Should you buy a phone from a carrier in 2024?

Taking a photo with the Google Pixel 7 Pro
(Image credit: Nicholas Sutrich / Android Central)

Everyone loves picking out a new phone, but the actual process of buying one can be stressful. Should you switch carriers to get the best deal? Should you pay upfront or over 36 months? What does all of the fine print mean? There are literally dozens of questions you might need to ask yourself before getting your hands on a new phone,  but the very first step is to choose whether you should buy it from a wireless carrier or unlocked from a retailer. This guide tells you everything you need to know so you can spend less time worrying and more time playing with your new device.  

Locked vs. Unlocked

There are many pros and cons to consider when choosing between a locked and unlocked smartphone. If you were to buy an unlocked device like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 from Amazon for instance, you might receive a straight discount upon checkout, but you’d otherwise need to pay full price for the device upfront. Carriers, on the other hand, will typically offer the subscriber the option to pay over 18 or 36 months, occasionally with an added discount or incentive. The problem there is that you’re locked into a situation that’s hard to leave should you decide to make a change later on. In the worst scenarios, you might even be paying more in monthly fees than you would if you simply paid in full.

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 with Samsung's S Pen case set amongst an Autumn backdrop

(Image credit: Nicholas Sutrich / Android Central)

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s not as clear-cut as you might hope. It really comes down to you, your budget, and your individual circumstances. On the one hand, when we asked our readers in a poll whether they bought locked or unlocked phones, the vast majority of participants said that they preferred unlocked devices. This is a reasonable choice if there’s a cheap Android phone that you’ve had your eye on, or if you want the freedom to choose your own wireless service. Many carriers will also hook you up with huge discounts when you bring your own phone and add a line, which is a win-win situation.

But if you can find the right carrier deal, there are some excellent opportunities out there for locked phones. This is particularly true if you have an old device lying around, as carriers are often more than willing to offer huge discounts when you trade in a device and meet their other eligibility requirements, such as adding a line with an eligible data plan.

If all the fine print makes you nervous, using an MVNO carrier might be a good alternative. These phone companies almost never require a contract and there are no hidden fees, so you can buy a locked phone with all the benefits of a traditional carrier without any of the hassle. Buy a phone through a carrier like Mint Mobile, for instance, and you might be eligible to receive a massive price drop and six months of free service when you transfer your number from a competing carrier.

Suffice to say, no matter how you choose to buy your phone, there’s no shortage of great options out there.  

Google Pixel 7 Pro bundle at Mint Mobile

Google Pixel 7 Pro bundle at Mint Mobile

If you choose to buy your new smartphone through a carrier, this the type of deal you should go after. Transfer your number and buy a year of wireless service, and Mint Mobile will give you a whopping $400 off the Google Pixel 7 Pro and six months of service for free. That basically means you're getting a top-rated smartphone and a year of unlimited talk, text, and 5G/4G LTE data for as little as $50 per month. 

Patrick Farmer
eCommerce Editor

After almost a decade of working in the e-commerce space, Patrick Farmer (he/him) began his career at Android Central as a Deals and Commerce Writer before moving into a new role as AC's eCommerce Editor in 2023. When he's not hunting down the best deals and offering shopping advice for our readers, you'll often find him listening to music, camping out at a brewery, or treating his cat like a human child.