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Should you buy an unlocked phone in the UK?

When it's time to buy a new phone, most of us turn to the four major UK networks operators, or one of the many smaller networks that piggyback on them. But as cheaper smartphones become better and better, and the urge to upgrade to the latest and greatest handsets grows, you may have been considering the alternative — simply buying a phone unlocked and popping in your SIM.

Unlike other parts of the world, buying a new, unlocked smartphone isn't a new concept for British consumers. But if you're thinking of taking the plunge, there are a few factors worth considering. Check past the break for a quick primer on buying an unlocked phone in the UK.

Why go unlocked?

First, a few obvious advantages. If you buy an unlocked phone outright, you'll trade a higher up-front cost for lower monthly fees from your network provider. The big players like EE (opens in new tab), O2 (opens in new tab), Vodafone (opens in new tab) and Three (opens in new tab) have cheaper SIM-only plans that let you bring your own phone to their network as opposed to picking up a subsidized handset on contract. And so with a few exceptions, you're generally better off in the long run.

More freedom, more control.

Buying unlocked also lets you avoid getting roped into the credit agreements involved with taking out a contract, as you can always take advantage of the many great Pay As You Go deals out there.

Because you're not paying towards the cost of your phone across the life of your contract, you'll pay less each month. In many cases you'll also be able to opt for a shorter contract — many providers offer 12-month SIM-only deals. Some, including Three, even have rolling one-month contracts that let you cancel at any time.

UK providers use (for the most part) the same standards and cellular frequencies, and so unlocked phones sold in the UK will work across any of the country's mobile networks — from the big four to smaller players like GiffGaff and Virgin Media.

The cheaper the phone you're buying, the more incentive you have to go unlocked.

An unlocked phone isn't tied to any particular network, and for that reason it'll often have greater resale value when you're done with it. That's alongside the freedom you'll gain from being able to switch between providers without changing your handset. And if you're traveling abroad, it's easy to switch to a local SIM in an unlocked device, avoiding potentially expensive roaming charges.

And in the Android and Windows world, unlocked phones often have the benefit of receiving software updates before their carrier-branded siblings, as manufacturers don't need to wait for networks to add their own cruft into the mix before pushing new firmware out.

Finally, it's worth remembering that budget phones like the Lumia 650 (opens in new tab) can be so cheap to buy outright that it's often not worth getting roped into a multi-year contract when you can pay £149 or so upfront and be done with it. The cheaper the phone you're buying, the more incentive you have to go unlocked.

Nexus 6P vs. Lumia 950 vs. iPhone 6s Plus vs. Galaxy S7

How to make sure you're buying unlocked

If you're buying on the high street, Carphone Warehouse (opens in new tab) is the biggest nationwide option for buying new unlocked phones. There's also Carphone's online arm, BuyMobiles.net (opens in new tab). (And of course if you're buying an iPhone, your local Apple Store will gladly sell you an unlocked 4, 4.7 or 5.5-inch model of your choosing.)

There are plenty of outlets to choose from, whether you're buying online or on the high street.

While Carphone Warehouse (and its Samsung stores) will sell you unlocked phones at their full retail price, it's worth remembering that phones bought on contract at CPW are generally the SIM-unlocked versions. So if you're buying on-contract with Carphone you can often get the best of both worlds — a subsidized price for your phone, and and unlocked handset in your pocket. The same goes for Carphone's online-only subsidiary, BuyMobiles.net.

Buying unlocked on the high street is often expensive, though. And there are a number of smaller independent retailers like Unlocked Mobiles, Clove (opens in new tab) and even eBay sellers (opens in new tab) that are often cheaper. With the latter, it's always best to exercise common sense and buy from reputable sellers with high feedback scores — especially with something as valuable as a smartphone.

Retail behemoth Amazon (opens in new tab) is also worth considering — however prices tend to fluctuate wildly depending on seller, and it's worth double-checking model numbers to ensure you're getting the unlocked UK or European version of the handset you want.

Are there any trade-offs? Things to watch out for?

Aside from the fact that you're paying more up front, there are a few potential caveats to be aware of.

Depending on the model you're choosing and the vagaries of your carrier's contract deals, there are times when it can be cheaper in the medium or long-term to pick up a subsidized phone on contract, sell that phone and use your own unlocked handset instead. For example, if a carrier wants to get rid of stock of a certain model, it might offer it with a tiny upfront price and a monthly fee not far off its SIM-only prices. In this case, if you're happy being locked into a contract for the standard 24 months, it might be worth taking the plunge.

