What is an Unlocked Android Smartphone? What do I look for?

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Last Update: 6/6/2016

Samsung Galaxy S4 Unlocked Smartphone

What is an Unlocked Smartphone?

Unlocked Smartphones like an Unlocked Android cell phone allow you to use the phone on any cellular network (provided it is wireless compatible), you are no longer locked to a single carrier or stuck in a 2 year contract! An unlocked smartphone is a phone that is not tied to a specific carrier or contract. Freedom! You can sign up for low cost no contract cell phone plans from $30 a month.

eBay Daily Deals are a good source of unlocked phones.

If you travel overseas, an unlocked phone is a MUST. With an unlocked phone, you'll pay the same lower rate as the locals do for calls in that country. It can be as easy as purchasing an unlocked phone in the U.S., traveling to your destination country and purchasing a local SIM card.

Be sure to also read How to use your Smartphone Overseas.

Being tied to 1 carrier also limits your selection of phones. The major carriers do not sell every make and model of phone.  You have a world of new phones to choose from when you go the unlocked route. Phones under $100, the latest phones $650+, and everything in between. This especially matters with unlocked Android smartphones. Use brands like Asus, Motorola, Xiaomi and more.

Most Smartphones that are purchased from the major cell phone carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) are sold at a steep discount but tied to a long term contract. A state of the art phone will sell for $199 with a 2 year commitment, full price with a monthly installment payment, or can be purchased outright for around $699 without the carrier subsidy.

The carriers that sell the discounted smartphones, lock the phones so that they only work on their network. Only after you have fulfilled your contractual obligations, (usually two years), will they unlock your phone so you can use it with another company.

Smartphone Deals

  • $129.99$79.99Save: $50.00 (38%)Best BuyBest Buy Coupons

    BLU Life Max 4G 16GB 5.5in Unlocked Phone $79.99 + Free ShippingBest Buy

    Huge and cheap. Best Buy has a BLU Life Max 4G 16GB 5.5in Unlocked Smartphone Sale$79.99 plus Free shipping.

    One of the cheapest no contract Android Unlocked smartphones. How to Buy an Unlocked Smartphone

    • 4G speeds on AT&T: Cricket Wireless, Trachoma, Straight Talk, Net10, H20 Wireless, 420 Wireless, Black Wireless, Consumer Cellular, Pure Talk USA, Red Pocket, Telcel America.
    • T-Mobile: MetroPCS, Lyca, Speedtalk, Go Smart, Simple Mobile, Net10, Straight Talk, Solavei, Ultra Mobile, Telcel America, Walmart Family Mobile supported in most areas; check with your service provider

    Important Information:

    Perfect for T-Mobile, StraightTalk or AT&T Wireless. Add a line or replace and older phone.

    Consider purchasing an unlocked cell phone if you are on AT&T or T-Mobile and want a new Smartphone without a contract. Unlocked Smartphones allow you to subscribe to low cost carriers mentioned below and function internationally, so you can use the same phone abroad.

    Learn: No-Contract Plans, Unlocked Smartphones

    Choosing the right plan for you is time consuming and can also be a hassle. We've done the research and you may save over $1,000 each year! Be sure to check out our no-contract Smartphone plan article: How to Find the Best No Contract Smartphone Plans where we compare all of the major network carriers. Check out our How to Buy an Unlocked Smartphones article to learn what it means to have an "Unlocked" Smartphone.

    BLU Life Max 4G Smartphone Unlocked Specifications

    • 5.5" display 1280x720 resolution
    • 1.3Ghz Quad Core Processor
    • Android 6 Marshmallow
    • 4G LTE
    • 16GB Storage
    • 2GB Ram
    • microSDHC card slot up to 64GB
    • Dual Sim Card slots
    • Fingerprint sensor
    • GPS
    • 802.11n Wireless
    • 8/5 MPixel cameras
    Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter
    Sales tax in: Most States
    Posted: January 16, 2017 9:51 AM PST


  • $999.99$369.99Save: $630.00 (63%)eBayeBay Coupons

    Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge NoContract Phone Sale $369.99 + Free ShippingeBay

    Over 3000 bought. eBay with samsung mobile has the very popular Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Unlocked No Contract Smartphone Sale Priced in several colors only for $369.99 + Free Shipping. Tax in IL. 2% back in eBay bucks. Save up to $250 off a carrier store when you factor in tax. $595+tax at amazon from a 3rd party.

    This big brother and chief rival to the iPhone 6S, this S6 Edge is probably one of the best Android Smartphone out today. This has more storage, 32GB than past phones. Up to 21 hours of talk time. Fast 8-core processor and large 5.1in screen. No removable battery or memory card.

    In the article, iPhone vs. Android: Making the best Choice, we compare the differences between the iPhone and Android phones.

