8 Best Cheap Smartphones for 2021 (iPhone, Android)

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Works on all three major US carriers

Photograph: Nokia

There are speedier, similarly-priced phones to the G20—it stutters if you try to use too many apps in succession—but if you don’t use your phone much, this is a solid option that is cheap and will last two and a half days on a single charge. The screen doesn’t get super bright, but the camera is decent and there’s even a Night mode for better low-light images. Nokia promises three years of security updates and two OS upgrades. Two big caveats: It doesn’t work on Verizon, and it doesn’t support 5-GHz Wi-Fi, which is necessary for some services like wireless Android Auto. 

Another Good Budget Phone

Photograph: TCL

There are technically three phones in TCL’s 2021 smartphone lineup: the TCL 20 Pro 5G ($500), TCL 20S ($250), and TCL 20 SE ($190). We’re omitting the latter two here because any of the other sub-$300 or $200 phones above are better choices. But there are good reasons to go for the TCL 20 Pro 5G.

It has the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G chip as the Galaxy A52 5G, but its performance is a little smoother. It’s powerful—arguably the best-performing Android phone in this guide—and it’s easily the nicest and most luxurious-feeling device as well. It has an aluminum frame and glass on both sides, though that makes it more fragile. It’s also the only Android phone here with wireless charging support. 

The 6.67-inch AMOLED screen is colorful, and it gets bright enough to see outdoors. The 4,500-mAh battery cell comfortably lasts more than a full day of use, and it has the usual niceties like NFC, a headphone jack, and a MicroSD card slot. The only reason it’s not our top pick is that TCL only promises two OS upgrades and two years of security updates, so the Google and Samsung phones above will be supported for a longer time. 

Also, it has 5G access but it isn’t available on AT&T, and there’s no IP rating for water resistance. It has a pretty good camera system, but it’s not as good as the aforementioned competitors.

Works on all three major US carriers (5G will work on Verizon soon, but not on AT&T)

Yes. Every major smartphone manufacturer has debuted its budget and mid-range phones of the year, and we’re not likely to see many new options until 2022. 

Consider Last Year’s Flagship Phones

If none of these phones have the features you want or aren’t as powerful as you 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 some manufacturers stop selling them altogether, like the 2020 Samsung Galaxy S20 or the Google Pixel 5. Keep in mind that you’ll lose a year of software support. 

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 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.

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