Best Unlocked Phones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best unlocked phones you can buy in 2021.
There are some big advantages to buying one of the best unlocked phones below. Firstly, you won't be exclusively tied to one carrier, contract or network, so you can pick the plan that suits you. Secondly, you can switch to a new plan whenever you spot a cheaper deal – and pocket the savings.
Switching from one network provider to another is easy when you buy an unlocked, SIM-free phone. You typically won't be charged a termination fee and you can keep your number. Simply swap out the SIM card and you're good to go!
An unlocked phone might cost a bit more upfront (as opposed to buying a locked handset subsidised by a network) but it's the equivalent of cutting out the middle man. Chances are, it'll work out much cheaper in the long run.
Most phone makers sell unlocked phones. Apple does for all its iPhones, as does Samsung for its Galaxy handsets and the same goes for Google's Pixel phones. You can also buy unlocked phones through retailers such as Amazon.
Lastly, you'll want to choose the best unlocked phone for your needs. Do you like to watch movies on the go? If so, the iPhone 13 or Samsung Galaxy S21 could be just the ticket. Don't need bells and whistles? You'll find budget options for around $150 (£200/AU$500). And don't forget to consider the forthcoming Google Pixel 6.
Without further ado, here is our definitive guide to the best unlocked phones 2021...
The Sony Xperia 1 III is the Japanese giant's latest flagship phone, and another excellent handset that is well worth considering if audio and video performance are key factors for you.
We loved the last-gen Xperia 1 II (below) but the newer model features a boosted battery and a 6.5-inch 4K OLED display that now features a 120Hz refresh rate. You also get an upgraded chipset and GPU, as well as a triple camera with a periscope lens.
The display is the main draw here. It’s designed to maximise your enjoyment of movies “as the creator intended”. There’s even Creator Mode, as seen on the previous generation. The 120Hz refresh rate screen also helps smooth out scrolling while sound is even punchier and more detailed than before.
The long,slender shape of the device (it has a 21:9 aspect display, rather than a 16:9) might take some getting used to, but this handset is hard to beat when it comes to audio and video excellence. Bravo, Sony.
Read the full Sony Xperia 1 III review
The iPhone 13 might be a case of evolution rather than revolution, but the close resemblance to its predecessor, the iPhone 12 (below), is no bad thing.
For starters, the iPhone 13 is slightly cheaper (in the UK at least) than the iPhone 12 was at launch. It has the same winning design as the 12, a similarly-premium feel and it comes in five snazzy colours.
So what's new? The A15 Bionic chip enables new iOS features and boots the phone up much quicker. The screen is 28 per cent brighter than the 12, though it sticks at a 60Hz refresh rate (120Hz is reserved for the Pro variants). The camera boasts a new sensor that lets in 47 per cent more light, and the same optical image stabilisation tech from the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The battery also lasts 2.5 hours longer – handy if you like to stream video on the go.
All in all, this What Hi-Fi? Awards 2021 winner combines excellent picture and sound quality with a sprinkling of new tech, making it a top unlocked smartphone for the money.
Read the full iPhone 13 review
If you're looking for a state-of-the-art unlocked smartphone, Sony's latest handset (above) should be top of your list. But it's predecessor, the Xperia 1 II, has many of the same specs and for a bit less money.
A stunning, 6.5-inch 4K display, impressive sonics and a cutting-edge camera make this a great buy for those who love music, movies and photography. Enjoy streaming video on the go? Like the Xperia 1 III above, this model has a 21:9 aspect ratio screen, which is ideal for showing widescreen content in full screen. Video looks as premium as the device itself; pictures are pin-sharp, beautifully realistic and packed full of detail. Few phones can offer this level of realism.
Battery life is decent (though the Xperia 1 III's battery boasts an extra 500mAh) and the high-end camera is the business. It's fast, capable and offers plenty of creative and professional features. As for the sound, it's is typically Sony: agile, clear, rhythmical. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack, too.
If you're serious about watching and listening on the move, the Xperia 1 II is one of the best unlocked smartphones around right now.
Read the full Sony Xperia 1 II review
The original iPhone SE, released back in 2016, offered users a slick iPhone experience without the huge price tags of the upper-tier models. The idea worked and the SE was a huge success. Now, Apple has relaunched its most affordable iPhone to similar acclaim.
The iPhone SE (2020) ups the stakes with a larger, punchier 4.7-inch screen, musical sound and a solid point-and-shoot 12MP snapper. It's powered by Apple's A13 Bionic processor, which is the same chip in the firm's 2019 iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max devices.
