Still, the pair are pretty much on a permanent discount—just make sure to clip the on-page coupon on Amazon to see the lower price at checkout. The company also announced 2021 successors—the TCL 20 range—which will hit US store shelves early this summer. They might be worth waiting for.
Works on all three major US carriers
Yes and no. All of our picks are excellent buys, but some brands like TCL, Google, and Nokia are launching new models this summer (some as early as May). If you’re in no rush, you should wait.
Check Network Compatibility
If you buy an unlocked phone on this list and try to take it to one of your wireless carrier’s retail stores, they may tell you it isn’t compatible with the network. It likely is. Just use a paper clip or SIM ejection tool to pop the SIM card out of your current phone, then slide that SIM into your new phone. If it doesn’t work at first, reboot the phone or wait a couple of hours.
If you need a new SIM, try ordering one online from your carrier, or try to get them to give you a SIM when you activate a line in the store (if you’re starting coverage). Tell them you have a phone. Many times, reps will want to sell you a phone; that’s one potential reason they might hassle you into buying a different device in the store.
Having said that, please make sure whatever phone you buy will work on your wireless network. Listings on retailers like Amazon should state clearly which networks it will be compatible with. Also, make sure the listing says that the phone is being sold “unlocked.”
Warning for Verizon users: There’s a higher chance an unlocked phone will not work on your network. Make sure it is labeled to work on Verizon, or that it says the phone is CDMA-capable. If something strange is going on, like you get no texts, you may also need to contact customer service and ask them to enable CDMA-Less roaming. AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers, which is the standard for most of the world; most unlocked phones are compatible with them.
If you’re nervous, look up the specifications of the exact model you’re considering. Make sure it has the LTE bands it needs to run on your carrier. Speaking of networks, none of the phones in this guide support 5G, which is perfectly fine. 5G phones are pricey, and the networks are still only available in a handful of places around the country, so you’re not missing much.
If a phone isn’t listed here, or if it’s refurbished, be careful. It’s easy to waste money or time when you’re shopping for affordable phones. It’s hard to get a sense of how a cheaper phone will act in the long term when you use it in a store for five minutes, and retail employees may not be much help. Make sure you read reviews online.
For whatever reason, big manufacturers like to keep selling their old pre-2020 devices. A good rule of thumb is to avoid most devices that originally came out before 2020. They probably won’t continue to get software and security updates for long, if they’re even being supported now.
For example, we do not recommend buying the iPhone XR anymore. It’s still a good phone (8/10, WIRED Recommends), but it’s only $100 cheaper than the more powerful iPhone 11, which is vastly superior in many ways, and absolutely the iPhone to buy if your budget can stretch to $600.
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