Sep 28 AT 11:05 AM Taylor Wimberly 62 Comments

Best unlocked Android phone for any budget, September 2012


Earlier this year I started writing buyers’ guides for every carrier, and I intended to update them each month. Then I got fed up with the locked phones and service contracts that carriers offered, so I ported my number to Google Voice, paid Verizon my $300 ETF, signed up for a pre-paid plan, and went back to using unlocked devices.

For consumers on a tight budget, switcing to the pre-paid world can be challenging at first. The cost of leaving your carrier during the middle of a contract or the cost of buying an unlocked phone could force you to spend 3-6x times your monthly carrier bill.

Once you get past the initial expenses, your savings could quickly add up. I switched from Verizon to Straight Talk (AT&T), which instantly saved me around $50 per month, or roughly $600 per year. That same $600 is about the cost of most high-end Android phones that are unlocked and sold without a service contract. This means your potential first-year savings could absorb the entire cost of any new Android phone you want.

After making the switch to using an unlocked Android phone on Straight Talk, I see no real reason to return to the land of locked phones and post-paid service plans. I have the freedom to choose the device I want, I can choose what network it operates on, I can decide what software it runs, and I can switch from device to device, and carrier to carrier, without signing another contract.

There are many places to purchase unlocked phones, and I have found that Amazon Wireless offers the largest selection, lowest prices, and fastest service. I’m a member of Amazon Prime so I get free 2-day shipping on most items, but it’s still a good deal even with shipping added in.

If you are considering making the switch to an unlocked phone, here is some advice from someone that just made the journey.

What is an unlocked phone?

Unlocked devices are phones that recognize SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) cards from any carrier. A locked phone will only recognize a SIM card from a particular carrier. The “lock” is a software setting that keeps the cell phone “loyal” to one carrier.

Why should I buy an unlocked phone?

We have already touched on some reasons to shred your wireless contract, but I’ll recap some of the highlights.

  • Unlocked phones cost less in the long run. Do the math.
  • Unlocked phones are not altered by a carrier. No need to worry about crap apps or gimped hardware.
  • Unlocked phones receive Android updates faster directly from the manufacturer vs carrier locked phones.
  • Unlocked phones give consumers more control of plans and pricing. No contracts, no commitments, no hidden fees.

Why should I not buy an unlocked phone?

Unlocked phones are not for everyone. Some reasons you might want to pass on unlocked phones include:

  • No 4G LTE access. In the future we might see pre-paid service plans with 4G LTE, but right now you are limited to HSPA+.
  • Large families might be better off with a post-paid plan. Rates vary from carrier to carrier, but a family plan with shared minutes and data might be cheaper than a bunch of individual pre-paid plans.
  • No in-store support. If you enjoy walking into your local carrier store to get support with your phone, then you might pass on an unlocked device. Most carriers will not provide support for a device they did not sell, so you will have to turn to the manufacturer for help and warranty claims.

What US networks support unlocked phones?

AT&T and T-Mobile both use the GSM standard and support unlocked phones. Verizon and Sprint rely on the CDMA (Code division multiple access) standard and they will not work with unlocked GSM phones.

Most unlocked phones that were designed for the international market will have no problems running on AT&T’s network. T-Mobile USA uses different HSPA+ bands (1700/2100 MHz), which most international phones do not support.

Most unlocked phones will still operate on T-Mobile’s 2G Edge network, but they will not have access to the faster HSPA+ speeds. However, T-Mobile does plan to launch HSPA+ service on the 1900 MHz band by the end of 2012, so they will eventually support many unlocked devices at faster data speeds.

Some devices like the Galaxy Nexus support up to five bands (850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100 MHz) and will operate on both AT&T and T-Mobile. Check the bands on an unlocked phone before you make your purchase.

What are the best service plans for unlocked phones?

This topic deserves a separate post (coming soon), but here is a quick summary. Unlocked phones can be used on most of AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s service plans, but using those won’t net you any extra savings. The best option is to go prepaid with services such as Straight Talk SIM, Simple Mobile, Solavei, or T-Mobile Monthly 4G.

I chose Straight Talk SIM because they let you choose between AT&T’s or T-Mobile’s network.

Tips for Buying from Amazon

Check who is selling and fulfilling the product: Amazon uses a number of sellers throughout their site. Each product listing will have a featured merchant, but click through the list of sellers to review all your buying options. Some products are shipped by the seller and others are fulfilled through Amazon’s own warehouses. Amazon provides reviews for each seller, so read up on the recent comments if you have any concerns.

Prices will fluctuate daily: You might notice prices jumping up and down before you buy, because of the number of merchants that Amazon uses. One seller might offer a product for $30 cheaper than the competition and then they will sell out and the price will jump back up.

