Carrier or Unlocked Phones: Which Should You Get?

When most people look for a new phone, they simply contact their carrier to select one of the models that they sell. At the same time, consumers have lots of phone service providers to choose between. Buying a locked phone from a carrier offers some advantages but also limits choices and creates a barrier to changing carriers in the future. We compared locked vs. carrier phones to see which one will provide the best experience.

Locked Vs. Carrier Phones: What's the Difference?

This list highlights the main differences between locked and carrier phones:
  • Locked phones: Also called carrier phones, these devices come from a service provider, like T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T. They may also come with third-party companies that partner with the providers, like Best Buy. Mostly, phone owners can't just insert a SIM card from another carrier to use the phone.
  • Unlocked phones: In contrast to locked phones, unlocked phones generally come from a retailer and don't even include a SIM card. Buyers can get service and a SIM card from any provider they choose.

What Are the Benefits of Buying Unlocked Phones?

According to an NPD survey:
  • About 38 million Americans had an unlocked phone in 2018.
  • This represents about fifteen percent of the phone market and an increase of about eight million people over the previous year.
  • People who purchased unlocked phones also tended to buy more expensive devices and to upgrade frequently.
Consider several reasons that the market for unlocked phones has continued to grow:

Freedom to Choose a Provider

Obviously, consumers hope to benefit from the freedom to choose their phone service provider when they buy an unlocked phone. If they find a better deal or grow dissatisfied with one service, they can simply switch to another one.
Some phones can even use SIM cards for more than one network, so that gives the owner freedom to change carriers for different purposes. For instance, one card might offer a great plan for domestic calls, but people may choose another carrier for international calling.

A Bigger Aftermarket for Used Phones

Unlocked devices tend to be easier to sell, making them an attractive option for people who like to always upgrade to the newest phone model. Also, they may find it easier to locate buyers for unlocked phones in case they want to trade up.

Advantages of Locked Phones

Obviously, unlocked phones give people more freedom to use them as they like. At the same time, most people still choose to get locked phones from their service providers for several reasons:

Affordable Payment Plans

Typically, consumers buy phones from carriers because their service provider will give them a payment plan. They can make monthly payments as they pay their regular service charges. Sometimes, the provider may ask for a modest down payment, but in general, they have phones that may not require any upfront money at all.

Carrier Incentives

Sometimes, people can shop around and find great deals on unlocked phones. At the same time, carriers periodically offer discounts and special deals to either retain current customers or attract new ones. Combined with a payment plan, a special deal may make the phone more affordable.

Carrier Support

Finally, people who buy an unlocked phone won't get support from their carrier. Meanwhile, people with carrier phones can call the provider's customer service line for help. Providers might also offer their own warranties at the time of sale; however, it's also possible to buy a third-party warranty from a company like Upsie after purchasing either a locked or unlocked phone.

Why Don't Most Service Providers Sell Unlocked Phones?

It might seem like service providers would want to give their customers the option to buy an unlocked phone in order to sell more products. According to CNET, Verizon used to provide that option but stopped. They found that thieves tended to target unlocked phones because they didn't have to use the original service provider.
Version and other phone providers can unlock phones, and they may include the option to do so after a certain period of time has passed. Buying a locked phone with an option to get it unlocked later might offer a good solution for some people.

How to Protect Unlocked or Locked Phones

These days, high-end phones can cost well over $1,000. People who invest a lot in their phones should figure out the best way to protect themselves against any issues or accidental damages. Upsie smartphone subscription warranty plans cover locked, unlocked, new, and used smartphones.
They're also easy to buy online after purchasing a phone and offer more affordable prices and more flexible service options than over-the-counter plans from phone retailers. For transparent pricing and coverage information online, just take 30 seconds to purchase your plan.

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* This article is over 6 months old and may or may not be updated.