Buying Guide: Best cheap phones in the US for 2016

Best cheap phones

Finding the best cheap phone in the US is complicated. It’s 2016 and carriers still love to locking you into contracts for budget phone prices, only to have you pay the full amount back in high monthly fees.

That’s why we have sorted through hundreds of inexpensive smartphones in order to rank the best options that you can buy unlocked without monthly fees and, importantly, without a two-year contract.

And good news: while many are $200 or less, you’ll actually recognize the names: Motorola, Google and Apple. Others may be new to you, namely Alcatel, ZTE and Huawei, but they’re just as list worthy.

Even though these aren’t the best phones in the US, they’re all perfectly fine for everyday use by someone looking to save money on a discounted iOS or Android handset.

best cheap phone 2016

Moto E (2015)

The new Moto E packs LTE and a few sweet upgrades

Weight: 145g | Dimensions: 129.9 x 66.8 x 12.3mm | OS: Android 6.0 | Screen size: 4.5-inch | Resolution: 540 x 960 | CPU: Quad-core 1.2GHz | RAM: 1GB | Storage: 8GB | Battery: 2,390mAh | Rear camera: 5MP | Front camera: VGA

Solid, pint-sized design
Extremely cheap price
Some display issues
Not enough storage

Motorola has the cheapest name brand Android phone on the list, and you’ll have no trouble wrapping your frugal hands around its small screen.

The 4.5-inch Moto E display has a 540 x 960 resolution that’s a quarter of full HD standards, but it’s just enough to keep Google’s colorful Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system looking good.

Moto E’s specs include quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage – plus a microSD card slot. That’s fine for web browsing, email checking and playing most mobile games.

Its puny size makes it easily pocketable, too, and its solid plastic design makes its water the phone resistant and tougher to damage than the metal or glass-based phones. Sure, it still looks and feels like a cheap Android, but there’s no contract.

Read the full review: Moto E (2015)

best cheap phone 2016

9. HTC Desire 626

It’s not the HTC A9, but its cheaper cousin

Weight: 140g | Dimensions: 146.9 x 70.9 x 8.2mm | OS: Android 5.0 | Screen size: 5-inch | Resolution: 720 x 1280 | CPU: Octa-core 1.7 GHz | RAM: 2GB | Storage: 16GB | Battery: 2,000mAh | Rear camera: 13MP | Front camera: 5MP

Bright, sharp screen
Customizable interface
Weak camera
Average performance

You won’t find the iPhone-like HTC One A9 on this list, but the Taiwanese phone maker has a budget smartphone that packs solid mid-range specs at a fraction of the price.

The year-old HTC Desire 626 holds up with a 5-inch display and 720p resolution that’s big and sharp for the amount you’re paying. It gives HTC’s colorful interface a sharpness that makes everything pop.

Its 16-megapixel (MP) camera and battery life are mediocre compared to what we were expecting, but that’s almost universal on smartphones at this price.

The HTC Desire 626 is all about offering an HTC-built phone with an octa-core processor, and actually paying less than the upfront price of a $199 phone that has a two-year contract.

Read the full review: HTC Desire 626

best cheap phone 2016

8. Asus Zenfone 2

Weight: 170g | Dimensions: 152.5 x 77.2 x 10.9mm | OS: Android 5.0.2 | Screen size: 5.5-inch | Resolution: 1080 x 1920 | CPU: Quad-core 1.8 GHz | RAM: 2GB | Storage: 16GB | Battery: 3,000mAh | Rear camera: 13MP | Front camera: 5MP

Spacious display for cheap
Customization interface
Cheap look and feel
Dim screen and camera

The more expensive 4GB ASUS Zenfone 2 was a tough sell for me, only because it brought powerful specs and Android customizations, yet wrapped it all in a plastic phone at $299.

Much less of an oxymoron is the 2GB Asus Zenfone 2, at a more reasonable $199. It feels just as cheap, but for a much more appropriate price. You just have to deal with its slower processor.

Intel is powering both variants, and this phone has a 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z3560 quad-core chip, ditching the more commonly used Qualcomm Snapdragon processors.

