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Vladislav Ershov
Vladislav Ershov

Is It Better To Buy An Unlocked Phone [UPD]

When smartphones were just starting to become a thing, the most obvious way to get one in the United States was simple: visit your wireless carrier of choice and buy whichever device the salesperson convinced you was the best.

is it better to buy an unlocked phone

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Unlocked phones usually come with no SIM card and no prerequisite to sign up with a service for any particular carrier. As the name suggests, unlocked phones are not bound to any particular carrier, so you can feel free to bounce from one carrier to another as you see fit.

As an added incentive, once you buy a carrier phone, you now have an easy way to get support and service for that device. If you come across something that confuses you about your device, you can simply visit your local carrier shop, and they will gladly help you with it. If your phone has some physical defect, your carrier can help you get it fixed.

Speaking of getting phones fixed, carriers also usually offer their own insurance plans, which could be cheaper or more comprehensive than plans offered by manufacturers. This will give you some peace of mind if you are buying a very expensive new flagship!

Buying unlocked also means you can buy used devices. Granted, you can buy used carrier-locked devices, too, but there are some dangers to this (buying devices connected to a blocked account, for example). Used devices are obviously cheaper than new devices, which could allow you to get a top-of-the-line device for hundreds less than you would pay through a carrier.

Another big advantage is that unlocked phones receive software updates directly from the manufacturer, which usually means faster and more frequent updates. Sometimes this can be reversed (Samsung is notorious for updating carrier-locked smartphones before unlocked ones), but in most cases, an unlocked phone will be more up-to-date than a carrier-locked device.

Luckily, there are ways around this. PayPal has a credit plan which gives you six months of interest-free credit, for example. Credit card companies sometimes offer payment plans to help break down the price of high-ticket items into smaller chunks, and some manufacturers will even offer interest-free payment plans right on their websites. However, even with these options, paying for an unlocked phone can be tricky for many buyers.

If you are tech-savvy and can afford the full cost of a smartphone in one transaction, we highly recommend buying unlocked. The pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to buying unlocked phones vs carrier phones.

I'm that 5G guy. I've actually been here for every "G." I've reviewed well over a thousand products during 18 years working full-time at, including every generation of the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S. I also write a weekly newsletter, Fully Mobilized, where I obsess about phones and networks.

Here at PCMag, we've long been a proponent of unlocked cell phones. Last year we reviewed 39 unlocked models available in the US, and our list of The Best Unlocked Phones offers options from $149 up to $700.

All the way back in 2006, I declared that the "unlocked cell phone revolution begins now." It didn't. According to Strategy Analytics, 14.6 million unlocked phones were sold in the US in 2015, for a total of about 10 percent of the US market, with Blu and Apple leading the pack at 36 percent and 12.3 percent respectively of that 10 percent total share.

There are several historic reasons for this. Verizon and Sprint have been hostile to unlocked phones in the past. Our country's diverse array of technologies and frequency bands used to mean that one carrier's phones simply wouldn't work on another, even unlocked. On all carriers, Americans aren't used to paying for phones up front, and for many years, phone prices were hidden in carriers' nearly universal two-year contracts.

But that's starting to change. More people are paying full price for their phones now, whether up front or through two-year payment plans. Alcatel executives told us last year that by the end of 2016, Verizon may start to accept LTE-only devices, which would make the carrier much friendlier to unlocked phones. And universal modems that support all carriers are becoming more popular.

You generally no longer need an unlocked phone to go abroad and use a local SIM card in a foreign country. Carrier unlocking policies have gotten better with time, and many carrier-purchased phones can now be unlocked on request. But they'll still contain carrier bloatware and may not be physically compatible with other carriers.

1. Unlocked Phones Let You Jump Carriers QuicklyAre you willing to port your number and bounce from carrier to carrier for the best deal? Nowadays, carriers are eschewing contracts for device payment plans. With an unlocked phone, you are beholden to no one. If you want to try MetroPCS, potentially give it up for Cricket, and then jump over to Verizon, the right unlocked phone will take you there with no lock-in and no additional purchases necessary.

