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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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. 

Hi Everyone!

Nice article guys! Maybe you can help me choose the best option for a Galaxy S8+ that I'll use here in brazil. (SM-G955FD / SM-G955F / SM-G955U) My carrier is VIVO. Tks!

Hi Paulo,

Any of these phones would be fully compatible with Vivo in Brazil.  The SM-G955U model does support more bands and more likely to work with other carriers from around the world.  The SM-G955FD is dual sim capable...though it's really up to you if you feel you need to use 2 sim cards.  Overall, I think the SM-G955U is the best bet.

If I buy the Moto 5G Plus 64 GB from you will I be able to use it while in Europe, specifically Italy as I will be there for 3 months and plan on using it mainly in Italy and leaving it there for next year as my wife and I have a home there and are getting rid of our landline as it would be much cheaper to use a cell phone instead of a landline there.  Thanks for your reply.

Bob

Hi Robert - 

This phone should work with most European or Italian cellular providers that you would activate with.  Please check with the cellular provider of your choice prior to purchasing.  Here are the communications specifications for the 

Moto G5 Plus XT1687 64GB Smartphone (Unlocked, Lunar Gray) B&H # MOG564GBGRY MFR # 01108NARTL

Communications:

CDMA 2G: CDMA: 800, 1900 MHz

GSM 2G: GSM, GPRS, EDGE: 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz

CDMA 3G: CDMA2000, EV-DO: 800, 1900 MHz

GSM 3G/3.5G: UMTS, HSPA+: 850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100 MHz

4G LTE: LTE: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 25, 26, 38, 41, 66 Bands

Wi-FiYes, 802.11a/b/g/n

BluetoothBluetooth 4.1 + LE 

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.

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