Amazon guarantee: You can buy with confidence because Amazon offers A-to-z Guarantee Protection. The condition of the item you buy and its timely delivery are guaranteed.

Read the reviews: We are providing our picks for the best unlocked Android phone at every price point, but don’t take us as the final word. I encourage you to read the user reviews to see what people are saying about the product.

Best unlocked phone for $500-599: Samsung Galaxy S III

The Good: Large HD display, fast Exynos 4 Quad processor, 1 GB RAM, Android 4.0 (Android 4.1 coming later), excellent camera experience, NFC, hacker friendly, removable battery, microSD slot.

The Not-so-good: Samsung hasn’t been the fastest to deliver software updates.

Final Words: The Galaxy S III is one of the best unlocked phones that money can buy, in terms of hardware. However, you can get a pretty similar experience from the HTC One X for around $100 less. The Galaxy S III is the only unlocked phone on this list with 2 GB RAM (which bodes well for future Android updates), but I’m not sure that justifies the price.

Full Review: Check out Anthony’s review of the Galaxy S III.

Last Amazon price$578 for GT-I9300 International version (Pebble Blue), $589 for GT-I9300 International version (Ceramic White)

Best unlocked phone for $400-499: HTC One X

The Good: Amazing camera experience, beautiful design, Beats audio, large vibrant display, quad-core Tegra 3 processor, best version of Sense UI yet, hacker friendly, NFC, Android 4.0 (Android 4.1 coming later).

The not-so-good: No microSD card, battery is non-removable.

Final Words: The HTC One X offers a premium Android experience  with a price that beats the top competitors. Design stands out above the rest. HTC enables you to unlock the bootloader, and there is a growing development community that supports the device.

Full Review: Check out Taylor’s review of the HTC One X.

Last Amazon Price: $492 for S720E global version with Tegra 3 chip and 32 GB storage.

Best unlocked phone for $300-399: Samsung Galaxy Nexus

The Good: Only smartphone shipping with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, usually one of the first devices to receive new versions of Android, hacker friendly, large 4.65-inch display, NFC with Google Wallet, replaceable battery.

The not-so-good: Camera experience is now lacking compared to newer phones like the One X and Galaxy S III, no expandable storage, OMAP4 processor lags behind Snapdragon S4 and Tegra 3, we expect a new Nexus device to go on sale in Q4.

Final Words: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus delivers the most bang for the buck. The software experience is so good that you sometimes forget this phone is about to be a year old. This is still a good purchase if you don’t mind the camera and no expandable storage, but a the next Nexus is coming soon.

Last Google Price: $349

Best unlocked phone for $200-299: Sony Xperia Sola

The Good: Just upgraded to Android 4.0, 3.7-inch Reality Display with Mobile BRAVIA Engine (854×480), 5 megapixel Fast Capture Exmor R camera, “Floating Touch” search the web without touching the screen, NFC,  available in multiple colors (black, white, red).

The not-so-good: Resolution is only 854×480, but that is pretty standard for this price range, battery capacity is only 1320 mAh.

Final Words: Last time we chose the HTC One V, but it only supports HSPA+ on the 850 MHz band (no 1900 MHz). The Xperia Sola works on 850/1900, offers twice the internal storage of the HTC One V (8 GB vs 4 GB), and it runs about $25 cheaper.

Last Amazon Price: $264

Best unlocked phone for $100-199: Sony Xperia tipo

The Good: Android 4.0, 3.2-inch display, 800 MHz Snapdragon S1 processor, microSD slot, FM radio, available in multiple colors (black, white, red, blue).

The not-so-good: Low-resolution 480 x 320 display, only 3 megapixel camera, only 2.5 GB internal storage.

Final Words: Last time we suggested the Xperia Mini Pro, but that phone is starting to age. The new Xperia tipo offers more internal storage, longer battery life, and a better overall experience.

Last Amazon Price: $192

Best unlocked phone for $0-99: Motorola Sprice XT300

The Good: Price, slide-out QWERTY keyboard, 3 MP camera, and microSD expansion slot.

The not-so-good: Only Android 2.1, low-resolution display, only 400 MB internal storage, and don’t expect it to receive software updates.

Final Words: This phone doesn’t really belong here, but it’s hard to find much else below $99. The LG Optimus One would be a better pick when the price falls, and it’s already down to $110.

Last Amazon Price: $99

Wrapping Things Up

Anyone looking for a high-end device will be happy with the HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S III. I have been using both devices and you can really tell they are a step ahead of phones from last year.

