wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon go out of their way to make expensive smartphones seem affordable. You may wonder why you shouldn’t buy a Samsung Galaxy S21 if you have to pay nothing down and only $27 a month for it. The answer is, whether you pay it all at once or in 30 monthly installments, you’re still spending hundreds of dollars on a phone. Your pricey device may also keep you locked to the network, leaving you unable to switch wireless carriers until the phone is paid off.
Forget the spendy option and get a seriously great, more affordable phone instead. We’ve tested dozens to find the best cheap smartphones that aren’t annoyingly slow. Our top pick, the Google Pixel 4A, is as good as almost any device, and our other choices strike a great balance between price and luxury.
Updated April 2021: We’ve added the Nokia 5.4 and mentioned upcoming models from Google, TCL, and Nokia.
Best Overall: Google Pixel 4ARunner Up: iPhone SE (2nd Gen.)Best for $300: OnePlus Nord N10 5GBest for $250: Nokia 5.4Other Great Phones: TCL 10 Pro and 10LShould You Buy Now?Check Network CompatibilityAvoid These Phones
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Google took everything we loved about the 2019 Pixel 3A and made it even better with the Pixel 4A (9/10, WIRED Recommends). First off, it’s cheaper. It’s rare to see a phone improve and drop in price. The 4A also has a spectacular camera (the same main sensor as the flagship Pixel 4), allowing it to compete with phones three times its price. You can’t find another device in this bracket that can take the kind of low-light photos the Pixel 4A can—you can capture photos of the Milky Way with a tripod (provided you’re in a dark enough area)—and it’s all thanks to Google’s Night Sight mode.
That’s not the only reason the Pixel 4A is our favorite Android phone. It’s also speedy, the battery lasts a full day, and the 5.8-inch OLED screen looks ultra-modern. It’s compact, too! Google slimmed down the bezels (the edges around the display). Other perks include a plastic body (which means the rear won’t shatter if you drop it), NFC for Google Pay, and a headphone jack. This phone will also get monthly security updates and Android version upgrades for two more years, which isn’t guaranteed even on pricier phones.
What are the sacrifices? There’s no water resistance, no MicroSD card slot, and no wireless charging. The dual speakers are quiet, and the screen is dim when it’s especially bright outside. But otherwise, this is the phone most people should buy. It will run everything you use on a day-to-day basis without pause, and the extra software features from Google will make life a little easier. For example, Call Screen will automatically filter and silence spam and robocalls so you aren’t disturbed, and Hold for Me will have Assistant take over a 1-800 call so you don’t need to listen to hold music.
Google has confirmed that a successor, the Pixel 5A, will launch around August. The Pixel 4A remains an excellent buy if you don’t care to wait.
Works on all three major US carriers
Pixel 4A 5G.
Take everything about the Pixel 4A and add a bigger, 6.2-inch display, an additional ultrawide camera, 5G connectivity, and a slightly faster processor and you’ll get the Pixel 4A 5G. It even has some additional features, like three video stabilization modes and the ability to take Night Sight portraits. Read our Best Google Pixel guide for more details.
iPhone SE (2020).
The iPhone SE (8/10, WIRED Recommends) is perfect for people who want an affordable phone from Apple without all the bells and whistles on its higher-end models. If you’re OK without features like Face ID for authentication or a large screen, the SE works great. It relies on your fingerprint with Touch ID to unlock, and yes, that means the home button is back. It’s also a tiny thing, similar in size to the Pixel 4A—not as compact as the 4-inch iPhone SE from 2016 or the iPhone 12 Mini, but the 4.7-inch screen still is very small compared to other phones today. You get some modern amenities like wireless charging and IP67 water resistance, but sadly the headphone jack didn’t make the cut.
What makes the iPhone SE so special is the processor that’s powering it—the A13 Bionic chip, which is the same one you’ll find in the iPhone 11 Pro that goes for several hundred dollars more. You won’t find performance anywhere near as good for this price on another phone. All your favorite apps and games, even if they’re graphically intensive, will run without a hitch for years to come. And, as usual, Apple will likely keep this phone updated for three or four more years, which is years longer than all of the Android phones in this guide.
