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How to buy an unlocked Android phone in Canada

Unlocked phones are all the rage, but what does the term mean, and when is the right time to make the investment?

What is an unlocked phone?

An unlocked phone is one that has no restrictions on which carrier it can be used. Most Canadian carriers, in exchange for providing a handsome subsidy, sell handsets that are locked to their networks, making it more likely that you will purchase, and continue using, their service. Popping a SIM card from, say, Bell into a Rogers-locked device will throw an error and won't connect. Put a Rogers SIM card back in that phone, and it starts working again.

When a phone is unlocked, you are free to shop around for the best monthly plan — one that is not tied to the sale of a handset. Most carriers, in fact, offer monthly discounts for bringing an unlocked phone to their network, since they don't have to sell a subsidized phone — money that comes out of their bottom line — to sell a service plan.

Should you buy an unlocked phone?

These days, you hear a lot about "buying unlocked" and how it's so much better. But, like all things, it's not that simple. Whether you should buy an unlocked depends on a lot of things, but thankfully it's easier than ever to make that decision; the number of ways to obtain one has risen dramatically over the past few years.

But should you? There are several reasons to buy an unlocked phone:

  • Carriers often give meaningful discounts to customers who buy an unlocked phone beforehand and purchase service.
  • Unlocked phones are often less encumbered with carrier-related software, often known as bloatware.
  • Unlocked devices can be used on any carrier whose wireless bands are supported on the handset. These days, most unlocked phones sold throughout the world work on the major Canadian carriers.
  • Unlocked devices can be used internationally, with local SIM cards, that avoid often-expensive roaming plans.
  • Unlocked phones are not beholden to carriers' often-slow update schedules. They are usually updated directly from the manufacturer, which means they arrive more often and more quickly.

Are there any downsides to buying an unlocked phone?

They are typically more expensive, since they are purchased at their full retail price, with no carrier subsidy. Fortunately, there are dozens of unlocked Android smartphones in the $200 to $500 price range that are worth considering. Devices like the Moto G4 Plus, ZTE Axon 7, OnePlus 3, and many others, are primarily sold unlocked, and rival many hero devices like the HTC 10 that are nearly double the cost.

Where to get one?

Many Canadian retailers, both land and virtual, sell unlocked phones, namely Staples, Newegg, Canada Computers, NCIX, London Drugs, and many others.

Some Android OEMs sell their devices directly to consumers, too: HTC sells the One A9 and HTC 10 from its web store; Alcatel sells the Idol 3 4.7" (and soon its successor, the Idol 4 and 4S) on its website; and Google sells the Nexus 5X and 6P from the Google Store.

If you're looking to buy a second-hand unlocked phone, make sure that its IMEI — a unique identifier that differentiates one phone for another — has not been blacklisted by the CWTA. Before buying a used phone, make sure to ask the seller the IMEI and run the number through the database, which is shared with other agencies throughout the world. If the IMEI is blacklisted, the phone may be stolen, and will likely not work on any Canadian carrier.

Unlocking an existing phone

It's fairly easy to unlock an existing phone, if you want to go that route. To do so, you'll need to come at the problem in one of two ways:

  • If you purchased it directly from your carrier, call them and pay a fee for them to unlock it. That fee is usually $35 to $50, depending on the provider, and may only be possible when the device is fully paid off, or the account is in good standing.
  • If you purchased it from someone else (who presumably got it from a carrier), websites like cellunlocker.net have proven reliable and inexpensive.

Will an unlocked phone work on your carrier?

I can't answer that for you specifically, but chances are, yes. Handsets sold in the last couple of years usually have some, if not all, the requisite hardware to support most Canadian carriers.

If you're looking to purchase an unlocked phone, make sure it has at least one of the following compatible LTE bands. (Not sure what a "band" is? Read up on our Guide to LTE in Canada.)

