Best unlocked phones 2024: choose any network or plan

iPhone 14 held in front of a fence
(Image credit: Future)

There are some big advantages to buying one of the best unlocked phones. One: you won't be exclusively tied to one carrier, contract or network, so you can pick the plan that suits you. Two: you can switch to a new plan whenever you spot a cheaper deal – and pocket the savings! 

On the downside, it means finding the money upfront, rather than spreading out the cost over a year or two. But that does mean you don't end up overpaying, as phone bundles cost more over the life of the contract.

So which are the best unlocked phones money can buy? Here's our pick, with a view to watching and listening to content.

How to choose the best unlocked phone for you

Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.

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.

Most of the big 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.

If you like to watch movies on the go, the Sony Xperia 1 V,  iPhone 15 Pro Max or Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra are good choices. All offer superb displays and decent battery life. But there's plenty else to consider, many at much cheaper prices.

Ready to make your choice? Here's our definitive guide to the best unlocked phones you can buy right now...  

Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max showing Ted Lasso from Apple TV

The iPhone 15 Pro Max has plenty to recommend it, but Apple doesn't even mention some of its biggest improvements... (Image credit: What Hi-Fi? / Apple TV+, Ted Lasso)
What Hi-Fi? Awards 2023 winner. Picture and sound tweaks make the new Pro Max even better than its predecessor.

Specifications

Screen: 6.7in OLED
Resolution: 2796 x 1290 (460ppi)
Rear camera: 48MP + 12MP + 12MP
Front camera: 12MP
Battery: 4323mAh
Dimensions: 160 x 77 x 8.3cm
Weight: 221g

Reasons to buy

+
Incredibly sharp and punchy picture
+
Hi-fi-like sound via headphones
+
Loud, clear speakers

Reasons to avoid

-
A 21:9 ratio with no 'Island' ('Dynamic' or otherwise) would be nice

Don't ask us why, but Apple doesn't shout about the AV improvements on the latest top-end iPhone. It'll talk for days about the new camera and processing tech, but say nary a whisper about the picture and sound quality improvements. Presumably it assumes punters care more about the former than the latter. But the AV tweaks are definitely worth mentioning.

The image is much brighter than the iPhone 14 Pro Max's, and packs bags of detail. But it doesn't sacrifice subtlety – rather it balances excitement with a natural feel. Sound is a little smoother as well, with more low-end impact, and a distinct lack of harshness in the treble. Its speakers reach impressively high volumes, too.

The handset has a refreshed design. It's 19g lighter, thanks to the use of titanium rather than the stainless steel of its predecessor. This also makes it harder wearing. And the Lightning port has gone in favour of a USB-C port – thanks to EU regulation, this will be the way forward for all iPhones from now on. The telephoto camera now has a little extra zoom as well. 

Plenty of improvements then. And while Apple might not talk up the AV tweaks, we're more than happy to.

Read the full Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max review

Sony Xperia 10 V in the hand

Sony's budget Xperia packs seriously impressive picture performance into an affordable handset (Image credit: What Hi-Fi? / Disney Plus, Avatar: The Way Of Water)
What Hi-Fi? Awards 2023 winner. More portable budget AV brilliance from Sony.

Specifications

Screen: 6.1in OLED
Resolution: 1080 x 2520 (449 ppi)
Rear camera: 48MP + 8MP + 8MP
Front camera: 8MP
Battery: 5000mAh
Dimensions: 15.5 x 6.8 x 08.cm
Weight: 159g

Reasons to buy

+
Sharp and solid image
+
Dynamic and detailed headphone sound
+
Greatly improved speakers

Reasons to avoid

-
Slightly underpowered
-
Vibration through handset

Sony's Xperia phones are the polar opposite of Apple's iPhones. While Apple doesn't even mention its AV improvements, Sony uses them as its main selling point. Xperia phones are some of the few to still feature a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is a boon to fans of wired headphones.

The entry-level Xperia 10 V follows the Award-winning mark IV model, and while it's only a slight upgrade, it's still a remarkable performer for the money. Sound quality is superb, especially if you take advantage of the headphone port. And the picture is sharp, solid and detailed throughout, even if the screen is a relatively modest 6.1 inches.

About the only downsides we can find are that the specs like processor, RAM and storage could be a little higher. And the camera pales in the face of stronger competition elsewhere. But if you prize image and sound quality, and you're on a budget, this is the phone for you.