    Galaxy S6 Edge Review:

    The Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge includes a new stylish look with better feel. New and improved 16Mpixel camera with auto HDR, 4K Ultra HD video recording. New Ultra Power Saving Mode. Cnet Review

    Important Information:

    Perfect for T-Mobile, StraightTalk or AT&T Wireless. Add a line or replace and older phone.

    Consider purchasing an unlocked cell phone if you are on AT&T or T-Mobile and want a new Smartphone without a contract. Unlocked Smartphones allow you to subscribe to low cost carriers mentioned below and function internationally, so you can use the same phone abroad.

    Learn: No-Contract Plans, Unlocked Smartphones

    Choosing the right plan for you is time consuming and can also be a hassle. We've done the research and you may save over $1,000 each year! Be sure to check out our no-contract Smartphone plan article: How to Find the Best No Contract Smartphone Plans where we compare all of the major network carriers. Check out our How to Buy an Unlocked Smartphones article to learn what it means to have an "Unlocked" Smartphone.

    Low Cost Service Plan with Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data

    T-Mobile offers a web exclusive pre-paid plan great for unlocked phones:

    • $30/mo for Unlimited Web & Text with 100 Minutes Talk

    Straight Talk, a prepaid carrier that is owned by Tracfone and Walmart, sells micro SIM cards for the that cost $14.99 + Free Shipping.  You can pop these into any AT&T-compatible, T-Mobile-compatible, or unlocked GSM phone.

    • $45 a month buys you unlimited talk, text and 5GB high speed data with no contract or credit check

    Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Unlocked Specifications

    • 5.1-inch Full HD Super AMOLED touchscreen display (1920 x 1080 pixels)
    • Fingerprint sensor, Samsung Pay and Corning Gorilla Glass 4
    • 8 Cores: Quad-Core 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 + Quad-Core 2.1 GHz
    • 3 GB RAM
    • 32GB built in storage
    • 16MPixel camera w/ 1080p video capture, 5 Mpixel front facing camera
    • Bluetooth 4.0
    • Android 5 (Lollipop)
    • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot (Depends on carrier support)
    • Near Field Communication (NFC) for transactions, data exchanges and other short-range wireless interaction.
    • Built in IR Blaster
    • 4.87 ounces
    • 2G: GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
    • 3G: HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
    • 4G: LTE 700 / 800 / 850 / 900 / 1700 (AWS) / 1800 / 1900 / 2100 / 2600 (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 18, 19, 26, 28)
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    Sales tax in: Depends on seller
    Posted: January 16, 2017 9:10 AM PST


Unlocking your Phone

Effective 2/12/2015, all cellphone carriers are required by the Government, to unlock your phone once you have fulfilled applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan, or payment of applicable early termination fee. Prepaid cell phones can be unlocked one year after being activated. They must unlock cell phones for military personnel.

Specific Unlock policies: AT&T - Verizon - T-Mobile - Sprint

Some enterprising cell phone service centers can unlock factory locked phones for a small fee, but these technique does not work on all phones. There is always the possibility bricking or making a phone no longer function if you unlock a phone by hacking it. Doing this will probably void the warranty. When you purchase an unlocked Smartphone, you need to determine who unlocked the phone. The best ones were unlocked at the factory or were unlocked by the carrier.

Verizon Standard 2 Year Contract for iPhone 6S or Samsung Galaxy S7

We will list out the charges due when you sign up for a Typical 24 month installment plan for two of the most popular Smartphones on Verizon Wireless. S7 costs 22 more.

iPhone 6 16GB or Galaxy S7 32GB with Plan. This allows us to upgrade after one year.

Amount due at sale:

$20 Activation fee (Sometimes it is waived when buying online)

$0 for the Smartphone (It does go on sale from time to time)

Sales tax on full value of phone $57 in our area.

Total due at time of sale: $0 + $57 Sales Tax + $20 activation fee = $77.

Monthly Charge $27.08 for 24 month = $649.92.

Monthly Service Plan:

Medium plan 3GB with unlimited talk and text

Smartphone Line Access $20 + $45 3GB Shared Data = $65/month

Total due each month for phone and plan: $92.08 + taxes

Amount Paid to fulfill contract: (24 months)

$92.08 X 24 months = $2209+ $0 + $57 Sales Tax + $20 activation fee = $2286. Price checked June 2016.

iPhone 6S or Galaxy S7 value is now roughly $250 after 2 years

After 2 years your monthly bill would drop to just the service plan as you paid off the phone.

Bringing your own iPhone 6S or Samsung Galaxy S7 to Verizon, Monthly Charges

Initial Phone Cost $649.99 + $57 Sales Tax = $706.99.

Monthly Plan:

Medium plan 3GB with unlimited talk and text

Smartphone Line Access $20 + $45 3GB Shared Data = $65/month

Total due each month: $65

You can switch carriers at anytime.

Your monthly costs are the same whether you buy the phone outright or pay for it with installment.