It's not perfect – we'd like better slightly battery life and better performance from the camera in low light – but the latest iPhone SE will appeal to those looking for Apple's cheapest iPhone, or those who might be a few iPhone generations behind but don’t want to spend a fortune on Apple's flagship iPhone 13 family.
Put simply, this is the best among the best budget smartphones you can buy right now.
Read the full iPhone SE (2020) review
Apple has enjoyed a string of hits lately, including the 2019 iPhone 11 and the 2020 iPhone 12. The latter brings a significant design change including a new brand-new design, an upgraded screen, a new Apple A14 Bionic chipset and a handful of new party tricks including – for the first time on an iPhone – 5G support.
The addition of the excellent 6.1in OLED Super Retina XDR display (complete with HDR10, Dolby Vision and HLG support) has ramped up picture performance and helps justify the comparatively high price of this premium handset.
As a camera phone, there's little to dislike here, with the dual-camera producing nicely balanced pictures with even colours and a fine sense of realism. Sound quality is as good as it’s ever been, too. It charges wirelessly and via Apple's clever, snap-on MagSafe tech.
Some Android devices offer better battery life, and the new iPhone 13 a better camera, but when you consider the iPhone 12's brilliant features, it's still one of the best unlocked phones we've tested.
Read the full review: iPhone 12
The Xperia 1 II – near the top of this list of best unlocked phones – won our smartphone Product of the Year Award for delivering a video and audio performance that exceeded other flagship Android phones. But if you're on a budget, the Xperia 5 II is smaller, cheaper and has similar specs to the pricier Xperia 1 II.
Indeed, music and video performance is a priority, you really consider one of these latest Sony phones. It backs up its impressive AV performance with decent features elsewhere, too – 3.5mm headphone jack, 4000mAh battery, Android 10, and the combination of 12MP f/1.7 wide lens, 12MP f/2.4 telephoto lens and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera lenses.
This phone's pricier sibling retains an edge when it comes to 4K video performance and sound quality, but the more compact and affordable Sony Xperia 5 II is a hard to beat at this price.
Read the full review Sony Xperia 5 II
The 2020-launched Galaxy S20 line-up marked a thorough overhaul, bringing in 5G support and 120Hz refresh rate displays for the first time, plus significant camera upgrades. But for the 2021-released S21 range, the gains are more marginal – the camera software has been enhanced, the design is arguably better and it packs the company’s most advanced processor yet.
Of the three-strong, 5G-supporting Galaxy S21 range, you’ll want to consider the two more premium models, the S21+ S21 Ultra, especially if you’re after a large screen. But the standard S21 variant here is solid for the money and offers an excellent balance between performance and value. It has a great camera, very nice screen and is as speedy and reliable to use as you'd expect.
Either of the Sony Xperias above are better bets for those who place greater importance on music listening, so that’s one area we would hope Samsung advances for the next generation of Galaxy S phone. For now, though, the line’s reputation as one of the market’s best unlocked phones remains intact.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S21 review
If you have big hands, big pockets and a ‘go big or go home’ outlook on life, then the iPhone 12 Mini probably isn’t for you. This is compact smartphone is for those who prefer a more subtle and discreet design, where pocket space is at a premium.
It gets the same flat-edged design as its bigger siblings, meaning it feels premium in the hand; its 12MP dual-lens set-up on the back is perfect for those who want to point and shoot high good quality pictures with minimal fuss in both decent and sub-optimal lighting conditions; and it offers perfectly listenable sound quality by smartphone standards.
Essentially, it offers all the top features of the iPhone 12, but in a smaller, more pocket-friendly package. The iPhone 12 offers slighter better battery life, and the new iPhone 13 Mini has a better camera, but that doesn’t really detract from what has swiftly become one of the best unlocked phones on the market.
Read the full iPhone 12 Mini review
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is one of the best phones that Apple has ever made, with one of the biggest screens, some of the best speakers and a superb camera. It might have been superseded by the 2021 iPhone 13 Pro Max, but the '12' remains a great buy, especially if you can pick it up at a discount.
That said, if you're looking for the best value iPhone know that many of its upgrades over the iPhone 12 are minimal, and the fact that the standard iPhone now has an OLED display is another reason not to splash out on the Pro Max.
The standard iPhone 12 is without a doubt the performance-per-pound pick of the 2020 iPhone 12 range, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max is well worth stretching to if you’re a keen photographer or videographer, or simply someone who likes a massive screen.
