Best Unlocked Phones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best unlocked phones you can buy in 2023.
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!
How to choose the best unlocked phone for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. 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 III, iPhone 14 or Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra are good choices. All offer superb displays and decent battery life. There's also the brand new Sony Xperia 1 IV to consider, although it doesn't ship until June so we've yet to review it.
Ready to make your choice? Here's our definitive guide to the best unlocked phones you can buy right now...
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Although Apple rarely shouts about AV upgrades, its new phones regularly contain them, and each new generation of iPhone generally includes better picture and/or sound quality.
That’s what makes the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning iPhone 14 Pro Max so exciting: it’s the first new iPhone in ages with an AV upgrade that Apple has deemed worth shouting about. That upgrade is a big increase in brightness.
Interestingly then, it turns out that while the picture quality is certainly improved, it’s by less of a margin than the audio, which hits new highs for smartphone sound. The iPhone’s impeccable timing and even more athletic dynamics make for a sound that’s more engaging without being any less authentic.
Not only do these upgrades make Apple’s new flagship model the best iPhone yet for portable movie and music lovers, it elevates it beyond the AV benchmark previously set by Sony’s high-end Xperia handsets.
Read our full Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max review
Sony’s current lineup of smartphones is centred around the creation and consumption of media first and foremost. The range includes 4K resolution, OLED displays with a 21:9 aspect ratio and HDR support while fervently keeping the 3.5mm headphone port alive.
But what happens when you have to start cutting back on features to make devices like these more accessible? The What Hi-Fi Award-winning Xperia 10 IV answers this question with pared back specs, a lower quality screen and a plastic build that reduces the price down significantly. However, despite this entry level Xperia cutting some corners, it still manages to provide the essence of what Sony is trying to achieve – providing a cinematic experience that fits into your pocket.
Sony’s budget handset really impresses where it counts. Many budget Android handsets only meet the goal of affordability by cutting major corners, but Sony has instead considered how to boil the essence of the Xperia line down without sacrificing crucial performance.
It may not be perfect, but with a screen that impresses for the price and satisfying headphone audio, the Xperia 10 IV offers excellent value for those looking for an entry level Android that doubles as a portable movie-watching companion.
Read the full Sony Xperia 10 IV review
The Sony Xperia Mk IV continues the brand’s reinvigorated take on the smartphone, providing the tools to both create and consume content that verges on professional level. But with the daunting task of outshining its predecessors, both of which received five stars and a smartphone Product of the Year Award from us, has Sony done enough to keep the momentum going?
It may look strikingly similar to the previous generations but the IV makes meaningful, if not mind blowing improvements on the Sony Xperia 1 III. Upgraded internals and features ensure smooth day-to-day use, and most importantly an awesome AV experience.
The Xperia 1 IV isn't an inspirational generation jump, and the Award-winning Sony Xperia 10 IV (above) offers more bang for buck, but the IV remains an excellent choice for those who want the best AV experience from one of the best unlocked phones.
Read the full Sony Xperia 1 IV review
The iPhone 13 might have been superseded by the iPhone 14, but it's arguably the best value iPhone around right now.
The iPhone 13 is slightly cheaper (in the UK at least) than the iPhone 12 was at launch, and a lot cheaper than the new iPhone 14 . It has the same winning design as the 12, a similarly-premium feel and it comes in five snazzy colours.
The A15 Bionic chip enables useful iOS features and boots the phone up in double-quick time. 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 2021 What Hi-Fi? Award-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
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 a well.
Read the full iPhone 14 review
The Galaxy S22 Ultra's remarkable performance and features present a pretty compelling case for abandoning Apple iOS.
The 6.8-inch display's 120Hz refresh rate (which can scale down to 1Hz for minimal blurring) makes for smooth, virtually jitter-free video, while the dual-firing speakers (which boast support for Dolby Atmos) deliver a more spacious soundstage than the competition.
Camera features include Adaptive Pixel Tech, which allows the capture of 108MP and 12MP images at the same time to create a more detailed and brighter image. The dual telephoto lenses (both 10MP, one with 3x optical zoom and one with 10x) promise a crisper zoomed-in image.
The Samsung S22 Ultra’s superior, Android-based user experience is now aided by slick and helpful S Pen support. In fact, our only real gripe concerns the battery pack - we'd like a little more stamina.
The S22 Ultra isn't cheap but if you want a cutting-edge Android 'superphone' that offers a stylus pen for doodling and note-taking, this Samsung handset should be a frontrunner.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review
The Sony Xperia 1 III is the Japanese giant's 2021 flagship, and another excellent handset that is well worth considering if audio and video performance are key factors for you.
We loved 2020 Xperia 1 II 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 it's a great device... if you budget doesn't stretch to one of the newer, upgraded Xperia phones.
Read the full Sony Xperia 1 III review
The iPhone 13 Pro Max is Apple’s biggest, fastest and ‘best’ iPhone for 2021. It’s no great departure from its predecessor, but it has received some meaningful upgrades.
The richer OLED screen is a boon, as is the advanced camera system, which consists of Telephoto, Wide and Ultra Wide cameras. The increased size of the apertures of the Ultra Wide and Wide cameras compared to the iPhone 12 Pro Max makes for better and faster low-light photography.
Video can be captured at up to 4K/60fps with Dolby Vision, and the new Cinematic mode allows for in-video depth-of-field changes. You get extra battery life, too: the 12 Pro Max was capable of lasting well over a day but the 13 Pro Max lasts about two and a half hours longer. Handy if you like to stream video on the go.
If you want the best unlocked iPhone, and the iPhone 14 Pro Max is out of reach, the iPhone 13 Pro Max remains a contender – especially when paired with AirPods Max headphones for the full Spatial Audio sound experience.
Read the full Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review
If you're on a budget, and simply don't need the "latest and greatest" tech, the iPhone 12 could be a good option.
Apple's first crack at a 5G phone features the (still speedy) A14 Bionic chipset and excellent 6.1in OLED Super Retina XDR display complete with HDR10, Dolby Vision and HLG support. At the time we noted how it "ramped up picture performance" and helped to justify the comparatively high price.
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, too. It charges wirelessly and via Apple's clever, snap-on MagSafe tech.
Some Android devices offer better battery life, and the newer iPhone 14 has a far better camera, but when you consider the iPhone 12 features, it remains one of the best unlocked phones we've tested.
Read the full review: iPhone 12
A premium device at a premium price, Oppo’s Find X5 Pro smartphone boasts the flashy design and standout camera that we all expect of a 2022-released flagship phone. Our primary concerns, though, are picture and sound quality, and here it’s a bit more of a mixed bag.
Still, those determined to avoid the usual high-end options and instead go for something out of the ordinary will find much to like here, particularly if they’re willing to spend some time in the settings menu.
Oppo’s Find X5 Pro is a solid device in most ways. It's packed with features, user friendly software and it provides an enjoyable, if not mind blowing visual performance. However, it's marred by an audio experience that’s easily surpassed by the class leaders.
Still, if you’re determined to go with an outsider choice for your next unlocked phone and sound quality isn’t much of a priority, the Oppo Find X5 Pro is certainly worth a look.
Read the full Oppo Find X5 Pro 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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