while a gargantuan 4,100 mAh battery almost makes all of the performance compromises worth it, easily lasting two days of average use between charges.