Mobile / Buying Guide

Why Buy an Unlocked Phone: A Primer

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Smartphones are pretty ubiquitous. Almost everybody has one, and many of us spend more time on our phone than we do on our personal computers. Yet, in the United States, most people still purchase their smartphones from the same companies that provide cell phone service, which is quite odd if you think about it. People don't purchase TVs from cable companies or computers from their Internet service providers, and for good reason.

Perhaps you have been thinking about breaking free from carrier control, or just have been eyeing a phone that isn't sold by your carrier. Maybe you want to keep the same carrier but save some money; any of these reasons is a great one to consider purchasing an unlocked phone. Unlocked phones are not locked to only one carrier, and will work with any carrier that uses frequencies the phone supports. You may not realize it, but B&H carries a large selection of unlocked smartphones, and we are here to help make sure you get one that works the way it should. It may seem somewhat intimidating, but it just takes a little homework to ensure the phone you are looking at will work perfectly. So, why should you buy an unlocked phone?

Better Phone Selection

There may be a phone you like that a carrier doesn't sell in its retail store. Sony or Motorola fans might feel left out in an AT&T store, but go the unlocked route and you can choose from a large lineup of both. Don’t want to pay $700 for flagship specs? Check out the ZTE Axon 7. Want an Android phone courageous enough to leave out the 3.5mm headphone jack? Look at the Moto Z. Do you want a high-end Android phone small enough to use with one hand? There’s the Sony Xperia X Compact. Want an Android phone with dual rear cameras that can do a shallow depth-of-field effect? Both the Huawei Mate 9 and Huawei Honor 8 can do that. Any interest in using your phone as a Windows desktop computer from time to time? The HP Elite x3 has you covered. I could go on, but you get the point. Carriers tend to stock only a moderate selection of phones from a few brands, but going the unlocked route allows you to get truly whatever phone you want, or to get multiple phones and switch between them as you see fit.

ZTE Axon 7
Moto Z

Faster Updates, Better Security, and Less Bloatware

Another advantage of the unlocked phones B&H offers is that—with the exception of a few carrier-branded phones that are clearly labeled—they are unbranded and are free of many carrier-installed applications and restrictions that come with the phones you would acquire in a carrier’s retail store. The customizations that companies like Verizon and AT&T pre-install on phones, such as applications you can’t delete and custom ringtones, prevent phone manufacturers from issuing updates directly to the phones. Meaning that instead of a company like Samsung giving you security updates, you have to rely on your carrier. Carriers very rarely provide timely updates to their phones, which means that locked phones will not only get new features later, but also get important security fixes later (if at they do at all).

Sony Xperia X Compact

Getting an unlocked and unbranded phone ensures you will get every software update and security patch as soon as the phone manufacturer releases it. However, in a few instances it means you may lose carrier-specific pre-loaded features, such as Wi-Fi calling on T-Mobile.

No Contracts and Cheaper Phone Plans

In the past, the main benefit of buying an unlocked phone was avoiding a wireless contract. However, the large subsidies wireless providers gave on locked phones made going that route a rather expensive one. A new iPhone that used to cost $200 on a subsidized two-year contract didn’t actually cost $200. And carriers made it back by overcharging around $20 a month on smartphone-specific plans. So, even if you used an unlocked phone, you still had to pay for a smartphone plan for which you were being overcharged.

However, these days pretty much every US wireless provider now separates the price of a phone from the price of the service. Meaning that if you bring your own phone, you can save a lot on your monthly bill. This gives you the freedom to get a phone from anywhere you wish, and allows lesser-known smartphone manufacturers to offer more interesting phone designs and sell them unlocked, without worrying about appeasing the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world.

Samsung Galaxy S7

Numerous US Carriers also own less expensive Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) that offer the same service, at a lower price, for more price-conscious customers. For example, Cricket is owned and operated by AT&T, and Metro PCS is owned and operated by T-Mobile. This makes acquiring an unlocked phone not only a more flexible option, but often a less costly one, as well. Furthermore, many unlocked phones in B&H’s inventory cost less than the unsubsidized, locked versions sold by carriers.

