I've said it before and I'll say it again: cell phones are expensive. That's why we're always looking for ways to save money, both on the phones themselves and on the monthly service charges. One of the ways to do that is by buying an unlocked smartphone. But doing so doesn't mean automatic savings, and it can be a lot of work.
What is an unlocked phone, anyway?
Before we get too far into the pros and cons of unlocked smartphones, let's start at the beginning: What exactly is an unlocked phone, anyway?
An unlocked phone is one that is not tied--or locked--to a certain carrier's network. Most smartphones are locked to a the network you started on when you bought it, whether that be Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint. And it doesn't matter whether you buy that device from the wireless carrier or not. You may buy a phone at Best Buy, the Apple store, or on eBay... but unless it is unlocked, you may only use it with a specific carrier.
An unlocked phone gives you more freedom. To use one, you have to purchase a SIM card, the small card that brings cellular voice and data service to your phone. The beauty of an unlocked phone is that you can purchase a SIM card that provides the service you want, whether that means international service, prepaid service, or simply contract-free service from one of the major carriers.
You do have to make sure that the unlocked phone you choose works with the network that your wireless service provider offers. An unlocked Sprint phone, for example, may not work with AT&T. When you purchase an unlocked phone, the retailer should list that phone's network compatibility. You should then do your research and make sure your network of choice is supported. (This handy chart can help.)
All of this may sound like a lot of trouble, especially when you compare it to the experience of walking into a Verizon Wireless or Sprint store, and walking out with a phone that's up and running. Factor in that you may also have to spend more up front when buying an unlocked phone, as you can't take advantage of the monthly payment plans that carriers offer, allowing you to spread the cost of your smartphone out over a couple year's worth of payments. It sure sounds like a whole lot of trouble, so why bother?
Well, for one, using an unlocked phone puts you in control. You choose your device and your plan, and only pay for what you want and need. You're not forced to choose from a wireless carrier's one-size-fits-all plans, which often offer more than you need. You also have the freedom to switch providers easily if you find that the one you've chosen doesn't work well in certain areas. Even if you pay more for the smartphone itself, you could save significantly on service over the life of the phone.
But you should shop around and see if you're really getting a deal. Keep in mind, too, that unlocked phones sell for more money on the used market. That means you may pay more upfront, but your device is likely to hold onto more of its value over time.
Not convinced that an unlocked phone is worth the money and hassle? Consider this: Buying an unlocked phone frees you from the "bloatware" that many carriers install on the phones, meaning your device may run faster than one you buy from the carrier. You also have greater freedom to upgrade to the latest and greatest phones as soon as they're released, if you're into that sort of thing.
Unlocked phones are not for everyone. But if you're willing to invest your time and money in an unlocked phone upfront, you may find that you save money in the long run, and enjoy a kind of smartphone independence that others can only dream about.
You may be able to unlock your existing phone
And finally, don't think that your only option is to buy a shiny new phone, unlocked. In many cases--perhaps even most cases--you can unlock your existing phone. The process (and difficulty) varies from carrier to carrier, but we have broken it all down for you in a fair bit of detail. See How to Unlock Your Phone (for International Travel or Changing Carriers).