Even the Samsung Galaxy Nexus offers a premium Android experience at an affordable price of $349. The camera is lacking and the OMAP4 CPU is a year old, but the pure Android 4.1 Jelly bean experience is unmatched.

Looking down the list, it is pretty impressive that you can get an Android 4.0 device for under $200. Once you dip below $100 you start to see the choices drop off, but that should improve as we reach the holiday season. Amazon doesn’t sell many phones from the Chinese manufacturers like Huawei and ZTE, but those companies are also helping drive down prices of the low-end phones.

Let us know if you spot any unlocked devices that might be a better pick at any of the price points. We plan to regularly update this as we search out the best deals for unlocked Android phones.

Taylor is the founder of Android and Me. He resides in Dallas and carries the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One as his daily devices. Ask him a question on Twitter or Google+ and he is likely to respond. | Ethics statement

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  • jaxidian

    IMHO, you should also include T-Mobile’s Value Plans for cheap plans to consider. While they’re contract plans, they are dirt cheap for larger families! You can get 5 lines w/1k minutes, unlimited SMS, and 2GB (per line) data for $110. Add another $20 for unlimited minutes. You still have to go out and buy your own phone, though.


    • Deren S

      if “1900 MHz coming by end of 2012″ does that mean att 3g phones would work on t-mobile?

      • Taylor Wimberly

        Yes! T-Mobile actually has 4G HSPA+ on 1900 MHz in a couple cities including Las Vegas, Seattle, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York metro area.

        Read more:

        • jay555

          Taylor, one thing that you fail to mention in the article is the fact that Straight Talk’s terms and conditions prohibit you from streaming audio and video. That means no youtube or pandora for example. Now, I’ve heard people say that if you don’t go over a certain amount every month then you’ll fly under their radar, under 2 GB I believe. What’s been your experience regarding data usage? This is the one thing keeping me from making the switch to them.

          • Taylor Wimberly

            I have ST. I stream Pandora and YouTube every day with no problems.

          • haj922

            I’ve had ST for over 3 years and stream with no problem. Their cap is 2.5 GB high speed data and their website states that once that limit has been reached they will drop high speed to low, unless they see extreme usage, in which case they have the right to drop your account.

        • JJTurdhorse

          So Taylor, here’s my question, will the International phones (HTC oneX and sgs3) run on the hspa+ networks in America or will they just work on 3g.

          • Taylor Wimberly

            Yes they run on HSPA+. Most devices are only HSPA+ 21 Mbps, but a few are DC-HSPA+ 42 Mbps.

            And if you were wondering, yes HSPA+ speeds work on pre-paid carrier plans.

        • JJTurdhorse

          Hey thanks Taylor. I appreciate the quick response.

    • Lady_Myka_1987

      The best unlocked phone is hands down the new iPhone 5 (i have my iPhone 5 pre-ordered)

      • virexed

        …and how much did that cost you without contract? Yea… quite the value. /end sarcasm

        • Homncruse

          The same as most other high-end Android phones (on par with the SGS3 above). Prepaid devices aren’t limited to just Android. If someone wishes to go prepaid and bring their iPhone, they’re more than capable of doing so. That is, of course, assuming the prepaid providers have current support for the micro SIM in the case of the iPhone 5.

          • virexed

            Understood. I used to have the 1st gen iPhone on Tmo. I just think it’s absurd that apple is charging $650 and up for their iPhones when you can get the 16 GB S3 for $600 and add your choice of microSD. Which is why I’m against HTCs new direction on their new devices.

      • golfpedaler

        Looks like an Apple shepherd has lost one of his lambs…they need to pay more attention to the flock and make them drink more Kool-Aid…Go back and follow the other, leave us alone…Troll

  • Meister_Li

    I’m not sure why you’re claiming that Samsung is slow with Software updates. This is, after all, the international unlocked version, which already runs Jelly Bean Beta Roms that pretty much run bug-free and are directly from Samsung.

    • Meister_Li
    • Taylor Wimberly

      It’s true that Jelly Bean has started rolling out in some countries. I had to list at least one not so good thing, and historically they don’t have the best track record with updates. It has definitely improved though.

    • Nick Gray

      This is the first time that Samsung is first out of the gate with an Android update. HTC typically beats them by about a month.

  • seven2k

    My buddy went unlocked gnex on tmobile. He loves and im jealous!

  • Deren S

    Good article. I’m actually waiting for the next “Nexus” phones to be announced before buying an unlocked phone for straight talk. I still don’t think people realize how much they are getting ripped off by going on contract. My ex just got an Iphone 5 for 400 something dollars and her contract is near 200 dollars a month for 2 lines. I pay less then half that for 2 lines and I’m on the same network minus LTE. Oh well.

