Hey, you, person shopping for a new phone this holiday season but after Black Friday and Cyber Monday! I know about phones, especially unlocked ones! I pay too much attention to them even though both I and my wife have perfectly good phones we don’t plan to replace anytime soon. My OCD is your gain!

I posted this last week, but resurfacing because of a bunch of price drops: Asus Zenfone 5Z, BLU Vivo XI+, Honor 7X & View 10, LG Stylo 4 & V35 Amazon Prime Exclusives, Moto G6 & Z3 Play, Nokia 6.1, Samsung Galaxy S8, and Sony XA2, XA2 Ultra & XZ2 Compact. I also have a purgatory section for deals that have lapsed but (maybe?) will come back.

Most of you are probably used to buying your phones directly from your carrier, or from a retailer like Best Buy that gives deals on carrier versions of phones. Well, quit doing that shit! Unless of course that’s the best move for you. But is it really the best move for you? Perhaps not!

But...cell phone plans are a different rabbit hole that I’m not going to fuck with right now. I thought about it, and started typing it out, but it just pissed me off. We shall revisit it later. On to the fun stuff: new gadgets to play with!

An unlocked phone is a phone you buy totally outside of anything to do with a cell phone carrier. You can put any carrier’s SIM card in an unlocked phone, and it’ll work just fine as long as the phone has the right radio frequency bands for your carrier. There are international and North American variants of phones, and for the sake of brevity (har har) I’m sticking only with North American variants.

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Also, 600 bucks is a lot of money, amirite? Yes, there are many phones available for more than $600, but y’all can figure that out on your own.

Cheat sheet for brands that’ll work with networks (and there’s more details after the phone links).

AT&T - everything, for the most part

T-Mobile - almost everything, but a lot of T-Mobile’s network expansion over the past year is on LTE Band 71 which many unlocked phones still lack. Unless specifically noted, the phones that I say “work” on T-Mobile don’t actually have Band 71. You can check the T-Mobile Band 71 map here. The only phones on this list with Band 71 are the Motorola Z3 Play and the OnePlus 6 and 6T.

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Verizon, Sprint, U.S. Cellular - Motorola, LG, Samsung; and the OnePlus 6T works on Verizon but not confirmed for Sprint or U.S. Cellular.

On to the phones! I’ve put the ones I think are good buys in italics.

Sub-$200

Nokia 3.1 - $150 at B&H, Best Buy & Walmart

  • Mediatek MT6750N, 2 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.2" 18:9 720p LCD screen
  • Clean, stock Android One for reasonably quick updates
  • AT&T & T-Mobile only
  • Headphone jack

Motorola X4 - $165 at B&H after coupon

  • Snapdragon 630, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.2" 16:9 1080p LCD screen
  • Clean, stock Android but little to no updates
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack
  • This is an older but still higher-spec phone than the G6. Unless you’re in love with the bigger screen on the G6, the X4 gets you faster guts, NFC and a marginally better camera.

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Honor 7X - $170 at B&H and Amazon (the Huawei Mate SE is identical and $20-50 more)

  • Huawei Kirin 659, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.9" 18:9 1080p LCD screen
  • Huawei EMUI skin over Android
  • AT&T & T-Mobile only (no T-Mobile wifi calling)
  • Headphone jack

Motorola G6 Play - $179 at B&H with coupon

  • Snapdragon 427, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.7" 18:9 720p LCD screen
  • Clean, stock Android but little to no updates
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • Headphone jack
  • Don’t buy this phone while the higher-spec regular G6 is available for basically the same price!

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LG Stylo 4 Amazon Prime Exclusive - $180 at Amazon

  • Snapdragon 450, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.2" 18:9 1080p LCD screen
  • LG skin over Android plus a bunch of preinstalled Amazon apps
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack
  • It has a stylus but without as many gimmicks as the Samsung Galaxy Note

Nokia 6.1 - $180 at Amazon, B&H and Best Buy

  • Snapdragon 630, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.5" 16:9 1080p LCD screen
  • Clean, stock Android One for reasonably quick updates
  • AT&T & T-Mobile only
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack

Motorola G6 32 GB / 3 GB RAM - $185 at B&H with coupon; $200 at Best Buy, Motorola, Newegg

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  • Snapdragon 450, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0" 18:9 1080p LCD screen
  • Clean, stock Android but slow updates
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • Headphone jack

$200-$300

Sony XA2 - $220 at B&H

  • Snapdragon 630, 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.2" 16:9 1080p LCD screen
  • Mostly stock, clean Android with sorta ok updates
  • AT&T & T-Mobile only
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack

Moto G6 4 GB/64 GB - $230 at Amazon for Prime Exclusive version, $255 at B&H with coupon

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  • Snapdragon 450, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0" 18:9 1080p LCD screen
  • Clean, stock Android but slow updates
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • Headphone jack

BLU Vivo XI+ 64 GB storage + 4 GB RAM $280 at Best Buy, 128 GB storage + 6 GB RAM $330 at Amazon

