Best Unlocked Phones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best unlocked phones you can buy in 2022.
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
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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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, but it is an excellent enthusiast choice for those looking to squeeze the best AV and music listening performance out of an unlocked smartphone.
Read the full Sony Xperia 1 IV review
The construction of the iPhone 14 is sturdy, rigid, and high-quality – we can’t pick any faults there. But 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.
Still, the Super Retina OLED display of the iPhone 13 is stellar, so it's hardly 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.
While it's a shame that picture and sound quality haven't been upgraded, the iPhone 13 was great in these regards and the iPhone 14 is, making it one of the best unlocked phones on the market.
Read the full iPhone 14 review
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.
Worth noting: Sony has recently unveiled an upgraded model – the Sony Xperia 1 IV – with a 50% brighter screen. It's due to hit stores in June 2022; we'll be reviewing it shortly.
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
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 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.
The updated iPhone SE (2020) ups the stakes with a larger, punchier 4.7-inch screen, musical sound and a solid point-and-shoot 12MP snapper. t'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 iPhone SE (2020) 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.
The iPhone SE (2020) was recently replaced by the third-gen iPhone SE (2022) but it's still among the best budget smartphones you can buy right now.
Read the full iPhone SE (2020) review
The iPhone 13 Pro Max, Apple’s biggest, fastest and ‘best’ iPhone for 2021. It’s no great departure from its predecessor, as the near-identical design will likely attest, but it has received some meaningful upgrades. If you have deep-ish pockets, this is a great buy.
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’ve got the funds and want the best unlock phone, the iPhone 13 Pro Max is certainly a contender, particularly if you pair it with AirPods Max headphones for the full Dolby Atmos / Spatial Audio sound experience.
Read the full Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review
The 2020-launched Xperia 1 II (above) won a What Hi-Fi Awards for delivering a video and audio performance that exceeded its contemporaries. 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
Apple has enjoyed a string of hits, from 2019 iPhone 11 and the 2020 iPhone 12, to the 2022 iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro Max. If you're on a budget, so 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 a 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 13 has 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
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, while 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
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
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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