  • Band 4 (All carriers)
  • Band 7 (Bell / Rogers)
  • Band 12/17 (All carriers)
  • Band 13 (All carriers)
  • Band 2 (Bell / Telus)
  • Band 5 (Bell / Telus)

More: The best unlocked Android phones in Canada

Was there anything we forgot? Let us know in the comments.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

10 Comments
  • What about the BlackBerry PRIV? You can get that unlocked in various ways, in Canada and worldwide.
  • I posted that comment above, because the "http://www.androidcentral.com/best-unlocked-android-phones-canada" post does not allow comments...???
  • It's hard to get unlocked phones in Canada for some reason Posted from my Moto X 2nd gen and my Nexus 9 both on Android Marshmallow
  • I came from Europe to Canada and usually bought my phone's at Amazon or walk inside a shop bought it and out done. Here in Canada its so bad. But usually I buy them Ali express and just check you have the right band and no import chargers and so. Very good deals there.
  • got Galaxy s7 edge from Samsung. Rogers blockes VOLTE on ALL phones not purchased from Rogers. .. So now i am stuck with a phone that does not work!!!!
  • can you reflash it with the rogers S7E ROM and change the csc to Rogers? Then it would be the same as Rogers, so it should work...
  • I should work but he bought a new phone and should work out if the box
  • One more thing about unlock phones. All Android phone are unlocked. As soon you put a sim card in it send a signal to the carrier and it looks the phone. I tried it and worked
  • A few things to consider before deciding between an unlocked and locked phone: 1. Carrier subsidies on most high end phones is roughly between $25 to $30 per month. So on a standard $85 monthly rate, about $60 is the value of your service plan, However, when bringing in an unlocked phone, the discount given is usually between $7 to $15 per month. Well below what the subsidy would be if you had purchased the phone through your plan. 2. The contract argument is mute since the new CRTC code of conduct is in effect. Since the rules now state that you only have to pay the remaining value of your phone to cancel an agreement (they are not called contracts anymore). Simple maths can determine which is most advantageous (I'm using Bell for this example):
    Without contract: ($75 x 24) + $900 ( roughly the price of an S7 before taxes) = $2700 plus tax after 2 years
    With contract: ($85 x 24) + $300 (usual price of the S7 after subsidy) = $2340 plus tax after 2 years (and this can even go down further when you get a device on sale. Just be wary that the subsidy will go up in those case - but in all cases, the device will be paid out after 24 months). It is therefore more advantageous to get the agreement and subsidy the phone over 2 years. You will save roughly $400 doing so. And if you want to get out the agreement, pay the balance of the phone and you're out. You were already willing to pay the full price of the phone anyway so why not enjoy the extra perks that most carriers give when you sign on an agreement (they usually last 12 months) and save a few bucks at the immediate, then if you still wish to cancel, go ahead and do so later on. 3. Unlocked phones can be useful for frequent travelers or people who wants to use a specific phone not offered to their carrier of choice. 4. Most Canadian providers have stopped selling their devices out right. I work in the industry and we received a notice a couple months ago that we are not to sell out right anymore. 5. It is true that most carriers will block services on their networks when the phone is not purchased through them or you will not get fully what you are paying for (for example, speed may not be optimal). And flashing their ROM will usually not work as it is the IMEI that triggers it, and when looking into an account, we know right away when the phone is not from the carrier. 6. You will not get support from them if something is not working right on their network. They will send you back to the OEM. And everything that goes wrong will be the device's fault. 7. If you really want an unlocked phone, get a Nexus from a provider. It will come factory unlocked, but will still be supported by the carrier if something goes wrong. And even if you decide to buy out the agreement, because you bought the phone from the carrier, it will still be supported by them as long as you use their network.
  • Hello there,
    I have a question regarding buying a cellphone over the internet. I am with chatr and i 'm looking for an unlocked phone that is compatible with this carrier. my budget is between $100-200 CAD, android 5 or above, allow tethering and with dual SIM if possible. Any suggestions that have all or some of the options listed are welcome .
    Thanks everyone for sharing