If there’s a techy person in your life, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t buy phones directly from your carrier. While that’s a good general rule, it’s not always true. Let’s talk about the pros and cons.
The History of Carrier-Sold Phones
In the early days of cellular devices, there was only one real option for buying a phone in the US: from your carrier. This involved getting a phone for a small payment—$50 or $100 in most cases, or even free for the “non-flagship” handsets of the day. In return, you’d sign a two-year agreement with your carrier saying that you’d stick with them. Seems great, right?
What they didn’t tell you is that they paid very little for that plastic flip phone, so they actually made a killing off of you. I mean, I get that every business is out to make money, but they really took you for a lot with this old model. But since there wasn’t another option, that’s just how it was—and these practicies have continued into the smartphone era. You’d buy a smartphone for $200 with a two-year contract, but that phone wasn’t really $200—it was more like $650, you just paid the rest in fees over time.
Now, things have changed. If you go to your carrier to buy a phone, the price tag is usually the true price—now closer to $1,000 for a lot of those flagship smartphones—and you can either pay it in full or pay it off over time with an interest-free financing plan, no contract required.
The Modern Dilemma
However, there’s still a big catch to buying a phone from your carrier: it’s locked to that carrier. That means you can’t take it to another carrier unless it first gets unlocked by the original one—and even then, your phone may only be compatible with another carrier that has compatible network bands.
That means if you buy a phone from the Verizon store, you’re probably stuck using that phone on Verizon. Once you pay it off, you can get it unlocked by the folks at Verizon, then take it to a different compatible network. This used to be more difficult with CDMA and GSM networks, but that’s less of a problem now with SIM cards and eSIM.
If, however, you were to buy that phone from the manufacturer directly—say, buying an iPhone from Apple.com (or buying it unlocked from a store like Best Buy)—you could take it to any compatible carrier right away, without having to go through the hassle of unlocking it first.
Why You Might Want to Buy From Your Carrier
So why, if carriers lock you in, would you ever want to buy a phone from them? Well, there are a few cases.
When They Have the Phone You Want, and You Don’t Plan on Changing
Here’s a no-brainer: if your carrier has the phone you want and you don’t plan on changing carriers anytime soon, there’s no real problem with buying it from them. Phones are expensive, and most carriers have financing options—most of the time you don’t pay interest (depending on your credit, of course), so you pay the phone off in a couple of years anyway. You won’t pay a ton extra like you did in the days of contracts.
If you’re already committed to staying with your carrier for the long haul, then you really have nothing to lose. And ultimately, even if you do decide to call it quits and switch to someone else, you can pay your phone off early (if your carrier allows it) and have them unlock it so it can be used on other carriers.
When You Would Rather Deal with Your Carrier than a Manufacturer
It’s always kind of nice to walk into the AT&T store and let them figure out what’s wrong with your phone. You won’t get that type of support if you bring a phone they’re not as familiar with. They’ll look into network issues and the like, but if you’re having an issue with the phone itself, you’re probably on your own—or at least stuck dealing with Samsung/Google’s online support, which is typically not as good.
Sure, it’s a small thing to be concerned about, but it’s still something I’d be remiss not to mention.
Things to Consider Before Buying Unlocked
If you’ve decided buying from your carrier isn’t for you, then you’re going to want to buy an unlocked handset—one that isn’t tied to a specific carrier. That can, of course, also come with its own set of issues.
You Could Run Into Network Compatibility Issues
In this day and age, this one isn’t really as big an issue as it once was, but it’s still something that needs to be considered. You have to do your research and get one that is known to work on the carrier you’re bringing it to. Sometimes there may be multiple models of the same phone, too—so make sure you get the right model.
Some Services May Not Be Available on Unlocked Models
Sometimes you won’t be able to use certain features on an unlocked phone. This isn’t a common issue, but it can happen. For example, Samsung Pay used to not be supported on international devices. So if you had an unlocked Samsung phone that worked on US networks, it couldn’t use Samsung Pay.
You can generally prevent stuff like that from happening by purchasing a US unlocked model. The problem is that not all manufacturers sell US unlocked phones, so you may be out of luck depending on which handset you want.
Warranty Could be An Issue
Another issue with using an unlocked phone that isn’t sold in the US is warranties. Oftentimes, importing a phone means it won’t have a warranty. That means you’ll be out of luck if anything happens to the device. Again, research here will be paramount: make sure you know what you’re buying.
When to Buy Unlocked
Okay, so we’ve talked about when it’s probably okay to buy from your carrier and things to consider before buying unlocked. At this point, it may actually sound like buying unlocked is worse than buying from your carrier—but that’s not true at all. As long as you do your research, buying unlocked is great.
When You’re on a Prepaid Carrier
You can save a ton of money by switching to a prepaid carrier like Cricket Wireless. At the same time, MVNO carriers like Cricket don’t always offer the latest and greatest devices in their stores and websites.
But, as long as your prepaid carrier of choice supports “Bring Your Own Device” (or BYOD), you can buy a nice phone unlocked and activate it on your carrier. So, if you want a nice phone—like the newest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy—you still have that option as long as you buy it unlocked.
When Your Carrier Doesn’t Offer the Phone You Want
This is arguably the best reason for buying an unlocked phone. Not every phone on the market is going to be sold directly from your carrier of choice. Buying unlocked means you open yourself up to a much wider selection of devices.
If your carrier doesn’t offer exactly what you want, you can usually go straight to the manufacturer and buy it outright. As mentioned, there are things you’ll need to look out for to make sure it works with your carrier, but if everything matches up, you’ve got a phone that you would normally not have been able to buy.
When Your Carrier Wants a Huge Down Payment
If you’re going to put your phone on a payment plan with your carrier, they’ll charge you a pretty big down payment if you have less than stellar credit. Sometimes you can finance it interest-free directly from the manufacturer—oftentimes without a big ol’ chunk up front.
Google, Apple, and the like all offer some sort of interest free financing if that’s what you’re after. Of course, getting it interest free generally depends on your credit, and there’s a good chance if your carrier is trying to charge you a bunch of change upfront, the other available options aren’t going to be great solutions either.
If You Travel Outside of the Country
If you travel a lot—for work, for pleasure, for whatever—and your travels take you outside of the US, you’ll definitely want an unlocked phone. This way, you can pop in an applicable SIM card or activate an eSIM while abroad and have working cell service. Similarly, when you get back home, just use the SIM card for your carrier here. You can’t do this with a carrier-locked model.
How to Unlock a Carrier-Locked Phone
Lastly, if you have a carrier-locked phone (or plan on buying one), you can unlock it, as we mentioned earlier. It just requires a few things.
This varies by carrier, but there are some general rules you might run into. First, you have to pay the phone off completely. Most carriers should offer the option to pay it off early, though in a few rare cases you may have to wait until the end of your two-year financing plan. Once you own the phone, by law you are allowed to bring it to another carrier.
However, before you do that, you must request an unlock code from your carrier, which will remove the carrier restrictions from the handset so you can take it elsewhere. You’ll need to give them a call or head to the store. Once you’ve done that, your once carrier-locked phone now becomes a US unlocked handset. You’re free to take it and use it on any compatible carrier.
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