The days of the oppressive, expensive, inescapable smartphone contract are gone—and good riddance. Sure, the major phone carriers remain more than happy to lock you into a two-year service agreement in return for subsidizing some of the cost of a new phone. But playing that game is a mistake, because it limits your options and costs you more in the long run.
Today, the smart money is on unlocked phones, which aren't tied to a particular carrier. You can take an unlocked phone to any number of smaller providers—Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, FreedomPop, or RingPlus Mobile, to name just a few—for no-contract service that's significantly less expensive.
Just as important, you don't have to splurge on the latest flagship phone model from the likes of Apple and Samsung—not when you can get a seriously good phone for a lot less money. With that in mind, we've rounded up the top unlocked-smartphone picks for every budget: $400, $300, $200, and even $100. Prepare for some great surprises as you discover just how far your no-contract dollar can stretch.
Best Under $400: Huawei Honor 8
You've probably never heard of Huawei, and unless you're fluent in Chinese, chances are good you can't pronounce it, either. (It's "wah-way.") But don't let that stop you from checking out the $399.99 Honor 8, a phone that's nearly as robust as some of the most recent offerings from Apple and Samsung.
This glass-and-metal midsize model features an octa-core processor, a 5.2-inch HD display, 32GB of expandable storage (the microSD slot can accommodate a second SIM card if you prefer), dual cameras, a USB-C port, and a fingerprint sensor on the back.
This last feature offers you biometric security for unlocking the phone, but you can also program the phone to perform different functions for short, long, and double presses. Another strong point: With Huawei's proprietary charger, the Honor 8 can go from zero to nearly 50 percent in just 30 minutes.
Because this is a GSM phone, U.S. customers will need to pair it with AT&T, T-Mobile, or one of the smaller GSM carriers. And anyone seeking a "pure Android" experience will need to look elsewhere, since Huawei's Marshmallow 6.0–based interface looks and operates more like iOS than like Android.
Even so, the Honor 8 will make your friends think you spent a whole lot more, while making you feel like you got a megaton of bang for the buck.
Best Under $300: OnePlus 2
Although it has already been succeeded by the OnePlus 3, this second-generation smartphone from OnePlus is scarcely a year old—and it's a better bargain than ever. This "flagship killer" may have been designed to compete with last year's Galaxies and iPhones, but it's still a powerhouse this year.
For $299, you get a phone with a 5.5-inch screen—ideal for users who aren't satisfied with smaller displays (like the 4.7-inch iPhone SE or even the 5.1-inch Galaxy S6). The screen is full HD, too, running at 1,920 by 1,080 pixels.
The GSM-compatible OnePlus 2 delivers features normally limited to high-end models, including a fingerprint sensor, a second SIM slot, laser-based autofocus and optical image stabilization for the camera, and a huge battery. One small but significant convenience is a side-mounted slider switch, which lets you instantly choose one of three alert settings: all, priority, or none.
Power users will bemoan the absence of a microSD slot, a removable battery, and support for wireless charging, though OnePlus does give you 64GB of storage and a 3,300mAh battery. But at least you no longer have to wait for an invitation to buy a OnePlus 2; it's available to anyone who has $300 to spend and a penchant for big, feature-rich phones.
Best Under $200: Huawei Honor 5X
Now that you're acquainted with the Honor 8, say hello to its older, larger sibling. Wait, larger? For half the price? Yep, the Honor 5X comes with a 5.5-inch, 1080p display, which is astonishing given the $199 price tag. The phone's a looker, too, with a brushed-metal back (in your choice of white, black, or gold) and an attractive square camera lens.
The 5X works on AT&T and T-Mobile networks, but don't expect features like dual-band Wi-Fi or NFC. Among the sexier features it shares with the Honor 8 are dual SIM slots (one of which can be used for a microSD card), a fingerprint sensor that's also a programmable button, and some impressive camera options.
Huawei's iPhone-like interface may prove distasteful to Android fans. And the 5X can be sluggish at times, due in part to that heavily skinned interface and in part to its average processor and meager 2GB of RAM. But if you can live with those drawbacks, the Honor 5X lets you own a big phone for a surprisingly small price.
Best Under $100: Motorola Moto G4 Play (Amazon)
A $100 smartphone? Does such a thing even exist? If so, it must have a tiny screen, a slow processor, sparse features, limited compatibility, and an outdated operating system. You'll probably need a hand-crank to operate it and a magnifying glass to make out the screen.
Wrong on all counts. The Moto G4 Play is proof positive that you can get a seriously good phone for under $100. But there is a catch or two or three: You have to get it from Amazon, or it'll cost you $149.99; and you have to be an Amazon Prime subscriber to get the $99.99 price. What's more, Amazon's Moto G4 Play takes a page from the Kindle handbook by splashing ads and offers on the lockscreen. They're unobtrusive and easy to bypass (just swipe to unlock, same as any other phone), but you're stuck with them.
Assuming you can tolerate that ongoing intrusion, the Moto G4 Play offers a 5-inch display (only 720p, but bright and sharp), 16GB of storage (expandable via a microSD slot), the latest version of Android (Marshmallow), and, surprisingly, compatibility with all the major carriers. It is also splashproof and has a removable battery, and its 8MP rear camera can capture 1080p video.
To put that in some perspective, last year's iPhones aren't splashproof or expandable, and you can't remove their batteries. Plus, they cost at least four times as much. The Moto G4 Play may be ad-supported, but it's still an amazingly capable phone for the price.