Budget phones have never been this high-quality while being this affordable.
After lots of testing and research, we found that the iPhone SE (2020) is the best budget phone you can buy with its incredible performance running on the same processor as the iPhone 11 series.
The iPhone SE gives Apple fans the full-fat Apple experience with iOS and the supporting Apple ecosystem.
For those who prefer Android, Google's new Pixel 4a is the best option with its reasonable price, excellent camera, and solid performance.
Although most people in the US tend to buy their smartphones directly from cell service providers (carriers) like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, bargain hunters and tech geeks seek out budget unlocked phones online because they are affordable yet offer incredible value for the money. And, because most of these devices are unlocked, you can use them with the carrier of your choice, provided that they support the phone you buy.
You can get unlocked phones at retailers like Best Buy and directly from phone manufacturers.
We've rounded up the very best budget unlocked phones you can buy. Today's affordable phones are much more powerful than they used to be, and any of our top picks would make an excellent first smartphone for anyone who needs a reliable but inexpensive phone. In fact, we think phones like the new iPhone SE and the Google Pixel 4a would be great for most people in general.
Here's what you need to know about buying unlocked phones
Buying a phone unlocked can be intimidating the first time — especially if you've always bought your phone from a carrier like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint.
When you buy an unlocked phone, you'll pay the full price. If you buy from your carrier, the company often offers to let you buy the device on a payment plan so you can pay a little bit each month.
Some unlocked phones may not work on Verizon or Sprint. Sprint and Verizon use a network called CDMA, but most unlocked phones use the more standard GSM network that both T-Mobile and AT&T use.
Here are the best budget smartphones in 2020:
Best budget phone overall: iPhone SE (2020)
Best budget phone for photography: Google Pixel 4a
Best budget phone for battery life: Motorola Moto G Power
Best budget phone for design: Samsung Galaxy A51
Best budget-priced flagship phone: OnePlus 7T
Updated on 8/7/2020 by Antonio Villas-Boas: Added Google's Pixel 4a to the "Best budget phone for photography" category.SEE ALSO: The best microSD cards you can buy
The best budget phone overall
The new $400 iPhone SE is basically a much cheaper (and smaller) iPhone 11, minus the ultra-wide camera, disguised as an iPhone 8.
For $399.00, the new iPhone SE is among the more expensive budget smartphones, but it still offers incredible value. You get the performance from Apple's flagship iPhone 11 series processor and a sharp, 12-megapixel camera with Apple's Smart HDR, portrait mode, and depth control (i.e. adjusting background blur after taking a photo). With that said, if photography is important to you, Google's Pixel 4a may still reign supreme in the budget category.
Taking on a nearly identical look and feel as the classic iPhone 8, the iPhone SE has a 4.7-inch LCD Retina HD screen, an aluminum and glass build, an IP67 water resistance, a Touch ID home button, and the excellent iOS mobile operating system.
With the new iPhone SE, you're basically getting the $700 iPhone 11 with a smaller screen, without the ultra-wide camera lens, and disguised as an iPhone 8 for nearly half the price. That does mean you get the big screen bezels instead of the iPhone 11's sleek all-screen design, but a trade-off on design is common on budget smartphones.
Apple isn't known for its budget smartphones, so I can't believe I'm saying this: It's going to be tough to out-do Apple's iPhone SE in the budget smartphone game.
Pros: Powerful A13 Bionic processor, compact size, only iPhone with a home button and fingerprint sensor, effective camera for the price
Cons: Design feels a bit old, lacking some camera features compared to similarly priced Android phones. Small for budget buyers looking for a bigger screen.
Read our iPhone SE review here
The best budget phone for photography
Google's Pixel 4a has a flagship-quality camera, great battery life, good performance, and an edge-to-edge screen.
The Google Pixel 4a is a gem of a smartphone that delivers an excellent core smartphone experience. It doesn't have some of the iPhone SE's flourishes like water resistance, wireless charging, or a glass and metal build, but it's less expensive, and it's the absolute best option for Android users.
It's remarkable value for its $350 retail price tag and makes you wonder if premium flagships are really worth the extra money.
The Pixel 4a has a 5.81-inch edge-to-edge OLED screen with minimal bezels and a refresh rate of 60Hz, which is slower than most flagship phones, but solid for a phone in this price range. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor offers smooth performance in my experience.
Best of all, it has a flagship-quality 12.2-megapixel dual-pixel camera that takes great photos and an 8-megapixel front-facing cam that takes great selfies. The Pixel 4a charges up quickly as well via the included 18W charger and USB-C cable.
