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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Best Cheap Phones for Almost Every Budget

Wireless carriers in the US go out of their way to make expensive smartphones seem affordable. You may wonder why you shouldn’t buy a Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra if it costs nothing down and is only $33 a month. The answer is that over 36 monthly installments, you’re still spending more than a thousand dollars on a phone. Your pricey device may also keep you locked into the network, unable to switch wireless carriers until the phone is paid off.

Forget the spendy option and get a seriously great affordable smartphone instead. I’ve tested dozens to find the best cheap phones that perform where it counts and aren’t annoyingly slow. Our top pick, the Google Pixel 7A, is as good as almost any device, and our other choices strike a great balance between price and luxury.

Be sure to check out our many other guides, including the Best Android Phones, Best Phones With a Headphone Jack, Best Google Pixel, and Best iPhones.

Updated June 2023: We've added the Moto G series and OnePlus Nord N30 5G.

Table of ContentsBest Overall: Google Pixel 7ABest Cheap iPhone: iPhone SE (3rd Gen.)Runner-Up: Samsung Galaxy A54 5GBest Under $300: Google Pixel 6ABest Under $200: Samsung Galaxy A14 5GHonorable MentionsAvoid These PhonesShould You Buy Now?Consider Last Year's Flagship PhonesDo You Need a 5G Phone?Check Network CompatibilityA Word of Caution

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Best Overall

Google Pixel 7A$499 at Amazon$499 at Target$499 at Best Buy

Google's Pixel 7A (8/10, WIRED Recommends) is the best phone you can buy for the money. It's powered by the Tensor G2, which is the same chipset inside the flagship Google Pixel 7 Pro. That makes it one of the most powerful Android phones under $500 (at least in the US), but it also enables every single smart software feature found on the Google flagships. That includes Photo Unblur, which uses machine learning to sharpen the faces of people in your photos, and Assistant Voice Typing, which lets you ditch the keyboard for a speedier and more accurate voice typing mode that's better than anything that came before. 

These software smarts are why we like Pixel phones so much. They're chock full of genuinely useful features that make everyday life a little easier. I use Now Playing all the time—it auto-detects the music playing in my surroundings so I don't have to search for it. Call Screen is another lifesaver because I almost never get spam calls when using a Pixel. Another perk? You'll get five years of security updates, so this phone is supported and secure for a good while. Unfortunately, Google only promises three Android OS upgrades, which is weirdly less than Samsung offers for its devices.

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Hate large phones? This is the handset for you. The 6.1-inch OLED display isn't the tiniest around, but it's still pretty compact. The front is protected by Gorilla Glass 3, so you'll want to install a screen protector, as it's not as scratch-resistant as the glass on pricier phones. The rear is made of a plastic composite, so you have one less area to worry about if you drop it. (It doesn't feel cheap!) 

The screen gets decently bright in direct sunlight, and Google has added a 90-Hz screen refresh rate, meaning interactions look and feel more fluid than on the Pixel 6A that came before. Another new addition to the A-series lineup is wireless charging, so you can top up the battery without plugging in a cable. There's also NFC for contactless payments and an IP67 rating that protects it from the elements. 

We can't talk about a Pixel without talking about the camera, and that's where the Pixel 7A shines. Google has upgraded all the sensors on the A series so you now get a 64-megapixel primary sensor that produces sharp photos in nearly any lighting condition, along with a 13-megapixel ultrawide to bring some versatility. The selfie camera is solid, though the results aren't the sharpest. This is easily the best camera phone you'll find for less than $500.  

Downsides? There's no charging brick in the box and no headphone jack, and you're stuck with the 128 GB of internal storage, as there's no way to expand it. The battery is also so-so; with heavy use, you'll probably need to recharge it before the day's end, but it can usually manage a full day. Lastly, there's the in-display fingerprint sensor. It's fine, just slow and at times a little unreliable. If you can live with those negatives, you'll be more than satisfied with this phone.

Works on all three major US carriers.


Best Cheap iPhone

Apple iPhone SE (2022)$429 at Apple$430 at Best Buy

Want an iPhone for not a lot of money? The third-generation iPhone SE 2022 (7/10, WIRED Recommends) is the way to go. It doesn’t change much externally from its predecessor—you still get a 4.7-inch LCD screen that feels cramped to type on, with thick bezels on the top and bottom. It looks old, but maybe you like that; it’s the only iPhone Apple sells with a home button and Touch ID. 

Apple stuffed the same chip that powers the iPhone 13 range from 2021, the A15 Bionic, into the iPhone SE 2022, meaning this is the most powerful sub-$500 smartphone around. It can handle anything you throw at it. This chip also improves battery life, but the tiny phone will still last only about a day, maybe less if you use it a lot. There’s 5G support, and it remains one of the few smartphones at this price with wireless charging (like the Pixel 7A). 

The lone camera on the back takes great photos during the day and handles high-contrast scenes well, but unfortunately, Apple still didn’t include Night mode, which is available on its pricier iPhones. That means in low light you can expect muddy, grainy, and blurry shots that don’t hold a candle to what you’ll capture on our top pick. 

