Buyer’s Guide: Unlocked Smartphones

More and more, hardware makers offer their devices in an unlocked capacity. Many of the flagship models we see advertised on TV and sold at carriers are also offered direct to consumer. Going this route frees the buyer up from a contract or long-term obligation and provides peace of mind.

Before you go rushing out to pick up just any old unlocked phone, you’ll want to do some homework. To that end, we’ve put together this buyer’s guide to help you get a feel for the landscape.

What you’ll see below are answers to some of the more common questions as it pertains to this topic.

What is an unlocked phone?

In short, an unlocked phone is one that is not tied to a particular service provider or rate plan. You know how every once in awhile you a phone offered exclusively at a particular carrier? This is basically the opposite of that.

You get to pair your unlocked phone with any number of service providers. It’s not unlike buying a personal computer and deciding which internet provider you’d like. In essence, it’s as simple as placing the SIM card into the phone and you’re just about set.

What’s the benefit of an unlocked phone?


If there’s one thing that an unlocked phone gives you, it’s flexibility. Need to cancel your service? Want to switch to another company because of a promotional rate plan? Owning an unlocked phone lets you do just that, and without breaking any agreements or getting sacked with fees.


If there’s a second thing that an unlocked phone gives you, it’s freedom. Heading overseas or out of the country for a bit? Take out your SIM card and put in a local carrier’s SIM for local data. Many of today’s unlocked phones even offer dual-SIM slots so you can hop between one carrier or another. This is perfect for those of us who might want two separate phone numbers, too.


An added benefit for many users is that the phones do not come loaded with extra apps and games. Commonly referred to as bloatware, this is the stuff that tends to take up space and use resources.


Lastly, and perhaps best of all, going the unlocked route opens the door up to a much wider selection of phones. Most people don’t realize that there are literally dozens of models to choose from which might work with their network provider.

What else should I know?

Some of the most common network bands for unlocked phones include 800, 850, and 1900 MHz. Things are changing with 5G and that space has a good year or two before it fully shakes out. In other words, do a little bit of homework here if data speeds and coverage are high priority.

Before purchasing your unlocked phone, check to ensure it supports your carrier(s) of choice. There are other bands used by different carriers. It only take a few minutes to determine if your potential handset is going to work in your region or where you might travel.

Some retailers will help spell out whether a phone is compatible with certain carriers; press releases for select phones also tend to do the same.

GSM compatible and universally compatible

When it comes to unlocked phones there are essentially two different ways to go: GSM compatible and universally compatible.

In the US there are two major carriers which use GSM technology for service – AT&T and T-Mobile. There are a number of brands which operate on those same towers and networks, including Cricket (AT&T) and Metro (T-Mobile). If this is the route you plan to go, a GSM compatible phone should do the trick.

Verizon and Sprint, however, utilize CDMA technology for coverage. The same goes for the prepaid and MVNO brands which piggyback off of their respective towers. A GSM compatible phone will not work with either of those brands, regardless of whether it’s unlocked or not.

Outside of the US we find that most countries use GSM for their service. Traveling for summer break or for work? In this case, you might be okay with a GSM compatible phone as it may also work overseas.

A universally unlocked phone, on the other hand, can work on both GSM and CDMA networks. This means even more carrier selection and potential coverage.

International versions

Some of you may be familiar with the term “international version” of a phone. For those who aren’t, this is simply an unlocked variant of a model that is offered through carriers.

What you’ll typically find with an international version is slightly different packaging and branding. Additionally, it could feature minimal changes in hardware such as processor, camera, memory, and storage.

One thing to pay close attention to is whether an international model will work on your preferred network. The bands and radio frequencies are what determine whether you can pair that hot new phone with your favorite carrier.

Where to Buy

Fortunately, there are plenty of places to shop for an unlocked smartphone. As one might expect, you’ll find a wide selection at Amazon, where it sells nearly every brand mentioned above. Other noteworthy outlets include B&H Photo Video, Best Buy, and Newegg. In terms of reputable retail companies, you can even shop for unlocked phones at Target and Walmart.

If you’re in the market for a gently used unlocked device, head to Swappa. The online destination has grown over the years and specializes in buying and selling of smartphones.