Once the insider secret of tech mavens, carrier-unlocked phones let you travel seamlessly among the wireless providers without contracts or penalties, a special boon to those who travel abroad and want to use a local SIM card to get cheaper data and phone calls with a local number. For a long time, it was policy for all phones to be locked to a carrier.
Now, models that are already unlocked are readily available via the manufacturer as well as Amazon and Best Buy, among others. The one caveat: They tend to be more expensive because carriers aren’t discounting them per usual in exchange for signing a contract. Plus, most models work only with GSM networks such as TMobile and AT&T (though some, like iPhones, will also work on CDMA networks like Sprint and Verizon). Still, it’s a worthy investment to own your phone outright, especially as good-condition ones can be easily sold — you know, when you’re ready for your next upgrade in a couple weeks. Here, we picked the best.
Alcatel One Touch Idol 3
At about a third of the price of a new flagship Android, the Idol 3 is the rare steal for a budget device. It has a full HD 5.5-inch display that’s just great, and a pair of front-facing speakers that pump impressively loud and good-sounding audio. It also comes equipped with dual-band WiFi and built-in NFC, both of which tend to be reserved for pricier models, and the ability to add storage via microSD to the standard 16GB makes it more versatile than many newer models that are cutting out ports. [$180; amazon.com]
Apple iPhone 6s or 6s Plus
The latest monarch to inherit the smartphone throne, the 6s (and its huskier brother, the 6s Plus) come with a slew of cool new hardware. The updated sensor in the home button makes fingerprint-reading instant, and the 4K camera is more powerful and the processor rivals many laptops. The best upgrade? The 3D Touch, which is like adding right mouse-click capabilities based on how hard you press on the display. It’s useful, and a whole new way of interacting with your phone. [$649/$749; apple.com]
BLU Advance 4.0
If you travel out of the country and like to use a local SIM, look no further. The 4.0 is a dual-SIM device, which means you can keep your regular SIM card to get calls and notifications from home, while also getting local communications without having to swap back and forth. Otherwise it’s what you’d expect of a low-cost burner phone: modest but serviceable processor, a lower resolution display, a dated version of Android (4.2), and a plasticky body. [$60; amazon.com]
Motorola Nexus 6
The mid-priced model of Google’s Nexus line of flagship devices is a musclebound performer, and a bargain at a couple hundred bucks less or more than similarly equipped sets (an iPhone 6 is still $640). Its sprawling Quad HD display is sharp and colorful, even at an angle, and a 13-megapixel shooter captures fantastic snaps with no lag time. But the real game-changer is the 24-hour battery life, and turbo-charge, which pumps six hours of juice in just a 15-minute charge. [$350; store.google.com]
Nokia Lumia 635
Though a last-generation model, this Windows 8.1 phone Microsoft promises to be one of the select legacy models upgradeable to Windows 10 after it goes wide this fall. We like the 635’s pocket-friendly 4.5-inch IPS display, which is gorgeous. The rear-facing camera captures excellent snaps — Nokia’s specialty. However, it maxes out at 720p video. The modest 8GB of built-in storage can be boosted to a whopping 128 via microSD, which is a cheap, but major, upgrade. [$129; microsoft.com]