What You Need to Know

So, you've decided to go the unlocked phone route, but don't know where to start? That’s fine—we will guide you through it. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, it’s important to go over a few technical elements that, once understood, will make the whole process a lot easier.

Is Your Carrier a GSM or CDMA Provider?

The first major point to know is that the whole “unlocked” concept applies to Global System for Mobile (GSM) phones. GSM is a worldwide cell standard that ties your phone number and all cell service to a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card, not the phone itself. A GSM carrier doesn't care what phone a SIM card is in. This allows you to switch out the card freely between phones, or buy a SIM card and phone separately.

Huawei Mate 9
Huawei Honor 8

Of course, GSM phone providers still do what they can to prevent you from leaving them, but since they can't block phones from their network, the best they can do is lock phones to theirs, which is why if you buy a phone from a US cell provider’s store, it will most likely be locked. In most of the world, all cell carriers are GSM; however, in the United States only two of the four major cell carriers are GSM—T-Mobile and AT&T, as well as all of their MVNOs like Metro PCS and Cricket. If you are on a GSM carrier, you get pretty much any phone you want. The only barrier to a phone not working on a GSM network is if the phone’s antennae don’t pick up the frequencies your carrier uses, which these days, isn’t much of an issue.

A popular competing standard to GSM is Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA). On CDMA networks, your phone number is tied to the phone itself, so CDMA carriers have complete control over what phones they can allow or not allow on their network. Because of this, there is no need for CDMA networks to lock phones, so in that sense, every CDMA phone is unlocked, but it doesn’t matter because the blocking is done on the carrier end. A few phone manufacturers, such as Motorola and LG, make CDMA + GSM hybrid phones that will work on some CDMA networks; however, the number of unbranded CDMA phones out there is a lot fewer than the GSM phones.

CDMA networks are quite rare outside of the United States but, in the US, Verizon and Sprint, as well as their MVNOs like Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, are CDMA. So, if you are a Verizon or Sprint customer and you want to get an unlocked phone, make sure it is CDMA hybrid phone and that your carrier will activate it.

Verizon / Sprint Phones Have a SIM Card Slot

The reason many Verizon and Sprint phones now have SIM card slots is that Long-Term Evolution (LTE) is a GSM standard, and any phone or tablet with LTE has to have a SIM card slot. However, LTE is a data-only standard, and while some phone makers are starting to implement VoIP standards for talking over LTE, they are still in their infancy and you really need 2G and 3G CDMA connectivity to port your CDMA phone number over to an unlocked phone to make phone calls. Also, even if a GSM / CDMA hybrid phone is unlocked, CDMA carriers still have the power to block it. For example, the Moto G Play is a GSM / CDMA hybrid phone. Sprint will activate the Moto G Play on its network; however, Boost Mobile will not, even though Boost Mobile uses Sprint towers.

Moto G

Things look bright for the future, since it seems that Verizon and Sprint will be switching over to GSM. Verizon has already stated it wants to be shipping LTE-only phones soon and is already working on ways to do voice and text over LTE. Sprint isn't that far behind, either. In a few years, even Verizon and Sprint customers should be able to join in the unlocked GSM phone party.

Phone Variants

Because there are so many different types of cell network technologies and frequencies used around the world, phone manufacturers have to make many different versions of a phone. These different phone versions are called variants. A popular phone like the Samsung Galaxy S7 has several variants. Usually, variants only differ in which cell frequencies they support, but sometimes they have other small differences, like a different processor. Because different phone variants support different phone frequencies, it is very important to buy the right one, or there’s a good chance you will not get LTE service. Also, because many phone manufacturers don’t sell unlocked phones directly in the United States, their US websites are often poor sources when it comes to getting a complete list of all variants and the frequencies they support. At B&H, we put the variant model of each phone in the product name. So when you’re looking at phone models, be sure to choose the variant that’s right for your network.

How to locate the phone's variant on the B&H website: The variant can usually be found in-between the product name and the storage.

Why do Some Phones Not Have a Manufacturer Warranty?