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At the very least, this iPhone will last a long time, as Apple supports its devices for years. I’d recommend slapping a case on the glass back and a screen protector on the front to keep it looking fresh—our favorite iPhone SE accessories can help. 

Works on all three major US carriers.

★ An alternative: iPhone 12 ($599)

The iPhone 12 (7/10, WIRED Recommends) will serve you well for several years if you can justify the price. It’s Apple’s flagship from 2020 and the first to introduce MagSafe, so you can make use of the magnetic accessory system. It has Apple’s newer design, with slimmer bezels, a larger screen, and Face ID instead of Touch ID (though no 5G). 


Runner-Up

Samsung Galaxy A54 5G$450 at Amazon$450 at Samsung$450 at Best Buy

Samsung's Galaxy A54 5G (8/10, WIRED Recommends) is a nice alternative to the Pixel. The key advantage it offers over Google's phone is the 120-Hz AMOLED screen, which feels buttery-smooth to interact with. It also gets insanely bright during the sunniest days, so you won't ever have to squint. Battery life, thanks to a larger 5,000-mAh cell, is a bit better and ekes out a little more than a day with average use. There's a microSD card slot, so you can upgrade space as needed, and Samsung will deliver one Android OS upgrade more than Google (four years instead of three). This phone will still get five years of security updates, like the Pixel 7A. 

However, where it falls short is performance. Powered by Samsung's very own Exynos 138 chipset with 6 gigs of RAM, this phone is by no means slow. It's perfectly capable of running most day-to-day apps and games. But you will notice some slowdowns and stutters here and there. It's especially a problem when you try to juggle too many apps at the same time. There's also no wireless charging, which is disappointing. 

The camera system is, thankfully, pretty darn good. The 50-megapixel primary camera holds its own—even at night with Samsung's Night mode. Just know that you'll have to deal with some excess brightening and oversaturation here and there. The selfie camera is arguably one of the better front-facing cameras on budget and midrange phones; it can capture all those tiny little pores on your face (er, maybe you don't want that).

The A54 5G is often $375 or $400 on Amazon, so try not to pay full price.  

Works on all three major US carriers.

★ An alternative: Motorola Moto G Stylus 5G 2023 ($400)

The 2023 edition of the Moto G Stylus 5G (6/10, WIRED Review) will only get one Android OS update (but three years of security updates). If you can live with that, you'll be happy with the good performance, two-day battery life, 5G support, and even the included stylus, if that's your thing. There's a headphone jack and a microSD card slot, not to mention NFC for contactless payments.  


Best Under $300

Google Pixel 6A$349 at Amazon$349 at Target$349 at Best Buy

Google's Pixel 6A (8/10, WIRED Recommends) debuted in 2022 but it's still a great buy, especially since the official retail price has dropped to $349 (it usually sells for $299 at Amazon). It outclasses most new smartphones that cost under $400. 

Powered by the first Tensor processor (found in the Pixel 6), you'll have no trouble running any app or game you throw at it, and you'll still be able to enjoy many of the smart features that make Google phones our favorite phones, including Magic Eraser, which can delete unwanted objects in the background of your photos. 

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There's a 6.1-inch AMOLED screen, something of a rarity at this price, so you can enjoy richer colors and deeper blacks, and it's a nice compact size. The 4,410-mAh battery can last roughly a full day, but not much more, and it maintains an IP67 water resistance rating to keep it safe from the elements. There isn't any wireless charging here, and the screen is stuck to 60 Hz. 

The dual-camera system is similar to what we've seen since the Pixel 3. It might feel dated, but the main camera and ultrawide still capture better photos than most phones at this price. Put the phone on a tripod and point it at the sky and you can turn into a burgeoning astrophotographer too. That said, this Pixel's gap isn't as big as it used to be when compared to peers.

It'll get two more Android updates (Android 14 and Android 15) but will receive security updates through July 2027. That means it'll still be supported for a longer period of time than most phones at this price. 

Works on all three major US carriers.

★ An alternative: OnePlus Nord N30 5G ($300)

If battery life is more important to you than cameras, you'll be happy with the OnePlus Nord N30 5G (6/10, WIRED Review). It easily lasted two full days in my testing. Performance is pretty great too, and the 120-Hz LCD screen is a nice touch. It hits all the right notes, but it will only get one Android OS update, and the cameras are really lackluster.  


Best Under $200

Samsung Galaxy A14 5G$195 at Amazon$200 at Samsung

This is Samsung's most impressive budget phone. The Galaxy A14 5G (9/10, WIRED Recommends) carries the core phone functions you'd want at an attractive $200 price. It runs the latest Android 13 operating system version, and Samsung promises to keep it secure for four years and will upgrade the Android OS version two times (to Android 15).  

Despite using the same MediaTek Dimensity 700 5G processor as its predecessor, it's a little snappier. I had no trouble using it to respond to emails, browse Twitter, and play the occasional Dead Cells. The 5,000-mAh battery will easily last two days on a single charge too—just know that there's no charging adapter in the box (just a cable). You'll get additional accouterments like a microSD card to expand on the 64 GB of internal storage, a headphone jack, and NFC so you can make payments with your phone instead of carrying a wallet around everywhere.  

