Question about unlocked vs. prepaid smartphone

I’m currently on a family plan through ATT with my brother and his wife. My Samsung Galaxy is acting wonky and I need to replace it. My contract is up, but I may possibly be leaving the country in a few months, so I don’t want to sign a 2-year contract. My choices are to stay on the family plan and purchase an unlocked cell phone, or to migrate to a pre-paid plan.

Having experienced neither of these, I’m wondering if there is a clear best option, both for using in the US for the next few months, and then hopefully for using the phone when I move (looking at Central or South America). Can anyone help me with a few questions?

  1. Is there a difference in quality between an unlocked smartphone and a prepaid smartphone? The prepaid seem to be a little less expensive (from my cursory web searches) depending on the model. The monthly service charges will be about the same, regardless of which option I take.

  2. Are there any considerations for moving internationally? My understanding is that I can use an unlocked phone in another country…would I be able to use the prepaid phone in another country as well? I know you have to switch out the SIM card, but is it possible that an international provider’s SIM will not work with a prepaid model?

I don’t want to go the cheap route if it will bite me in the long run, but I also don’t need the latest and greatest. I typically use it for calling/texting, checking emails, and very occasionally Googling or looking something up online when I’m out and about.

Thanks in advance for any help!

  1. No difference in quality between prepaid phones and models that are sold as unlocked. The phone company may charge a little less for a locked prepaid phone (as they assume you will purchase top-up credit from that network) but they are the same phones.

  2. If your phone is locked to a US network, you may have problems using an international SIM. The locked phone may reject a SIM from a foreign network.

If you plan to travel and want to use a local SIM, you will need an unlocked device.

Note that it’s not unlocked smartphones vs prepaid smartphones; they are two different things. There are unlocked smartphones that you use under a contract with AT&T/Verizon/whomever and unlocked smartphones that you use under a prepaid plan with whomever. And you can get a dumb phone and use it with a prepaid plan, or get a smartphone and use it with a prepaid plan.

And as for using the phone internationally, look for a “world” or “global” phone.

  • ATT will unlock phones for customers in good standing.
  • ATT 3G phones can be used in most if not all, European countries with a pre-paid SIM purchased in that country.
  • Find someone who is about to upgrade their ATT iPhone, Galaxy etc. and will sell it to you. Have them get ATT to unlock it first. Then get a GoPhone SIM from ATT - they have plans for per minute, per day or flat monthly rate. Pop it in the phone and you are good to go in the US.

Brand new unlocked, no contract phones are pretty pricey, so I am happy with a used hand me down. Have done it now with iPhone 3G and 4 models.

I guess it depends on what you call pricey. This would be my current recommendation at $299, if it weren’t for the fact that they’re currently out of stock. :mad:

Hmmm, had not considered that prepaid phones would also be locked. It sounds like my safest bet is to get an unlocked phone. I love the idea of finding someone about to upgrade their phone and purchasing it. Thanks for the information!