A question we are asked frequently here is whether or not our phones are brand new, and why some do not have manufacturer warranties. All of our phones are brand new, unless you are browsing the Used Department section of our website. However, many large phone manufacturers, like Samsung, do not sell a large variety of unlocked phones in the United States. They mostly sell locked phones directly to carriers. So, to get unlocked phones from phone manufacturers that won't sell to us directly, we have to import them from countries where unlocked phones are sold directly. We try and buy them from countries that use the same wireless frequencies as the United States, to ensure the phones work as well here as ones that are sold locked. However, because they are imports, their warranties are only valid in their country of origin, and are not valid in the United States. They are all brand new, manufacturer-unlocked phones. B&H offers its own warranty of one year, so you can still buy with confidence.

Luckily, more and more phone manufacturers are selling unlocked phones directly these days. HTC, LG, Sony, and BLU phones can be confidently assumed to be sold to us directly, and the phones include valid warranties. Other manufacturers, like Samsung, sell a few phones directly, so be sure to check the selling points to see whether the phone is an International or North American Variant, if you are curious.

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It says region-specific unlocked (North and South America). If I want to purchased one and use it in Guam will it work? Or, it needs to be unlocked again for use outside the North and South America region? Thanks.

Hi Romel,

Which phone are you referring to?

I`ve read your article... I want to buy  Samsung Galaxy S6 edge SM-G925A 64GB AT&T Branded Smartphone (Unlocked, Black Sapphire), but I´m from argentina... I`ve verified the band of the phone and the one that use my cellular company (movistar) and seems to be compatible... really want to know if i have some possibility of having problems with the phone good working, with actualizations of aplications or operative system. thank you so much! (sorry about my poor english)

Hello Estela,

This phone will work just fine with Movistar in Argentina.

My experience with a new unlocked carrier branded phone I recently purchased from B&H makes me inclined to believe that unless an unlocked carrier branded phone is activated with that carrier, the phone will not receive software updates, including Android security patches.

what about tracfone prepaid phones. how good are your used phones. how about apple I-phones

Hi Angelo - 

B&H does not offer Apple iPhones.  Any used phones we offer are backed by no  less than a 90 day B&H warranty.  We do not offer tracfone products.

My imported V10 sold by you got boot loop issue. I contacted your customer service. And I was told that your repair service takes 3-8 weeks. That means I will be out of phone for 2 months.

I bought a LG V10 H960A from your site 8 months ago, and now it has bootloop issue. Since this is an imported phone, and the warranty is only provided by your company. Can I get warranty fulfilled and so my phone get repaired or replaced?

Hi Chun -

Please contact our Customer Service Department for assistance right away:

The B&H Customer Service Team:

Call: 800.221.5743 or 212.239.7765
Email :
cs@bhphotovideo.com

Is there any substantial difference between being factory unlocked (i.e. never ever locked) and being locked and then unlocked (say, by the carrier)?  Would not being unlocked from the factory reduce the ability to be used in some international networks who may be more restrictive, if at all possible, about this?

Hi Pip -

One of the the most important caveats to be aware of are the probable lack of software, firmware or OS updates when purchasing an unlocked phone from a third-party distributor.  A true factory-unlocked phone typically will be supported by the manufacturer in terms of updates.  Always confirm a phone's compatability with the local activating cellular provider.

I want compliment B&H on a well written, consumer oriented article.

I have one additional idea and one question,

1) Consumers should keep in mind they can leverage Google voice. This mitigates some of the issues with CDMA. This means, you get a Google voice number absolutely free of charge. That I am aware, there is no limit to the number of calls you can make or how long each call is. It's *free*. Now, Google will have additional meta-context on you but not too much of an ask. You give out the Google number to everybody. You have Google foward all calls to your real cell number. This way can you change carriers, phones, *and* numbers completely at will and nobodfy knows the diference. You can customize your voice mail, get voice messages auto-translated and texted/emailed and customize your voice greeting. You can block calls you don't want. It's some real pro software.

