Unlocked Cell Phones
Most people are familiar with traditional cell phones with plans: You pick up a cell phone at little to no cost from one of the carriers — Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, in the United States — and, in exchange for that great price, you sign a contract, committing to use that particular phone model with that carrier for two full years. Prepaid phones offer month-to-month service, but you might not find the phone you're looking for. When you buy an unlocked phone, you sever your tie to one carrier and become free to shop for phones and plans as often — or as infrequently — as you like. Plus, unlocked phones are perfect for frequent international travelers.
What is an unlocked cell phone and how does it work?
Although unlocked phones are not tied to any one carrier, they will work only on GSM cellular networks using SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards. In the United States, only AT&T, T-Mobile and H2O Wireless operate on GSM networks. (The mobile carriers Sprint and Verizon Wireless instead use CDMA signaling, so are not associated with unlocked phones.)
You buy an unlocked handset without a carrier plan or contract. Then, you must buy a SIM card separately from a carrier or prepaid phone company to activate your phone for voice and/or data. This SIM card may be purchased with month-to-month service or tied to longer contracts and will hold much of your key information, including your phone number, contacts, and calling history. SIM cards are available everywhere in the United States and overseas, and can be inserted into any unlocked phone you buy.
Benefits of Unlocked Cell Phones
Flexible options and cheaper rates for international travelers
Depending on where and how often you travel, you have the power to curb your out-of-country calling costs. For instance, if you plan on making a lot of local calls within your destination country, you probably want to avoid high international roaming rates charged by a U.S. carrier by buying a pre-paid SIM card with a local, in-country number. If you plan on traveling to multiple countries in the same trip, check out international roaming SIM cards with cheaper-than-U.S. roaming rates, but easier than picking up a local SIM card in each country when you arrive. On the other hand, if you just want to keep in touch with people from home, you can take your compatible GSM unlocked phone with you and keep your U.S. number. You'll pay more for calls and texts, but you won't have to distribute a new phone number to friends and family members. Finally, international road warriors may enjoy the convenience of a phone with dual SIM cards. These phones allow you keep both your "regular" U.S. SIM card and a destination country SIM card in the same unlocked phone, so you can take calls from home on your familiar U.S. phone number and make and receive calls with the lower rates of a local number.
The total cost of a handset, calling plan and data plan may be less expensive
A phone purchased with a plan from a carrier is typically less expensive. This is because the full price of the phone is subsidized by your monthly fees to the carrier over the life of your contract. When you buy your unlocked phone outright, you may experience some sticker shock, but, spread over two years, and combined with a less-expensive voice or data plan, it may actually be cheaper than your total monthly payments on a two-year contract. Simply, it pays to research and crunch numbers, since you may very well discover flexibility in plans and an increase in savings with an unlocked phone.
Larger selection of phones
Since each carrier must decide which manufacturer's phones to offer on their network, your phone choice is tied to your carrier, even your prepaid phone company. Take the carriers out of the mix and you can choose any unlocked phone from any manufacturer, including the latest and greatest phones from Apple, Samsung, Nokia and all the other major manufacturers.