The best smartphones all have something in common. To get one at an affordable price, you'll need to sign some sort of contract that binds you to a mobile carrier. At least, that's what you're led to believe. Many don't know that they can save money on a contract by buying unlocked phones.

It is not by chance. In the United States, operators are using smartphones as bait to attract new users. Contract users are likely to spend more money through family plans. They are willing to pay more for unlimited data. More importantly, the potential network switching penalties keep these users longer on the network they sign up for. They are more personally invested in service.

The iPhone 7s is just one of many unlocked phones that you don't need to buy from a carrier.

The iPhone 7s is just one of many unlocked phones that you don't need to buy from a carrier.

Slowly this is changing. Smartphone buyers, through word of mouth and programs designed to tell users how much they are spending on wireless plans, are having an effect. Changes in the industry have made it possible to buy unlocked phones and skip contracts altogether. This puts the fate of your phone and your wallet in your hands.

Here's how to buy unlocked phones and save money and heartache.

Buying Unlocked Phones: A Guide

To save money on your smartphone and skip a contract, you'll have to forget everything you know about smartphones. You have been conditioned to upgrade every two years. You were taught that smartphones cost $199 or less. You are used to having to replace your phone when you change networks.

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You can completely avoid carrier interference by buying unlocked phones.

Your smartphone doesn't cost you or your carrier $199. The Samsung Galaxy S7, even though it's been a year since its release, costs $649 and up. The iPhone 7 costs $649 in its lowest storage capacity. The iPhone 7 Plus starts at $769. You've always paid those prices, but never noticed it before because your carrier rolled the rest of the cost into your two-year contract. Sometimes they break those costs down into chunks using setup payments that impose stiff penalties for leaving. T-Mobile has a rental program and equipment installation plans. AT&T has the next payments.

Here's the thing, if you're paying for your phone in instalments, why go straight through your carrier? In most cases, the cost of their plans, i.e. how they fetched the price of your phone before, hasn't gone down.


Moto Z is just one of many unlocked phones you can buy and take to AT&T or T-Mobile.

You don't need to buy your smartphone through a carrier. Instead, you can go directly to the company that made it. You won't have to log in and wait for someone to help you. You won't have to wait for a manager to get your new phone, or refuse cases and add-ons over and over again. Smartphones purchased directly from their manufacturers aren't tied to a specific carrier, giving you the freedom to switch to another to get the cheapest monthly rates for your needs. They're also not crammed full of useless apps and services like carrier-sold phones do. Use the following links to go directly to each phone's store page.

Make it affordable with financing

If you want to save money without a contract, but don't have any money up front, that's fine too. You can make the purchase directly with a low interest credit card you already have. You can also go directly to the smartphone maker and get financing through their partners, like Affirm.

Expensive smartphones aren't your only option here. Many latest generation and mid-range smartphones are also available directly from their manufacturers online. You also want to consider the recent glut of "affordable flagships." These phones are not available with a contract and can be purchased online. They cost considerably less than the premium phones you're used to hearing about.

The OnePlus 3 is one of the cheapest premium unlocked phones you can buy.

The OnePlus 3 is one of the cheapest premium unlocked phones you can buy.

Must Be Mobile keeps a constantly updated list of the best affordable flagships you can buy contract-free. Check it out to discover the best the industry has to offer.

Look for brands like Moto, ZTE and OnePlus. Wherever you buy, make sure you find out if that store has a decent return policy before making your purchase. Stay away from any site or company that charges you a restocking fee. If you are buying from Amazon or eBay, do not buy phones labeled "International". They will have no warranty.

Compatibility check

When looking for a new phone directly from retailers and manufacturers, be sure to keep an eye out for phone compatibility. Sprint and Verizon have specific requirements for unlocked devices running on their networks. They also use CDMA technology which is very specific to their network. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM networks.

Adding a phone you purchased to plans on their network is as easy as replacing the SIM card already in your phone or buying a new SIM card directly from their retail store. SIM cards are tiny chips that slip into your device. They link your smartphone to your account on your wireless carrier of choice. Do not confuse them with SD cards. They are not intended to store your photos, music and videos.

A SIM card extracted from inside the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

A SIM card extracted from inside the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.

Unlocked phones will explicitly state that they are unlocked and what networks they work on. If not, be sure to explicitly ask the seller. You can check network compatibility yourself by researching the bands your mobile operator uses for their services. If the bands available on the phone match the bands used by your carrier, you are fine.

Finding and setting up unlocked phones sounds daunting, but it's not that hard. Pay attention to the phone you like and keep an eye out for details like bands and pricing. You'll have an unlocked phone without a contract and save money in no time.