Its roomy 5.5-inch display, 1080p resolution and Android tweaks brought to the surface are the real highlights. Screen brightness and camera are literal lowlights, but you can’t win them all with a cheap phone.

Read the full review: Asus Zenfone 2

best cheap phone 2016

7. OnePlus X

OnePlus X can now be sought without an invite code

Weight: 160g | Dimensions: 140 x 69 x 6.9 mm | OS: Android 5.1.1 | Screen size: 5-inch | Resolution: 1080 x 1920 | CPU: Quad-core 2.3 GHz | RAM: 3GB | Storage: 16GB | Battery: 2,525mAh | Rear camera: 13MP | Front camera: 8MP

Attractive design
No NFC or fast charging
Bright display
Average performance

Anyone can now buy the once invite-only OnePlus 2, but it’s still expensive at $349, a price drop from the original $389. Its smaller sibling has been much more affordable since it launched.

The OnePlus One X is $249 and compromises on everything from inches to specs. It has a 5-inch full HD display, a Snapdragon 801 (no, not 810) processor and 3GB of RAM.

Those are still better than average specs for a cheap phone that runs Android 5.1.1. Just don’t go looking for a fingerprint sensor on this budget phone option.

Instead, what I appreciate most is that the phone features a microSD card slot and an older micro USB port instead of the newfangled USB-C style that I’m just not ready for yet.

Read the full review: OnePlus X

best cheap phone 2016

6. Moto X 2nd generation

Motorola’s unlocked phone from 2014 still impresses us

Weight: 144g | Dimensions: 140.8 x 72.4 x 10mm | OS: Android 6.0 | Screen size: 5.2-inch | Resolution: 1080 x 1920 | CPU: Quad-core 2.5 GHz | RAM: 2GB | Storage: 16GB | Battery: 2,300mAh | Rear camera: 13MP | Front camera: 2MP

Great 5.2-inch screen
Moto Maker customizations
No micro SD slot
Camera inconsistent

Motorola’s 2014 flagship is the most expensive phone on this list, but it’s also one of the best because it hovers between our best phones and budget lists.

It has a vibrant-looking, 5.2-inch AMOLED display and a curved back that feels like the right size and shape for a one-handed phone. The aluminum frame gives it some sharp class.

It’s cheaper than most Android Lollipop phones in its class and it has some neat tricks, like the always-on Moto Display and web-based Moto Maker software for custom phone orders.

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There’s no microSD slot, unfortunately, and the camera is okay. You’ll also want to skip the nice leather option because it’s a bit too supple and bruises easily. That back isn’t worth your hard-earned money.

Read the full review: Moto X 2nd generation

best cheap phone 2016

5. Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3

A cheap 5.5-inch phone from a company you’ve never heard of

Weight: 141g | Dimensions: 152.7 x 75.1 x 7.4mm | OS: Android 5.0.2 | Screen size: 5.5-inch | Resolution: 1080 x 1920 | CPU: Quad-core 1.5 GHz | RAM: 2GB | Storage: 16GB | Battery: 2,910mAh | Rear camera: 13MP | Front camera: 8MP

Vibrant screen
Dual front stereo speakers
Sluggish interface
No quick charging

The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is the best phone with a 5.5-inch display that you can get without having to pay a whole lot of money. Specifically, this Android handset is just $179.

It’s an unlocked phone with the same sized screen and pixel density as the iPhone 6S Plus. It even has dual, front-facing stereo speakers, something you won’t hear from an Apple phone. Of course, the rest of the specs can’t compare to an iPhone, with a much slower Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core processor running at 1.5GHz and mediocre 13MP camera.

That should be enough for most people looking for a cheap phone. And think of it this way: you could buy four Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 phones for the price of one iPhone 6S Plus. Really.

Read the full review: Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3

best cheap phone 2016

4. Huawei Honor 5X

The Chinese phone maker comes to the US with Honor

Weight: 158g | Dimensions: 151.3 x 76.3 x 8.2mm | OS: Android 5.1.1 | Screen size: 5.5-inch | Resolution: 1080 x 1920 | CPU: Quad-core 1.5 GHz | RAM: 2GB | Storage: 16GB | Battery: 3,000mAh | Rear camera: 13MP | Front camera: 5MP

Beautiful design
Fast fingerprint sensor
Problematic UI
Can only buy online

You can’t have a best cheap phone list and not include Huawei, and for the first time in the US, we can include the Chinese company’s budget-friendly Honor phone line.