Read the full Sony Xperia 10 V review

Sony Xperia 1 V held with a pair of over-ear headphones

It's another winning entry in Sony's Award-winning line of Xperia 1 smartphones. (Image credit: Future)
Sony’s flagship is the best pocket cinema money can buy.

Specifications

Screen: 6.5in OLED
Resolution: 1644 x 3840 (643ppi)
Rear camera: 48MP + 12MP + 12MP
Front camera: 12MP
Battery: 5000mAh
Dimensions: 16.5 x 7 x 8cm
Weight: 187g

Reasons to buy

+
Cinematic picture for a smartphone
+
New design looks and feels great
+
Wired and wireless audio compatibility

Reasons to avoid

-
Tall screen can be awkward at times
-
Expensive

The latest instalment in Sony's Award-winning Xperia 1 range is the best yet. Its battery is 500mAh bigger than its predecessor's, yet the phone price remains the same, which bucks the trend for recent devices. Its new look is a winner too – the smooth matt glass on the rear has been replaced with a textured Gorilla Glass Victus that's stronger and easier to grip (a boon with such a tall and skinny smartphone). The rear camera housing has been slightly redesigned, and there's a new Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset inside. Android 13 comes as standard.

But despite these changes, the same winning formula remains. It's still one of the few handsets with a 3.5mm headphone jack, which plenty of people will appreciate, and it retains the 6.5-inch OLED screen with 21:9 aspect ratio and 120Hz refresh rate.

In terms of a pure AV experience, it's one of the best phones currently available. It supports hi-res audio when paired with a decent pair of wired headphones, and you're well served for wireless options, with Bluetooth 5.3 with the LEaptxHD, aptx Adaptive and LDAC codecs. You can enable Dolby Atmos within the sound settings of the device too. 

The phone's front-firing stereo speaker arrangement floors the usual earpiece and bottom-firing speaker setup we see on most other phones, and visually, it's stunning. For a cinema on the move, look no further.

Read the full Sony Xperia 1 V review

Sony Xperia 5 V held in front of a wall

Sony's Xperia 5 V features a lot of tech from the flagship Xperia 1 V in a smaller, cheaper package. (Image credit: What Hi-Fi? / Netflix, Our Planet)
Sony’s final Mark V phone continues its trend of AV excellence.

Specifications

Screen: 6.1in OLED
Resolution: 1080 x 2520 (449ppi)
Rear camera: 48MP + 12MP
Front camera: 12MP
Battery: 5000mAh
Dimensions (hwd): 15.4 x 6.8 x 0.8cm
Weight: 182g

Reasons to buy

+
Sharp and detailed image
+
Excellent contrast and depth
+
Natural and rich sound

Reasons to avoid

-
Speakers sound slightly lightweight

If you're confused by Sony's naming convention for its phones, we don't blame you. Xperia 5 is the model, and sits mid-way between the flagship Xperia 1 and budget Xperia 10. The 'V' part is the iteration, so this is the fifth variant of the Xperia 5. And it's the best yet.

Not that it likes to shout about it. Apart from the redesigned camera module, it's almost indistinguishable from the Xperia 5 IV, complete with 3.5mm headphone jack – a rarity nowadays. The screen is the same size and resolution as the cheaper Xperia 10 V, but has a higher refresh rate (120Hz) and Sony’s Creator Mode which brings the image closer to the creator's original vision. HDR comes courtesy of the HDR10 standard.

Sound features are also very similar to the other two models in the lineup, with front-facing stereo loudspeakers, hi-res wired audio and plenty of Bluetooth 5.3 audio codecs including A2DP, LE AudioaptX HD and aptX Adaptive, as well as immersive audio formats in the form of Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio.

While the screen is smaller than the 1 V's, it's still seriously impressive, with deep inky blacks and popping bright highlights. The only issue is that content not in the 21:9 aspect ratio gets hefty black pillars flanking the left and right of the picture. But the audio is also up there with the best on a mobile – you'll want to make use of that 3.5mm headphone port.

The Xperia 5 V is also cheaper than its predecessor, which is very welcome indeed. 

Read the full Sony Xperia 5 V review

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra in the hand

Not as epoch-making as its predecessor, but still a very fine phone indeed. (Image credit: Future)
Ultra by name, Ultra by nature?

