Best Unlocked Phones

ABC News/PC Magazine has a really fantastic story on the best unlocked phones, and we’re all ears.

The recent Copyright Office ruling on unlocking GSM phones puts some much-needed power back in the hands of you, the wireless consumer. This means you can now bring your Cingular phone over to T-Mobile, or vice-versa. You also have the right to switch between prepaid and postpaid service on the same phone. And when you travel abroad, you can pop an international SIM card into your phone for much lower rates.

This last bit is especially important, because international cell phone use is crazy expensive. So what are the best unlocked phones? ABC likes the Samsung X820 (pictured above) “a perfect example of a terrific product that the carriers tried to block out of the U.S. market for no perceptible reason. It’s less than .3 inches thick, with a 2-megapixel camera, gorgeous screen, and fun interface.” They also have high esteem for the Nokia N80, Palm Treo 680, Sony Ericsson W810i and the Nokia 7380.

They advocate buying directly from the manufacturer, suggesting that rebel phone purchasing is akin to making a political statement. We’ve all been under the thumb of wireless companies for too long! Break free with an unlocked phone. —MEGHANN MARCO

Best Unlocked Phones [ABC News/PC Magazine]


Edit Your Comment

  1. olegna says:

    Wow, it’s amazing how far behind America is on the whole mobile phone thing. I blame it on the awful monopolies of those 3-4 major US carriers that have formed some awful cartel. It’s good to see the Patent Office (?? — where the hell is the telecom regulators in all of this?? oh, yeah, in the pockets of the 3-4 major US telecoms, I forgot — the US is an anti-capitalism, pro-monopoly Republican country) . . .

    Anyway: All phones can be unlocked. There’s usually some local indie mobile phone shop that will do it for $40-$50 — you can also crack the phones with a little technical knowhow and the right (Chinese made) software.

    As somebody that relies solely on SIM cards (I call it the “Tony Soprano” mobile strategy) and uses them regularly in the US, Europe and the Middle East (no, I’m not a terrorist, but thank you for asking), I highly recommend buying only quad-band phones if you plan to move around a lot or go abroad.

    The US works on the 850 band, while the rest of the world seems to work on other bands. Some phones bought abroad won’t work in the US and if you buy a phone in the US to use abroad, you need to check the bands, or get a quad band phone.

  2. rekoil says:

    Actually, Cingular uses the 850 band primarily in most US areas; T-Mobile uses 1800. There are actually four main bands in the GSM world – 850, 900, 1800 and 1900MHz. Most GSM phones support all four, but a lot of phones don’t support 850, which means they won’t work on Cingular’s network in a lot of places. Make sure you get a quad-band phone and you should be fine.

    Next point: IIRC All US carriers will still require you to sign a mininmum 1-year contract, complete with ETF, even if you don’t buy the phone from them. Given that the companies claim that the contract term and ETF is to pay back the subsidy on the phone price, This makes absolutely no sense to me beyond “because we can”. Grr.

  3. wreckingcru says:

    The last time I bought a phone direct from the service provider (T-mobile), they graciously let me unlock it when I claimed I was traveling abroad (which was true). No fuss, no extra questions – just took some details (address etc), and said they would call me back in 48 hours with the unlock code.

    Since then, after seeing the crappy lineup of phones offered by most providers, not to mention the locking and feature-crippling, I’ve just bought my phone from the manufacturer directly – even at the extra cost – which if you travel abroad often, isn’t even that much since you can pick up a Nokia in Asia/Europe for a very reasonable price with no operator logo or anything carrier related.

    I think N. America is the only place where people are still buying their phones from the carrier. I’m originally from India, and when I told my friends back home about the US cell-phone buying methodology, they couldn’t stop laughing or look completely confused.

    This place really needs to catch up with the world-standards in mobile business.

