In a world where most people in the United States buy smartphones through carriers like Verizon and AT&T, it’s important to highlight the market of unlocked phones. When you buy a phone unlocked, you have the freedom to use it on any carrier you want (so long as it’s supported) and often save money in the long haul compared to purchasing it on a contract or installment plan. The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is the best unlocked Android phone you can buy in 2021, but it’s not the only one we recommend checking out. Here’s a list of our favorites!
Best Overall Unlocked Phone: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
By now, you’ve probably seen quite a bit of positive praise for the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE — in fact, we’ve even gone so far as to name it as the best Android phone of 2020! But why all the accolades? Put simply, there isn’t a phone out there right now that offers the balance of high-end specs and affordable pricing.
Released approximately six months after 2020’s flagship S20 lineup, the S20 FE brought just about every premium feature from those flagship phones for hundreds less. With the FE, you get a flat 120Hz 6.5-inch display, a high-performance Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset, 6GB of RAM and 128GB of memory, and expandable storage. Not only that, but the S20 FE has outstanding battery life, fantastic cameras, IP68 water resistance, and high speed and wireless charging. What’s not to love?
Aside from a few minor (and hardly noticeable) downgrades to its camera, the biggest initial knock on the S20 FE was the plastic — err — glasstic back panel. But after using the device for several months, we can confidently say that the material not only feels and looks great, but it’s more durable than the glass on the regular S20 line. Samsung even introduced this material in the regular Galaxy Note 20 and the entry model Galaxy S21. We also love the color options, particularly the Cloud Mint, Cloud Orange, and Cloud Lavender. More of this, please!
Best of all, you can purchase this device unlocked for at least a hundred dollars off the retail price, which means that you can use it to access 5G and LTE networks on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Pretty great!
- Gorgeous flat 120Hz display
- Fantastic all-day battery life
- Three years of software updates
- Great durability
- Several exciting color options
- Camera app can launch slowly
- Some may not like the plastic back at this price
Best Premium Unlocked Phone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
In 2020, we gave this prize to the entry-level Galaxy S20 because we felt the premium S20 Ultra had too many flaws to justify its hefty price tag. Now that its successor has been unveiled and we’ve had time to conduct our Galaxy S21 Ultra review, we can say without reservation that this is the absolute best premium Android device that you can buy right now. And it’s available unlocked, compatible with all major networks!
The S21 Ultra makes subtle refinements to the S20 Ultra’s design, but they make such a difference. The matte texture of the finishes (um, hello Phantom Black!) and the camera housing integrated into the frame are nice touches. But the real improvements are under the hood, so to speak.
With the S21 Ultra, Samsung improved the size and speed of the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, which had been a complaint about the past several S generations. Of course, we got upgrades to the processor and ultra-wideband 5G connectivity, but we can now set the screen at Quad HD+ resolution and 120Hz refresh rate! Samsung looks to have corrected the autofocusing issues of the S20 Ultra and has beefed up the S21 Ultra’s zoom capabilities with both 10X and 3X optical zoom cameras. Finally, the S21 Ultra is the first phone not named Note that has S Pen support. The S Pen is not built into the phone’s casing, though some of the best Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra phone cases will be able to accommodate it.
The S21 Ultra is expensive, though it comes in at several hundred dollars less than the S20 Ultra. You can use those savings on accessories like a fast-charging brick or new phone case, though!
- Best-in-class Quad HD+ display that supports 120Hz
- Improved cameras and fingerprint sensor
- S Pen support
- Fast chip and support for sub-6 and UWB 5G
- No getting around that price tag
- No expandable storage
- This phone is big
Best Unlocked Phone Battery: Moto G Power (2020)
There’s no denying the greatness of the Galaxy S20 FE, but at the same time, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all smartphone. If you like the idea of the S20 FE, but it’s just not clicking for you, check out the Moto G Power.
Right off the bat, the G Power is more appealing from a price perspective. The Galaxy S20 FE isn’t the most expensive device by any means, but the G Power does help keep a few extra dollars in your wallet. The biggest sacrifice between the two phones is the G Power’s camera quality. The 16MP primary camera does not deliver as good of images as you can capture with the Galaxy S20 FE. That said, the Moto G Power also gives you ultra-wide and macro cameras to expand your shooting possibilities.
