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 13 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 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
If you're looking for something state-of-the-art, Sony's Xperia 1 III handset (or perhaps the brand new Sony Xperia 1 IV) should be top of your list. But if you're happy to compromise, the older model, the Xperia 1 II, offers many of the same specs for 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 remains 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.
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 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 if you’re after a larger 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, and the S21 has now been trumped by the S22. But, for now, its reputation as one of the market’s best unlocked phones remains intact.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S21 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
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-released handset features some nifty specs, including 5G connectivity and a decent 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 might be a couple of years old but the S20 continues to deliver a fine smartphone screen experience.
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 a good-quality unlocked Android phone at a bargain price, the S20 is worth considering.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S20 review
There iPhone 11 Pro remains one of the best iPhones you can buy. So, if you're lucky enough to have some cash stashed away, we heartily recommend Apple's 2019 flagship.
The 11 Pro's palm-friendly size and brilliant OLED screen are a great pairing. Add to that the incredible triple-lens camera with ultra-wide-angle lens that captures excellent photos and video, and you have an impressive device.
On the downside, this phone doesn't support 5G. That could be an issue is you want the ultimate, on-the-go streaming experience (the iPhone 12 and 13 both support 5G and could be worth considering).
If you're on a budget and aren't bothered about 5G, there's no doubt that the 11 Pro is a big step up from the standard iPhone 11 in terms of picture and sound.
Want even more Apple features in a larger, fancy handset that's now available at a discount? The iPhone 11 Pro Max (below) could be a good option.
Read the full iPhone 11 Pro review
The 2018 iPhone XR is getting pretty old, but it's still widely available. Why? Because it delivers most of the same features as the pricier iPhone XS, plus an identical user experience, at a knockdown price.
OK, the XR's camera isn’t quite as good as its siblings and picture quality can be bettered, but you can buy an unlocked XR for under £500/$600/AU$1100 – cheap by Apple standards.
You get plenty for your money, 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 Apple at an 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 a cheap unlocked phone with some 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 S21 and S22 series phones.
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, 12 Pro Max and 13 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
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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