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.

113 Comments

I have metropcs and just purchased a Samsung Galaxy 6S Edge from eBay and when I got it noticed it was a Verizon phone unblocked and I'm unable to send photos through the text message.  My question to you is can Verizon block features such as  sending photos in the text message from an unblocked phone??

melissa r. wrote:

I have metropcs and just purchased a Samsung Galaxy 6S Edge from eBay and when I got it noticed it was a Verizon phone unblocked and I'm unable to send photos through the text message even after going through several steps with my carrier to correct this problem  so ... My question to you is can Verizon block features such as  sending photos in the text message from an unblocked phone??

As long as the phone is unlocked and supports the bands of Metro PCS, there shouldn't be any issue.  I would suggest to either take the phone directly to a Metro PCS store or maybe contact the seller of the phone to see if they are aware of any issues with the device.

I'm interested in the Samsung Galaxy S9 SM-G9600 64GB Smartphone (Unlocked), Single Sim. I'm confused with the pricing. I once saw it for $600 and placed in My Cart so I can purchase it once I get to my desktop.  When I get home, it's $720. On July 4th, it's $620.  Why does it fluctuate so much?

I apologize for any inconvenience.  For your inquiry, please contact our sales team by calling 212.444.6615 or you can also chat with them by clicking on the Live Chat button at the very top of this page.  You can also contact them by e-mailing sales@bhphoto.com.

Hi I’m equally confused after reading the article. I want to keep my same phone number I currently am a sprint carrier user. If I buy an unlocked phone do I just walk into sprint? Is there any warranty on the phone or insurance? And can I use my same number?

Hi Nancy.  Yes, you would just need to go to a Sprint store and they can activate your new phone with your current phone number.  When purchasing a phone, be sure it's an unlocked phone that can work on the CDMA network since Sprint is CDMA.  The phones we carry generally come with a 1-year warranty.  You should be able to see this information on the product page of the phone.

After combing through reviews and trying to find the sweet spot of lower price and quality, I decided to go with the Moto e4.  However, when I called today to ask to make sure it could accept an international SIM and work in Europe the person I talked with said it wouldn't work because it is a North American Variant.  He suggested I would have to have a phone that was both an international variant and NOT regionally locked.  That puts me in the $300-$400 range+.

When I look at the specs and the worldwide formatting info, it looks like this phone supports 900 and 2100 Hz which seem to work with the carriers in France and Italy. 

Could I get some clarification -- will the Moto e4 work in France and Italy?  If I'm traveling in Europe must I have a phone that is both an international variant AND unlocked regionally?

Thanks.

The phone we carry is the North American variant.  But this would just mean the included charger is a US plug type and the warranty is USA only.  The phone is unlocked and will also work with GSM carriers in France and in Italy.

My head is spinning.  At present I am a Verizon customer.  I am taking a trip to Iceland in June and have decided to buy an unlocked phone to try out here and then use there.  So I am talking a GSM dual SIM unlocked phone.  I want to use a Mintsim (T-mobile carrier) SIM card here and Simin (Iceland GSM carrier) SIM card while there.  I have been looking at the Blu Grand Energy unlocked phone and thought I had it straight but it appears that I need frequency 2100 available for Simin and some info on the phone says they have it but others say they don't.  I really like the large battery idea and the fact I can charge my tablet off of it but if it won't work both here and there the point is moot.  Can you please help me unravel this?  Also I believe the Grand Energy was released in 2017, is there a newer version here now or coming out?

Hi Brenda!  I was reviewing the specs of the Blu Grand Energy and 2100 band is supported.  It looks like the phone is no longer available at B&H and I am unaware of a newer version.

Such a hassle.  Been using an old flip with PagePlus (Verizon network) for many years, ready to upgrade my phone, researched a lot and decided I like the Huawei Mate 10, but discovered that phone is GSP not CDMA, bummer!!