2. Many Cheap Plans Use Unlocked PhonesAll of the major carriers, and many of the cheaper virtual carriers, sell their own phones. But if you're interested in saving money with some of the more obscure small carriers, you have to bring an unlocked phone. US Mobile, Ultra Mobile, Lyca Mobile, ROK Mobile, TPO, Krew Mobile, and others strongly suggest that you bring your own phone to their show. Other carriers, like senior-focused Consumer Cellular, don't sell many flagship phones, but you can bring an unlocked device to them.

3. Unlocked Phones Get More Upgrades and Are More SecureAs our software analyst Max Eddy found, carriers tend to delay updates to Android software, even security-critical updates. Although you'll still be at the mercy of your phone's manufacturer, buying your phone unlocked gives you the best chance of getting the latest, and safest, software updates.

4. Unlocked Phones Have Less BloatwareCarrier bloatware takes up space on your home screen and in your precious internal memory. Usually, it's undeletable. And even if you unlock a carrier-model phone and switch carriers, you'll still be stuck with the bloatware. That isn't the case with factory unlocked phones. While they still run their manufacturers' versions of Android, at least they aren't weighed down by carrier apps.

5. Unlocked Phones Remain Valuable LongerIf you intend to trade in or sell back an old phone for cash, unlocked phones tend to maintain their value better. We'd expect an unlocked phone to sell for $50-75 more than a carrier locked unit.

On trade-in site Gazelle, a 32GB Sprint or T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S6 in "good" condition trades in for $125. An AT&T unit gets you $140, a Verizon unit $150, and an unlocked model $170. On eBay, AT&T locked 32GB Galaxy S6 units tend to sell for between $200-250, while unlocked models sell for $300-375.

What About Price?The biggest resistance to buying unlocked phones comes because Americans generally don't want to pay for phones up front. Carriers feed this desire with zero-interest financing plans. For instance, on T-Mobile, few people pay the full $679.99 for a Galaxy S7; generally, they pay $28.34/month over two years.

Financing plans are starting to spread outside carriers. Best Buy offers 12-month no-interest financing on mobile phones, so that $679.99 Galaxy would cost you $56.66/month. (And remember, after that, it costs you zero.) HTC offers its own financing plan for the $699 HTC 10, but it's unfortunately sketchy about how many months you'll have zero-percent financing for. Better financing plans could really help close the gap and boost the unlocked phone market here. No matter the price, though, you can't deny that buying unlocked is a good deal.

If you're in the market for a new smartphone, you'll almost certainly come across the term "unlocked phone." What exactly is an unlocked phone, and how can you tell if it's unlocked? Do you even want an unlocked phone, and if so, is it secure to use? We provide answers to all of your burning questions.

A smartphone that has been unlocked can be used with any cell phone carrier. Some phones aren't unlocked, meaning they can only be used with one carrier. That is not the case with an unlocked phone. However, a phone's network compatibility is only relevant for mobile phone carriers, not wireless networks like WiFi. Any phone, whether unlocked or locked, can connect to a WiFi network as long as that WiFi is operational.

When traveling, it makes international SIM cards simple to use. Phones that have been unlocked are free to connect to any network in the globe. The instructions for changing SIM cards for your phone model will be available from most providers.

Installing a SIM card is much easier if your phone is unlocked. Unlike locked phones, which are limited to using the network carrier's SIM card, unlocked phones give you the freedom to choose your carrier. It's very simple to put a fresh SIM card in a new unlocked phone device. You can choose a SIM card from any carrier and set it up once you've chosen the proper phone model based on the cellular network frequency specs. If you're transferring an old SIM card from another phone and want to transfer SIM data, you'll need to back up the data from the previous phone first before removing the SIM. You may do this by going to your SIM settings folder and selecting "export files to SIM card."

When you have an unlocked phone, you can use any SIM card. Prior to the invention of 4G LTE, networks were split between GSM and CDMA operators. Now, since the introduction of 4G LTE phones, new iPhones and Android devices are compatible with both GSM and CDMA networks. This means we no longer have to worry about whether our phone is GSM or CDMA or whether it will accept a SIM card. Basically, every unlocked iPhone after the iPhone 5 and any unlocked Android phone released after 2013 should be SIM card compatible. 041b061a72


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