What’s the best phone that hardly anybody, at least in the U.S., knows about? It’s an unlocked phone. To clarify, that’s a phone that was either bought independent of a carrier, or has since been freed from one-carrier-only restrictions by either a code graciously provided by the mobile carrier (sometimes for free, usually after a certain number of months), or obtained through a simple Google search for unlock code services. Better still if that phone is rooted) or jailbroken, or, in other words, modified in some way to allow unofficial software installations.
When your smartphone is unlocked and free, you can, generally, buy one-time SIM cards to allow for calls and data usage while traveling. You can, with some effort, find month-to-month phone and data plans in your own country that leave you free to switch networks and compare services--and Google Voice even lets you make those switches while keeping one number. You can sell your phone whenever you decide it’s time to upgrade or switch, and if you decide to pick up with a new carrier contract, you can sign one without facing an early termination fee. Without an unlocked phone, international traveling usually ends up involving a lot of internet cafe visits and Skype.
Rooting, jailbreaking, and other unofficial methods take your phone freedom further. You can install apps that are otherwise blocked by your device’s app market, some of them quite handy--like an easy screenshot app for Android, or a few keyboard modifications on iPhones. You can make full backups of your phone, tweak far more of the interface than you can with the default settings and preferences, and, perhaps most helpfully, install unofficial upgrades on phones that would never officially receive an upgrade from reluctant carriers or manufacturers.
Rooting and jailbreaking are legal in the U.S., but it’s still a process that can be tricky for certain phones, and perhaps too great a risk for those who aren’t really motivated to change something on their phone. Unlocked phones, however, are just something that people have to go out of their way to find, and which most smartphone buyers have been conditioned to think of as crazy expensive.
Search out the phone you’re looking to obtain without a contract on Amazon, NewEgg, or other retailers, and you’ll see that a phone sold in stores today is usually $500 or more when sold unlocked. What you’re seeing is the actual cost of the phone, as sold to the cellular carriers by the maker of that phone. When the carrier turns around and sells it to you, they take a few hundred dollars off the price and eat the difference, but since you’re paying $25-$60 per month in data access fees, they know they’ll make up the difference within a year. The trade-off is that you’re locked in: if you decide that your phone is a pain in the rear, or not likely to see any upgrades at all, you’ve got 24 months to grin and bear it. The only time most U.S. smartphone buyers see the real cost of a phone is if their contracted phone is lost, stolen, or broken, and they have to buy an off-contract phone to replace it.
In Europe, unlocked phones that can easily move between carriers are more commonly seen. In the U.S., Google attempted to make an unlocked, multi-carrier phone, the Nexus One, available as its flagship offering through its own online store (previously at google.com/phone), but met with silence and quickly backed away. The cellular networks are more proprietary in the U.S., so that Sprint and Verizon phones don’t work with any other network, and that switching between AT&T and T-Mobile leaves customers on the second-lowest grade of data service, EDGE. There are third-party resellers like Virgin Mobile and Cricket that use those larger carriers’ networks, but they tend to steer customers toward their own very cheap smartphones.
It’s helpful sometimes to look at what the real alternatives are to what seems like a four-way wireless oligopoly. You can break free, and travel more easily, but you’ll be very much on your own.