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What radio bands do I need on my unlocked phone?

Buying an unlocked phone you can freely use on any GSM carrier is a great idea. You can get a great phone at a reasonable price now, and not being tied to any carrier's payment plan or network contract puts you in control of where and how you use your phone.

But you'll need to make sure the phone you're buying is not only unlocked, but has the hardware support needed to use on the network you plan to use it on. That's not nearly as easy, but we can help.

network band support on the Alcatel Idol 3

The first thing you should do is contact the person or company selling the phone, and ask them to confirm that it will work on the network you need it to work with. Knowing the exact model number of the phone is a good start. Anyone selling an item should be well-informed about what it can and can't do. If they can't help you, consider that a red flag and think about shopping elsewhere.

The next thing you should do is ask your fellow unlocked phone users. The Internet has an answer for just about every question, and the forums are a great place to reach folks who had the same question you have, and have found the answer. We're all here to help each other, after all.

I can help a little bit here, too. I've been looking and looking at unlocked phones for a while, and have the mess that is the U.S. cell service providers mostly figured out.

AT&T:

  • GSM voice: 850Mhz and 1900Mhz
  • EDGE (2G data): 850Mhz and 1900Mhz
  • UMTS/HSPA (3G data): 850MHz and 1900Mhz

In some markets, you will only use one of these bands. In others, you will use both. There are no current maps that tell you where these "oddball" areas that only need one or the other are. Buy a phone that supports both 850Mhz and 1900Mhz.

  • LTE: Band 2 (1900Mhz), band 4 (1700Mhz), band 5 (850Mhz) and band 17 (700Mhz).

Band 17 is AT&T's primary LTE band, but the others are used in areas where AT&T doesn't have a band 17 footprint, or in combonation with band 17 in high-traffic areas. To be safe, buy a phone that supports all these LTE bands.

T-Mobile:

  • GSM voice: 1900Mhz
  • EDGE (2G data): 1900Mhz
  • UMTS/HSPA (3G data): 1700Mhz and 2100Mhz (commonly known as AWS). And sometimes 1900Mhz.

In some markets, T-Mobile has UMTS/HSPA 3G data on the 1900Mhz band in addition to the 1700Mhz/2100Mhz bands. Examples are New York, Washington, DC and Atlanta, but there are plenty more. Over time, T-Mobile is moving from using primarily AWS to primarily 1900Mhz. Check your area here (opens in new tab).

  • LTE: Band 2 (1900Mhz), band 4 (1700Mhz), band 12 (700Mhz).

Band 4 is T-Mobile's primary LTE band. In some areas, where T-Mobile owns no band 4 spectrum, band 2 is being deployed over the 1900Mhz 2G data network. These areas will have no 3G data network — only LTE.

T-Mobile has started to deploy the band 12 (700Mhz) network as of late-2014. Few phones support LTE on band 12, but if you want to be 100 percent future-proof on T-Mobile's network, you should look for band 12 LTE support.

Sprint and Verizon

  • Sprint LTE: Band 25 (1900Mhz), band 26 (800Mhz) and band 41 (2500Mhz)
  • Verizon LTE: Band 4 (1700Mhz) and band 13 (700Mhz)
  • Sprint WiMAX: 2.5Ghz (depreciated)

Verizon uses 850Mhz and 1900Mhz for voice service, 1xRTT (2G data) and EVDO (3G data).

Sprint uses 800Mhz and 1900Mhz for voice service, 1xRTT (2g data) and EVDO (3G data).

Forget about getting service on an unlocked phone from Sprint or Verizon unless it's a Nexus phone or an iPhone. Some other phones are capable, but these carriers have a sort of a list of phones that they will activate on their networks, and if your phone isn't approved and on that list, it isn't going to happen.

You may have success with dropping a Sprint or Verizon LTE SIM card in an unlocked LTE-capable device (with the right bands), but you'll never get support for voice or messaging. This may be OK for a tablet, so it's definitely worth a shot.

