Getting unlocked phones 'right' is hard — and Samsung does it with the Galaxy S20

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Samsung built its smartphone empire on a series of restrictive, confusing, and convoluted carrier relationships. For years it made bespoke carrier-specific Galaxy S variants with completely different designs at first, and later different specs and radios to fit the carriers' needs. But after paying its dues for several years, it took its position at the top of the Android pyramid ... and unexpectedly became one of the best companies when it comes to selling unlocked phones.

Samsung's launches are, in many ways, confusing, with so many moving parts, but one thing that can't be argued is how well the company handles its unlocked models. Sales, support, network compatibility, and updates are all excellent — and unique among the big companies selling phones in the U.S.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

First and foremost, Samsung sells its unlocked phones right from the start of availability — there's no carrier-exclusive waiting period. That's a big deal because the kind of people who are big smartphone fans and want the latest phone right after launch are often the same people who want it unlocked, not from a carrier.

When they go to buy, right at launch or later, they also have a wide choice of retailers. If you want a Galaxy S20, you can go to Amazon, Samsung, Best Buy or a vast number of other retailers and and buy the exact same unlocked phone. And it's not just one model; you can get the S20, S20+ or S20 Ultra, and in each of their respective colors, from multiple retailers. In the case of the Galaxy S10 series, Samsung even held back specific high-end models from carrier stores, and you could only get them from Samsung's online store directly.

Selling unlocked doesn't mean nearly as much if carrier compatibility is bad — Samsung's is excellent.

Selling unlocked doesn't mean nearly as much if the number of carriers you can use it on is limited. We've seen this issue most recently with the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, which still have a long list of restrictions and caveats in how they will work on each of the U.S. carriers — you can't get 5G on Verizon or AT&T, and miss out on advanced calling on the latter. That's not the case with Samsung's latest phones: compatibility is universal, including both mmWave and Sub-6 5G and advanced capabilities like Wi-Fi calling and VoLTE. It's a truly impressive accomplishment to have a phone with universal 5G considering the wide range of network technologies in use across carriers.

Samsung obviously has great relationships with carriers — both in the U.S. and around the world — and that has certainly helped it build out compatibility. But the important thing here is that it didn't reserve any technologies for the carriers. And you get it all in a single unlocked model, not a range of variants, so you can buy the unlocked phone and know you can take it to any carrier, whether that's right away or a year down the road.

Unlocked Samsung phones haven't become second-class citizens to carrier variants.

Unlocked Samsung phones haven't ended up being second-class citizens to carrier variants, either, as the company has done a surprisingly good job with software updates. Samsung's one of the best companies when it comes to updating its top-end unlocked phones with monthly security patches, often matching Google's own Pixels on timing. And while it isn't the fastest with full Android releases, it has proven to be reliable in getting its older unlocked Galaxy S and Note phones updated with two major releases. (Its cheaper phones are another story, and not as positive of one.)

Along the same lines, Samsung actually stands by its unlocked phones with customer support rivaling the same level as carrier devices. Carriers often pick up a lot of the burden for customer service on devices, and when you buy unlocked, it can be tough to get the company to back up the purchase for warranty help, exchanges and repairs. Samsung has a huge customer service team, relatively well-regarded warranty policies, and actual physical stores (both its own and partner locations) where you can get phones repaired. That's more than you can get from most companies, and can be a reason for just going with a carrier device.

After being the least-friendly company for enthusiasts who want to buy unlocked phones, it's interesting to see Samsung become one of the best out there. It doesn't need to be this great with unlocked phones, but it is — and I wholeheartedly appreciate it.

Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.