Pros: Sub-$400 price tag, flagship-quality camera, great battery life, good performance, modern edge-to-edge OLED screen
Cons: No water resistance, no wireless charging — minor nitpicks when you're paying under $400
Read our Google Pixel 4a review here
The best budget phone for battery life
Motorola's Moto G Power offers quite a lot and a decent core smartphone experience for 25% of the price of $1,000 premium phones, and it has among the best battery life on any smartphone.
Motorola's Moto G series has produced excellent budget phones year after year since it first launched. The Moto G Power is an impressive budget phone that ticks all the boxes and has an attractive price for high-end features. It can also work on any major carrier network.
The Moto G Power isn't a showstopper in the looks department, but it is actually made out of glass and metal It looks and feels good in your hands, though some may find it a bit slippery and glass is fragile. We recommend you buy a case for it.
The real deal-maker here is its 5,000mAh battery, which should last you a couple days minimum with normal usage, and it charges up quickly with Motorola's TurboPower charging, which promises to give you six hours of use after 15 minutes of charging.
Its 6.4-inch screen is sharp and clear with a 2,300 x 1,080-pixel resolution, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor is fast when paired with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage is decent as is the option to expand it via a Micro SD card up to 512GB. The phone also has a fingerprint sensor and face unlock for security.
The G Power has a pretty good 16-megapixel regular camera, but the 8-megapixel ultra-wide and somewhat baffling 2-megapixel macro camera shouldn't be reasons to buy this phone. Selfie-takers will be pleased with the 16-megapixel front-facing camera.
Pros: Amazing low price, decent camera, fingerprint sensor for security, incredible battery life, and quick Android updates
Cons: Glass is fragile and slippery, ultra-wide and macro cameras are poor quality, doesn't perform very well on power-hungry games
Read our Motorola Moto G Power review here
The best budget phone for design
Samsung's Galaxy A51 is a great smartphone in almost every respect, with the best screen on any mid-range phone, a premium design, an effective camera system, and impressive battery life.
The Galaxy A51 from Samsung is a mid-ranger that thinks it's a premium flagship. It has a beautiful slim and premium design that dismisses the divisive notch and employs Samsung's signature hole-punch-style selfie camera.
It also has a triple-lens camera system, which isn't outrageously special on a mid-ranger in 2020, and it goes to show just how good smartphones can be under the $500 mark. It has a 48-megapixel standard camera, 12-megapixel ultrawide, and a 5-megapixel macro camera, and it takes pretty good photos with all of the lenses.
Performance is tricky — it runs everything you'd want it to, but it doesn't look pretty doing it, which is a massive shame. Swiping around apps and general usage can render some stuttered and jittery results that don't match the quality of the phone or the excellent 6.5-inch AMOLED screen. Still, it'll run power-hungry games just fine, surprisingly.
Good thing, then, that the Galaxy A51 has all the above to make up for those stutters, as well as an impressive battery life that can last you a couple days on a single charge with normal usage from a 4,000mAh battery.
Pros: A 6.5-inch AMOLED screen that make everything look beautiful, a good camera system, a gorgeous premium design, impressive battery life.
Cons: Stuttered experience during normal usage
Read our Samsung Galaxy A51 review here
The best budget-priced flagship phone
Think you can't get a high-powered smartphone for a reasonable price? The OnePlus 7T will change your mind.
The OnePlus 7T was the top flagship of 2019, and it's the best Android phone you can buy if you're not looking to spend close to four figures. It's certainly on the expensive side for the mid-range and budget range, and it's only available on T-Mobile these days, which is why it's not our top choice.
The OnePlus 7T boasts a beautiful 6.55-inch, AMOLED screen with almost no bezels. It just has a small circle on the front for the 16.megapixel selfie camera. It looks a lot like the new Galaxy S20 from the front. It's powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip and 8GB of RAM, so it performs like flagship phones that cost hundreds more.
The phone's battery is long-lasting, and OnePlus' Dash charge tech will give you a full charge in just 30 minutes. But alas, there's no wireless charging.
The camera on the back has three sensors — one 48-megapixel, one 16-megapixel, and one 12-megapixel lens — which take excellent pictures and produce the blurred background bokeh effect in photos. The camera is on par with other great flagships in most settings, though its low-light performance isn't as strong as the Pixel phones.
The back of the phone is made from glass and a slick metal band runs around the phone's edges. It feels great in the hand, though it is fragile, so we recommend popping a case on it.
Pros: A 6.55-inch AMOLED screen, Face Unlock, dual-cameras, affordable, quick charge
Cons: More expensive than other budget phones, no wireless charging
Read our OnePlus 7T review here
We look forward to testing the 2020 budget phones as they launch
We're halfway through 2020, and there are a lot of new phones in our future. Most of the phones we look forward to testing are still just rumors and not yet confirmed.