The other thing worth considering is specialized built-in services like Wifi calling and VoLTE (voice over LTE). Traditionally these have been restricted to carrier-branded versions of phones — with the exception of the iPhone. Although this is slowly starting to change elsewhere in the smartphone world, it's worth checking before you buy if these features are important to you.

UK readers, did you buy your phone unlocked, or are you using a carrier-branded model? Do you plan to change the way you buy next time around? Hit the comments and let us know

70 Comments
  • Lover of unlocked mobiles fih time
  • When I'm looking a Lumia phone online in Malaysia, some stated unlock or America version or refurbished. What are the things I should aware? What are the risk? Is it usable in Malaysia? Does system match with local system?
  • Ask in the forums
  • Start here: http://willmyphonework.net/  
  • Been buying outright since the Nokia N9 which was never released in the UK
  • I have been buying phones outright since my N-Gage QD. Before that I didn't even know that was something you could do lol.
  • Bought my 950xl unlocked as none of the big four were selling it at the time.
  • My orange branded Samsung Omnia 7 is still on WP7.5 My 3 branded Lumia 1020 took months to get updates. My Grade A/Open Box unlocked Lumia 950 is always up to date. The other benefit that you forgot to mention is that you are not at the mercy of the carrier's purchasing department. I'm happy with 3, I've been with them for three years but they weren't going to stock the Lumia 950/950XL. If I wanted a contract phone I'd either have to choose between staying with 3 and moving on to iOS/Android or looking for a different carrier that was stocking a Lumia 950/950XL
  • Agreed. My first smartphone was an Omnia 7. Great phone for the time. It was t-mobile branded (uk) and was still on 7.5 when I sold it in 2013. Posted from Windows Central for Windows 10
  • Also had the Omnia 7 locked to T-Mobile via ebay, I think I had around 6 months of my contract for my only android phone left at the time - still have it in my box of retired handsets. It never went beyond Tango (7740). Since then I've only bought unlocked handsets, though my 920 needed me to manually set the APN settings for data use and my current sim card on three on my 830 can't setup MMS automatically (no loss). Wifi calling, VoLTE and visual voicemail are the only advantages I know of that make buying a branded phone a good idea. I'm happier living without thse for unlimited phone data at £15 pm.  
  • Haha agreed. WiFi calling can always be dine through apps like WhatsApp Viber skype etc.
  • All Three phones are now unlocked
  • I never have enough money at the right time to buy the phones I want so I just get ripped off by EE instead. I like Brazils' way of handling things, none of their phones are locked to a network even though they have carrier variants and honestly that's the way it should be, you are technically paying for the phone at full price so why shouldn't you be able to use it on any network you want? I'm hoping the UK will catch up in that respect. Posted from my Lumia 950
  • Always buy unlocked phones, I hate being tied to a contract, on a 30 day rolling tariff and always get a good deal. Loving my unlocked 950XL btw
  • I know the tied down feeling. Unlocked FTW! I don't understand how the American users base their phone choice on whatever one carrier has. Sent from my Lumia 830 running Windows 10 Mobile
  • In America phones generally don't work across networks. Let's take the big two, Verizon and AT&T. Verizon is CDMA, ATT is GSM. With some exceptions, phones bought for one don't work on the other. Plus there are plenty areas where only one carrier has signal. So it's a very different playing field the carriers have in the USA.
  • Why would anyone still be using CDMA, that is ancient.
  • In Chile it's the only option to get any Windows Mobile handset or any other Microsoft product.
  • I've got a better question: Should you buy a Windows Phone? The answer is a definite NO, of course, lol.
  • If you are at US, buy Lumia 640 @30$ , get it unlocked free. Then you will see how good deal it was. I would it is the most amazing thing to buy @30$. Used android and iPhone before, all are good. But 640 has greatest value for me.
  • Cool story.
  • An even better question is why are you here? Posted from my Lumia 950
  • Well of course not. Windows Phone is dead. It's Windows mobile now. As for Windows 10 mobile, if you're ok with the limitations it brings (I know I'm in the minority here, but the app gap is not a limitation for me personally), then yes by all means buy it. It's not for everyone but it's by no means for nobody either.
  • Always bought my phones, even in the days u could only get car phones, and u asked the operator to dial it for u
  • Love my unlocked unbranded Lumia 930. Got it from eBay from a uk seller, £208 excellent mint condition, and it still has no scratches. Got it last year as a replacement for my faulty Lumia 920. Still going string, always one of the first to get updates. I've never had a contract, always go unlocked and upgrade handsets around every 2/3 years. Works out cheaper in the long run, especially when you're on Giffgaff pay as you go. Will probably hold out to buy a surface phone when it launches Posted from Windows Central for Windows 10
