It's a great time to be a wireless customer! Cell phone plans are more competitive than ever, and with contracts solidly in the history books, your phone can probably be unlocked for use on any carrier you choose.
What is an unlocked phone? It's a device that is no longer locked to a specific carrier so you can use it with any plan. If you're shopping for a used smartphone or you want to take your current phone to a new carrier you're in the right place. I'm going to tell you why and how to unlock your cell phone. I'll also give you tips on buying an unlocked device.
In This Guide
Benefits Of Buying an Unlocked Phone
You may already know that Sprint and Verizon operate on the CDMA network while AT&T and T-Mobile use the GSM network. Luckily for you, technology has advanced to the point that most smartphones can be used on both the CDMA and GSM networks.
- Total freedom: Unlocked phones can operate on any carrier.
- Flexibility: You can switch carriers at any time if you find a better deal.
- Peace of mind: You don't have to worry that an unlocked phone is still under contract or is a stolen device.
- International service: Unlocked phones are much more flexible if you travel abroad on a regular basis. You can simply buy a SIM card designed for use in your destination country and avoid expensive roaming fees.
What You NEED to Know About Unlocked Phones
Although they are not locked to any carrier, they still work best on the carrier they were originally made for.
A GSM unlocked phone can work on a CDMA network and vice versa. However, this is only because of the development of 4G.
If you have a GSM phone on a CDMA network (or vice versa) and your 4G drops down to 3G, your phone will basically become a paperweight until 4G is restored. That means no calls/texts/data. For this reason, it's still best to get an unlocked phone that operates on the carrier you're currently with or the one you're are moving to.
Newer phones come unlocked if bought outright. But if on contract it will be locked until paid off.
Key Considerations When Buying an Unlocked Phone
Now that you know why buying a used or refurbished phone online is a budget-wise decision here are some things to keep in mind while shopping:
- Refurbished vs. used - used smartphones come as-is, while refurbs are devices which have been repaired and repackaged for sale.
- Returns - choose a seller with a solid return policy in case the item doesn't meet your expectations.
- Insurance - there are third-party companies that can offer you cell phone insurance even on a used phone.
- Certification - some sellers offer certified iPhones and Android devices so you can be sure it's been put through rigorous testing.
- Condition - some sellers use "grades" to indicate the phones condition. A is the best, B may have some minor wear, C has visible defects. Other sites use "Excellent", "Good", and "Fair" to convey the same information.
- Payment plans - more and more sites are offering device payments. These typically come with high interest so think hard before taking advantage of the offer.
Why Compare Prices?
Once you're ready to buy an unlocked version of your favorite iPhone or Android you'll want to shop around before you buy. Prices vary depending upon a few factors:
- Whether you're purchasing from a private seller or a reseller website.
- Whether you're buying a specific carrier's phone or an unlocked device (unlocked smartphones can run a few bucks more but they're way more versatile).
- The timing of your purchase - prices on recent model phones fluctuate when a brand new model is released.
Instead of bouncing from site to site just use our handy tool to compare prices on pre-owned smartphones.
Where To Buy an Unlocked Smartphone
Once you're ready to make a purchase you'll be on the hunt for a reputable phone seller. Here are our favorites.
BuyBackWorld has been in business for nearly a decade. There are several advantages to buying a cell phone from this site:
- Wide selection of Samsung unlocked phones as well as unlocked iPhones.
- Quality inspection performed on each phone.
- 30-day guarantee.
- Fast and free shipping.
Decluttr allows users to buy and sell a variety of used items. When you buy a cell phone from Decluttr you get:
- Free shipping.
- 12-month limited warranty.
- Flexible payment options including credit cards and PayPal.
This phone seller has been in the biz since 2006. Gazelle buys electronics and resells them, which makes it easy for you to find a great deal on your next smartphone.
Benefits of Gazelle include:
- A 30-point inspection of all devices.
- 30-day guarantee on your purchased item.
- Well-known, reliable company with a history of great customer service.
- Competitive prices.
Glyde is a little bit different - you're buying from private sellers but Glyde does all the work for you. In other words, you deal with Glyde, they deal with the seller. Advantages of Glyde include:
- Free shipping.
- Wide selection of late model smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S8.
- Price alert feature.
- Good prices.
Glyde does have some mixed reviews so be sure to do your research before buying.
On Swappa you deal directly with the seller. Pros include:
- Great customer support.
- Guaranteed refund if the item is not as advertised.
- Good selection and prices.
You can only pay via PayPal on Swappa, and you pay for shipping.
Switching to a New Carrier? Save Money With an MVNO
If you're buying an unlocked phone in order to switch carriers you'll be happy to know you can save up to 50% off your cell phone bill by going with an MVNO.
What Are MVNOs?
Mobile Virtual Network Operators - MVNOs - are smaller carriers that buy or lease extra space on the big four networks. Lower overhead allows them to sell service to you at a lower cost than you'd pay a major wireless carrier.
Benefits of MVNOs:
- Cheap cell phone plans.
- Service on the same reliable 4G LTE networks you're used to.
- Freedom from contracts, credit checks, and overage fees - cancel any time.
- Custom plans so you only pay for what you need.
- Bring your own phone and number.
Buying a used unlocked cell phone can save you more than 50% off retail. It's a great deal as long as you:
- Compare prices before buying.
- Choose a site or seller that meets your wants and needs (price, warranty, shipping, etc.)
- Make sure you're getting an unlocked phone so you can use it with any carrier.
- Compare cell phone plans to maximize your savings.
Finally, if you're keeping your current phone but want to use it on another network, learn how to unlock your own phone.