Read the full Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review
While this 2019-released iPhone has been superseded by the iPhone 12 and 13, it's still a great buy for they money, ticking many of the same boxes as the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max – but for a lot less cash.
In short, we think the iPhone 11 is the sweet spot in the range; feature-rich yet markedly more affordable than its fancier siblings. It gets the same blazingly-fast A13 Bionic processor as the Pro and Pro Max, as well as fast-charging and a longer battery life than the Pro.
Unless you're a very keen photographer, the iPhone 11's point-and-shoot camera will easily impress. It's a noticeable improvement on the iPhone XR, too. Love watching movies on the go? The iPhone 11 produces a wonderfully rounded picture with support HDR10 and Dolby Vision. The display is an LCD panel rather than an OLED, but we found it to be smooth and realistic.
So, even though the iPhone 11 isn't as cutting-edge as its pricier siblings, it remains an awesome unlocked phone that delivers superb bang for your buck.
Read the full iPhone 11 review
Samsung's 2020 S20 series features some nifty upgraded specs, including 5G connectivity and a better camera. But the S20's most impressive feature has to be the wide-aspect, 6.1in Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O Display with a 120Hz refresh rate – it delivers one of the best smartphone screen experiences we've come across.
The camera is not quite as advanced the camera on the S20 Ultra, but it's still an excellent package featuring a triple-lens set-up comprising 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP wide-angle and 64MP telephoto lenses.
Samsung's interface is fast and smooth, the audio is decent enough and the battery life is good. There's no 3.5mm headphone jack or adapter provided, so you’ll need to get your own, use USB-C headphones or go wireless.
For most people, a Galaxy S20 will be the sweet spot in the range, combining a manageable size and all the latest features. If you're looking for the best premium unlocked Android handset on the market today, this is it.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S20 review
There iPhone 11 Pro is possibly the best iPhone yet. So if you're lucky enough to have some cash stashed away, we heartily recommend this flagship handset.
The 11 Pro's palm-friendly size and brilliant OLED screen are a great pairing. Add to that the incredible triple-lens camera that captures excellent photos and video, and you have a state-of-the-art device that crushes its competition.
That said, it won't suit those on a budget. Yes, the 11 Pro us a big step up from the standard iPhone 11 in terms of picture and sound, but some will find it hard to justify the extra expense (and those buyers will be much happier with the standard iPhone 11).
Finally, if you simply must have all of Apple's best features in an even larger, fancier handset, the iPhone 11 Pro Max (below) could be just the ticket.
Read the full iPhone 11 Pro review
Last year, OnePlus broke into the top five high-end smartphone makers in the US. It's no accident – the Chinese outfit has been stuffing new tech into its mid-range Android handsets for a while, in order to compete with the likes of Samsung and LG.
Prices have increased accordingly, but we think OnePlus phones are still a bargain and deliver many of the features you'd find on much pricier flagship devices.
Like the 7 Pro before it, the 7T is a top value mid-market marvel with an impressive camera and screen for the money. You also get slew of features you wouldn't necessarily expect on a handset of this price, including ultra-fast charging and an in-screen fingerprint scanner.
Sadly there's no 3.5mm headphone jack so you might need to shop for a new pair of wireless headphones. Still, when you look at the full package, this is easily the best value unlocked Android phone on the market. A real bargain for pennywise buyers.
Read our full OnePlus 7T review
Another unlocked iPhone, this time the XR, launched in 2018. It's cheaper than its XS and XS Max siblings, yet delivers a huge chunk of what the pricier models and a user experience that is virtually identical.
OK, so the XR's camera isn’t quite as good as its siblings and picture quality can be bettered but you can buy an unlcoked XR for under $599/£629/AU$1229 – cheap by Apple standards.
You get plenty for your money, too, including battery life that trumps the XS Max and a screen that's bigger than the XS (6.1in vs 5.8in). The XR's Liquid Retina HD Display isn't as impressive as its OLED siblings, but it's still easy on the eye.
Audio is decent, displaying a level of musicality that rival brands can only dream of, and you'll notice that the XR comes in the option of 128GB version (enough storage for the average buyer, but not a size that is available for the XS or XS Max).
In short, the XR stacks up well against its family members and is still a great choice for those who want a bite of the Apple for a relatively affordable price.
Read our full Apple iPhone XR review
The key difference between the 2019 iPhone 11 Pro (above) and iPhone 11 Pro Max is the size: the Max is 14mm taller and 6mm wider than its sibling, but the depth measurement remains a slim 8.1mm. That super-sized body facilitates a larger screen – a 6.5in OLED vs the 11 Pro’s 5.8in OLED.