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  • Mediatek Helio P60, 4-6 GB RAM, 64-128 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.2" 19:9 1080p notched LCD screen
  • BLU skin that’s a mix of good extra features and some clunkiness
  • AT&T & T-Mobile only (no T-Mobile wifi calling)
  • 3D face unlock kinda like Apple
  • Wireless charging

Sony XA2 Ultra - $280 at B&H

  • Snapdragon 630, 4 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0” 16:9 1080p LCD screen
  • Mostly stock, clean Android with sorta ok updates
  • AT&T & T-Mobile only
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack

$300-400

Nokia 7.1 - $350 at Amazon, B&H, Best Buy

  • Snapdragon 636, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.8" 19:9 1080p HDR notched LCD screen
  • Clean, stock Android One for reasonably quick updates
  • AT&T & T-Mobile only
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack

LG G6 - $360 at Amazon (Prime Exclusive version), $370 at B&H

  • Snapdragon 821, 4 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.7" 18:9 1440p LCD screen
  • LG skin over Android, Amazon apps on the Amazon version
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack
  • Wireless charging
  • Water resistant

Motorola Z3 Play - $370 at Amazon (Prime Exclusive version); $385 at B&H with coupon

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  • Snapdragon 636, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0" 18:9 1080p AMOLED screen
  • Clean, stock Android, slow-ish updates, Amazon version comes pre-loaded with Amazon apps
  • Compatible with all US carriers including T-Mobile Band 71
  • NFC for Google Pay

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Honor View 10 - $380 at Amazon and B&H

  • Huawei Kirin 970, 6 GB RAM, 128 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0" 18:9 1080p LCD screen
  • Huawei EMUI skin over Android
  • AT&T and T-Mobile only (no T-Mobile wifi calling)
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack
  • IR Blaster!

$400-500

LG G6+ - $400 at B&H

  • Snapdragon 821, 4 GB RAM, 128 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.7" 18:9 LCD screen
  • LG skin over Android
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack
  • Wireless charging
  • Water resistant

Sony XZ2 Compact - $450 at B&H

  • Snapdragon 845, 4 GB RAM 64 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.0" 18:9 1080p fancy LCD screen
  • Mostly-stock Android, not super speedy updates
  • AT&T and T-Mobile only
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Water resistant
  • It’s small if you like that sort of thing

Asus Zenfone 5Z - $470 at Amazon, Asus and B&H

  • Snapdragon 845, 6 GB RAM, 64 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.2" 19:9 1080p notched LCD screen
  • Asus skin over Android, supposedly trying to be better about updates
  • AT&T and T-Mobile only (no T-Mobile wifi calling)
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack

OnePlus 6 - $480-530 at OnePlus

  • Snapdragon 845, 8 GB RAM, 128 or 256 GB storage
  • 6.3" 19:9 1080p notched AMOLED screen
  • Nice clean nearly-stock OnePlus skin with pretty solid update track record
  • AT&T & T-Mobile (including Band 71) only
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack

$500-600

LG V30+ - $500 at B&H

  • Snapdragon 835, 4 GB RAM, 128 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0" 18:9 1440p OLED screen
  • LG skin over Android
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack with fancy DAC
  • Wireless charging
  • Water resistant

Huawei Mate 10 Pro - $500 at Amazon and Newegg

  • Huawei Kirin 970, 6 GB RAM, 128 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0" 18:9 1080p AMOLED screen
  • Huawei EMUI skin over Android
  • AT&T and T-Mobile only (no T-Mobile wifi calling)
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Stereo speakers
  • IR Blaster!
  • Water resistant
  • Bigass 4000 mAh battery

Samsung Galaxy S8 - $500 at B&H, Best Buy and Samsung

  • Snapdragon 835, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB storage, microSD
  • 5.8" 18:9 1440p AMOLED screen but Samsung’s software defaults to 1080p in the settings because Samsung thinks we’re stupid
  • Samsung skin over Android, with decent security update speed but OS updates take longer
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack
  • Wireless charging
  • Water resistant

LG V35 Amazon Prime Exclusive - $530 at Amazon

  • Snapdragon 845, 6 GB RAM, 6 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0" 18:9 1440p OLED screen
  • LG skin over Android, pre-loaded Amazon apps
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack with fancy DAC
  • Wireless charging
  • Water resistant
  • (The V35 is basically the body of the V30 with the guts and camera of the G7)

OnePlus 6T - $550-630 at OnePlus

  • Snapdragon 845, 6-8 GB RAM, 128-256 GB storage
  • 6.4" 19.5:9 1080p notched AMOLED screen
  • Nice clean nearly-stock OnePlus skin with pretty solid update track record
  • AT&T, T-Mobile (including Band 71) and Verizon compatible
  • Headphone jack
  • In-display fingerprint sensor that’s cool but kinda wonky, apparently

Purgatory

Essential PH-1 - $375 at Best Buy but this is a clearance deal for store pickup only, and Best Buy’s website says there aren’t any left in any stores within 250 miles of me in the DC burbs.