Specifications

Screen: 6.8in AMOLED
Resolution: 1440 x 3088 (500ppi)
Rear camera: 200MP + 10MP + 12MP + 10MP
Front camera: 12MP
Battery: 5000mAh
Dimensions (hwd) : 7.8 x 16.3 x 0.9cm
Weight: 233g

Reasons to buy

+
120Hz display
+
Next-generation camera
+
Fantastic build

Reasons to avoid

-
Expensive
-
Minimal AV updates over last year
-
Tough competition

The S22 Ultra took over where the now-defunct Galaxy Note handset left off, with a massive OLED screen and support for the S Pen stylus. But its successor, though still mighty fine, doesn't move things along to anywhere near the same degree. 

It looks almost identical to its predecessor, and has a very similar screen. The main improvement is the new 200MP main camera, and it is brilliant, fusing top-notch performance with intuitive software, meaning even the most amateur of photographers can snap a quality image.

The screen shows off movies in wonderful detail, while for audio, its speaker performance trumps most rival smartphones'. Though when listening through headphones, you will be better served elsewhere.

It's another great entrant in the Galaxy range, but just a shame it's not quite as giant a leap as its predecessor.

Read the full Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review

Best unlocked phones: Apple iPhone 14

The 2022 standard iPhone continues to excel. (Image credit: Future)
The same awesome picture quality as the iPhone 13, plus a better camera.

Specifications

Screen: 6.1in OLED
Resolution: 2532 x 1170 (460ppi)
Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP
Front camera: 12MP
Battery: 3279mAh
Dimensions (hwd) : 14.7 x 7.2 x 0.8 cm
Weight: 203g

Reasons to buy

+
Excellent display
+
Admirable headphone performance
+
Solid build quality

Reasons to avoid

-
No upgrades to picture or sound
-
Familiar design
-
Notch is still present

Despite the iPhone 14’s inflated price, it has the same A15 Bionic processor found in the iPhone 13, the same 128GB base storage configuration and the same display.

Not that we're complaining – the Super Retina OLED display of the iPhone 13 is stellar, so it's not a dealbreaker. HDR10 and Dolby Vision support return, while HLG is added. Apple's FaceID remains leagues ahead of Android competitors; battery size has increased slightly.

The real upgrade that differentiates the iPhone 14 from the 13 is the camera system. The front camera now includes digital autofocus for clearer selfies, while the rear cameras are now bigger and faster. The main sensor now features bigger pixels and a faster aperture, resulting in improved Night Mode performance. 

It's just a shame that picture and sound quality haven't been upgraded. The iPhone 14 is an excellent device, but the cheaper iPhone 13 might serve you just as well.

Read the full iPhone 14 review

Sony Xperia 1 IV on a white background

Sony's 2022 flagship remains a solid choice for AV fans on the go. (Image credit: Future)
Still one of the best Android phones we've tested.

Specifications

Screen: 6.5in OLED
Resolution: 1644 x 3840 (643ppi)
Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP + 12MP
Front camera: 12MP
Battery: 5000mAh
Dimensions (hwd): 16.5 x 7 x 8cm
Weight: 185g

Reasons to buy

+
Crisp and detailed picture
+
Improved speaker performance
+
Quality build

Reasons to avoid

-
Tall aspect ratio slightly awkward
-
Expensive

The Xperia 1 range has great pedigree. The Mk IV model came out in 2022, and followed two Award-winning variants, so to say it had big shoes to fill would be an understatement. But fill them it did.

There are improvements across the board, but most significantly (for us, at least) is that the picture and sound quality have come on. The stereo speakers have been upgraded, and present a surprisingly strong performance. But to experience the audio at its best you have to plug in a pair of wired headphones. Then you're treated to natural, textured sonics with an impeccable sense of timing.

You get plenty of audio features too. Sony's 360 Reality Audio is there, as is Dolby Atmos, high-resolution audioLDAC and Bluetooth LE.

The 21:9 widescreen display is a joy to watch. The extra brightness over its predecessor makes for a more immersive experience, with added shadow details. And the colours retain a sense of naturalness not many phones can match.

Yes, it's outdone in almost every regard by the 2023 Xperia 1 V. But if you want a great mobile AV experience for slightly less money, the Xperia 1 IV is a sensible choice.

Read the full Sony Xperia 1 IV review

Google Pixel 8 Pro held landscape in front of a plant

Google's latest flagship has upped its audio game significantly. (Image credit: What Hi-Fi? / Netflix, Our Planet)
Could this be Google’s best sounding smartphone yet?

