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

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.

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.

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Cheat sheet for brands that’ll work with networks:

AT&T - everything

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 too.

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 G6 Play - $150 at Best Buy

  • 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

Motorola X4 Amazon Prime Exclusive - $190 at Amazon

  • 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

$200-$300

Honor 7X - $200 at B&H (the Huawei Mate SE is identical and $20 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
  • Headphone jack

Nokia 6.1 - $200 at Amazon and B&H

  • 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 - $240 Amazon Prime version, $250 at, well, everywhere basically (B&H, Best Buy, Motorola, Newegg, Target, etc)

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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
  • There’s also a 64 GB storage + 4 GB RAM version but at $320, it’s almost as expensive as the much higher-spec Nokia 7.1. But it does have universal carrier compatibility so if you’re on one of the CDMA networks, it’s sorta worth considering if you can’t stretch up to the Moto Z3 Play.

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LG Stylo 4 Amazon Prime Exclusive - $250 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

Sony XA2 - $270 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

$300-400

BLU Vivo XI+ - 64 GB storage + 4 GB RAM $300 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 (but no T-Mobile wifi calling)
  • 3D face unlock kinda like Apple
  • Wireless charging

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

Motorola Z3 Play Amazon Prime Exclusive - $370 at Amazon

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

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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

Essential PH-1 - $375 at Best Buy

  • 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

Sony XA2 Ultra - $380 at Amazon and 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

$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

Honor View 10 - $430 at Amazon

  • Huawei Kirin 970, 6 GB RAM, 128 GB storage, microSD
  • 6.0" 18:9 LCD screen
  • Huawei EMUI skin over Android
  • AT&T and T-Mobile only
  • 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

Asus Zenfone 5Z - $500 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
  • NFC for Google Pay
  • Headphone jack

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

LG G7 - $530 at B&H

  • 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

Sony XZ2 Compact - $500 at Amazon, B&H and Best Buy

  • 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
  • It’s small if you like that sort of thing

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

Samsung Galaxy S8 - $600 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

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 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. The 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. Even if those phones are capable of wifi calling on other networks.

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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.

Sprint

What? Somebody still uses Sprint? They have CDMA like Verizon, and weird, but different, LTE bands like T-Mobile. There’s no VoLTE or wifi calling at all 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, and while US Cellular does now support VoLTE, not on unlocked phones. No wifi calling to be found.