  • I learn to not buy an unlock from internatinal that not based even in the US :O WIsh someone told me way before to make sure I buy one that was built in the US :(
  • Blimey... For me the first unlocked phone in UK was my Nokia E7.. Damn I loved that phone, got it from PC world as I didn't know any better ** 950xl and loving it !!
  • I switched to having unlocked phones seperate from a contract when I was lucky enough to win a 1020 - after that, buying phones outright seemed a better solution one that I'm free of a contract. In the case of the 1020 and now my 950XL, they're not available on my network (Tesco Mobile) and so I'm not limited on models. I'm also totally free to switch provider or upgrade my phone whenever I like, I don't have to pay off any remaining bills like if I wanted to swap before the end of a 24 month contract. The long term cost also works out very well, as pointed out in the article (well, it would of course with the freebie 1020, but I mean for the paid-for 950XL) and so my actual monthly payments can be quite low. The 950XL came from Amazon. It's just whether or not you want to/can buy the device outright, really.
  • "Unlike other parts of the world, buying a new, unlocked smartphone isn't a new concept for British consumers. "
    I think "isn't" should change to "is".
  • Why? It's true. We've been able to buy unlocked, carrier free phones for many years.
  • Umm, he is correct.
    In India, we don't even have the concept of a carrier locked device. We're free to buy what we want!! :) Sent from Windows Central on Windows 10 Mobile. ;)
  • More truthfully,  "saving up for a big purchase" is a new concept for many British customers. I'm in Britain and have never bought a mobile on contract.
  • Nope, in the UK having a monthly plan is like a privilege rather than an expectation.
  • For 14 years or so I could never afford a $650, $750 phone, so I'm a BIG an of the subsidized 2yr plans the US carriers used to offer. A couple of years ago my luck changed and the past 2 phones I bought unbranded/unlocked. I also bought unlock codes for 2 other phones I had. From here on out, dual sim unbranded or nothing.
  • Went unlocked cpl. of years ago, no going back, unless its something fantastic. You're in control with unlocked phones.
  • If your buying from Carphone Warehouse, it's quite often cheaper just to buy the PAYG version and stick the sim out your choice in it. The Lumia 550 usually goes for around £49.99. For example. However I don't use CPW any more due to crap service from my local store service John Lewis is better.
  • Our family has been using unlocked phones since I had my Lumia 800 - the initial reason was that we have family abroad, so it made sense to have the flexibility of unlocked phones. We found that, over a two year period, the cost of a phone contract and the cost of a phone and SIM contract were all-but the same. Soon after we started doing this our network, Three, started supplying unlocked phones - something worth bearing in mind and a big plus in their favour.
  • YES YES YES YES YES
  • Bought the special edition gold 930 on eBay for £200 last year, £11 a month rolling contract, feels great to be "free" I would highly recommend
  • It's a win win situation buying unlocked new or Grade A My Lumia 1520 bought for £300 used for a year sold for £250 Amazon. Still mint. My Lumia 830 bought for £100 used for a year sold £135 Amazon. Again mint. Currently using Lumia 930 bought for £110 Grade A. Will sell when the beast aka Elite X3 is released. Should still recover paid price. Happy days... Sent from my Lumia 930 whilst taking a dump.
  • Yup, 930's go for 80 to £100 second hand. Bargain if you ask me.
  • Can't even remember what great it was when I last had a locked phone. Just to name a few of the phones I've bought from eBay over the years, 950, 930, 925, 630, 620, HTC 8x... Actually the 620 was from car phone warehouse... SIM only deals for me for a long time now.
  • Last month I finally got the shackles off, I had been with Vodafone for many years as PAYG and the last 4 years on contract, I got my wife set up on EE as my daughter works there and gets a family discount, but BT where offering such a good deal (Already use them for broadband) when I came to look, unlimited calls, unlimited texts, 20 meg for £20 with as much free BT wi-fi as I can use thrown in (I am out and about a lot and am already using the wi-fi with my HP tablet). So I can now buy whatever phone I want when I want it to replace my aging 1520 when a good deal is put in front of me.  
  • Watch out for their price hikes! They are on the way soon.
  • Yes, one should always buy unlocked where and when ever possible. Primarily due to carriers have began to charge extortionate prices for a unlock code. Plus pricez varies from Carrier to carrier, however three apparently only sell unlocked handsets now. Buying unlocked allow you to get the sim only plans which are always a better deal in the long run and work out considerably cheaper.
  • Strangely Asian like to buy and sell unlocked phone. Some people buy and collect phone.
  • One isn't worthy of his smartphone or he can't afford to pray the full price upfront. Only upstarts and pensioners avail of subsidies
