The 8 Best Contract-Free or Prepaid Cell Phones to Buy in 2017

Is a contract-free or prepaid cell phone better for me?

Looking for a contract-free or prepaid cell phone? You may have to pay slightly more for the handset itself, but you will get more freedom in your calling plan. You won't have to commit to a lengthy contract and you can pay for only the calling time that you need.

You may find that there are not as many choices when it comes to prepaid cell phones, but the selection is improving every day. And it actually may be quite easy to find a handset that meets your needs, as the carriers are offering a range of prepaid phones. Better yet, you also have a choice of prepaid plans, as most of the major carriers are offering a prepaid option. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless all offer prepaid options and carriers like Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile offer a variety of contract-free choices.

Here are several prepaid and/or contract-free phones that might meet your needs.

Powered by Verizon's 4G XLTE network, the Samsung Galaxy J3 is an excellent example of what a prepaid phone should be. The 5-inch 720p HD super AMOLED display does a great job of producing a bright and full picture of Samsung's proprietary menu, as well as pictures captured from the five-megapixel camera. Beyond the great display, the J3 excels at battery life (it lasts for up to 22 hours of talk time). The design won't win any awards, but this phone isn't designed for flash or style. It does, however, excel as a lightweight and thin device that weighs just 4.9 ounces and is .31-inches slim, making it more than comfortable to hold in the hand.

The 8GB of storage is par for the course on such budget-friendly models, but it’s likely you could run out of storage with app downloads or capturing pictures. Fortunately, the J3 offers a microSD card slot (up to 200GB) underneath the battery cover for additional memory. Additionally, the J3 offers a unique feature appropriately labeled as "Easy" mode, which offers fewer and larger icons along with easier app interactions. Ultimately, Easy mode allows a user to get to the features they need without diving through menus upon menus of features they don't want.

Motorola’s Moto E Android prepaid smartphone is a great option for users of Tracfone’s network. Running Android 4.4 on the 4.3-inch qHD display, the addition of Corning glass speaks to Motorola’s renowned excellent design that’s both stylish and functional. As an inexpensive device, there’s some tradeoff and that’s shown in the plastic material of the design, but the phone still looks like a device that’s far more expensive. On the rear of the device is the depressed Motorola “M” symbol, which serves as an additional grip point for a more comfortable hold.

While the design may not feel like a million dollars, the included battery offers more than enough juice to get through a full day of average to above average use. The inclusion of a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 410 processor and 1GB of RAM works perfectly well when opening and closing apps one at a time. Multitasking adds a little more of a challenge (apps take slightly longer to load), but for a very low price point, tradeoffs are bound to exist. Additionally, Motorola includes a five-megapixel camera that offers average quality, but works in a pinch.

If you’re searching for a great prepaid device that offers extra-long battery life, look no further than the HTC Desire 530. Paired with Verizon’s LTE network, the battery offers up to 15 hours of talk time and 17 days of standby time. Comparatively, devices like the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus offer half the talk time. Beyond battery life, the Android-powered smartphone runs Android Marshmallow with Google’s full Play Store available that’s full of apps, music, movies, books and more.

Powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1.5GB of RAM and 16GB of internal memory, performance on the Desire 530 is excellent. It won’t pass a side-by-side test against today’s flagship Android devices, but when viewed separately in the prepaid category the Desire 530 is near the top of the list. Supporting the great performance is an eight-megapixel rear-facing camera, five-megapixel front-facing camera with “Auto Selfie” mode and a 5” 1280 x 720 HD display. Additionally, the Desire 530 adds an expandable microSD slot for up to 200GB of added memory.

Powered by AT&T’s 3G network, the The Samsung a157 is a delightful flip phone that harkens back to a time before smartphones, app stores and Facebook. Featuring a 1.77-inch display and weighing only 2.82 ounces, the a157 doesn’t scream fancy or “download all the apps,” but just concentrates on phone calls and text messages. The battery life allows for up to five hours of talk time, which is pretty standard.

The clamshell design covers the keypad and send and answer keys, as well as the navigation pad and AT&T logo middle button that serves as something akin to an “enter” key on a keyboard. The simplified menu offers just what you need without overdoing it, and there's not even a camera on the phone. 

LG’s Phoenix 2 is a surprisingly attractive and stylish smartphone with an eight-megapixel rear camera and five-megapixel front camera. The rear camera offers surprisingly good color reproduction and accuracy. Low-light shots are a little more difficult, but that’s something to be expected with an introductory smartphone offering. Still, there's the inclusion of 720p video recording at 30fps and a good level of detail with rear-camera photography.

The sturdy design feels superb in the hand without feeling too plasticky or cheap like any number of prepaid devices in a similar price range. The five-inch 1280 x 720 LCD offers a display that’s sharper than most entry-level devices. Operating on AT&T’s prepaid LTE network, there’s full support for all of AT&T’s suites and offerings available to GoPhone devices. Additionally, there’s support for Bluetooth 4.1, a 1.3GHz quad-core processor and 1.5GB of RAM, which delivers better-than-average performance.

The Phoenix 2 falters a little on battery life (it lasts just around four hours), which is likely due in part to the more demanding LTE data. The good news is the device offers removable batteries, so carrying a spare is a possibility.

The LG Volt 2 offers a high quality five-inch, 1280 x 720p LCD display. It's supported by a measurement of 294 pixels per inch, on par with phones that are typically more expensive and feature-rich. The display also has excellent viewing angles and is bright enough to see in direct sunlight. Beyond the display, the Volt 2 is powered by a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 410 processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal memory. Adding additional memory is a snap with microSD card support for up to an additional 32GB of total memory.

The phone has additional features such as Bluetooth 4.0, a loud earpiece volume and noise cancellation for easily holding conversations in a noisy environment. Real world performance is admirable for the price with app switching and multitasking working appropriately without much of a slowdown. As for battery life, the Volt 2 offers a battery that should support between five to six hours of talk time before needing a recharge. An eight-megapixel rear-facing camera and five-megapixel front-facing selfie camera support pictures and video capture.

Alcatel’s Big Easy is an excellent device that partners with Tracfone’s prepaid network for an inexpensive choice for senior citizens nationwide. Featuring a two-megapixel camera, MP3 player and 3G connectivity, the Big Easy is perfect for users who want something easy to use without paying an arm and a leg. Additionally, the entire bottom 2/3 of the device is nothing more than the large and easily pressed keypad, send and answer keys, as well as the four-way directional pad for navigating Alcatel’s menu system.

While the large keypad may be the most immediate highlight, the Big Easy arrives out of the box with 800 minutes and one year of service. Additionally, Tracfone includes a car charger within the box adding a little extra value and peace of mind to current and future customers. At just 15 ounces, the Big Easy fits into a purse or pockets without feeling any extra weight.

Partnered with AT&T’s 4G LTE network, the 4.71-ounce ZTE Maven is an outstanding choice for a prepaid device with fast streaming, downloading and surfing speeds. Featuring a 1.2GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of memory, the Android Lollipop 5.1 device is a budget-friendly option that feels far more expensive than its price tag. The five-megapixel autofocus rear camera takes OK, if not outstanding, photos that are what to be expected at this price range. A 4.5-inch display is vibrant with easy-to-read text and works surprisingly well under direct sunlight.

Right out of the box, some of the 8GB of memory is already chewed up by the operating system, so ZTE includes storage for a microSD card up to 32GB. The microSD card itself allows for additional storage of pictures and video that can easily take up quite a bit of room. ZTE Maven buyers will also find Android and Google functionality offering more than one million apps through Google’s Play Store. Additionally, the Maven includes a battery that offers up to 10 hours of talk time.

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