One of the ways to cut the cost of a smartphone is to sign a contract agreement with a cellular provider, but that discount comes with risk. If you’d rather not form a long term relationship with a spotty network, consider a phone that isn’t locked to one carrier. An unlocked phone can be a flexible, affordable option. We’re here to help you decide if a Black Friday deal on an unlocked smartphone is right for you.
Smartphone makers used to lock every phone to a carrier network. The original iPhone was an AT&T exclusive for years, and it could not be used on any other carrier without hacking the phone. Today, almost all phones are sold unlocked, though some carriers still make you ask for a key to take your device on a different network.
Every smartphone on our list of best phones is available unlocked. You can even get financing from Apple or Samsung to spread out your payments, just as you would with a carrier agreement. You won’t get the phone for ‘free,’ as you would if you tied the purchase to your monthly cell phone plan, but you can switch to a new carrier with ease.
Where to look for unlocked phones
When you start exploring unlocked phone options, a new world of devices opens up. Your local carrier store has a limited selection, but major retailers including Walmart, Best Buy, and Target all sell a wider variety of unlocked phones, from manufacturers you’ll recognize, at a price that is much lower than you’d expect.
One of our favorite unlocked brands is Motorola. While Motorola used to be the premiere maker of flagship phones in the US, it now sells mostly bargain models that punch above their weight class and cost a fraction of what you’ll pay for a Samsung Galaxy S22.
If you thought the super-expensive Galaxy S22 Ultra was the only phone with a built-in stylus, you may be delighted to find out Motorola makes the Moto G Stylus, and you can buy one on sale now for under $200.
You’re going to skimp on quite a bit – it’s a fairly slow phone with a big screen and mediocre cameras. Did we mention it’s under $200! as a Target Black Friday phone deal?
There is a wide range of Motorola phones, all available unlocked, and all starting under $500 with no carrier agreement in sight.
More familiar names return unlocked
There are plenty of other brands to consider when you’re looking at unlocked phones. We’ve enjoyed the latest unlocked devices from Nokia, especially the rugged Nokia XR20. Walmart has a number of the latest Nokia devices available unlocked, and these start as low as $200 with Black Friday deals.
Established flagship brands like OnePlus and even Google have devices worth finding unlocked, as well. The OnePlus Nord N200 5G is a fine bargain handset, available as an unlocked Black Friday deal from Walmart.
You can find last year’s Google Pixel 6 Pro on sale unlocked from Target. Google is no longer selling that phone, but the Pixel 6a has gotten a nice price cut for the holidays, and Google as well as our other favorite retailers are selling it unlocked for $299.
The risks of buying an unlocked phone
The first question is where you’ll go when you need help. If your screen breaks, will your local repair shop be able to fix it? If the screen suddenly turns black and white, will you know who to call for help?
With a Samsung or Apple phone, you have a well-published support number and walk-in stores to find assistance. If you buy a less common brand, you may need to turn to Google search to find answers.
These are all Android phones, and Android phones rely on multiple partners for software updates. One of those partners is the cell carriers, so phones that are not locked to a carrier may be less likely to receive updates over the long term.
Manufacturers of cheap phones have a spotty track record when it comes to supporting older devices. If you are happy with your bargain phone now, don’t be disappointed when it doesn’t qualify for an Android 14 upgrade next year. That isn’t the reason you buy an inexpensive, unlocked phone.
Finally, it’s harder to find accessories for less common phones, and that includes cases and screen protectors. That’s a big deal, as a broken phone may have been what drove you to find a cheaper, unlocked phone in the first place. Before you buy a new phone, look around for a good case and screen protection, and make sure your phone is constantly wearing both.
The unlocked phones you should avoid
When you are shopping for an unlocked phone, you’ll see international versions of common phones. If you’re going to be using your phone in the U.S., it is important to buy a model intended for the US market. Don’t buy a cheaper international phone, even if you are sure it will work where you live.
First of all, the local device will have more compatible network bands for whatever cellular network you are using. You can make international phones work with our nationwide networks, but you won’t be able to take advantage of the newest, fastest 5G bands. Also, if you are in an area with bad service, especially on Verizon, an international phone won’t work with the older networks your phone might fall back on.
More importantly, your international warranty may not be valid in the U.S. If you get a great deal on a Galaxy S22 Ultra unlocked from Asia, you may have trouble if the phone needs service here in the US or in the UK.
A warranty often has regional exclusions for service. It is best to read the warranty thoroughly before you commit, and if you cannot, don’t assume your phone will get fixed for free.
Bottom line: should I seek out an unlocked phone over Black Friday?
If you’re buying a new phone over Black Friday, it’s probably already unlocked, but that doesn’t mean you need to sign a contract to get the best bargain. An unlocked phone is never a bad idea, whether you’re buying directly from Samsung or Apple, or seeking a bargain on Motorola or Nokia phones from a national retailer.
As always, we recommend reading our reviews and buying guides first, then if you find a phone you can trust, an unlocked phone is a great option for a Black Friday deal.
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Phil Berne is a preeminent voice in consumer electronics reviews, having reviewed his first device (the Sony D-EJ01 Discman) more than 20 years ago for eTown.com. He has been writing about phones and mobile technology, since before the iPhone, for a variety of sites including PCMag, infoSync, PhoneScoop, and Slashgear. He holds an M.A. in Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University.
Phil was the internal reviewer for Samsung Mobile, writing opinions and review predictions about top secret new devices months before launch. He left in 2017. He worked at an Apple Store near Boston, MA, at the height of iPod popularity. He has been a High School English teacher at Title I schools, and is a certified Lifeguard. His passion is smartphones and wearables, and he is sure that the next big thing will be phones we wear on our faces.