Yep. This can get confusing. That's why I still recommend you ask around and ask the seller before any money changes hands. There's no harm in getting plenty of feedback before you buy.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

76 Comments
  • Excellent post. Probably the most important information people need to really experience phones that aren't molested by carriers. Posted from a LG G4 on AT&T GoPhone
  • It was definitely a great breakdown! Will always refer back to this if I need. Posted via the Android Central App
  • While this article does a good job of listing the bands each carrier uses, check out gsmarena for the bands each phone has. For Galaxy S6 or S6 edge pay attention to the letter suffix in the model designation. Usually an A, T, I or F such as SM -GM920F or SM-G925I.
  • What do those suffixes mean? A for AT&T, T for T-Mobile, I for International? Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm using a G920i I got on e-bay. It works like charm on AT&T.
  • Phonescoop probably has the best listing for Bands for each phone. For each phone look under Specs > Modes > + more detail
  • Ok, so I will throw this out there. I'm interested in a beast phone from China (beast not slouch), It is snapdragon 810, but doesn't have ATT LTE bands.
    The device is not cheap, I believe the bands can be activated with QPST tools, I realize there will be little to no developement for this device as well, but its worth it. Can anyone recommend any advice? I may just do it myself. I realize its risky.
  • Doesnt have Tmo LTE either , or I would jump ship, strongly prefer GSM carriers
  • The part of me that works here can't talk about things that are illegal under US law. The other part of me says using tools to modify firmware at the component level is fun, and not as difficult as it may seem to be :) Risky, yes. It's also a good chance to make things stop working forever.
  • Unless a version of the phone was built for the band it's important to realize that while you may be able to turn a band on, you may not get the best reception on those enabled bands it also could simply not work at all. I did this once with an AT&T galaxy S4 to enable AWS hspa and it worked very well but the hardware was essentially identical to the T-Mobile version, just different firmware which disabled the band. People using the QPST tool for other bands the phone wasn't designed for , experienced mixed results. Proceed with caution. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Right! Remember all the nexus 4 stuff people were trying?
  • Thanks chief.
  • Very nice. Thank you! Posted via the Android Central App
  • I hope the N6 ushers in a new era where manufacturers make one phone that works on everything. Posted via AC app with my N9
  • There's nothing magical about the Nexus 6. There are three different phones that carry that designation and two of those have severely crippled radios. Just like most phones released recently, there's a good version and one or more train-wreck versions. Slapping the Nexus label on it doesn't mean anything other than Google uses it as a reference device. It's still full of compromises and whacky design decisions.
  • Please explain; I didn't pay much attention to the N6 since it wasn't offered by Verizon until just recently, but it appears that there was a model available on Google prior to that which would work on Verizon (even though it wasn't the official Verizon device).
    What are the three versions, and how are two of them radio limited?
  • And you'd be wrong, look at the networks here: http://www.gsmarena.com/motorola_nexus_6-6604.php The only difference is whether you get the 32 or 64gb version
  • Wrong. There are two models - the US XT1103, and the international XT1100. Not sure if the XT1100 has them, but XT1103 includes CDMA radios which is why all four major US carriers are able to use one model number. Posted via the One M9
  • Excellent article. You should note that it is actually "MHz" not "Mhz". Also, per their agreement with the FCC, AT&T is launching "MFBI" by Sept. 30th of this year, which will allow Band 12 capable devices to connect to their network in areas that they have Band 17 LTE. Since Band 17 is a subset of Band 12, I think we will see Band 17 eventually disappear, since it is pointless to include it if a phone uses Band 12 already.
  • Correct. MFBI is already deployed across much of AT&T's network. The article should be updated to say either band 17 or band 12 for AT&T. Also, band 29 will become an important band for AT&T in the future. There are already some phones which support it.
  • right on Jerry for this article, beats having to hunt this information down from various sites
  • Awesome article. This information is very important and most people are not aware of the content mentioned. Thanks for putting the info out there. Posted via Morse Code
  • I still don't get the need for an "unlocked" phone, just get the phone for the carrier you're going to use, simple. This whole thing is a waste of time practically speaking. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Many people travel and a network locked handset is a liability especially if you are forced to pay international roaming charges! Here in South Africa networks are forbidden from locking their handsets by law! You wouldn't buy a car that uses only one brand of fuel?
  • I somewhat agree.. Although, I get the need for unlocked when roaming. Here in the US it is very easy to find a carrier that works everywhere without the need for the 'sim card shuffle'.. I have a friend who loves the 'prepaid sim card shuffle' just to save a buck. I rather just get a plan, know it works everywhere (in the US) and be done with it. Saving a few bucks is so not worth my time but to each his own.