Any chance that the Verizon version of the HP elite X3 will work on Sprint network?  Looking for another Windows phone to use on my Sprint account is like trying to find the proverbial unicorn.  I am currently using the Samsung Aveo which is Windows 8 and won't go any further.

correction, using Samsung ATIV, not Aveo

Im interested in the LG G5 model RS988. I want to be able to use thenphone in Israel. It says north american varient, but the frequencies the phone use, match frequencies used by companies in Israel. Will the phone work in Israel? I dont understand becuase it says it is unlocked. 

Hi Daniel - 

This phone will work in Israel.

Thank you Mark. I havent found a real answer yet. The "north american variant" has really been causing me trouble. Now im just hoping its a great phone

I am interested in purchasing the LG V20 H910 AT&T Branded smartphone from your site. I am really confused about all this bands and frequencies as to what works where. I would like to know if this phone would work with Freedom Mobile in Canada on the LTE network. This is the info they have provided on their site:

Network enhancements will make it easier for more Canadians to bring their own phones to Freedom Mobile and enjoy the full benefit of fast LTE.

The upgrades will use newly acquired 2500 MHz (Band 7) spectrum in dense urban areas, and existing AWS-1 (Band 4) spectrum across all markets. Our existing AWS-3 (Band 66) spectrum is available across our entire network, and offers the fastest experience on compatible phones.

Thanks,

Yes, this phone would be compatible with this network.

Thanks. The phone just arrived yesterday and it is working beautifully on 4G LTE!

Hi I am interested to buy Moto Z or Samsung but I see for Moto Z it is mentioned Nortamerica Variant and for Samsung it is mentioned as AT&T Variant. Can I carry this phones to India and use there aswell or I have to use them here in USA only ?

This really depends on which Samsung and which Moto Z you're referring to.  If those phones support 3G bands of 900, 1800, and 2100, then it should work just fine.

I want the new Nokia 3310 3G; I love ATT Go-Phone pricing and simplicity.  Will this phone work with this connectivity please?  I've asked the ATT store and they say 'yes'... but they say 'yes' to anything!

The Nokia 3310 would not be compatible with AT&T.

Bought Blackberry Dtek60 from B&H, can you confirm me it would work Bangladesh, because I am going to Bangladesh for couple of months, and I am going to use Grameen Phone carrier in Bangladesh.

Thanks 

Yes, this phone would work in Bangladesh with Grameen.

Hello B&H!  I'm a Blackberry fan and presently have a Classic. I'm trying to get my hands on a Keyone and understand you now have a CDMA verion for Verison which is my carrier. What Ive read is the initial Keyone versions were notorious for having their screens popping off. My questions are :

  • Has the problem been corrected , and
  • what is and who maintains the Blackberry warantee in the US. Is it B&H or other and what does it cover?  I want to move forward ASAP.

Thanks, 

Gene

Hi Gene - 

It is our understanding that Blackberry has addressed all known issues.  So far we have had no negative feedback regarding problem screens.

Stay connected and productive with the BlackBerry KEYone BBB100-3 32GB Smartphone for Verizon. This smartphone features a BlackBerry physical keyboard with touch navigation and a built-in fingerprint reader below its 4.5" 1620 x 1080 HD display and runs on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 625 chipset, with a 2.0 GHz octa-core processor and 3GB of RAM. The 32GB of built-in storage can be augmented using a microSD card for additional space.

The KEYone's 12MP f/2.0 camera has a Sony IMX378 sensor with large 1.55μm pixels, a six-element HDR lens, 4K recording at 30 fps, and a dual-tone flash for better low-light shots. At the front, an 8MP f/2.2 camera has a wide 84° field of view and can light up the entire display to act as a flash for self-portraits.

A wide array of connectivity options, including 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2 + LE with EDR, and NFC, let you interface with other devices and the Internet. GPS with GLONASS and BeiDou2 help you navigate, and FM radio lets you stay on top of local broadcasts. The KEYone features a 3505mAh battery that can be recharged using the included reversible USB Type-C cable.

Note: This device is designed to work on the Verizon network only. Please confirm with Verizon that it can be activated on your plan before purchasing.

Hello, If I buy an unlocked phone will I be able to transfer my current phone number over from my att account?  even if i'm not going to be using att anymore?

Yes.  It is called "porting."  You would have to contact your phone carrier inquire about transferring your current phone number to your new unlocked phone.