Specifications

Screen: 6.7 inch OLED
Resolution: 1344 x 2992 (489ppi)
Rear camera: 50MP + 48MP + 48MP
Front camera: 10.5MP
Battery: 5050mAh
Dimensions (hwd): 16.3 x 7.7 x 0.9cm
Weight: 213g

Reasons to buy

+
Improved sound through headphones
+
Responsive UI experience
+
Upgraded design

Reasons to avoid

-
Pictures lacking in shadow detail
-
Colours are slightly overdone

When it comes to picture and sound quality, the Pixel 8 Pro doesn't outperform the likes of the iPhone 15 Pro Max or Sony Xperia 1 V, but it still has plenty to offer for quite a lot less than its rivals.

It's the best-looking Pixel phone yet, with a frosted matte glass effect replacing the Pixel 7 Pro's glossy rear glass panel. Not only does this look pretty cool, it also makes the device easier to hold and use one-handed, as well as masking fingerprints on the device.

Visually, it's very impressive, thanks to the Quad HD LTPO 120Hz OLED display, which varies the refresh rate from 1Hz to 120Hz depending on the content and results in scrolling that feels especially fluid. It supports HDR10+ (though not Dolby Vision or Dolby Atmos), with images looking crisp and sharp. Shadow handling isn't quite up to the same standard, unfortunately, and it can be a little overenthusiastic with bright colours.

Sonically, it's a big step up on its forebears, sounding noticeably warmer and richer. There's more detail and definition, making tracks sound more textured. The timing could be a little snappier, but its speakers are quite good for a phone's, with plenty of oomph. It won't replace a Bluetooth speaker, but should you have to listen without one, it won't offend you.

Read the full Google Pixel 8 Pro review

Google Pixel 7a held in front of a table

The Pixel 7a actually outdoes the pricier Pixel 7 in some key areas... (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)
A very compelling budget Android in a crowded market.

Specifications

Screen: 6.1 inch OLED
Resolution: 1080 x 2400 (429ppi)
Rear camera: 64MP + 13MP
Front camera: 13MP
Battery: 4300mAh
Dimensions (hwd): 15.2 x 7.3 x 0.9cm
Weight: 194g

Reasons to buy

+
Excellent contrast
+
Punchy colours
+
Dynamic sound

Reasons to avoid

-
Poor dark details
-
Tough competition from Sony

The cut-price take on the standard Pixel 7 is a very good phone in its own right. It has the same processor as the Pixel 7, and the handset looks almost identical (though it is slightly smaller and lighter). It has a plastic back instead of the 7's glass, and the 6.1-inch OLED screen should suffice most people, though it is a little dim, even at maximum brightness.

Like the Pixel 7, there's no Dolby Atmos, but it also lacks the 7's Google Spatial Audio format. The 64MP camera is excellent, and a big step on from the 12MP snapper on the Pixel 6a. You even get wireless charging, though at 7W it's not very fast.

The 7a actually outdoes the Pixel 7 in terms of picture quality – there's a lot more depth than its pricier stablemate. Motion is smoother too, but it can't compete when it comes to dark scenes.

The 7a sounds better through headphones than the 7 too. If it's a budget Pixel you're after, this is the phone for you.

Read the full Google Pixel 7a review

How we test the best unlocked smartphones

Here at What Hi-Fi? we review hundreds of products every year, including some of the best smartphones from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, LG, OnePlus and Huawei. So, how do we come to our review verdicts? And why can you trust them?

We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London and Bath, where our team of expert reviewers do all our in-house testing. This gives us complete control over the review process, ensuring consistency.

We spend time with the phones; we live with them, testing every feature and spec exhaustively, from screens to cameras, sound quality to battery life. We focus particularly on audio and video performance, so if you spend a lot of time listening to music or watching videos, you should read on before making that all-important buying decision.

All products are tested in comparison with rival products in the same category, and all review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than a single reviewer, again helping to ensure consistency and avoid individual subjectivity.

In total, the What Hi-Fi? team has more than 100 years experience of reviewing, testing and writing about consumer electronics.

From all of our reviews, we choose the products to feature in our Best Buys, such as this one. That's why if you take the plunge and buy one of the products recommended below, or on any other Best Buy pages, you can rest assured you're getting a What Hi-Fi?-approved product.

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Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.