  • To you.
  • I think there was a website showing the bands needed for each company worldwide. Can't remember what it was.
  • LTE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LTE_networks UMTS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_UMTS_networks
  • I live in NYC and was using Verizon for years until I discovered unlocked phones and pre-paid monthly service.There are a number of network providers besides the 4-5 big ones will give you cheaper and excellent service / H2O,Cricket etc./.Went to B&H and they sell only unlocked phones with GSM networks installed.You tell the salesman what you want and they will help you to make the right choice.I have purchased 2 phones there and am with a pre-paid plan for a year and very happy!
  • You people can't read. This article sucked. It eas poorly written and confusing to read. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Says the idiot that can't spell "was“. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Hold up. Anything you didn't understand (yes, this is a confusing subject), just ask. This is important to me, and I'm always open to questions about it all. Seriously.
  • Some peeps just like to b..., regardless if the article's done well, and can't wait to jump up and naysay.
  • Great, thanks for your insightful information. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I agree with Jerry, this can be very confusing. This article was written for people with some knowledge on the subject. It is not a beginner's guide.
  • Is it accurate to say that the Iphone 6/6+ and Nexus 6 have the highest Network compatibility of all phones available now? I think the Iphone 6/6+ may support more bands, but I don't have any interest in giving up Android.
  • I think getting the Verizon iPhone is your best bet.
    My understanding is that the GSM part of the phone is unlocked and thus you can use it on both AT&T, T-Mo and of course Verizon.
  • That is not the best advice I am afraid. The best iPhone 6 to get is the official unlocked variant directly from Apple. It can work on all 4 carriers. The Verizon iPhone will not work on Sprint. Also, you may experience issues trying to use VoLTE using a Verizon iPhone on AT&T ot T-Mobile.
  • N6 is better as it supports band 12 for T-Mobile and band 29 for AT&T (which should be introduced in the iPhone 6S).
  • or use this :
    http://www.willmyphonework.net/
    :)
  • This is an awesome guide. It's really nice to know exactly what I should be looking for in a T-Mobile phone. Thank you! Posted via the Android Central App
  • Thanks for this article! I've been looking at the iman i8800 because there are not many comparable phones available in the USA. Would I be breaking the law to get one off of eBay or aliexpress? Since there are no us based reviews, it seems like a gamble. Posted via the Android Central App
  • That phone has some $!tty specs. However, have you never heard of Amazon? They have a whole section of unlocked phones.... Why bother playing the Ebay gamble? http://www.amazon.com/Waterproof-Dustproof-Shockproof-Qualcomm-Snapdrago...
  • Good start. I would have mentioned a few more cross carrier scenarios. I was curious at Best Buy and we tried an AT&T GoPhone SIM in my current Verizon S4 and were able to instantly get phone and messaging service. Didn't try data, was mainly wondering if the phone would work with a GSM carrier if needed as we travel in areas without Verizon coverage.
  • Any chance you can open up this study to include the rest of the world? Posted via the Android Central App
  • That would be a good idea. I could post the UK bands here for each of our four Network Operators Posted via the Android Central App
  • UK MHz bands.
    THREE. > UMTS - 2100. LTE - 800. 1800.
    O2. > GSM - 900. 1800. UMTS - 900. 2100. LTE - 800.
    VODAFONE > GSM - 900. 1800.
    UMTS - 900. 2100. LTE - 800. 2600.
    EE. > GSM - 1800. UMTS - 2100.
    LTE - 800. 1800. 2600
    [Three doesn't have a GSM network] Posted via the Android Central App
  • This is the closest I've found. Granted, it could be a bit outdated or possibly incorrect, but I've found it to be pretty good. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LTE_networks
  • Yeah, that seems a good 1. I found that after my post of the UK bands Posted via the Android Central App
  • You could've listed the Canadian ones as well. I mean, if you're going to do an article on the subject, make it complete. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I don't know Canada's messed up network situation as well as I know the U.S. messed up carrier situation. I didn't want to list out information that I am unsure of and can't test myself. And there's no way in hell that I would trust Rogers, Bell and Telus anymore than i would trust AT&T or T-Mobile to give out the right information.
  • For Canada: Same frequencies and technology as the US, but jumbled up and 3x more expensive with ridiculous contracts.
  • Thanks Jerry, this will save me time searching each GSM carrier to see if an unlocked phone I am looking to buy with be supported.
  • This is a great article. I use pre-paid phone service to save money, and having a reference guide like this to check compatibility when phone shopping is great. Posted via the Android Central App
  • How about Cellular
  • There's a typo in the sprint section where it says "depreciated" under wimax instead of "deprecated". Posted via the Android Central App
  • Can someone tell me how well the band 12 is working on the G4 for T MOBILE?? Posted via Android Central App
