I like the idea of buying an unlocked phone, but where can I find them?
That's a pretty common question we hear anytime we talk about unlocked phones. It's understandable, considering the carrier phone dominated model we use here in the United States. While some of us — the people who spend time reading about smartphones on the Internet — know where to look when we want to buy a phone without involving AT&T or Verizon or any other service provider, most people go to their carrier's store (or a third party vendor for their carrier like Best Buy) when they want to purchase their new phone.
That works for a lot of people. I'm always talking about the reasons you would want to buy an unlocked phone, but a lot of us aren't planning on switching carriers any time soon, and want the convenience of walking into a retail shop with money, and walking out with a new phone. That's cool — do what works best for you. But if you're wanting to go unlocked, and need some pointers about where to find your next, we're here to help.
1. Buying unlocked HTC phones
HTC makes it easy to buy its carrier-free unlocked phones, both for use in the U.S. as well as internationally.
While you can certainly find them for sale at places like Amazon or eBay, in our opinion the best way to buy is direct from HTC. A visit to their website will present you with multiple options, from the One M9 to more entry-level devices, and a few clicks and a credit card number is all you need to get one sent to your door. Buying direct also makes for easy warranty service if you ever need it. You can also purchase accessories and gadgets while you're there.
2. Buying unlocked Motorola phones
Motorola also makes it really easy when it comes to buying an unlocked phone.
A visit to Motorola's website lets you buy any of their current models, free from any carrier strings, and they'll ship it right to your door. As a bonus, they often have specials and coupons and codes that save a good bit of money on their Moto X model.
We also have to mention Moto Maker, which lets you buy your phone with options for colors, different materials for the back, engraving and more. If you're in the market for a new phone from motorola, and want to buy direct, they have you covered.
3. Buying unlocked Samsung phones
Unfortunately, Samsung doesn't make it as easy to purchase one of their unlocked models here in the U.S. Finding the phones themselves is easy enough (you can buy from Amazon with Samsung themselves as the seller), but there's one pesky issue — the warranty.
This cell phone may not include a US warranty as some manufacturers do not honor warranties for international version phones. Please contact the seller for specific warranty information.
You'll find that text on the Amazon page for the unlocked Galaxy S6. It doesn't state that there is no warranty, and I have had zero issues with Samsung's customer service in the past — I had to have the original Galaxy Tab, handed out at Google I/O, repaired — but it's still something to consider. Spending $500 or more on anything that might not be covered by a standard manufacturer warranty is a bit unnerving.
There's also the issue of "region locking" which forces you to use the phone for five minutes in the part of the world it was intended to be sold in before using it elsewhere. This isn't a big issue as long as the retailer (usually a foreign-based reseller) does their part correctly, but for some models it's one more thing to look out for.
While you can buy from Samsung's website, it simply redirects to sites to buy carrier phones.
4. Buying unlocked LG phones
LG also makes it a bit more difficult to buy unlocked versions of its phones here in the U.S. A visit to its website is filled with links showing where to buy its phones, but they all redirect to websites where you can buy carrier models.
A trip to Amazon will give you an easy way to get an unlocked LG G4 that was imported to the U.S. — be sure to get the H815 model for network compatibility — but again we have concerns about any warranty. In fact, the Amazon listing expressly states that there is no warranty.
There's nothing wrong with buying imported phones to use in the U.S. Provided they have network support, you have a device that works as good — or better — than a carrier version, is unlocked, and free from the value-added software that our network providers think we'll ever want or use. Just know that you may have problems if you ever need to contact customer service.
5. Buying unlocked Sony phones
Sony has always been a bit of an enigma when it comes to buying direct in the U.S. They have an excellent online presence, and having shopped there I can say it was an easy experience. The issues stem from their on-hand stock, or lack of it.
Popular models, like the Xperia Z3, randomly come and go from their shop, and when listed are often out of stock. While selling more of your product than you can make is a problem plenty of manufacturers would love to have, keeping an online shopping experience simple should be a priority.
We still think the first place you should look for an unlocked Sony phone is their company website. From there, you might have to wander into Amazon or eBay ...
6. Google's Nexus program
Finding where to buy a Nexus phone, Google's unlocked reference model designed for both developers and consumers, is easy. Often, completing the sale and actually being able to buy one is not nearly as easy. Nexus phones tend to sell out quickly everywhere they are offered, and the experience itself when buying from Google has always been frustrating. Usually this straightens itself out after the initial demand is met, which makes buying one right now easy.
7. Other great phones you can buy unlocked
2015 is proving to be a great year for unlocked phones, including some excellent offerings from companies that aren't (yet) well known for making Android phones in the U.S.
There are plenty of options here, but we like to stick to the cream of the crop — phones that offer an excellent value, are easy to buy, and don't over-promise then under-perform. These phones usually come with a full warranty when bought through the "official" reseller partners like Amazon or eBay, and the companies involved sell unlocked phones as their business model. Our picks for the "top three" (the ASUS ZenFone 2, the Alcatel Idol 3, and the Huawei P8 Lite) certainly qualify, and here's how you can get one.
Huawei P8 lite
Alcatel Idol 3
ASUS ZenFone 2
8. Other places to try
We can't have an article about buying unlocked phones without mentioning a few places that specialize in just that — selling no-contract phones that are shipped to your door. Whether you're looking for a used model, or want an import that you can't find on Amazon, these are a few places worth bookmarking.
The latest unlocked phones deliver excellent performance and value. For the budget-conscious consumer, there is a lot to love in this space. Be sure to explore more and join the discussion in the forums!