2) My question: I am very much interested in Motorola's G series of phones that give, to the best of my reasearch, the most open, most unlocked, most complete coverage of CDMA and GSM across more carriers than virtually any other option. They also cover more LTE bands too. The only hesitation I have is some --- not tons -- but some reports of excessive battery heat and glitchy touch screens. Can somebody shoot this down or point this up? My quess is that Levono has some QC issues with batteries and if you just keep returning phones say, through a reputable seller like Amazon, you'll eventually get a good phone. Moto G is very cost competive for the features it has.

Regards 

I forgot to add on Google voice: when you call out you have an option of calling out from your real cell number or your via your google voice number ... which ever one you pick that's what the receiver sees unless you choose to block and receiver sees UNKNOWN. And you can pick you Google voice number in virtually any area code they cover in NA, another nifty feature.

I switched from a Samsung t-mobile phone to a unlocked Samsung J7. I swaped the sim from one to the other and could not make wi-fi calls or get 4GLTE. When I called t-mobile to resolve the trouble they asked for the IMEI number and they said the J7 was not compatible. From reading some of your excellent articles and checking the 4GLTE bands my new phone works on I see no reason why the phone should not work. What do you think? Is t-mobile giving me the run around? Can you give any advice? I really don't want to change carriers. I have 4 phones on the account and I think the carriers are all about the same and changing is a hassle.

I've included a link to another Explora article that provide helpful hints with your situation.  Scroll down to the last few articles in the link.  

http://bhpho.to/2eCcQF0

I like to add a second pay-as-you-use phone as my travelling abroad and use it as wifi only domestically. What will be the right pick?

Hi James -

Just purchase the SIM card of your own choosing

The black Moto G XT1045 Smartphone from Motorola offers dynamic handheld performance, 4G LTE connectivity, and quality audio-video capture and playback functionality. This smartphone is supported by a 1.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of built-in RAM. It comes equipped with 8GB of storage and includes a microSDHC slot that supports cards with up to 32GB of memory for additional storage capacity. The integrated micro-USB interface allows you to connect the device for mass-storage purposes and also serves as a charging port.

The Moto G XT1045 houses a 4.5" IPS LCD capacitive display, which outputs a 1280 x 720 resolution that fully supports all your HD content. For your photo and video needs, the Moto G features a 5MP rear camera, with auto-focus, HDR, and other enhancements built in. A front-facing 1.3MP camera is also on-board.

The Moto G is also well-equipped for wireless communication. It features Bluetooth 4.0 LE technology for pairing with other Bluetooth-enabled devices, and 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi for high-speed Internet connectivity. GPS with GLONASS is also on-board for using compatible location services and applications. The Moto G's 2070mAh battery is designed to provide up to 24 hours of mixed usage on a full charge.

I am disgusted with "smart" phones.  There is nothing smart about onwing one.  In fact you have to be quite stupid to own one. As pointed out in the previous article: "Almost everybody has one, and many of us spend more time on our phone than we do on our personal computers."  And what does that say about a society of mindless people spending HOURS, 10-20 every day on their phones.  I long for the days of phones hanging on the wall, sitting on the living room table attached to the phone system by a cable.  People wake up IT IS A PHONE!!

The "SMART" about a phone is the phone company making you think this is a device you cannot live without and you will pay ANYTHING to carry aroound with you!  You are STUPID! You bought into the lies and deception the deceit and misrepresentation, allowed yourself to be influenced by coercion, the corporate prevarication and terrorism!  THINK ABOUT IT - Those of you that grew up with a single phone wired into your house, you know better! You have allowed the deception to influence your entire life.  THINK ABOU IT!!  YOU DO NOT NEED A SMART PHONE!!   AND YOU IDIOTS GET ONE FOR EVERY FAMILY MEMBER!!

PhoneRule # 1: You get your first phone when you pay money out of your own income to buy your first house or rent your first appartment.

Now having laid the ground work, I want a phone that I can use as a telephone and for texting  THAT IS ALL!!  NO APPLICATIONS OF ANY KIND OUTSIDE OF PHONE CALLS AND TEXTING!!