  • What about it wouldn't work well? Their very reliable. Works great on n6 and the g4 is newer so it should work just as well. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Need more posts like these jerry!! Great write up. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Meanwhile, almost everywhere else on the planet other than the US (and Canada who's always trying to copy the US), it's vastly simpler. Got a phone? it works. Almost everyone is using GSM of some form (Japan, the US and Canada being the three major exception) and almost everyone supports 2100MHz and LTE bands 4 and 7. CDMA (Verizon, Sprint and Telus) and TDMA (Bell) only exist as a way to enforce a techological lockdown of customers to a network since the phones simply won't work on any other network - and to block the sales of unlocked phones into the US (since almost all of those are GSM/2100). It's time to phase those out and get on the same page as the rest of the world.
  • It's not that simple. Frequencies that were previously taken up by satellite, television and radio aren't easy to move. You can't just fly up and retune a satellite to work on another set of frequencies. Back when only a few bands were used for 2G and 3G, it was easier. Other countries tried to line up their frequencies as best they could with each other and even the US, but it was impossible due to how they'd previously utilized their frequencies. LTE frequencies are getting as complicated in many other countries as they are in the USA. Luckily, phones are getting much better at handling many frequencies. And they are phasing out CDMA. That's why Verizon wants a 100% LTE network with VoLTE. They know their 2G and 3G networks just aren't good any more.
  • Verizon is also refarming Band 2 for LTE too. AT&T Nexus 5
  • What's the solution for the ASUS Zen 2 and AT&T? It has the bands but AT&T says no to LTE. It seems more complicated than just making sure you have the hardware.
  • Sprint Spark? Just wondering how to tell if an unlocked phone can take advantage of Spark.....
  • I'm pretty sure the only phones that can are the Nexus 5 and Nexus 6, and the iPhone if you get the right model.
  • "Forget about getting service on an unlocked phone from Sprint or Verizon unless it's a Nexus phone or an iPhone." WTH are you talking about?! You have no clue whatever. My LG G3 and G2 and HTC Rezound all work fine on other networks for both voice and data. Posted via the Android Central App
  • So you were able to take an AT&T or T-Mobile phone and get voice/messaging to work on Verizon or Sprint? Because I highly doubt you did that. Outside of the Nexus 6 or iPhone 6 it's not possible, because most phones aren't built with both GSM AND CDMA radios. I don't think you know what you're talking about
  • That's not what he said. You have it backwards. He said good luck taking an unlocked GSM phone (global, AT&T, T-Mobile) and trying to get it activated on Sprint or Verizon. What you said, the other way around, works quite well with modern Verizon and some Sprint devices. They're GSM unlocked. You need to watch that sass, especially when you're wrong.
  • I saved this article to pocket ;). Thanks brother! Posted via the Android Central App
  • All we need is a visualization. I am curious about the CDMA networks unlocking their devices to work on GSM networks abroad. I had a Verizon Droid 4 and bought it outright - and was told Verizon was soon to offer an international roaming package and could utilize the SIM card slot. I've only bought GSM phones for travelling so I never bothered taking my CDMA phones. Anyone ever take a US CDMA phone roaming abroad?
  • Thanks for writing this up! LTE bands are getting more and more important, and it's hard for people to understand. I don't know how many times I've seen someone on the T-Mobile Reddit complaining that their service is awful, only to find out they have a OnePlus One that lacks LTE Band 2 and 12, and they're in an area that needs it. I've got a Nexus 5 right now, and my next phone will definitely have Band 12.
  • Thanks Jerry! This was very helpful. Posted via the Android Central App on the HTC One M8
  • Another thing to check is whether your carrier accepts unlocked devices. I was interested in getting an unlocked LG G3 but thought to call Virgin Mobile first - they said they don't accept unlocked phones "at this time" but there were plans to do so "at some point". Oh, well, saved me $400.
  • Good article, but my confusion lies with TMO. They are upgrading service and I'm confused between AWS and PCS. They are dropping a lot of AWS. Some Edge, 3G and HSPA will be repurposed. The bands above don't mention which is which and in the TMO lists of phones that will work, the Nexus 4 is listed. I remember seeing you could force band 12, but if not, which band are they referring to? Band 4? My current phone also has Band 17 besides 4 and there is talk about that band being used between TMO and ATT. this fall.
    http://www.tmonews.com/2015/03/t-mobile-could-gain-from-atts-band-17-and...
    What's the story on that?
  • Why wont my galaxy 3 charge all the way and drains fast its only a month or two old Posted via the Android Central App
  • [QUOTE] Forget about getting service on an unlocked phone from Sprint or Verizon unless it's a Nexus phone or an iPhone. Some other phones are capable, but these carriers have a sort of a list of phones that they will activate on their networks, and if your phone isn't approved and on that list, it isn't going to happen.[/QUOTE]
    I realize this have changed, since this article was published, but it's still up.
    This is no longer correct. I have a Moto X Pure Edition 2015 (XT1575) that will work on any US service. I am using it on Verizon and have compete functionality.
    I bought it from Amazon, cut the micro sim, from my Note 3 down to a nano, popped it into the Moto X and have been rolling ever since.