LTE Bands US Carrier Require

Carrier 4G LTE Bands Frequencies
AT&T, Cricket (AIO) 2, 4, 5, 17, 30* 1900, 1700 abcde, 700 bc, 2300
Verizon Wireless 2, 4, 13 1900, 1700 f, 700 c
T-Mobile 2, 4, 12 1900, 1700 def, 700 a
Sprint 25, 26, 41 1900 g, 850, 2500
420, Consumer Cellular, H20,Net10,StraightTalk 4,17 1700, 700b
Europe 3, 7, 20 1800, 2600, 800
China, India 40, 41 2300, 2500

The main LTE band for each carrier is bolded - * indicates optional

You need to have every band a carrier requires to enable full support and performance of a phone.

Which Unlocked Samsung Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge Smartphone?

For AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, or other No Contract Carriers, you really need to purchase the right model phone. There are multiple versions.

The Samsung Galaxy S7 was released in 2016 and is available in several models.  It features a 5.1" screen, 32GB Memory, 12Mpixel improved low light camera.

You can see which model works on which frequencies.  Stick to our recommendations to ensure you get a Samsung Galaxy S7 that works in LTE mode.

  • SM-G930A or SM-G935A (USA AT&T, Cricket)
    • The most versatile Samsung S7 for USA - Works on AT&T and T-Mobile. Has WCS spectrum in the 2.3GHz (Band 30) spectrum for additional AT&T coverage. Not for Sprint or Verizon. Includes band 40,41 for China, India. Includes band 3, 7, 20 for Europe.
    • GSM Mhz Band Quad-Band 850/900/1800/1900
      2G Network GSM 850/900/1800/1900
      3G Network UMTS 850/900/1900/2100
      4G Network LTE Cat9 700/800/850/900/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600 (Bands 1,2,3,4,5,7,8,12,20,29,30) 1900/2300/2500/2600 (Bands 38,39,40,41)
  • SM-G930F or SM-G935F (Middle East, Asia, Africa, EU, Latam)
    • Works on AT&T and T-Mobile. Not for Sprint or Verizon. Not for China or India.
    • GSM Mhz Band Quad-Band 850/900/1800/1900
      2G Network GSM 850/900/1800/1900
      3G Network UMTS 850/900/1900/2100
      4G Network LTE Cat9 700/800/850/900/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600 (Bands 1,2,3,4,5,7,8,12,17,18,19,20,26)
  • SM-G930P or SM-G935P (USA Sprint, Boost, Virgin Mobile)
    • Good for Sprint, Boost, Virgin Mobile. OK for T-Mobile. Does not support Band 17 ATT or HSPA+ T-Mobile. Not for Europe, India, China.
    • GSM Mhz Band Quad-Band 850/900/1800/1900
      2G Network CDMA 800/1900, GSM 850/900/1800/1900
      3G Network CDMA2000 1xEV-DO, UMTS 850/900/1900/2100
      4G Network LTE Cat9 700/800/850/1700/1900/2100 (Bands 2,4,5,12,13,25,26), TD-LTE2500 (Bands 41)
  • SM-G930R or SM-G935R (USA Rogers, US Cellular)
    • Good for Rogers, US Cellular, T-Mobile. Not good for AT&T, Sprint or Verizon. Works in Europe. Not for China, India.
    • GSM Mhz Band Quad-Band 850/900/1800/1900
      2G Network GSM 850/900/1800/1900
      3G Network  UMTS 850/900/1900/2100
      4G Network LTE Cat9 700/800/850/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600 (Bands 1,2,3,4,5,7,12,13,20)
  • SM-G930T or SM-G935T (USA T-Mobile)
    • Works on T-Mobile.Does not support Band 17 ATT for LTE. Does not work on Sprint or Verizon. Includes band 3, 7, 20 for Europe. Not for India, China.
    • GSM Mhz Band Quad-Band 850/900/1800/1900
      2G Network GSM 850/900/1800/1900
      3G Network UMTS 850/900/1900/2100
      4G Network LTE Cat9 700/800/850/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600 (Bands 1,2,3,4,5,7,12,13,20)
  • G930V (USA Verizon)
    • Works on Verizon. Does not work in LTE on AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint. Not for India, China, Europe.
    • GSM Mhz Band Quad-Band 850/900/1800/1900
      2G Network CDMA 800/1900, GSM 850/900/1800/1900
      3G Network CDMA2000 1xEV-DO, UMTS 850/900/1900/2100
      4G Network LTE Cat9 700/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600 (Bands 2,4,7,13)

Buying an Unlocked Samsung Galaxy S5 Smartphone for AT&T Wireless or T-Mobile

Welcome to the minefield. If you buy an Unlocked Samsung Galaxy S5 Smartphone, you may get an International model number SM-G900.  How well does this work on AT&T or T-Mobile? It does not support LTE networks, so you will never the speed of an AT&T or T-Mobile purchased one.

The SM-G900 supports HSPDA+ at 850/900/1800/1900/2100MHz. It will run on AT&T at full 4G HSPDA+ Speed. This is 14.4Mpbs or 21Mbps depending on your area.  On T-Mobile it does not support the 1700Mhz band, so it will run at 3G speeds in some places and perhaps Edge in some areas, do not buy this model!