Is bigger always better? It comes down to personal taste, but if you're accustomed to the size of Apple’s plus-sized handsets, the 11 Pro Max will be the one to go for. There's nothing to dislike: power, performance and picture quality are all exceptional.
Much of what you’re paying for with either the Pro or Pro Max is the enhanced camera and, for that reason, the standard iPhone 11 (above) offers better bang for your buck. But, if you're keen to experience one of Apple's most cinematic screens, go ahead and blow the budget on the immersive Pro Max, or stretch to the newer iPhone 13 Pro Max.
The Pro Max might pricey, but opting for an unlocked Pro Max will give you the freedom to pick the cheapest network, so you'll hopefully save money in the long run.
Read our full Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max review
If you want an unlocked phone with wow factor, the Galaxy S10+ is for you. It might be getting on a bit in phone years, but it's still big, powerful and features an attractive 6.4in Infinity-O OLED display that rolls over the edge of the handset.
The meaty spec count continues with HDR10+ video support, Dolby Atmos audio, an Ultrasonic Fingerprint sensor hidden underneath the screen, a long-lasting 4100 mAh battery, the option of a 1TB memory, a microSD card slot and even a trusty 3.5mm headphone jack.
Is the S10+ perfect? Not quite. Samsung's Bixby voice assistant isn't a patch on Amazon Alexa, and the biometric sensor could be a better. Still, if you a big-screen unlocked phone at a reasonably low price, this one's a doozy.
Unless, that is, your budget stretches to the newer, less affordable Samsung Galaxy S20 range.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S10+ review
If the idea of a scaled-up iPhone X with an ultra-crisp OLED screen sounds exciting, you'll be instantly won over by the iPhone XS Max. It's now been topped by the faster, sharper, newer iPhone 11 Pro Max, but we think the XS is a still a seriously-good unlocked phone.
Pictures on the 6.5in edge-to-edge OLED screen are impressively detailed, with subtle colours and excellent motion control. Combine that with support for HDR10 and Dolby Vision and you have one the best phones for watching HDR content on the move.
When you're not binging on handheld TV shows, you'll want to explore the cameras. At the time of launch, the XS Max's front-facing camera was one of the first of its type to capture 4K video footage, and still delivers hugely impressive results.
It's no surprise that prices of this model have remained high. It might have been superseded but it's also speedy, dynamic and packed with Apple's top-line tech. A superb choice for movie and music lovers.
Read our full iPhone XS Max review
If you're an Android fan but can't afford to splash out on a premium unlocked phone, the OnePlus 7 Pro is a smart choice.
Launched in 2019, this affordable handset boasts one of the best screens for the money: a 6.67-inch OLED panel with a Quad HD+ resolution and a 90Hz refresh rate for a smooth picture.
It sounds detailed and lively, while the punchy Snapdragon 855 chipset supplies plenty of poke under the hood. The camera is very good and comes with a pop-up selfie module. The 7 Pro even has an in-screen fingerprint scanner – a feature typically found on pricier phones.
Apart from a few minor issues, such as the absence of the 3.5mm headphone jack and the lack of waterproofing, the 7 Pro a great pound-for-pound performer.
Since hitting stores last year, it's been topped by the slightly modified OnePlus 7T Pro, but if you're on a tight budget this model is an absolute steal right now.
Read the full OnePlus 7 Pro review
The Google Pixel 5 launched with a cheaper asking price compared to previous flagship Pixel phones, so how does it fare in its less premium pastures?
Unsurprisingly, Google’s repositioning of its Pixel line comes with some compromises. The Pixel 5 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G processor, (rather than the more advanced Snapdragon 865 chip); its OLED screen ‘only’ has a 1080 x 2340 resolution and 90Hz refresh rate; and, perhaps most disappointingly for some, the dual-camera system for the Pixel 5 comes without a telephoto lens.
But this is a cheaper phone, and despite some losses, there are gains. There's now 5G network support and the Pixel 4's 2800mAh battery has been replaced by a much more acceptable 4080mAh juice pack for the Pixel 5. It's Qi-certified for wireless charging, too. Ultimately, the Pixel 5 is offers superb screen quality and average sound performance for a tempting price.
Read our full Google Pixel 5 review
The OnePlus 9 Pro is a compelling way of getting some top features and a decent video performance from a phone without having to pay the typical flagship premium.