B&H

Hello, I would like to buy Samsung galaxy S5 unlocked. I live in Uruguay and use Movistar company,can it serve me? 

When I enter my Movistar SIM card in my cell phone, can I use it without any problems?

hi want to buy moto g5S plus but can u plz confierm me that it  will support abroad sim card or not i am going to buy it from amazon in india 

Hi Murari - 

This phone will work with most major Indian cellular carriers, but does not offer LTE band 40 which some carriers employ.

I was thinking of purchasing an unlocked Samsung Galaxy J7 on this site but was not sure if it would work on my existing carrier. I am using TRACFONE and I know it is GSM but did not see it in the list you provided for working GSM. Does anyone know if it will work? I do not want to order just in case it doesn't work! Thank you xx

I forgot to say that I am in the US! I have a feeling it will work but still wanted to double check!

Hi, i want to buy a Samsung Galaxy S8+ duos unlocked, i want to know if work's with Digi Mobil ( Romania ) and the warranty works in Romania or just in USA? 

The Galaxy S8+ Duos B&H carries will work with Digi Mobil in Romania.  However, the warranty is only a USA warranty.

So I can buy an unlocked phone, put my T-Mobile SIM in it, and have my number on that?

If the unlocked phone you are looking to purchase supports T-Mobile, yes.

I want to purchase the Samsung Galaxy S8 (SM-G950F) in blue or gold since no one else seems to carry those colors.  My current carrier is Cricket Wireless, and I want to keep service with them.  Is there anything that would prevent me from doing this...I'm a bit confused about the variant??  

You will have no problem using the Samsung Galaxy S8 (SM-G950F) on Cricket Wireless. The Samsung Galaxy S8 (SM-G950F) is an unlocked variant and is compatible with the ATT network that Cricket Wireless uses. 

Hi Laurie - 

This phone will work with Cricket Wireless activation and service.

Laurie Carpenter wrote:

I want to purchase the Samsung Galaxy S8 (SM-G950F) in blue or gold since no one else seems to carry those colors.  My current carrier is Cricket Wireless, and I want to keep service with them.  Is there anything that would prevent me from doing this...I'm a bit confused about the variant??  

I'm considering purchasing an unlocked Moto G Plus with 32 GB internal memory.  The Motorola website (and Best Buy for that matter) claim it is compatible with the AT&T network and Cricket Wireless, which is my carrier.  The Cricket guy, for obvious reasons, was unwilling to commit on the compatibility of the Moto G Plus, citing that some features may not work properly.  Perhaps true, I don't know.  On the Motorola website, there was a lovely chart and it did say the followiing:

"device is compatible with service provider’s network but some service provider specific features may not be available"

Like what?

I know unlocked phones don't have the plethora of bloatware (a thorn in my side), but typically speaking, what do they have pre-loaded?

Suggestions, cautions, pearls of wisdom welcome.

Thanks.

Hi Julia - 

The manufacturerer and the "Cricket guy" were accurate.  Could be just about any feature.  But typically a non-essential one like FM radio, Wi-Fi calling.  More importantly, sometimes the phone's OS cannot be updated if the updates would be supplied by the cellular service provider. The MOTO products that are factory unlocked and purchased from a reputable vendor are relatively low-risk products offering substantial savings.

Thank you. 

I purchased my first unlocked phone, the Moto G5 Plus to use with my Verizon line and it works fine, however I'm unable to use internet when using the phone line. Also, the LTE rarely appears. I want to purchase the Samsung Galaxy S8, but will I still have this problem?

Thanks for your response.

Hi Heav - 

Have you tried a reset?  This sounds like a network issue of some kind or the phone not being activated correctly.  We have not heard of this issue occuring regularly with a MOTO G5 PLUS or the New Samsung  Galaxy s8.

I have the G5 Plus as well for some reason the LTE comes on if I turn wi fi off. I have now installed 2 play store apps that show me if I am on LTE and which band whether I have wi fi on or off.

Hi Ken -

Try a factory reset,. And recheck your settings. But this is not all that unusual as the phone wants to be ready to receive a call or connect to the internet. 

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