If you buy an Unlocked Samsung Galaxy S5 Active Smartphone SM-G870 with LTE, how well will this work? It does not support LTE network frequencies of all USA providers, so you will never get much speed on T-Mobile.

The S5 model SM-G870 supports LTE at 700 / 850 / 1700 / 1800 / 1900 / 2100 Mhz. These are compatible with AT&T Wireless in the US. On T-Mobile it will run at 3G speeds in some places and perhaps Edge in some areas, do not buy this model for T-Mobile.

The S5 model SM-G900A is the AT&T version and adds LTE support at 1700/2100 (Band  17), it also supports bands 1/2/3/4/5/7

T-Mobile's Samsung S5 is the model SM-G900T and it supports LTE: Bands 1/2/3/5/7/8/4/17 plus HSPA+/UMTS: 850/AWS/1900/2100MHz.

Samsung Galaxy S6 or newer and iPhone 6S and newer add support for 700 (Band 12), which allows T-Mobile to have better reception indoors.

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, Note 5 are the first to add support for LTE Band 30 2300Mhz -  This higher-frequency band works better among buildings outdoors, as well as in corporate, convention center, and airport indoor deployments.

The S5 model SM-G900V is the Verizon model and adds LTE support at 1700/2100 (AWS Band 4) / 700c (Band 13) It does have an Unlocked SIM card slot, but you will only get Edge speeds on T-Mobile. This S5 will get HSPDA+ 14.4 or 21Mbps speeds on AT&T depending on your area, not LTE speeds.

Sprint's Samsung S5 SM-G900P is very limited to only LTE bands 25/26/41.

Buying an Unlocked Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone for AT&T Wireless or T-Mobile

If you buy an Unlocked Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone, you will probably get an International model number GT-i9500.  How well does this work on AT&T or T-Mobile? It does not support LTE networks, so you will never the speed of an AT&T or T-Mobile purchased one.

The GT-i9500 supports HSPDA+ at 850/900/1900/2100MHz. It will run on AT&T at full 4G HSPDA+ Speed. This is 14.4Mpbs or 21Mbps depending on your area.  On T-Mobile it does not support the 1700Mhz band, so it will run at 3G speeds in some places and perhaps Edge in some areas, don’t buy this model!

If you buy an Unlocked Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone GT-i9505 with LTE, how well will this work? It does not support LTE network frequencies of USA providers, so you will never the speed of an AT&T or T-Mobile purchased one.

The S4 model GT-i9505 supports LTE at 800 / 850 / 900 / 1800 / 2100 / 2600Mhz. These are not compatible with the US. It will run on AT&T at full 4G HSPDA+ Speed only. This is 14.4Mpbs or 21Mbps depending on your area.  On T-Mobile it does not support the 1700Mhz band, so it will run at 3G speeds in some places and perhaps Edge in some areas, do not buy this model!

The S4 model SGH-i337 is the AT&T version and adds LTE support at 1700/2100 (Band  17)

The S4 model SCH-i545 is the Verizon model and adds LTE support at 1700/2100 (AWS Band 4) / 700c (Band 13) It does have an Unlocked SIM card slot, but you will only get Edge speeds on most of T-Mobile. This S4 will get HSPDA+ 14.4 or 21Mbps speeds on AT&T depending on your area, not LTE speeds.

Confirm that the phone you purchase will work at full speed on the cell phone network you want to join. Sometimes just buying the phone for full price from the carrier, is your safest bet.

Read on for details on these confusing stats.

Smartphone Deals

  • $129.99$79.99Save: $50.00 (38%)Best BuyBest Buy Coupons

    BLU Life Max 4G 16GB 5.5in Unlocked Phone $79.99 + Free ShippingBest Buy

    Huge and cheap. Best Buy has a BLU Life Max 4G 16GB 5.5in Unlocked Smartphone Sale$79.99 plus Free shipping.

    One of the cheapest no contract Android Unlocked smartphones. How to Buy an Unlocked Smartphone

    • 4G speeds on AT&T: Cricket Wireless, Trachoma, Straight Talk, Net10, H20 Wireless, 420 Wireless, Black Wireless, Consumer Cellular, Pure Talk USA, Red Pocket, Telcel America.
    • T-Mobile: MetroPCS, Lyca, Speedtalk, Go Smart, Simple Mobile, Net10, Straight Talk, Solavei, Ultra Mobile, Telcel America, Walmart Family Mobile supported in most areas; check with your service provider

    Important Information:

    Perfect for T-Mobile, StraightTalk or AT&T Wireless. Add a line or replace and older phone.

    Consider purchasing an unlocked cell phone if you are on AT&T or T-Mobile and want a new Smartphone without a contract. Unlocked Smartphones allow you to subscribe to low cost carriers mentioned below and function internationally, so you can use the same phone abroad.