The main attractions are the huge 120Hz screen, which is makes for an enjoyable way of watching TV and film wherever you are, and the Hasselblad camera array. The tie-in with Hasselblad brings a mighty-looking four-camera shooting set-up.
This device looks pretty good and feels nice in the hand. The 2.2mm aluminium frame design fits the flagship part, as does the gently curved Gorilla Glass. It’s IP68 rated, too, which means it is water-, dust- and dirt-resistant.
All that stands in the way of true greatness is the need for a little more finesse with video and the distinctly average music performance. OnePlus doesn’t have the same audio heritage as other brands and it really shows here.
Still, while the 9 Pro isn't perfect, it's a tempting big-screen smartphone proposition and one of the best unlocked phoned in its price bracket.
Read our full OnePlus 9 Pro review
If you love photography, there's no doubt that the Pixel 4 should be on your shortlist. It's class-leading a dual-camera to the rear combined with an impressive 6GB of RAM to boost image processing, means that this device is truly snap-happy.
The upgrades continue with some new air-based gestures that, for some, will only enhance what’s always been a seamless, Android experience. Picture quality is a welcome step up from previous models too.
Downsides? Sound quality is a little underwhelming compared to most Apple iPhones and the battery could last a bit longer.
All all in, this clearly a device aimed at Android purists. The class-leading camera and 5.7-inch OLED display are a great pairing for those with an interest in photography and the screen is good for watching content on the move. If you own the original or a 2nd gen Pixel, this is a proper upgrade.
Read our full Google Pixel 4 review
Read our full Google Pixel 4 XL review
The launch of the 8 Pro was something of a milestone for OnePlus. Since it began in 2013, the upstart brand has stuck to it's formula of affordable, feature-rich mid-range Android phones.
The 8 Pro is a little bit different: it is the Chinese company's most expensive OnePlus handset to date. Thankfully, it's also its best. You get a slew of premium features including 5G, a more advanced camera system, wireless charging and an advanced camera system that includes a telephoto.
The screen looks fantastic thanks in part to a refresh rate of 120Hz, and sound is bold and clear (although not quite as good as what you could expect from a flagship phone by Samsung or Apple).
The interface, camera and overall performance is a touch below the competition but the 8 Pro is hard to beat at this money.
Read the full OnePlus 8 Pro review
If you're on the hunt for a bargain, and prize value for money above bleeding-edge tech, this unlocked phone could be for you. Motorola’s G-series smartphones have always been brilliant bang for buck - and the new G6 is proof that you can get a feature-packed phone if you shop around.
Despite its low-cost nature, the G6 works on GSM and CDMA, meaning it's compatible with all major phone networks. It also boasts a fingerprint scanner, headphone jack and USB-C port for charging the decent-sized 3000mAh battery. A Snapdragon 1.8GHz octa-core processor keeps your apps running smoothly. Sound quality is decent considering the price.
What's more, the sleek design belies the bargain price tag. This is the ideal choice for anyone wanting a cheap unlocked phone under $150 / £200 / AU$450 that does the basics well.
Read the full Moto G6 review
The iPhone XS was launched back in 2018 but remains a polished performer. In fact, it's packed full of power despite its age, with a A12 Bionic chipset, 2658mAh battery and a lovely 5.8in Super Retina OLED display with HDR support (HDR10 and Dolby Vision). State-of-the-art at the time it was unveiled, the XS can still hold its own against most of Apple's 2019 and 2020 iPhones.
The iPhone XS even manages to spring a few surprises, especially where its AV performance is concerned. Without headphones, the phone’s ‘wider stereo sound’ is a cut above much of today's competition. Add to that the increased efficiency and improved camera quality and you have plenty of reasons to roll back the years and opt for the XS over, say, the iPhone 11 Pro models.
Apple has discontinued the XS but they're available – brand new – from online stores. You'll be getting what remains one of the most accomplished mobile phones out there – at the lowest price yet.
Read our full iPhone XS review
While it's not the newest flagship Pixel anymore (that would be the Pixel 4 series, above), this is still a fine Android handset for those seeing an unlocked phone for under $500/£500/AU$850.
While there's nothing revolutionary about the Pixel 3s XL, it offers a near-flagship experience at a reduced price. Those who want advanced photography features, decent processing power for gaming and a big screen for watching videos will have little reason to complain. You even get a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Audio quality is okay, but there are better-sounding smartphones higher up this list.
But it is half the price of many full-blow flagships, which makes the 3a XL an excellent unlocked phone for those willing to compromise a little.
Read our full Google Pixel 3a XL review
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