The Moto G Power’s pièce de résistance is its 5,000 mAh battery, which should easily get you between two and three days of continuous use before needing to charge up. Also on board is a solid 1080p display with slim bezels, good performance, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. You don’t get NFC for contactless Google Pay payments, but the G Power retains excellent carrier compatibility with support for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
On the software front, it’s a mixed bag of good and bad. The Android 10 user interface that’s offered out-of-the-box is wonderful, with Motorola giving you a Pixel-esque experience with a few smart additions here and there. Unfortunately, only one update to Android 11 is promised for the phone. Beyond that, you’re limited to security patches and nothing more. There is a newer Moto G Power (2021) that has recently been released, but our initial impressions of the device left us wanting more out of it. Head to head, the 2020 version still wins out for us.
- Large 1080p display
- Up to three-day battery life
- Motorola’s excellent software
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- Compatible with all U.S. carriers
- Doesn’t have NFC for Google Pay
- Only promised one software update
- Cameras aren’t the best
Best Unlocked Phone Value: TCL 10L
After offering Android phones through its Alcatel and BlackBerry sub-brands, TCL has finally ventured into the Android landscape with its own self-branded handsets. The TCL 10L is one of the first releases as part of this strategy, and it’s one of the best values you can find in 2020.
Despite its low price tag, the TCL 10L is loaded with features and specs that you wouldn’t expect for a phone so cheap. This is immediately apparent with the display, a 6.53-inch LCD panel with a Full HD+ resolution. It uses TCL’s own NXTVISION screen technology, allowing for more vibrant images and accurate colors. There’s a total of four cameras on the back, consisting of a 48MP primary camera, 8MP ultra-wide camera, 2MP macro camera, and 2MP depth camera. Image quality is far from the best we’ve ever seen, but in that same breath, getting four cameras at this price is outstanding.
Under the hood, the TCL 10L has the Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor and 6GB of RAM, along with 64GB of internal storage that can be expanded with a microSD card. Also offered are NFC for Google Pay, a customizable “Smart Key” that can do whatever you want, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Support for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon is here, but Sprint customers will need to look elsewhere.
- Full HD+ display paired with slim bezels
- Generous amounts of RAM and storage
- Has NFC for Google Pay
- Very good fingerprint sensor
- Customizable Smart Key
- Generic plastic body
- Lackluster cameras
Best Unlocked Phone Underdog: Samsung Galaxy A52
While the Galaxy S21 series may be the 2021 Samsung phones that everyone is talking about, there’s another one out there that isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves. It’s the Samsung Galaxy A52, and when you look at everything it’s packing, you might be tempted to go out and buy one this very second.
Right off the bat, the Galaxy A52 catches your attention with its design. It’s technically made out of plastic, but there’s a matte finish that feels like glass. We’re also digging the pastel colors on the back, which gives the A52 a charmingly distinct aesthetic. On the front of the phone, you’ll find a 6.5-inch Super AMOLED display with a crisp resolution of 2400×1080 and a 90Hz refresh rate. Camera-wise, you have four sensors to choose from — a 64MP primary lens, 12MP ultra-wide lens, 5MP macro lens, and 5MP portrait lens.
Taking a look inside of the Galaxy A52, there’s just as much to get excited about. You’ll find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 720G processor, 6/8GB of RAM, 64/128/256GB of expandable storage, and a massive 4,500 mAh battery. Samsung also kept the 3.5mm headphone jack.
The Galaxy A52 is available unlocked in the U.S. and many other markets, and it is also available in a 5G variant. Depending on where you live in the world, you might also want to consider the similarly-specced Galaxy A72.
- 6.5-inch AMOLED display
- Four cameras on the back
- Gorgeous design
- Headphone jack and expandable storage
- Ample performance
- Lot of bloatware
- No 4K 60fps video recording
Best Unlocked Phone Software: Nokia 7.2
2018’s Nokia 7.1 was one of the best mid-rangers of that year, and following it up is the aptly-named Nokia 7.2. The Nokia 7.2 is a beautiful phone, with a striking glass back, aluminum frame, and a large 6.3-inch LCD that supports native HDR content and converts non-HDR content for a more colorful and vibrant picture no matter what you’re doing.
