Menu

Gadgets

2-Minute expert: Can I get a smartphone without a contract?

galaxy_nexus_2.jpg

Unlocked phones like the Galaxy Nexus mean you can get a smartphone without the "golden handcuff" of a contract.

Taxes, dental exams, cellphone contracts — things you hate but can't avoid.

Actually, you can skip the last one.

The subsidized price of a fancy phone (sometimes a third or less of what it costs otherwise) is the golden handcuff that holds you in a contract. But with prices on good smartphones dropping and plenty of used smartphones for sale, BYOD — bring your own device — is now an option.

Don't wireless providers require contracts?

Not always. In fact, there is a whole class of "no-contract" (sometimes called "prepaid") providers such as Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. Both have solid national coverage at rates about half those of contract plans (unlimited calling, texting and data at $55 per month on Boost, for example). Major carriers like Verizon also have no-contract options. You have to buy the phone outright, but respectable Android smartphones, for example, range from $200 to $300 — not much more than with a contract, and an amount you would soon save in lower monthly bills.

At the end of May, Virgin is introducing superfast "4G" wireless service with the HTC EVO V 4G. (Yes, that's a lot of letters!) It has high-end features that include a 4.3-inch screen, the latest "Ice Cream Sandwich" version of Android and even a 3D camera, for $300.

What if I want a bigger selection?

You can buy the latest and greatest outright and put it on some networks, often with 4G service. Verizon, for example, sells its Droid 4 (a 4G phone) for $550. Or buy direct from the maker. Apple iPhones range from $375 for an 8GB iPhone 3Gs (a new device, but with 2009 technology) to $650 for a 16GB iPhone 4s. Samsung's new Galaxy Nexus Android phone is $400.

Not cheap, but in exchange for the higher price of the phone, you can leave the carrier at any time without an early termination fee (up to $350). And you can sell the phone through a service such as uSell.com (for example, that iPhone 4s currently fetches up to $315).

You can also buy used. On eBay, a used iPhone 4 (16GB) sells for about $275 and an iPhone 4s goes for about $400 to $500. The popular Samsung Galaxy S II Android phone is around $300.

Can I take a phone from one carrier to the next?

Sometimes. Sprint and Verizon accept only new or used phones made for their networks. With AT&T and T-Mobile, you can often buy a SIM card to activate a phone on either carrier's network. (This is currently the only way to use an iPhone with T-Mobile.) You can often install SIMs from international carriers when you travel. If you frequently go abroad, savings on international roaming could make up for buying a phone outright.

But the phone has to be "unlocked." That's rare for models originally bought on contract (though AT&#T now unlocks iPhones at the end of a contract). Phones bought new from the makers, such as the iPhone and Galaxy Nexus, are generally unlocked. For a small fee from Web services, you can get a code and instructions to unlock a BlackBerry.