    Learn: No-Contract Plans, Unlocked Smartphones

    Choosing the right plan for you is time consuming and can also be a hassle. We've done the research and you may save over $1,000 each year! Be sure to check out our no-contract Smartphone plan article: How to Find the Best No Contract Smartphone Plans where we compare all of the major network carriers. Check out our How to Buy an Unlocked Smartphones article to learn what it means to have an "Unlocked" Smartphone.

    BLU Life Max 4G Smartphone Unlocked Specifications

    • 5.5" display 1280x720 resolution
    • 1.3Ghz Quad Core Processor
    • Android 6 Marshmallow
    • 4G LTE
    • 16GB Storage
    • 2GB Ram
    • microSDHC card slot up to 64GB
    • Dual Sim Card slots
    • Fingerprint sensor
    • GPS
    • 802.11n Wireless
    • 8/5 MPixel cameras
    Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter
    Sales tax in: Most States
    Posted: January 16, 2017 9:51 AM PST


  • $999.99$369.99Save: $630.00 (63%)eBayeBay Coupons

    Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge NoContract Phone Sale $369.99 + Free ShippingeBay

    Over 3000 bought. eBay with samsung mobile has the very popular Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Unlocked No Contract Smartphone Sale Priced in several colors only for $369.99 + Free Shipping. Tax in IL. 2% back in eBay bucks. Save up to $250 off a carrier store when you factor in tax. $595+tax at amazon from a 3rd party.

    This big brother and chief rival to the iPhone 6S, this S6 Edge is probably one of the best Android Smartphone out today. This has more storage, 32GB than past phones. Up to 21 hours of talk time. Fast 8-core processor and large 5.1in screen. No removable battery or memory card.

    In the article, iPhone vs. Android: Making the best Choice, we compare the differences between the iPhone and Android phones.

    Galaxy S6 Edge Review:

    The Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge includes a new stylish look with better feel. New and improved 16Mpixel camera with auto HDR, 4K Ultra HD video recording. New Ultra Power Saving Mode. Cnet Review

    Important Information:

    Perfect for T-Mobile, StraightTalk or AT&T Wireless. Add a line or replace and older phone.

    Consider purchasing an unlocked cell phone if you are on AT&T or T-Mobile and want a new Smartphone without a contract. Unlocked Smartphones allow you to subscribe to low cost carriers mentioned below and function internationally, so you can use the same phone abroad.

    Learn: No-Contract Plans, Unlocked Smartphones

    Choosing the right plan for you is time consuming and can also be a hassle. We've done the research and you may save over $1,000 each year! Be sure to check out our no-contract Smartphone plan article: How to Find the Best No Contract Smartphone Plans where we compare all of the major network carriers. Check out our How to Buy an Unlocked Smartphones article to learn what it means to have an "Unlocked" Smartphone.

    Low Cost Service Plan with Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data

    T-Mobile offers a web exclusive pre-paid plan great for unlocked phones:

    • $30/mo for Unlimited Web & Text with 100 Minutes Talk

    Straight Talk, a prepaid carrier that is owned by Tracfone and Walmart, sells micro SIM cards for the that cost $14.99 + Free Shipping.  You can pop these into any AT&T-compatible, T-Mobile-compatible, or unlocked GSM phone.

    • $45 a month buys you unlimited talk, text and 5GB high speed data with no contract or credit check

    Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Unlocked Specifications

    • 5.1-inch Full HD Super AMOLED touchscreen display (1920 x 1080 pixels)
    • Fingerprint sensor, Samsung Pay and Corning Gorilla Glass 4
    • 8 Cores: Quad-Core 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 + Quad-Core 2.1 GHz
    • 3 GB RAM
    • 32GB built in storage
    • 16MPixel camera w/ 1080p video capture, 5 Mpixel front facing camera
    • Bluetooth 4.0
    • Android 5 (Lollipop)
    • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot (Depends on carrier support)
    • Near Field Communication (NFC) for transactions, data exchanges and other short-range wireless interaction.
    • Built in IR Blaster
    • 4.87 ounces
    • 2G: GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
    • 3G: HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
    • 4G: LTE 700 / 800 / 850 / 900 / 1700 (AWS) / 1800 / 1900 / 2100 / 2600 (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 18, 19, 26, 28)
    Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter
    Sales tax in: Depends on seller
    Posted: January 16, 2017 9:10 AM PST


Why Buy an Unlocked Smartphone?

There is a lot of trouble involved in finding the right unlocked and compatible Smartphone. Why do some people go through these troubles?

  • Carrier Flexibility – Switch Carriers at any time without being locked in
  • No contracts – Use a prepaid service provider, with no monthly commitment
  • Travel – Use your Smartphone internationally and without huge roaming bills
  • Variety – Use phones that aren’t available in the US
  • Customization – Customize your phone more
  • Early Adopter – People who want the latest Smartphone
  • Replacing broken phone – Just pop the SIM card into a new phone

Unlocked Smartphones are not that popular in the US. Google sells some unlocked Nexus Smartphones, Amazon, eBay, and Newegg have some unlocked phones. You can also pay full price for a Smartphone from most carriers and also Apple, to get an unlocked phone.