This is another phone that puts a big emphasis on its cameras, with the Nokia 7.2 touting a primary 48-megapixel camera and an 8-megapixel ultra-wide camera. This allows for incredible flexibility with the types of pictures you can take. While it’s a different approach than Pixel 4a’s single camera, it’ll likely be a preference for many people.
Elsewhere, the Nokia 7.2 checks just about every box you could ask for. It has a dedicated Google Assistant button for quickly prompting the AI, a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, and is estimated to get two days of battery life on one charge. The phone also ships as part of Google’s Android One program, meaning it has a clean user interface right out of the box and is guaranteed to get years of updates — specifically, it’ll get major OS updates through September 2021 and monthly security patches through September 2022.
With that said, there are a couple of factors to keep in mind. The Snapdragon 660 processor and 4GB of RAM aren’t the most powerful combo out there, but they should be perfectly fine for most people for daily use. Lastly, the phone only works on AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S.
- Large HDR display
- Incredible design
- Expandable storage
- Clean software
- Years of guaranteed updates
- OK processor and RAM combo
- Doesn’t work on Sprint or Verizon
Best Compact Unlocked Phone: Google Pixel 4a
Small phones are just about an aberration these days, particularly good ones. On the iOS side, Apple fans are lucky enough to have access to smaller handsets like the iPhone SE (2020) and the iPhone 12 mini, but over here in Android land, the last good small phone we had was the Samsung Galaxy S10e, which is now nearly three years old. That was, until the Google Pixel 4a appeared in mid-2020.
It may seem odd to call a 5.81-inch display small to old-school smartphone users, but that’s where we are today. The thing is, with edge-to-edge screens, the physical footprint of phones like the Pixel 4a can actually be significantly smaller than previous phones with tinier displays, and we’re all the better for it. We’re hard-pressed to find a phone that feels better for one-handed use than the Pixel 4a, in fact.
For half the price of its current flagship, the Pixel 5, the 4a delivers a nearly-identical experience. It has a less capable processor, but most folks won’t experience any issues in day-to-day use. The primary cameras are the same, as is the imaging software that processes the photos. Plus, you still get all the Pixel-first goodies that you would with the more expensive Pixel 5, as well as three years of OS and security updates. However, you sacrifice a few premium features at this price point, such as 5G support, wireless charging, and official waterproofing.
The Pixel 4a is available unlocked from a wide variety of resellers and is the perfect phone to try out a new carrier or MVNO with. In fact, many carriers have been offering sweetheart deals that take even more off the already low price!
- Great for one-handed use
- Google guarantees at least three years of software updates
- Best in class camera
- Insanely affordable
- No ultra-wide or optical zoom lenses
- No 5G support
- No wireless charging
- No official IP water resistance
Best Unlocked Phone Value Flagship: Google Pixel 5
Google issued a major course correction from the Pixel 4 line’s mistakes — most notably by improving the battery life, adding in an ultra-wide-angle camera, and dropping the price. Those all sound like big wins to us and are why we say that the Google Pixel 5 is the best Pixel ever.
Out of all the mistakes made with the Pixel 4 and 4XL, arguably the biggest was the pricing strategy. Google tried to pit those phones against the best of the best from Samsung, Apple, and even OnePlus, which failed miserably. The Pixel 5’s introductory price was more than one hundred dollars less and established it firmly in the value flagship camp, where it arguably always belonged. Plus, many retailers have been discounting the Pixel 5 since its launch, meaning that you can save even more money on this great unlocked device.
The other major complaint with the 4/4XL was battery life, and it seems that this has been rectified with the Pixel 5. Not only does the 5 have a much larger battery cell (4,080mAh vs. 2,800mAh) and better-optimized software, but the Snapdragon 765G chip on the 5 draws less power than the Snapdragon 855 on the 4. Finally, we get to the Pixel 5’s excellent cameras. Gone is the telephoto lens on the Pixel 4, replaced with a 16MP ultra-wide camera that fans had been begging Google for. The video on the Pixel 5 is better than ever as well, and Google still promises up to three years of monthly software updates and feature drops.