I am not bound to ANY carrier.  Where can I get such a phone?

Last time we checked they're available between 2001 and 2005...

B&H does carry a few feature phones for you to consider.  Please see the link below.

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ns=p_PRICE_2%7c0&ci=24039&setNs=p_...

But are any of these affected by tin foil? 

You couldn't text on a landline phone either, therefore you fall into the same category as the people you're harassing. You don't need texting, do you? That's what the postal service is for, write a letter and stick it in the mailbox. Also, why are you viewing this on the internet? Before the widespread use of personal computers, you would actually have to drive over to New York to tell the fine folks at B&H your opinion about their articles, that is if you actually had a copy of it to read in the first place. I could keep going on, diving back further into the history of technological advancements but I'll spare myself the waste of time on someone as hard-headed as yourself. It's called technology, it advances quite rapidly. We can do lots of things that we couldn't in time past. That's what's wonderful about it. Just because you desire to live in the past, doesn't mean everyone else has to. Let it go for Pete's sake.

Thanks for the article.

Fantastic!!! This is a great article , because it not only provided a primer of the jargons used in the cell phone industry, it also gave  in sights to the prevalent industry and coporate practices not known to some consummers.

Great article, but I'm still a bit confused.  For one thing, you don't explain what the variant really means.  How does this relate to what phone works with which carrier?

I see that your phones list the bands they operate on, but that doesn't exactly match what is listed for my carrier.  Does it matter if not all bands my carrier uses is used by a particular phone? 

I have an AT&T Moto e, 8 gb, which works fine, but so much of the internal memory is used by AT&T apps which I never use, and take up space that cannot be freed up.  If they didn't do that, I'd probably just buy a phone they offer.

Hi Scott -

Bottom line - always check with your carrier prior to purchasing an unlocked phone. Sometimes the missing bands or variant can be critical and sometimes - not so much. Generally speaking the more available compatible bands/frequencies  - the better. Variant is typically not nearly as critical.

I want to get a plan requires a cdma phone. If I buy an unlocked phone, will it work?

Hi -

If you are referring to Verizon or Sprint plans, the answer most likely will be "no".  Please check with the individual carrier prior to purchasing any un-locked phone.

Would an unlocked phone work well as a wifi-only device? I have no need for a phone, but wanted something smaller than a tablet; I was told the "best" option for wifi-only devices in that size would be an iPod Touch. (But I've never been an Apple fan and prefer the Android OS.) I can see some clearly cheaper unlocked phones on B&H, that even come with a wall charger and case (whereas one would have to buy those things separately for an iPod Touch), and I wanted to know if an unlocked phone is a feasible choice for a small (4-5 inch) wifi device. I'm also told that most phones have a life expectancy of 2 years, and experience trouble updating if the device isn't connected to a cellular network. (Is there truth to this?)

If you are using the Android phone only with wifi, the phone can be locked or unlocked.  It wouldn't matter since you're not relying on the carrier for any kind of service.  Regarding updates, this could depend on the carrier and the phone manufacturer.  If it's a phone that's factory unlocked, the manufacturer would generally be the one to distribute updates.  Of course, this is not set in stone and sometimes you would have to go through a carrier (if they provide it) for updates.  Before purchasing the phone, it would be best to contact the manufacturer of that phone and confirm how updates are distributed.

Awesome I can't believe you guys give this much information without the requirement of buying the product from you. I was about in tears because I bought my sons two unlocked dash phones, they couldn't download apps so I bought memory cards and couldn't make them work, now I know I can do that. thanks

Very informative artcile! I currently am on Boost Mobile which not allow me to use an ulocked phone. If I was going to switch to Cricket, would there be any issue with keeping my phone number? I would think not but want to make sure. Also, would Cricket have to send me a sim card to use on my new phone with my current number? Anything else I should be aware of before switching? Sorry if these are stupid questions!

Keeping your phone number shouldn't be a problem.  You should contact Cricket directly with your request on how to transfer (port) your number from Boost.  Cricket would also provide a sim card for you.