The single camera on the back snaps some nice photos, though since Apple did not bring Night mode down from its high-end iPhones, it won’t fare as well in low-light scenes as competitors like the Pixel 4A. The glass back design is also more fragile than Google’s phone, so it’s a good idea to buy a case.
Works on all three major US carriers
Best for $300 or Less
OnePlus Nord N10 5G.
If you’re considering this phone, we advise saving up $50 for the Pixel 4A.
The first OnePlus Nord wasn’t sold in the US, but the Nord N10 5G is finally here to change that, adding an affordable option to OnePlus’ lineup. What stands out? You get a 90-Hz screen refresh rate and a high-speed 5G (sub-6) connection (if your area has 5G), features often available only on phones costing $500 or more.
The N10 5G performs better than our previous $300 recommendation, the Moto G Stylus, thanks to the slightly improved Qualcomm Snapdragon 690 chip and 6 gigabytes of RAM inside, but you’ll still notice some stutters here and there. The 690 can’t match the Snapdragon 730G in the Pixel 4A. The 6.5-inch screen, while large, sharp, and bright, is an LCD panel, so it doesn’t get as black as the OLED on the Pixel either.
There are four rear cameras—the main, an ultrawide, a macro, and a monochrome—and the system is adept at producing detailed and colorful photos (sometimes too colorful). That includes low-light results too, due to OnePlus’ dedicated Nightscape camera mode, which lets you take brighter photos at night. It’s still a few rungs below the Pixel, but you’ll be satisfied with the results.
The 4,300-mAh battery easily lasts more than a day, and you get a headphone jack, a MicroSD card slot to expand the base 128 gigabytes of storage, NFC for contactless payments, and a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner. The only major drawback? OnePlus is only promising one Android version upgrade for this phone (up until Android 11, which Google released in September 2020). Thankfully, you’ll still get two years of security updates.
Works on all three major US carriers (5G only works on T-Mobile)
Moto G Power.
If having the longest battery life is more important for you, then consider Motorola’s Moto G Power (2021). The 5,000-mAh battery keeps it running for almost three full days. It has a decent processor that can handle most apps and games just fine, and its camera system fares well during the day (though it suffers at night). You also get a MicroSD card slot to expand storage, and there’s a headphone jack.
Best for $250 or Less
You have to lower your expectations for any smartphone that dips below $250, but the Nokia 5.4 will impress. Unlike Motorola’s budget phones, you get NFC so you can pay at select stores with the phone via Google Pay, and HMD promises two years of Android version upgrades and three years of monthly security updates. That kind of software support on a phone this cheap is rare (though HMD has lately been slow at issuing updates).
This phone is very similar to its predecessor, the Nokia 5.3. You’ll find “good enough” performance with the Snapdragon 662; I was able to do everything I usually do, from browsing Twitter to sending emails. It’s not a stutter-free experience, and apps can take a second or two to load, but that’s only a problem for power users juggling multiple apps simultaneously.
The 6.4-inch LCD screen now uses a hole-punch design for the selfie camera rather than a notch, so it looks more modern, but it still doesn’t have an HD resolution. That didn’t bug me too much, and at least it manages to get decently bright. More importantly, the battery lasts a little more than a full day with average use. Other perks include a headphone jack, fingerprint sensor, and a MicroSD slot to add on to the 128 gigabytes of storage that comes with it (double the storage of the Nokia 5.3).
What you do lose out on are capable cameras—results are OK in daylight, a small improvement over the 5.3, but you’ll have a tough time getting anything usable in low light. Other downsides? It doesn’t support Verizon’s network, and you can’t connect to 5-GHz Wi-Fi networks. The latter wasn’t an issue for me, but it might be for you. Also, you can’t permanently disable the annoying Nokia jingle that blares when you boot up the phone. (Tip: set the phone to silent mode before you restart to prevent it waking everyone around you.)
If you’re on AT&T or T-Mobile and don’t use your phone much—mostly for light messaging, social media browsing, video streaming, or music—then this Nokia will do the job. It’s usually on sale for $200, so try not to buy it at full price. The Nokia 5.3 remains an equally solid pick if you can find it for $180 or less (it does support 5-GHz Wi-Fi). Know that Nokia will also be launching a new lineup of budget and midrange phones this summer.
