Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)

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:

Moto G6

Buy from Amazon ($249.99)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • Gorgeous design
  • CDMA connectivity (Verizon and Sprint support)
  • Protection against “moderate” exposure to water (splash resistant)
  • Blazing fast charging
  • Solid performer for day-to-day tasks

Cons

  • Relatively small battery (especially compared to some of its sub-$250 rivals)
  • Mediocre speaker performance

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

Buy from Amazon ($218.62)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • 80 percent screen-to-body ratio
  • Big battery, fast charging, energy efficiency
  • Dual SIM support and a separate microSD card slot
  • Smooth proprietary user interface with convenient tweaks and add-ons

Cons

  • No USB Type-C port
  • Mediocre processing power


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

Buy from Amazon ($217.99)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)



Pros

  • Super wide-angle selfie camera
  • A working, well-positioned, and decently fast fingerprint scanner

Cons

  • Average display
  • Tinny speaker
  • Sluggish performance in demanding activities like graphics-intensive games


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

Buy from Best Buy ($199.99)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • Massive 4,000 mAh battery squeezed into a not-so-massive body
  • Modern, speedy software with almost no stock Android “optimizations”
  • Full support for all major US carriers (GSM and CDMA technology)

Cons

  • Sub-par still image quality
  • Tinny and hollow earpiece/speaker
  • No USB Type-C


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.

Honor 7X

Buy from B&H Photo Video ($199.99)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • Huge screen, thin bezels, no notch, sharp resolution
  • Wasp waist, premium build, vibrant color options
  • Fast homebrewed processor
  • Face Unlock capabilities

Cons

  • No USB-C and no fast charging
  • Fickle camera in low-light environments
  • Intrusive user interface


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.

Nokia 6

Buy from B&H Photo Video ($189.99)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • Good-looking screen, with solid color and detail reproduction
  • A very capable single rear-facing camera in low-light scenarios and HDR conditions
  • Accurate fingerprint reader
  • Surprisingly capable dual Dolby-enhanced speakers

Cons

  • No USB Type-C
  • The battery could be larger and it could charge quicker
  • Not the greatest gaming performer


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

Buy from Best Buy ($169.99)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • Two-day battery life actually a realistic target out in the real world
  • Fingerprint scanner not an easy thing to find in this price bracket
  • Water-repellent metal housing
  • CDMA capabilities

Cons

  • 198 grams weight
  • Thick bezels, 16:9 screen, outdated overall design
  • Sluggish performance
  • Unremarkable rear and front cameras


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.

Nokia 3.1

Buy from Amazon ($159)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • Wide aspect ratio
  • Decent (enough) battery
  • Unbeatable software support

Cons

  • No fingerprint or facial recognition
  • Insufficient internal storage space and modest memory count
  • Small, low-res screen


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

Buy from B&H Photo Video ($149.99)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • Dat SuperLCD3 screen
  • IP57 water and dust resistance
  • Optical image stabilization
  • USB Type-C

Cons

  • No headphone jack
  • Software bloat, no updates
  • No CDMA support for what was originally a Sprint-designed phone


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.

Nokia 2

Buy from Amazon ($95)


Best ultra-affordable unlocked smartphones (available for under $250)


Pros

  • It works
  • It has a camera
  • It even has a selfie shooter
  • An aluminum frame is more than you could ask for in terms of premium sub-$100 design

Cons

  • Pretty much everything else (not the battery, though)


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.

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9 Comments

1. AmashAziz

Posts: 2873; Member since: Jun 30, 2014

Only if Xiaomi was here....

2. rsiders

Posts: 1847; Member since: Nov 17, 2011

I just got a used in great condition LG V10 which beats all of these in just about every category. You absolutely do need a spare battery though because the battery life is atrocious.

3. omarali95

Posts: 4; Member since: Aug 29, 2018

Good luck with bootloops.

9. rsiders

Posts: 1847; Member since: Nov 17, 2011

I'm already aware of that as I've owned the phone previously and had one bootloop on me. This is just a. Ice little phone to have for another month or so before I upgrade.

4. ijuanp03

Posts: 485; Member since: Dec 30, 2014

Moto G6 for me. It has always been the best midrange phone. Moto app is still the best add on.

5. pupkin

Posts: 143; Member since: Feb 04, 2015

Htc U ultra is the ultimate affordable phone this year. Brand new $250. Don’t waste your money. Better camera with laser focus Android 8.0 Htc sense one of the best UI Quad hd screen With secondary screen Premium built with glass gorilla glass 5 Great design Battery is great on Android Oreo Dual Stereo speakers Dual sim with expandable memory 64gb 4gb ram Snap dragon 821 U sonic headset Much more could you ask for.

6. emjoigently

Posts: 143; Member since: Aug 22, 2017

That is often the answer. A good phone from a year or two back. But it's good to read about what makes a decent midranger now.

7. worldpeace

Posts: 3091; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

Wow, $749 when released last year, and now it's 1/3 of that.. But it's reviews isn't really great, and it's famous of being "waste of space".. It won't get Android Pie, and probably HTC, will stop supporting it soon.

8. pupkin

Posts: 143; Member since: Feb 04, 2015

HTC still supports HTC 10 much more for the HTC U ultra. for $250 it's not a waste of space and mostly your money. Even now in 2018 the camera still one of the best. And you're not missing out the biggest trend of 2018. Because U Ultra is 5.7inch quad hd display plus secondary dispaly on top with different function. Not to mention usb type C quick charge. Android 8.0 is not as far interms of function compare to Android Pie. I know that because i also has the ultimate budget phone right now. The Essential Phone. $280 on Amazon.

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