Cellular Network Compatibility

Because some of the network providers in the USA utilize different cellular network technology, you cannot take an unlocked phone from say, Verizon and make it work on AT&T.

Carrier Name                    Network Technology

AT&T                                   GSM, LTE

Sprint                                  CDMA, LTE

T-Mobile                             GSM, LTE

Verizon                                CDMA, LTE

 

As you can see from the above chart, each network uses different technology. To make things even more complicated, within a specific network technology, there are different frequencies available. The frequencies a carrier uses are defined by spectrum that they have acquired.

GSM Network Compatibility - Frequency Bands

GSM phones use a small SIM card to define which provider a phone will use. Each carrier has its own SIM card. You would expect that you could take a SIM card from say AT&T and just plug it into a T-Mobile phone.

AT&T and T-Mobile both use GSM technology, so you might expect unlocked Smartphones compatible with one network to work on the others, but the problem is that they each support different frequencies.

Carrier                                  GSM Frequencies

AT&T                                     850/1900Mhz

T-Mobile                              1700/2100 (AWS)/1900 (refarm)

T-Mobile 1900Mhz only works in certain areas, mostly larger cities. Details

Some Smartphones support all the frequencies listed above. These are typically called quad-band cell phones or world phones. If you try to use a phone that does not support a frequency that the carrier requires, it will not work. When purchasing an unlocked phone, it is important to verify the frequencies it supports are compatible with the cellular network you intend to use it on.

Maximum performance using HSPDA+ (4G) is 42.2 Mbps; HSUPA 5.76 Mbps. Actual speeds are less. PC Mag found these speeds in middle of 2013. (Mbps)

Carrier Name       Down Average        Peak      Upload

AT&T HSPA                4.52                15.57       1.08

T-Mobile HSPA          7.66                15.85       1.18

Verizon 3G                  1.08                2.84         0.74

SIM card Compatibility

GSM Phones contain SIM cards of varying size. Newer, more slim Smartphones created the need for smaller SIM cards. There is the original SIM card, a micro SIM card, and a smaller nano SIM card. It is important you get the right SIM card for your phone. There are some cutting tools that will you to trim a larger SIM card into a smaller one, but you should avoid this whenever possible.

LTE Network Compatibility

LTE is the latest and fastest cellular network technology deployed in the US. All 4 major carriers support this technology. It seems obvious that a Smartphone purchased for one network would just work on another. Unfortunately, there are a lot of complex details preventing this. The biggest one is LTE frequency support.

Carrier Name                   LTE Frequency

AT&T Wireless                  700bc (Band 17)/ 1900 (Band 2) / 1700/2100 (Band 4) /  (Band 5) / 700de (Band 29) / 2300 WCS (Band 30)

Sprint                                    800 (soon, Band 26) / 1900 (Band 25) / 2500 (soon, Band 41)

T-Mobile                              700 (Band 12)/ 1900 (Band 2) / 1700/2100 (Band 4)

Verizon                                 700c (Band 13) / 1900 (Band 2) / 1700/2100 (soon, Band 4)

As you can see from this table, it is a nightmare trying to make a phone work on multiple US carriers. When purchasing an unlocked Smartphone, you want to make sure it runs on the fastest network possible, so you need to compare the phones specifications with your carrier’s network frequencies.  We have examined several state of the art Smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and found that most international versions will not work on LTE networks in the United States.

Maximum theoretical peak performance using LTE is 50 Mbps Upload, 100 Mbps Download. Actual speeds are less. PC Mag found these speeds in middle of 2013. (Mbps)

Carrier Name                Down Average              Peak            Upload

AT&T LTE                               16.02                   58.25            6.64

T-Mobile LTE                          13.11                    36.65            7.43

Verizon LTE                             10.25                  53.38            4.55

XLTE

In May, Verizon unveiled "XLTE", hyped and advertised as another LTE service capable of delivering faster speeds and better coverage. However, Verizon's XLTE service simply doubles the bandwidth for their LTE network by using the AWS frequencies in the 1700MHZ band (Verizon's LTE network normally runs on 700MHZ). Many other carriers are also in the process of increasing bandwidth for the LTE networks, and many handset manufacturers are now releasing devices capable of running on XLTE, T-Mobile's new LTE network, and AT&T's LTE network. Keep in mind, however, that older devices will not get to take advantage of the new network, and users hoping to use Sprint's new "Spark" network will have to buy new devices made for Sprint's network.

The only way to take advantage of this additional bandwidth provided by wireless carriers is to buy a phone directly from the carrier.