  • Learn from India. All phones are unlocked.
  • I bought my 650 about 2 months early in the UK before it made it's way to the USA, I don't get my LTE but I see little to no difference between this and my last phone to have LTE.
  • All Three phones are sold unlocked now as well for the last two years or so. I usually buy unlocked now and go sim free, but it was actually better for me to get an Honor 7 on contract than the sim only plan I was looking at as an existing customer. The phone is lovely for an Android, which I hate, and my 640XL is preferable to Android. But the EMUI skin is really nice on this phone. And half my important apps have stopped working on the latest Win 10 build on my Lumia 640xl. I also have an iPhone 6 to run the apps I had to have which are non-Windows, like my bank, wemo and Ovo apps. I bought that from my catalogue over 12 months interest free. My daughter's Blu Win HD was £60 of Amazon and I got my husband's Note 4 from the same catalogue. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Unlock and on prepaid plan (au 2 dollar day deal) just suit me fine) with unlimited local call, SMS and 500MB each day, maximum 2Gb at 2 dollar extra.
  • Edit maximum 1gb at another 2 dollar extra charge.
  • Keep an eye out on Carphone Warehouse, the PAYG upgrade deals on phones can be really good & again there unlocked. My mother got a new Lumia 535 for £50 on one of those deals last year.
  • I have always bought unlocked sim free mobile phones as many years ago a UK provider (BT Cellnet) gave me so much grief and I was tied to the contract,now I only use PAYG and it is easy if you want to change network without issues and PAYG tariffs' are good deals these days.
  • Been doing unlocked since the HTC Touch HD. Never looked back always unlocked was with Three for sim only (£15 per month unlimited everything) then they tried to push the price on me so on giffgaff now. Just got my partner on the unlocked train with her phone as EE was ripping her off with her contract. Parents got their Lumia for cheap from eBay my dad loves his 640. Whole family buy unlocked phones.
  • Obviously buy unlocked
  • Been unlocked for nearly 10 years. 2nd hand (ie a month or two old) off the web (ebay, amazon, gumtree or wherever), doesnt matter if the phone is locked or not, most of the carriers will unlock for a small fee and if not there are plenty of unlockers on the web for an even smaller fee A simple spreadsheet will show you how costly a subsidised long term contract is. I'm with giffgaff who's offering keeps improving - they weren't that travel friendly at first (whatsapp/skype/decent offline satnav/maps pretty much negated that), and with EU mobile market harmonisation legislation ( i wonder how a brexit will affect that? ;-) )and improvements at gg, they're fine now.
  • Surface Phone RIP. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/04/30/intel_atoms_cancelled/
  • You can buy the 650 for £99 on O2 on pay and go
  • I've bought an unlocked Lumia 650 from Carphone warehouse. It's cheaper to got the PAYG version then pop your contract sim in it. Will never get a carrier phone again.
  • Bought my last phones via out right cheaper in long run
  • Always buy second hand off ebay unlocked. Wait a couple of months and the price drops them add Tesco sim. Cheap cheap.
  • Almost all providers here in sweden sells unlocked devices now-a-days, even subsidized ones under contract. Most are branded thou, but not the Lumias, they're only Country Variants :)
  • I always buy unlocked and get a sim only contract, higher initial outlay but cheaper over the time the phone is useful Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • I've never had a contract. I have always been SIM only. Generally go high end too. I've had phones for about 12 years now. I refuse point blank to be roped into a 24 month contract.
  • This is why i love Australia, carrier phones are unlocked so long as you are on a plan. It's only crappy prepaid phones that are locked to a network.
  • Ulocked = Freedom = Win
  • In France carriers can unlock upon request. At least they could a few years back. I did it with Free and Orange. I'll be moving to the UK and hope I can get the same, do practical if you travel around!
  • The absolute best deals at Carphone Warehouse are Pay As You Go Upgrades. After 6 months of buying your last PAYG phone you can buy another at £10-20 off their usual PAYG price. I got a Lumia 535 for the princely sum of £40 last summer to use in the Windows Insider Programme.
  • I've always bought my unlocked phones from CPW. OK, I admit it, my mate works there, so any open / damaged box ones get notified to me. ALL their devices are unlocked. I bought two 550's for £50 each on PAYG, ditched the sim cards and went on a rolling monthly contract, at £12.50 a month!! The people I have to laugh at are those on the O2 refresh thingy. They are getting violated. I'm certain it was designed in much the same way as new car registrations in the UK. It's a national pastime to always be one better than your friends, and with the hideously expensive refresh contracts, some are laying out around £1100.00 over two years for an iPhone, Android etc.., but they can pay off the phone early, and get the newest one out and tie in to another £1100.00 odd 2 year deal. Mugs!!