The newly launched Huawei Honor 5X costs just $199 for phone with a full HD 5.5-inch display and Android 5.1.1, and it looks like its 6-inch cousin, the Huawei Mate 8.

This Honor phone takes serious design cues from Huawei’s premium Mate series, seen in its metal finish that could easily be mistaken for a premium phone that’s leagues ahead of the discount handsets.

It still has a Snapdragon 615 processor, and that problematic, iOS-like user interface that’s not nearly as buttery smooth as Apple’s operating system, but no one but you will tell under its metal shell.

Read the full review: Huawei Honor 5X

best cheap phone 2016

3. iPhone 5S

Apple’s iPhone makes the cut if you jump through hoops

Weight: 112g | Dimensions: 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6mm | OS: iOS 9 | Screen size: 4-inch | Resolution: 640 x 1136 | CPU: Dual-core 1.3 GHz | RAM: 1GB | Storage: 16GB | Battery: 1,560mAh | Rear camera: 8MP | Front camera: 1.2MP

Touch ID is easy and secure
Great camera on a budget
Can be expensive
Battery could be better

It’s really, really difficult to fit an Apple phone on a best cheap phones list, but there’s has to be at least one that’s inexpensive enough for iOS fans who refuse to try Android.

The cheapest is iPhone 5S. Through the Apple Store, it still costs $450 without a contract, which is way too expensive to consider here. But what about outside the usual channels?

The cheapest iPhone I can find comes from Virgin Mobile. It costs $239 at Best Buy and doesn’t require a contract, so you can cancel thereafter.

You’re only getting 16GB, but then again, so are entry-level iPhone 6S owners. It comes in gold, it has Touch ID and a still-impressive 8MP camera. It even runs iOS 9 and is poised to get iOS 10.

Read the full review: iPhone 5S

best cheap phone 2016

2. Nexus 5X

Google’s newest Android phone can be had for a discount

Weight: 136g | Dimensions: 147 x 72.6 x 7.9mm | OS: Android 6.0 | Screen size: 5.2-inch | Resolution: 1080 x 1920 | CPU: Quad-core 1.44GHz | RAM: 2GB | Storage: 16GB | Battery: 2,700mAh | Rear camera: 12.3MP | Front camera: 5MP

Marvelous 5.2-inch display
Android Marshmallow preloaded
Your microUSB cables are useless
Can be expensive if not at a discount

Google’s LG-made Nexus 5X almost didn’t make the list because it originally launched at $329, but the official Google Store has temporarily dropped the price to $299.

Well, that means we can temporarily recommend this Android 6.0 Marshmallow smartphone. It has a 5.2-inch IPS LCD display on the front and fingerprint sensor on back.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor is one of the best (but not the best) and it has just enough memory, with 2GB of RAM to keep things from slowing down too often.

While it’s plastic, and not metal like the Nexus 6P that launched in tandem, it’s only five months old and is guaranteed to run Android 7 when that launches later this year. It’s a sound investment.

Read the full review: Nexus 5X

best cheap phone 2016

1. Moto G (2015)

Motorola’s best cheap phone is back and better than ever

Weight: 155g | Dimensions: 142 x 72 x 11.6mm | OS: Android 6.0 | Screen size: 5-inch | Resolution: 720 x 1280 | CPU: Snapdragon 410 | RAM: 2GB | Storage: 8GB | Battery: 2470mAh | Rear camera: 13MP | Front camera: 5MP

Smart water resistance
Great performance
Bulkier design
Pricer than older Moto Gs

What’s this, a Moto G not at the top of our budget “best of” list? Your eyes don’t deceive you, the almighty Moto G has been knocked back to fourth even though it’s still an awesome phone.

The 5-inch display is high quality despite being only 720p, the quad-core processor is adept at handling most tasks and it can be upgraded to the latest version of Google’s Android.

This time it comes with 4G packed inside as well – but there’s still no sign of NFC just yet, a big shame. But otherwise, it’s a top notch smartphone.

Read the full review: Moto G (2015)

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