Examples of smartphones that will support XLTE:

  • iPhone 5s/5c/6/6 Plus / 6S / 6S Plus
  • Samsung Galaxy s4/s5/S6 / S7
  • Motorolla Moto X
  • LG G2/G3 /G4

Problems with an Unlocked Smartphone

Let’s say that you found an unlocked Smartphone that is compatible with your carrier of choice. What other problems might occur?

  • Internet Access – Calls and text are easy, but sometimes getting data to work is complicated
  • Special Features – It is possible that some features like visual voice mail will not work
  • Cost – You’ll pay a lot more upfront, because there is  no contract
  • Support – You are on your own, Googling is about all you can do to solve problems
  • Warranty – Most unlocked phones have short or no warranties

In September 2013, an unlocked Samsung Galaxy S4 costs $600, while the same phone with a 2 year contract costs $149. You could purchase the phone directly from AT&T for $700 without a plan, so you do same some money.

Alternatives

Shoppers should also consider buying a pre-owned Smartphone. eBay, and craigslist have many listed. You do need to make sure the phone works, and has not been banned from the network.  Some people trade in their phones, these phones get refurbished and usually make their way to eBay. Buying from a legitimate refurbisher like Gazelle makes sense. You are given a short warranty and a guarantee the smartphone works on the network.

Conclusion

There are many factors you need to research before you purchase an unlocked Android Smartphone. There are many advantages to buying one, but there are many disadvantages. If you are replacing a broken phone or need a phone for travel, this is a great way to go. If you are trying to buy the latest and greatest phone, you need to ensure that it is 100% compatible with the network you intend to use it on.

You have the freedom to switch phone and carriers whenever you want.

Have you purchased an unlocked Android phone? How is your buying experience? Did the phone work on your carriers’ network?

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23 responses to “What is an Unlocked Android Smartphone? What do I look for?”

  1. Lisa says:

    very helpful info, thanks so much! 🙂

  2. Mike says:

    I purchased a samsung galaxy ace 4 lte unlocked. I purchased so I could have service USA and when traveling to Europe purchase sim card there. Great phone for wifi, pictures and some off line features ,but the actual phone service on Consumer Cellular (ATT) did not work correctly. I was able to dial and be called but could not hear the person calling or be heard. The service is great on my old flip phone which I have had for many years. I was able to return the Samsung Galaxy Ace phone. Has anyone else had the same problem? Does anyone know if there is a setting to correct this. Would like to get that phone again if so.

    • norman says:

      Check the http://deals.ebay.com/ page, then search for att

      Look for ones marked for AT&T and refurbished.
      A lot of the unlocked Samsung phones are International versions that may not work in LTE mode on AT&T. iPhones are easy, most all are fine.

      Also download our BuyVia App. We are finding deals on Smartphones daily. There is a LG G2 AT&T for $210.

  3. Mad B. says:

    Thx so much for all this info. I checked because I have a Samsung Galaxy S4 thru AT&T for about a year now. I found while traveling last week between areas of Tallahassee and Pensacola,FL,then Tallahassee to Orlando, that I had no signal in many areas. Instead of just taking the I-75 and I-10, I took some backroads to access campgrounds and historical sites. Same thing happened while traveling the 98 along the Gulf Coast. Is there a way to have service in those areas? Do I have to buy a prepaid phone just for a vacation to remote areas? It would be nice to know I have service when I need it. Even right now, here in Orlando, I have 2 bars! I called yesterday while enroute to find out if any towers were down and was told none in that area. Thx again for the info.

    • norman says:

      Opensignal will show you signal coverage through the US. Give that a try. See how Verizon’s coverage is.

      Of course this should be use as a guideline, you really need to try it out to see how well reception is. Most carriers have a short money back guarantee period, so use it!

  4. James says:

    Great analysis. I used to have the unlocked Note 2 and was only able to get 2G. I want to buy the Note Edge and its over $100 cheaper on eBay than T-mobile (which I use). I dont want to be limited to 2G or 3G, based on the information I have, I might be limited to 2G again. Can you confirm that, if the unlocked Note Edge will only work on 2G on Tmobile?

    Thank you.

    PHONE BANDS(SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE EDGE-SM-N915F (FACTORY UNLOCKED):
    2G Network GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
    3G Network HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
    4G Network LTE 800 / 850 / 900 / 1800 / 2600
    (Bands 3, 5, 7, 8, 20)

    TMOBILE BANDS:
    T-Mobile 2G (GSM, GPRS, and EDGE): Band 2 (1900 MHz)
    T-Mobile 3G (HSPA): Band 4 (1700/2100 MHz)
    T-Mobile 4G (HSPA+): Band 2 (1900 MHz), Band 4 (1700/2100 MHz)
    T-Mobile 4G LTE: Band 2 (1900 MHz), Band 4 (1700/2100 MHz), Band 12 (700 MHz)

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Samsung-Galaxy-Note-EDGE-SMN915F-FACTORY-UNLOCKED-56-QHD-Black-White-/221721798338

    https://support.t-mobile.com/docs/DOC-4988

    • norman says:

      The 1900 MHz band is missing on the phone, so you should not buy this for T-Mobile. This is fine for most International markets. I wish these eBay sellers would do a better job indicating if these phones work in the US.