Some have criticized the display on the Pixels, saying that they aren’t as detailed or vibrant as those on high-end Samsung phones, and you know what, they’re right. But that doesn’t mean the Pixel 5 has a bad display, far from it. You get a really nice 6-inch OLED HD+ panel with a 90Hz refresh rate, which outdoes many in this price point.
- Clean design and aluminum chassis
- That 90Hz display
- Pixel-first goodies and Google’s Android experience
- Industry-leading cameras
- Three years of monthly updates
- No Wi-Fi 6 support
- Only available in one size
- Display is dim compared to others in its class
Best Budget Unlocked Phone: Samsung Galaxy A32
Next, we have the Galaxy A32. This is the phone we recommend if you want a thoroughly enjoyable Android device, but at the same time, you need to shop on a tight budget.
Right off the bat, the Galaxy A32 grabs your attention with its 6.4-inch AMOLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate. Samsung makes the best AMOLED screens in the business, meaning the display on the A32 is one of the best you’ll find in this price range. Also noteworthy is the whopping 5,000 mAh battery, which should be more than big enough for most people.
The 128GB internal storage is just right for most, but you can also expand it up to a whopping 1TB if you need to via a microSD card. There are also four rear cameras, a snappy fingerprint sensor, and a MediaTek Helio G80 processor.
This is an international version, which means it doesn’t come with a U.S. warrant. It should work with “most major U.S. GSM networks like T-Mobile and AT&T, but it won’t work with CDMA carriers like Verizon. There is an A32 5G option as well, which works across carriers in the U.S.
- 6.4-inch AMOLED display
- Small bezels
- Quad rear cameras
- 5,000 mAh battery
- Expandable storage up to 1TB
- Boring, plastic design
- Might be a bit laggy compared to rivals
Best Dirt Cheap Unlocked Phone: Moto E (2020)
There are many affordable phones on this list, but what if you’re really trying to keep costs low? That’s when you turn to the Moto E (2020). This is the most affordable phone we’re featuring here, and it’s impressive just how much Motorola can offer at such a minimal price.
We’ll be upfront; some corners had to be cut to get the Moto E to this price. The performance of the Snapdragon 632 processor and 2GB won’t blow you away. You get just 32GB of storage, the HD+ display isn’t the best we’ve ever seen, and Motorola doesn’t promise any software updates for the phone. That’s a lot to take in, and while it makes the Moto E the least technically impressive device on this list, that doesn’t really matter.
The Moto E was created to be a barebones smartphone that can run the apps you need it to while keeping the price as low as possible, and in those regards, it succeeds. You can use the phone to call, text, check Twitter, watch YouTube, etc. It may not be the fastest or prettiest at doing those things, but it gets the job done. If that’s the kind of phone you’re in the market for, the Moto E delivers.
- Insanely low price
- Two rear cameras
- Rear fingerprint sensor
- Large, modern display
- Android 10 software is excellent
- Micro-USB charging
- Performance is so-so
- Won’t get any OS updates
There you have it — the best unlocked Android phones you can buy in 2021. We’re confident you’ll be happy with any of the choices on this list, but if we could only pick one, we’d have to go with the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE.
Samsung did an amazing job with the Galaxy S20 FE and basically redefined what to expect from the “value flagship” segment. The performance, cameras, battery, and build of materials are excellent, and Samsung even added a bit of whimsy with its reinvigorated color palette.
While the Galaxy S20 FE really did bring flagship specs to a more affordable price point, perhaps no phone was as great an unlocked value as Google’s Pixel 4a. With this device, Google managed to deliver a fantastic, uncluttered Android experience with a flagship-level camera at a price that more people can afford.
Regardless of which device you choose from this list, you’re going to come away with a great unlocked phone that you can enjoy for the next several years on your own terms.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Joe Maring is Android Central’s Senior Editor and has had a love for anything with a screen and CPU since he can remember. He’s been talking/writing about Android in one form or another since 2012, and often does so while camping out at the nearest coffee shop. Have a tip? Send an email to email@example.com!
Jeramy Johnson is proud to help Keep Austin Weird and loves hiking in the hill country of central Texas with a breakfast taco in each hand. When he’s not writing about smart home gadgets and wearables, he’s defending his relationship with his smart voice assistants to his family. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeramyutgw.
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