I’m sure you’ve heard it a hundred times: don’t buy phones from your carrier. The thing is, it’s not that black and white. There are legitimate reasons why it’s okay to buy from your carrier…on top of the reasons you may want to avoid it. Let’s talk about the pros and cons.
The History of Carrier-Sold Phones
Travel with me, if you will, back to ancient times. To a time before smartphones, when flip phones ruled the land. In these olden days of cellular devices, there was only one real option for buying a phone: 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 this continued well into the smartphone era. You’d buy a phone 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 says the true price—$650 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 is 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 of the same type: GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) or CDMA (Verizon and Sprint).
That means if you buy a phone from the Verizon store, you can only use that phone on Verizon. Once you pay it off, you can get it unlocked by the folks at Verizon, then take it to Sprint or one of the other smaller CDMA networks. You can’t, however, necessarily take it to AT&T or T-Mobile, unless it’s a phone that’s compatible with both types of networks (like the iPhone or Google Pixel).
If, however, you were to buy that phone from the manufacturer directly—say, buying a Samsung phone from samsung.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 (though we recommend avoiding the carriers’ early upgrade plans—stick with the same phone until you’ve paid it off, then you can sell it yourself).
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 Want to Make Sure You Get Proper Updates
This only applies to certain Android phones, but if you want to make sure your handset always gets the latest software updates, you may want a carrier-locked phone. Why? Because carriers control updates, and many of them are jerks about it.
For example, I have an AT&T-branded Galaxy S8 that I’m using on Cricket Wireless. Even though Cricket is owned by AT&T and uses the same network, this phone has yet to receive a single update. Why? Because it’s an AT&T branded phone, and AT&T will only update its phones if they’re connected to its network. Now, this isn’t the case for carrier-agnostic factory-unlocked phones, like the Google Pixel, which receive updates from the manufacturer, not from the carrier. But if your phone has a carrier logo stamped on the back, there’s a good chance you’re going to have a problem with updates if you take it to a different carrier.
All that said, as long as you stick with the carrier your phone was designed for, you should get all the updates the carrier makes available for it. Good stuff.
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 your own phone. 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/LG’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. As I mentioned earlier, there are two types of networks in the US; while GSM carriers are generally open to you bringing your own phone and using it on their service, CDMA services aren’t always so welcoming.
So, if you plan on buying an off-contract phone, make sure you 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
When the Galaxy S7 came out, I wanted to avoid carrier garbage on the phone, so I bought an unlocked model. I opted for the international model because I knew it would get updates—those come directly from Samsung and aren’t controlled by any specific carrier.
But here’s the thing: Samsung Pay, while available in the US, doesn’t work on this phone. Why? Because it’s an international handset, and Samsung Pay simply can’t be activated on the phone here in the US. It’s a huge bummer.
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
You know that international unlocked Galaxy S7 I mentioned? Well since it came from another country, it also came without a warranty. So you can probably imagine how irritating it was when I pulled it off the charger only to find a bulging battery—then later finding out that Samsung wouldn’t fix it. Fortunately, I was able to get it fixed at a local shop for a minimal charge, but it could’ve easily been something else—like a damaged display, for example—that would’ve been a much more expensive fix.
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 you 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, carriers like Cricket are often treated like the bastard children of the wireless world: if you walk into their stores, you’ll mostly only see garbage hardware.
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, the Pixel, or even a Galaxy S8—you still have that option as long as you buy it unlocked.
When Your Carrier Doesn’t Offer the Phone You Want
This is the arguably the best reason for buying an unlocked phone. Let’s take what’s arguably the best Android phone available—the Google Pixel 2—as our example.
While the Pixel 2 is compatible with pretty much every major carrier out there, you can only buy it unlocked or from Verizon. So, if you want a Pixel on AT&T, you can’t walk into an AT&T store—you have to get it unlocked from Google.
Other phones work largely the same way: if you carrier doesn’t offer exactly what you want, you can usually go straight to the manufacturer and buy it outright (again, as long as it’s compatible). Good on you for getting what you want.
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.
If you still want to pay the phone out, 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 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.
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 wil remove the carrier restrictions from the handset so you can take it elsewhere. So 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.
In many ways, buying a modern smartphone is easier than it has ever been. We have more choices and purchase options than ever before, but there also lies the problem: the more choices we have, the more complicated things can also be. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to buy an unlocked phone, research will be paramount—you want to make sure you get the right phone with the right features that will work both for you and on your network. Godspeed.