      This Note Edge is missing 700, 1700, 2100 LTE bands, so it is not a good fit for AT&T either.

      It is best to buy a refurbished T-Mobile phone if you want to save some money and use it on T-Mobile.

  5. BJ_FL says:

    Hi Norman,

    Currently, I have Verizon and do not like that I do not have the ability to change my carrier at will. I am past my contract and own my phone, but do not want Verizon as my carrier.

    So, I am now researching to buy a new unbranded, factory unlocked 4G LTE mobile phone; possibly a Samsung s4 or s5, or even a Motorola G in order to avoid network carrier bloat-ware and being locked into a contract. With this purchase, I hope to have a nicer handheld device for use with a pay-as-u-go GSM Carrier. Maybe NET-10 (AT&T), or whoever has the best GSM sim card pay-as-u-go deal available in my area.

    I am not planning on traveling overseas, so that is not why I am interested in the unlocked device. I just want control over my own equipment, and to be able to choose which apps and software I want to run on it.

    My Concerns; I am concerned regarding device and security updates.
    (how to get them? what about through my Security Software?)

    Also, concerned with the possibility that my nicer unlocked device/phone may not operate according to LTE network speeds, or that even the network might slight me because it is not a
    network phone.

    In closing, I want to buy a nicer device ($150-$400) and hold onto it longer than 3 years, but pay less per month for my usage. I am also hoping to utilize the newer device by streaming one of the Video companies through to my television. I hope!

    What do you think of my plan? Thumbs up or thumbs down, and why?
    Thanks for your professional opinion.

    • norman says:

      With Android, Google will fix many security issues and product updates, but it is up to carriers to test and distribute them. Few carriers will continue to update phones after a year or two. They want people to buy a new phone!

      The cleanest phones with no bloatware and updates from Google are the pure Android ones, ie the Nexus line. The newer moto G is also pure Android. A good way to proceed.

      Be sure to watch for sales on these device on buyvia.com or with our app

  6. Lora says:

    I am on Verizon with a grandfathered in unlimited data plan. With their changes, I cannot upgrade my phone without losing my plan. I have been told buying a phone from a third party will solve this problem as I really want to update to a Samung Note 4 or Note Edge. How can I be assured that the phone purchased from third party will work with just inserting the sim card I currently have in my Note II? All the research I have done only tells me how to move Verizon to another carrier. I don’t plan on changing carrier – just want a new phone.

    • norman says:

      I have seen nothing verifying the purchase of a phone from a 3rd party, will let you keep a Verizon unlimited plan. Everything I have seen is only when you pay full price from Verizon, will you get to keep it. Let us know how it goes.

      • Tan says:

        I just called verizon and they told me the same thing: purchase from 3rd party will let me keep the unlimited data plan. If I go with upgrading to a new device option, it will automatically end my unlimited data plan.

  7. Dino says:

    Hi Norman.
    Great article and very informative. I have a question about compatibility. If I purchase an unlocked phone that has LTE capabilities, does that phone need to be able to access all the frequencies of the network provider? For example, the phone that I am looking at is an Oukitel K4000. It can “network” on the following LTE bands: 800/1800/2100/ and 2600 MHz. One of my carriers in Canada claim to have the following frequencies: 1700/2100/2600/2500. Does the phone need to be able to run on all of them, or is a subset ok?

    Regards,

    Dino

    • norman says:

      That is a complicated question because it varies with each carriers. To be safe, get a phone that supports all of them.

      For instance, T-Mobile USA recently added support for 700MHz frequency on LTE Band 12 for better in building coverage.

      The new iPhone 6S, 6S plus and Samsung Galaxy S6 support this frequency, but older phones may not. It is not mandatory to have this frequency to get a phone to work on T-Mobile.

      You are taking a risk buying a phone with a subset of LTE frequencies. Unless you understand each frequency and whether it is optional or not, I suggest you get one with 100% compatibility.

  8. James Tran says:

    Hi Norman,
    This is a great article. I found many of its content useful and insightful. I was just wondering if this international version Samsung Galaxy s6 edge plus would work in the US AT&T 4G LTE.
    Model: SM-G928
    2G: 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900, 3G: 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100,
    4G: LTE 700 / 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1800 / 1900 / 2100 / 2600 (Bands: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12)
    Thanks!

  9. Lisa says:

    Will an unlocked Galaxy s6 Active work with T-Mobile in the US?

  10. Lynetta Mciwraith says:

    This is a terrific site, will you be interested in doing an interview regarding just how you created it? If so e-mail me!

  11. Sheila Teasdale says:

    Wanting to buy an unlocked Samsung Galaxy S5 G900A – will this also work throughout Europe? Is there a better option that offers the same functionality as this phone?

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