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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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.