The Pros and Cons of buying an unlocked or imported cell phone.

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| October 12, 2006

Spend a little time on our site and you'll find a multitude of cell phones to choose from.  Some work on T-Mobile, some on Cingular, others still on Verizon, Alltel, or other networks.  Most phones also come with two price tags attached: one "phone only" price and a second, often much cheaper, "with service activation" price.

Look a little deeper, or in the auction and classified listings around the Web, and you'll find another class of cell phones for sale: Unlocked phones that will work with any compatible carrier.  Some of these phones are the same as the ones for sale through US carriers, others are imported phones not yet "officially" supported in the States.

Buying an unlocked or import phone can be a great way to get the latest technology without having to extend your service contract by another year or two.  The unlocked and import market also is your gateway to a world of phones with better cameras, more features, and a "unique factor" than most of what's available from the major carriers.

So what's the catch?  There doesn't have to be one if you're careful.  Follow these simple tips for mobile bliss when shopping for an unlocked or import phone:

1. Compatibility:  Before you buy, make sure that the phone is compatible with your carrier's network technology.  If you're unsure, check with customer service on both the seller and carrier's ends.

2. Unlocked:  Make sure that the phone is "unlocked" to guarantee it will work on any compatible network. 

3. Charger: If you're buying an import phone, make sure it comes with either a North American charger or adapter.  Most imports ship with European chargers standard.

4. GSM 850 Band: Networks in the US use different GSM and data frequency bands than those in other parts of the world.  To ensure maximum reception coverage on a GSM phone, look for the 850 MHz band.  Phones lacking this band may still work, depending on coverage in your geographic area.

5. Data Coverage:  If you're a mobile Web or Email user, make sure that you buy a phone that's compatible with your carrier's data plan.  GSM phones, in particular, come with different data flavors: EDGE imports should work in the US, but imported 3G phones likely will not (3G operates on a different frequency band abroad).  An imported 3G phone will still get voice service in the states, but your data service will work slowly if at all