Great article. I've had an ASUS phone I bought from B&H and now I'm ready to buy a second one from them. I've generally understood the difference between locked and unlocked phones, but this article does a great job of explaining it further.

Awesome article! Thanks a lot. I actually read this after buying an unlocked phone from B&H and now I am happy that I made the right choice. It arrives tomorrow and hopefully, it will all be good. 

This is fabulous reading. I have to give up my large phone because it was 2g, and it does not work in my area. I bought an alcatel 4g/lte to see if it would work. It does, but I really want an lg, or a larger phone. I did not know the reason between locked and unlocked phones. Now I know, I saw the blu, but i was told that it would not work with Tmobile.

Hey Everyone,

I am a BIG fan of B&H Photo and have made quite a few purchases from them, mostly Apple computers and accessories.  I haven't yet purchased a cell phone, mainly due to the confusion and the lies that the cell phone company represenatives will tell you just to make a sale (and a nice BIG FAT commission too boot). Thank you B&H for trying to help your customer's out by publishing articles like this one. This is an excellent and informative article.  I still have some questions, but I undertsand you cannot address each and every one of them in a single article.  I have not purchased any cell phones from B&H yet, mainly due to the general confusion surrounding them and the blatant lies you are told from the representatives (sales staff) from the company owned stores of the major cell service providers (let me be clear on this ... B&H DOES NOT engage in providing false or misleading information to it's customers). The cellular phone company owned stores and even the privately owned contracted outlets will tell you anything to make a sale. After the purchase you soon discover the truth that what you were told to sway you into making the decision to buy is mostly false.  They are, in my opinion, nothing more than a bunch of thieves. They don't have any ethics and will not hestitate for one moment to rob you of your money at the first "vulnerable" opportunity. This is very sad, but very true. It's is best to do your research BEFORE you go into a cell phone store. If you do this, you will most likely throw your salesperson off balance because he/she will suddenly realize that they are dealing with a customer who has some good working knowledge of how the various netsworks, phones and other related topics actually work and integrate or don't integrate with each other.  I agree wholeheartedly with the author of his article that the more YOU know up front, then your chances will very good that you end up buying the best AND correct cell phone that will meet YOUR needs, not there's.  -Steven Gibson, CA

Thanks for the kind words about the store, Steve. And, thank you for helping out your fellow B&H customers!

Feel free to post your questions. We will gladly answer whatever we can!

This was an incredibly well-written article, full of useful information. Thanks so much!

~Adam

We are glad you enjoyed it, Adam! Thanks for shopping at B&H!

You guys did a great job explaining things when it comes to unlock phones. Thank you. I will be buying from your website real soon.

Thanks, NaTarsha! And, thanks for shopping at B&H!

One other thing I would add is this. If you travel internationally a lot, or even a little, a dual-sim phone makes life so easy. What you do is get a sim card in whatever place you are visiting and put that sim into the data slot sim on the phone. Pop out your US based sim and put that in the phone/text only slot.

You now have a phone that people can contact you on using your local number and a phone with a much cheaper plan that you can call them back on. It's really the best of both worlds. You save a ton of money and can use it locally. Then, when you come back, just flip the process.

I recently bought an unlocked dual sim phone thinking I could use it for Tracfone, but they are unable to transfer service to it. If you don't mind me asking, who do you use for phone service on your DualSim phone?

Hi Tiff -

We do no provide or purchase cellular phone services.

Tiff, I use AT&T go phone service and have now for about 2 years. Great service.

The Panasonic device looked interesting until I reached the Android 4.4 mention - why would I spend almost $500 for a 3 year old OS? It is full with bugs, lacks the latest features and it will never be upgraded.

Hi -

You may want Panasonic to address your concerns regarding their design and engineering:

1-800-211-PANA

http://www.panasonic.com/global/support.html

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions: askbh@bandh.com

 

Actually, I prefer Kit Kat (4.4.4)  to either Lollipop (5.x) or Marshmallow (6.0).   Far as I can tell, both of them minimze customization options while increasing layers of OS to wade through to use your phone...

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