    P.S. Unrelated, but the other thing that really annoys me is the under-use/misuse of SMS (or texting). Apparently, no one at the cell carriers has ever traveled abroad to see how powerful messaging can be, and its potential business applications (paying/checking your bill, city tolls, location based information). In New Delhi, everywhere you go, your cell phone would change the display to reflect the current part of town you were in (eg, if you’re in South Delhi, the phone will display the neighborhood of South Delhi that you’re in). And hence, you can receive more information about services in that area.

  4. olegna says:


    Thanks for that. So on top of the telecom cartel, the customer service guy at Cingular lied to me and said all carriers in the US use 850. And, on top of that, I bought a $100 SIM card only to find out it wouldn’t work on my tri-band Nokia — Cingular refused to give me a refund ona SIM card I couldn’t use (even though I hadn’t used it), using the excuse that the US uses 850, as if it was my fault for having a phone that didn’t support 850.

    What a bunch of scumbags. I will never sign a contract with them now that I have an unlocked quad-band phone and have figured out a way to use SIM cards only.

    I think customers should boycott contracts until they stop all this ridiculous un-capitalistic nonsense of chining customers to contracts that are expensive to break.

    I recall a few years ago singing up with Verizon, only to discover that six months later they were charging new customers less for the same billing plan. They refused to give me the adjusted price since I was “locked in” to their scam.

    Eventually I broke the contract pulling the old “I’m moving outside of your service zone” trick, but why the hell do we have to do shit like that when folks in New Delhi are getting much better service without all this monopoly rigmarole??

    Adam Smith would roll in his grave to see what Americans are calling capitalism these days.

  5. wreckingcru says:

    I agree with you guys completely. I hate this contractual BS…My contract with T-mobile (1 year) ended back in 2003, and I never wanted to renew it. Instead now I’m month-to-month (which, once again, I was reminded by my friends in Delhi is the “normal” way) ..

    The only problem is that I’m now in this weird suspended animation mode, where I can’t make any changes to my plan without the f***ing contract. i.e., I can’t upgrade my minutes, or get a better phone (if I wanted).

    Could this be some kind of weird industry monopoly that consumers can fight? To force users into a contract?

  6. zl9600 says:

    Is it true that using SIM’s exclusively are yet another way for the telcos to hold you hostage with crippled phones? My phones that have SIM’s are feature-crippled if you put all your data on the SIM. For example, many features in the address book are not available to entries that you store on the SIM. I always just give in and store it on the phone.

    I have been getting back at Cingular, though, for the past year by calling them and asking them to send me a new phone while it’s under warranty. It’s the same phone, but at least anytime the software goes haywire, I just call them up and demand a new one. That will work for a year then I’m back to buying unlocked on ebay.

  7. wreckingcru says:

    zl9600 – umm, not quite.

    SIM cards by design are designed to store minimal information (trade-off features vs storage)

    I’ve never seen a sim card (been using cell phones since ’96) that can store more than one number per entry.

    The good part though is to be able to just take the sim and put it in another phone, and be free of being “phone-locked”, ala Verizon and Sprint.

  8. I hope since you can unlock phones that wireless carriers stop giving rebates on phones. Consumers wanted to be free of locked phones and contracts, time to pay full price for those phones.

  9. Just FYI, but Japan also has only a few major telcos creating a sort of monopoly on cell service, and people also generally always buy the phones from the carrier.

    However, these are where the similarities end. Walk into any Jphone, NTTDocomo, or AU, and you’ll fall to the floor with the sheer variety of uncrippled, multi-colored, uber-featured phones available. The US is still in the dark ages, and it’s largely the telco’s fault.

  10. rekoil says:

    Gamerjunk: The carrier makes back the rebate from part of your monthly bill over the term of the contract. That’s why some carriers (T-Mobile for one) will have two prices for some phones, one price for a 1-year contract and a lower price if you sign for two years. Once the contract is over, the phone should be yours. That’s how it works in the rest of the world, why can’t it work that way here?