Even the primary and selfie cameras are surprisingly decent, considering the price. I was able to snap up some Instagram-worthy photos of my dog catching some Z's, and my photos of a fried chicken sandwich were pretty sharp (if a bit oversaturated). The only major downsides are that the mono speaker is quiet and easy to block in landscape view, and there's no IP rating, meaning there's no proper protection from the rain or a coffee spill. You'll want to be careful.

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Sure, you can find more powerful handsets in the rest of the world for the same amount of cash, but we're not as lucky in the US. The A14 5G is the best value phone I've seen in some time, and if your budget is tight, it's the way to go. 

Works on all three major US carriers.


Honorable Mentions

Motorola Moto G Power 5G 2023 for $300: This is one of the newest entries in Motorola's Moto G series, and it's fine (6/10, WIRED Review). My main problem with Motorola phones is that there's no NFC, which means you can't use them to pay your ticket fare on the off chance you left your wallet at home. Motorola also only promises one OS upgrade (with three years of security updates). You can get a much better deal with the devices above. However, there is a headphone jack, a microSD card to expand the 256 GB of storage, and a charger in the box. 

OnePlus Nord N300 5G for $230: This close-to-$200 smartphone has some pretty crazy specs, but naturally, there are a lot of caveats. It’s only available at T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile, and OnePlus has already delivered the only Android OS update this phone will ever get (Android 13). At least it'll get two years of security updates. Still, there’s 5G connectivity, and I used tap-to-pay via Google Pay to get through New York’s subway turnstiles without having to pull a transit card out of my wallet. The 5,000-mAh battery cell easily lasts two full days, and I have no qualms with the 6.5-inch 90-Hz LCD screen. Additional perks include a microSD card slot, a fingerprint sensor, and a headphone jack. Performance is smooth and speedy, and my only real gripes are that there's no water resistance rating and the cameras are just OK.

Avoid These Phones

I tested Samsung’s Galaxy A23 5G and found its performance annoyingly slow, which shouldn’t be the case for a $300 smartphone these days. I also don’t recommend Motorola’s Moto G Play 2023, Moto G Stylus 2023, Moto G Power 2022, and Moto G Pure 2022 because the above phones trounce them in every way and don't cost much more. 

The Nokia G400 5G (6/10, WIRED Review) is a fine phone, but its software policy just isn't as good as our top recommended devices above and its performance can be stuttery when you juggle multiple apps. The Nokia G100 was OK until the display started locking up and wouldn't accept touch input. I tried a second unit and ran into the same issue. I have also tested the Doogee S89 Pro, a rugged smartphone. While I didn't run into any glaring flaws, it's a pain in the butt to carry around and uncomfortable in the hand, too. Sure, there's a massive 12,000-mAh battery, but it didn't last as long as I expected. The company has a spotty record with software updates, too. 

Should You Buy Now?

TCL and Nokia are launching a few new phones soon, but we're confident with our top picks in this guide right now. 

Consider Last Year’s Flagship Phones

If none of these phones have the features you want or they aren’t as powerful as you’d like, your best option is to look for last year’s flagship smartphones, which might be steeply discounted. Sometimes they’re easy to find, but manufacturers may stop selling them altogether. Keep in mind that you’ll lose a year of software support, but that’s often still better than the software support available on cheap phones anyway. The OnePlus 10 Pro, for example, has dipped as low as $450.

Do You Need a 5G Phone?

5G is the latest cellular network and it's widespread enough that you should try to stick to phones that support it. It's not completely replacing 4G LTE, so you'll see this in your status bar as you roam around the country. You can read more about it here, but in short, 5G comes in two major types: sub-6 and millimeter wave (mmWave). The latter is usually only available in flagship phones and allows you to access superfast speeds, but you’ll rarely encounter mmWave (think select areas in major cities and certain venues, like stadiums and airports). Sub-6 isn’t much faster than 4G LTE, but it has a broader range and is more widely accessible these days. Most of the smartphones we recommend here support sub-6 5G, even ones as low as $200. 

Check Network Compatibility

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 see if they’ll 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.

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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 a device will be compatible with. Also, make sure the listing says the phone is being sold “unlocked.” 

In this guide, we’ve listed whether a phone works with a major US carrier. But what if you’re not on AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon? If we note that a phone works on T-Mobile, for example, that means it’ll likely work on smaller carriers like Metro By T-Mobile and Mint Mobile, both of which utilize T-Mobile’s cellular network. If you’re nervous about compatibility, look up the specifications of the exact model you’re considering. Make sure it has the LTE or 5G bands it needs to run on your carrier. 

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 don’t get any 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.

A Word of Caution

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 from using it in a store for five minutes, and retail employees may not be much help. Make sure you read reviews online. A good rule of thumb is to avoid most devices that came out before 2022. They probably won’t continue to get software and security updates for long, if they’re even being supported now.

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