    • Taylor Wimberly

      You won’t have to wait much longer for the next Nexus…

      • Alex

        Any new specs on the next nexus? still have my nexus one, was going for the SG3 but I might wait.

        • RICO

          I really hope the next NEXUS has expandable memory, and basically the same specs as the SGS3 (with the 2gb of RAM).

  • John in Brisbane

    Nice article – I kind of do this in my head for cars as well – work out the best deals at each price point. Dunno what’s going on but an Aussie supplier is actually cheaper on the GS3. We often joke/moan about the “Australia Tax” – a price premium we seem to pay on identical products, but in this case we’re cheaper. Dunno what postage would be but at $499, I’d say you still be well ahead. I don’t have anything to do with them ( but I’ll spread the word if I see a cheap price. The Aussie dollar is worth a few cents more than the USD at the moment.

  • Yoda

    Samsung does not warranty the international version if you are in the US.
    I ordered the international unlocked samsung galaxy nexus before the big price drops earlier this year. Based on the international version’s IMEI numbers, the support help on samsung’s site won’t let you send the phone in for repairs.

  • A.Woodbury

    I too am waiting for the next Nexus device. It really seems that Google is getting back to keeping the Nexus devices up to date so it’s a very appealing deal

  • Nathan D.

    Soon after 2013 come along, t-mobile will support 1900mhz across the United States. Then you can import or get at&t phones and use it on t-mobile network without any problems.

  • Sylvan

    Next rev of this article, you might list the bands each phone supports.

  • bb

    I think ebays prices are much better than amazons and they also have a buyer protection policy

  • Steve Williams

    You did a lot of good work, here. Wasn’t expecting a break down of the available phones.

  • Arthur

    I am currently on the $60 T-Mobile Monthly 4G plan with 2GB of data if I am not mistaking. Most of those phones listed, besides the Galaxy Nexus if I recall correctly can use T-Mobile’s 3G network (1700 MHz) and is really the only phone I am considering at the moment. I still have my older Nexus S 4G from Sprint before I switched to T-Mobile and got the official Jelly Bean 4.1.1 upgrade a couple of weeks ago and I love it so far. Did get to play with a recently updated Galaxy Nexus at Verizon with the 4.1.1 JB update and loved that even more. I will wait to see if the LG Optimus G is the next US Nexus device and will only buy directly from Google. That hardware with stock JB should be able to run circles around any phone Android or otherwise.

  • Homncruse

    Excellent article Taylor. I was planning to make a similar post this weekend on my blog, but you beat me to it. Oh well, linked:

    It wasn’t until I tried writing the summary before the link that I realized how hard this whole blogging thing is! I’ll get better as I write more articles I suppose (once I finish the few remaining technical issues on the new site).

    • William Mize

      Didn’t know that your “Why Prepaid” site existed. Thanks for the comment.

      • Homncruse

        That’s because I just launched it yesterday :)

  • Jae

    I see its cheaper to go pre paid, but what about tethering. I wish there was information provided in the write up.

    • Homncruse

      What about it? Tethering rules vary from carrier to carrier, and it also depends on which method you use. Tethering is built into Android since Gingerbread (or was it FroYo?), it’s just a matter of USING the functionality that’s questionable regarding Terms of Service. That’s something which is more likely to be covered in the carrier reviews.

    • Taylor Wimberly

      Tethering is part of most Android phones, but the US carriers like to take it out or try to charge you extra. Most unlocked phones will do tethering on pre-paid wireless plans with no problems. You might want to be careful, because some terms of service say it is prohibited (even though it still works).

  • William Mize

    THANK YOU for this monthly service. One of the reasons that I, an apple fanboy, keep coming back to this site. My iPhone contract is over in a year, so it’s nice to keep up with what android is offering. My gateway drug? The Nexus 7 tablet. LOVE IT. Thanks again!

  • jadwigo

    One small note – the picture for the xperia sola displays an xperia U, which is a bit cheaper, but lacks NFC and floating touch

  • Alexis Bustillos

    Perfect, This is exactly what I was looking for! :)

  • Alexis Vasquez

    I have a Motorola Droid Razr but with no service. I want to unlock it and conect it with the best servicebfor my phone. Can I get some opinions or ideas of what should I do?

  • Derrick Best

    For my UK brothers pre-paid offers even better savings. The best prepaid carrier is Giff Gaff. They use O2s’ network. £10. a month I get ulimited Internet. Unlimited texts and 250 minutes. The minutes go up with £15, 20, and 25. Best part is I can top up whenever. There’s no tethering restrictions so I use my dead cheap Huawei Blaze to tether to my Nexus 7. (the Blaze tethers well but is useless for anything else but calls)
    This works for me as I’m in wifi range apart from commute to and from work. I’m not sure but I think Giff Gaff works in all carrier branded phones. It worked with my partners’ GNex. expansys and are probably the best for unlocked phones.