Works on AT&T and T-Mobile
If you prioritize sustainability and a replaceable battery, try the Teracube. It’s made of 25 percent recycled plastic with a four-year warranty and an option for cheap repairs (or you can fix it yourself). The MediaTek chip powering it is slow, but I was able to run all my apps without trouble. The battery lasts two days, the screen is decent, and it has a fingerprint sensor and a MicroSD slot. The problem? The cameras are bad and software updates are slow.
Two More Great Budget Phones
TCL 10 Pro.
You might know TCL for its affordable TVs. Now it’s selling affordable phones, too. Don’t worry, it’s not the company’s first rodeo—it has made phones under brands it owns (or used to own) like Alcatel, Palm, and BlackBerry. But the TCL 10 Pro and 10L are the first phones sold in the US under its own name, and they’re a promising start.
The 10 Pro has excellent performance with the Snapdragon 675 chip inside, and its 6.5-inch OLED screen is sharp and bright, even in broad daylight. The 4,500-mAh battery keeps it running for a full day, and the four-camera system does well in a variety of lighting conditions, though it’s still not as good as the Pixel 4A. It feels more premium because it’s a glass sandwich, but that also makes it fragile.
The plastic-backed 10L is more durable and has similarly good performance, even if it uses the slower Snapdragon 665 processor—for $200 less. Its battery can go past a full day, and while it can take some nice photos during daylight hours, the lack of a night mode on this model means your low-light shots are going to look quite poor. Its screen is also a little too dim to see in the sunny outdoors.
TCL’s biggest drawback is that, like Motorola, it’s only promising one Android version upgrade for these phones for now up to Android 11 (but two years of security updates). That’s disappointing, and it doesn’t bode well for the longevity of these phones.
Still, the pair are pretty much on a permanent discount—just make sure to clip the on-page coupon on Amazon to see the lower price at checkout. The company also announced 2021 successors—the TCL 20 range—which will hit US store shelves early this summer. They might be worth waiting for.
Works on all three major US carriers
Yes and no. All of our picks are excellent buys, but some brands like TCL, Google, and Nokia are launching new models this summer (some as early as May). If you’re in no rush, you should wait.
If you buy an unlocked phone on this list and try to take it to one of your wireless carrier’s retail stores, they may tell you it isn’t compatible with the network. It likely is. Just use a paper clip or SIM ejection tool to pop the SIM card out of your current phone, then slide that SIM into your new phone. If it doesn’t work at first, reboot the phone or wait a couple of hours.
If you need a new SIM, try ordering one online from your carrier, or try to get them to give you a SIM when you activate a line in the store (if you’re starting coverage). Tell them you have a phone. Many times, reps will want to sell you a phone; that’s one potential reason they might hassle you into buying a different device in the store.
Having said that, please make sure whatever phone you buy will work on your wireless network. Listings on retailers like Amazon should state clearly which networks it will be compatible with. Also, make sure the listing says that the phone is being sold “unlocked.”
Warning for Verizon users: There’s a higher chance an unlocked phone will not work on your network. Make sure it is labeled to work on Verizon, or that it says the phone is CDMA-capable. If something strange is going on, like you get no texts, you may also need to contact customer service and ask them to enable CDMA-Less roaming. AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers, which is the standard for most of the world; most unlocked phones are compatible with them.
If you’re nervous, look up the specifications of the exact model you’re considering. Make sure it has the LTE bands it needs to run on your carrier. Speaking of networks, none of the phones in this guide support 5G, which is perfectly fine. 5G phones are pricey, and the networks are still only available in a handful of places around the country, so you’re not missing much.
If a phone isn’t listed here, or if it’s refurbished, be careful. It’s easy to waste money or time when you’re shopping for affordable phones. It’s hard to get a sense of how a cheaper phone will act in the long term when you use it in a store for five minutes, and retail employees may not be much help. Make sure you read reviews online.
For whatever reason, big manufacturers like to keep selling their old pre-2020 devices. A good rule of thumb is to avoid most devices that originally came out before 2020. They probably won’t continue to get software and security updates for long, if they’re even being supported now.
For example, we do not recommend buying the iPhone XR anymore. It’s still a good phone (8/10, WIRED Recommends), but it’s only $100 cheaper than the more powerful iPhone 11, which is vastly superior in many ways, and absolutely the iPhone to buy if your budget can stretch to $600.
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