Carrier Locked Versus Unlocked Phone – Which one should you get?

What do you look for in a new phone? Brand? Design? Operating system? Camera? They are all important. We look at these features because when we plan to change a device, we don’t often intend to change cellphone carriers along with it.

For a lot of us, carriers don’t even matter as long as you can make calls and get a reliable data plan. But there are some benefits of getting a carrier-locked phone, and an unlocked phone as well. Let’s go through the specs to see which one’s better suited for you.

Carrier locked phones

Most carrier locked phones, by definition, require you to use that one particular network provider. Although in some cases, you can take an unlocked device and get their carrier-locked services, that is often for a limited number of models. Wireless service providers mostly offer popular phones in a packaged deal to push their own services.

You will find plenty of renowned brands offered by carriers like Sprint, AT&T, Tracfone, Boost Mobile, Simple Mobile, etc. However, since some carriers support GSM and some CDMA, you will only find a limited number of devices that support their service.

Features of carrier-locked phones

  • Devices can only use the SIM card of that specific carrier.
  • Phones are often offered on sale or packaged deals. This lets you get both the device and the service at a lower than usual cost.
  • Limited collection but plenty of budget devices are available.


  1. You can get a lot of budget devices at even more affordable prices.
  2. This is also a reliable way of buying flagship phones at a discounted price. For example, you can currently get a great deal on the best Boost Mobile phones like iPhone XR, iPhone 11 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy S10.
  • Some carriers, like Tracfone, let you keep the old number from your previous carrier.
  1. You can buy devices on installment and pay up gradually.


  1. To buy a phone from a carrier, you have to switch to their network service. In most cases, that also means your number will change.
  2. The deals they offer, although appealing, can be rigid. For example, they may only offer specific plans for each phone, and not let you explore other packages they have.
  • Once you buy a carrier-locked device, you may not be able to switch for a certain period. This is especially the case when you buy one on installment. Although this is not valid for all carriers, some of them include a contract. If you do switch anyway, you will have to pay a penalty.

Unlocked phones

Not to be confused with universal models, an unlocked device is one you can use with any carrier. These options are best when you are shopping for a product from another country. In this case, a locked phone would be pretty useless since you won’t get network services.

How unlocked phones differ from universal phone models is the network. Universal phone models are designed to work on both CDMA and GSM networks. Unlocked phones can be used with any carrier, as long as the carrier provides the same service (GSM or CDMA) as the phone.

Features of unlocked phones

  • As long as the device supports GSM or CDMA services, any SIM card can be used, including international SIM cards.
  • Because they are unlocked, there are no country-based restrictions. This includes the manufacture of devices in one country and selling to several places around the globe.
  • Almost all brands provide unlocked phones.


  • You can get a new device and keep your old service plan. This is a great advantage if your SIM card or data plan is paid for by your employer.
  • You can use internal SIM cards when traveling.
  • You can order a new device from another country and easily use it in your country on your local carrier.
  • You can choose the cheapest wireless service, the one with the widest network range, or the one with the most flexibility – whatever you want.
  • You get a huge collection of phones to choose from since most brands offer unlocked cell phones.


  • Other than Black Friday or New Year sales, you don’t have much of an option to get a big discount on a brand new device. This will affect you more if a great new flagship device has been launched and you just found out that you can’t afford it.
  • There are hardly any options for you to buy a device on installment.
  • Some carriers also offer discounts on their services or data plans, especially for their carrier-locked devices. Buying an unlocked phone means you miss out on those too.

How to decide which one to get?

It is best to get an unlocked phone unless you have specific requirements. We say this mostly because choosing a device and choosing a wireless service provider should be two independent decisions. That is how cell phones are created. With unlocked phones, you can choose to switch carriers whenever you want or keep your old one. If you are a frequent traveler, this is the correct choice for you.

Carrier locked phones, on the other hand, can be a good choice if you are just planning to switch your carrier or get an additional SIM card. You may find a great phone and a data plan that suits your needs. Carriers don’t usually discontinue phones if they’re not selling. So you might also come across an older model that is no longer available in retail stores.

Bottom Line

Carrier locked devices offer some great deals all year round. You might find a perfect fit for you in a popular carrier. It does give you some clear advantages. You can weigh the pros against the cons and decide for yourself.

Unlocked devices give you full freedom to choose both your phone and your carrier. So objectively, this seems like the better choice.