  • Baldilocks

    There definitely IS an advantage to unlocked phone on AT&T.

    I have the International One X on AT&T. It costs me $10 a month for Unlimited and Unthrottled Data.

    That’s a saving of at LEAST $15 per month.

  • Kockmeatsandwich

    Great article, I just happen to look for an unlocked phone t keep as a secondary.

  • Hanna

    No thanks, i keep my contract with big red Verizon and my new iPhone 5

  • GinSan

    Great article btw.. But if you don’t talk a lot, check out the TMobile’s and Walmart plans.$30 a month for 100 mins unlimited text and 5gigs of data. And also the International version of the S3 has only 1gig of Ram =)

  • Tav

    FYI they have a 4G LTE International version of the GS3:
    I just wish you could buy from Samsung direct or with a warranty.
    I guess Amazon is the best place to buy it?
    Main other difference is 32GB internal memory limit, comes with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean & color is black.
    Expected release: Oct 2012.

  • roland

    samsung is going to price them self out of the # 1 spot. I”ii only get it form Google

  • roland

    samsung is going to price them self out of the # 1 spot. I”ii only get it form Google.

  • Revalence

    That Sony Xperia Sola looks ALOT sexier than its $250 price tag…

  • Tech 2013

    Samsung is awesome and making new devices and launching new gadgets day by day.
    you may like

  • jfiosi

    Xiaomi 2. Check out the specs and then compare price to features ratio with other phones. (Sorry, in Chinese only). Didn’t see other commenters mention this. May be the one to lock up all 3 top price points by itself! Also, Oppo phones. (Again, Chinese lang only, but can open in translated version with Google Translate). All soon available from reputable dealers online. Xiaomi 2 not available yet (coming in Nov 2012). If you are not hung up on “brand”, then these are as good as or sometimes better than their better known siblings.

  • Lola

    What about unlocked phones with wifi calling? I haven’t seen much about that feature. I’m moving from USA to Italy next month for 2 years and am exploring unlocked phone options. I have a mytouch tmobile contract now and need to get out of this situation.

  • Mike

    Im on Verizon. does this mean that I cannot buy 1 of those phones from China on a site like some of them say GSM and others say GSM with WCDMA, what does that mean?

  • Eddie

    The absolute DEAL OF THE CENTURY for a cheap but higher-end smartphone on Straight Talk is The PANTECH P9070 BURST, which you can get all day long on ebay for in the $130, give or take, range. Bare in mind, most (but not all) of these are listed as “refurbished” but in reality most they look to be brand new. I and my wife both own one and both still had the little blue protective plastic covering the camera lens (so as not to scratch it). You get a 4″ Super AMOLED screen, $G LTE capable, front and rear facing cameras, Ours came with Android gingerbread, but is upgradable via Pantechs site to Ice cream. A 1.2 GHz dual core processor and 16 gb internal storage. The only downside is battery life is not so great, BUT it’s not that bad either and there are ways to get rid of someone the bloat to make the battery life better. For $120 or so you’re not going to find ANYTHING comparable.

  • Michael

    Great information. There should be an updated version of this as the tech world is constantly evolving.

  • Jaria Pippin

    Verizon gets superior reception in my area and is the leading provider, but I’m dying to switch to StraightTalk because the Verizon plan is sucking my bank account dry. If I purchase an unlocked GSM aaaaaand CDMA phone can I use it with a StraightTalk SIM on the Verizon Network?

    I’m very, very new to the “unlocked” and non-plan world so please help.

    Thanks so much for an AWESOME article,

  • Jp

    Hi. I live in Houston Tx. If I buy a 3g phone that works with Network frequency: GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz WCDMA 850/2100MHz can I use it with tmobiles 3g network?
    Does the phone needs to work with the 1700? Thanka for any info or recommendation

  • khalil smith

    do phones on aliexpress work with carriers like tmobile because im scared to get one

  • Rick Suggs

    I’m currently in the market for an Unlocked android phone, with the capability to run on AT&T 4g LTE network, and hopefully getting service through StraightTalk. Do you you have any recommendations for newer hardware that is 4G LTE compatible?

  • Best Android Apps

    Great information. There should be an updated version of this as the tech world is constantly evolving.

  • Nick Wilson

    Why isn’t the Samsung Illusion under the 100 dollar phone… *facepalm*