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  • Snapdragon 835, 4 GB RAM, 128 GB storage
  • 5.8" 17.5:9 1440p-ish notched LCD screen
  • Clean stock Android with updates basically same day as Pixel devices (but how long this will last, who knows?)
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • NFC for Google Pay

LG G7 - $640 at B&H (had been below the $600 threshold but it’s not at the moment)

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  • Snapdragon 845, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.1" 19.5:9 1440p fancy LCD screen
  • LG skin over Android
  • Compatible with all US carriers
  • Headphone jack with fancy DAC
  • Boombox speaker gimmick for extra bass
  • Wireless charging
  • Water resistant

Incomplete unlocked phone carrier compatibility appendix time!

Each of the carriers is better or worse at blocking unlocked phones from accessing certain network features. Here are the basics.

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Verizon

Verizon’s old 2g network is based on CDMA technology. Nowadays you don’t need a phone with a CDMA radio to work on Verizon, if that phone has the correct LTE bands to work on Verizon, and Verizon has certified that phone to work on its network. Because Verizon primarily does voice calls over its LTE network now. Voice over LTE (VoLTE) calls use data traffic, not an old-school phone network. This is how you get those HD voice calls that sound a little too clear, like the person is inside your head.

VoLTE is also the only way you can get voice & data at the same time on Verizon. A while back, some Verizon-specific versions of phones could do a trick where they used the LTE network for data and the CDMA network for voice at the same time, but unlocked phones can’t do that trick.

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You definitely don’t want to fuck with an LTE-only Verizon phone if you use Verizon’s Go Unlimited or any of their prepaid plans, because Verizon throttles the shit out of data traffic on these plans any time you’re in an area where the network is busy, so much so that phones on these plans often can’t make VoLTE calls and fall back to CDMA. Live in a major city? Good luck with that!

Anyway, there are very few LTE-0nly Verizon phones. HTC is the main company that makes them, and I have a hard time recommending HTC phones at the moment, even if I did way back in the day go through no less than 3 different HTC Windows Mobile phones from 2006-09. Other than HTC, he vast majority of phones with the right LTE bands to work on Verizon also have CDMA radios.

Also, Verizon supports VoLTE on most Verizon-compatible unlocked phones, but the only unlocked phones that can do wifi calling (where the call data is routed over a wifi network instead of the cellular network) on Verizon are iPhones and Pixels. This is a limit imposed by Verizon, as there are a bunch of unlocked Motorola, Samsung, LG, etc. phones that can do wifi calling on T-Mobile but not Verizon.

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AT&T

AT&T uses GSM 2G, HSPA 3G and LTE networks. I don’t even know if the GSM network is still active. But people call AT&T GSM anyway, since HSPA is a GSM follow-on technology. AT&T’s network is the most similar network in terms of technology to the rest of the world, so you have the highest chance of finding an unlocked phone that’ll at least be compatible with AT&T’s network, i.e. it has the correct LTE bands.

You want to do VoLTE or wifi calling on AT&T with an unlocked phone? Sorry, not gonna happen. But at least AT&T’s HSPA network supports voice and data at the same time, and its voice quality is vastly superior to the shitbag awful Verizon CDMA network. It’s not the too-clear HD Voice, but it’s still pretty good.

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You know what other way you can access AT&T’s network without VoLTE or wifi calling? With an AT&T prepaid plan! So unless you neeeeeeed unlimited data, with an unlocked phone on AT&T, you should rock an AT&T prepaid plan, which unlike Verizon, is not subject to congestion throttling. Hallelujah!

Side note: Verizon and AT&T have HD Voice interoperability. If you have a Verizon VoLTE phone and call any other Verizon or AT&T VoLTE phone, you will get an HD Voice call. But since AT&T doesn’t do VoLTE with unlocked phones, welp, no HD Voice for you.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile also uses GSM/HSPA/LTE network like AT&T, but some of its LTE network is on weird LTE bands that nobody else uses. The big downside of LTE in general is that unlike the earlier network technologies that only operated on a few frequencies worldwide, there’s wayyyyyyy more LTE frequencies, and T-Mobile as a comparative little guy ended up with licenses to the weird frequencies in the US. To get the best coverage on T-Mobile, you need a phone that supports LTE band 71. While every phone sold by T-Mobile for the past year or so supports band 71, it’s still rare among unlocked phones.

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On the plus side, T-Mobile supports VoLTE and wifi calling on a huge swath of unlocked phones. Except T-Mobile HD Voice doesn’t work with Verizon or AT&T HD Voice, so you only get HD Voice if you call another T-Mobile VoLTE phone. That’s relatively rare so getting an HD Voice call is more startling. Still cool though.

One notable exception to T-Mobile wifi calling on unlocked phones is Huawei and Honor. They do VoLTE on T-Mobile, but not wifi calling.

Sprint

What? Somebody still uses Sprint? They have CDMA like Verizon, and weird, but different, LTE bands like T-Mobile. There’s no VoLTE, simultaneous voice & data, or wifi calling for unlocked phones. But some unlocked phones will work on Sprint, if you’re a masochist.

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US Cellular

I assume you live in or near the boonies. Similar CDMA etc like Verizon, less wacky LTE bands than Sprint, and no VoLTE, simultaneous voice & data, or wifi calling for unlocked phones.