Best cheap phone 2023: six smartphones for under $500
Inflation has a lot of us looking more closely at price tags lately. While your grocery receipt may be full of bad news, we’ve got some good news, at least: you can get a very good phone for under $500 these days.
Many of our picks run about $400 or $500, but there are great options for $300 and under, too. You can find a bright, high-definition OLED screen or a battery that lasts for days. If you can hone in on the one or two features that are most important to you and you’re willing to compromise elsewhere, you can get a phone that suits your needs for half the price of a flagship.
What compromises can you expect from a budget phone? Some combination of the following: slower processors, less storage, and lousier cameras than flagship phones, almost across the board. Many have lower-resolution screens, and most lack official water-resistance ratings, wireless charging, and NFC chips for contactless payment.
And while we usually recommend buying unlocked phones to maximize flexibility, you might find better deals — and much lower up-front costs — by subsidizing your purchase through your carrier. Just be sure to read the fine print and know what you’re getting into because you’ll often need to switch to a pricier plan or add a new line to get that “free phone.” At the very least, you’ll be essentially agreeing to stick with the carrier for the next two or three years, so make sure you’re happy with its service.
The best iPhone under $500
The 2022 iPhone SE will last for over five years if it’s taken care of thanks to Apple’s excellent track record of offering iOS updates to older devices. But its tiny 4.7-inch screen feels cramped now and may be tough to use in five years’ time while apps and webpages continue to be designed for bigger screens.
Screen: 4.7-inch 1334p LCD / Processor: A15 Bionic Cameras: 12-megapixel f/1.8 with OIS, 7-megapixel selfie / Charging: 20W wired, 7.5W wireless / Weather-resistance rating: IP67
The 128GB iPhone SE is the best value on the smartphone market, period. It’s a great deal at $479 when you consider that it will continue receiving iOS updates for upwards of five, even six or seven years.
But before you pick up an SE expecting to coast through most of the next decade without buying a new phone: make sure you can live with its very small, very dated 4.7-inch screen. It’s the same size as the one on the iPhone 6, and it’s starting to feel cramped in an age when apps and web pages are designed for bigger screens. The SE’s big bezels make the device look dated, too, but the usability of a small screen will be a bigger factor over the years to come.
That’s the biggest knock against the SE. Otherwise, it’s a fantastic midrange device. Its A15 processor is the same as iPhone 13 Pro Max, so performance is excellent. There’s IP67 waterproofing and wireless charging — both uncommon in this price range — and even though it uses the same 12-megapixel camera that iPhones have used since the dawn of time, it takes very nice photos and high-quality video clips. The camera has no night mode, which is a curious omission — many other midrange phones offer some sort of low-light photo mode, and the phone’s processor is certainly up to the task. Apple gonna Apple.
This generation SE offers 5G connectivity — just low- and mid-band, which is fine. You won’t get the fast millimeter-wave 5G you might encounter in an NFL stadium, but it’s nothing to lose sleep over. Battery life is also improved over the last generation, and it will generally last a full day unless you really push it with demanding tasks like gaming and streaming video.
If you can live with the small screen and you aren’t bothered by the lack of night mode, we recommend picking up the 128GB version. The base model’s 64GB of storage isn’t quite enough, and you’ll be glad you spent the extra $50 when you’re using this phone for years into the future.
The best Android phone under $500
Screen: 6.4-inch, 1080p OLED, 120Hz / Processor: Exynos 1380 Cameras: 50-megapixel F/1.8 main with OIS, 12-megapixel ultrawide, 5-megapixel macro, 32-megapixel selfie / Battery: 5,000mAh / Charging: 25W wired / Weather-resistance rating: IP67
The Samsung Galaxy A54 5G is an easy choice right now as the best Android phone in the category. It offers a feature set that’s unmatched in this class, starting with an excellent 6.4-inch, 1080p OLED with a smooth 120Hz refresh rate. It can almost fool you into thinking you’re using a $1,000 flagship phone. The A54 isn’t the best pick for camera quality — the Pixel 6A is still ahead there — but if a good screen is your priority, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better one at this price.
The A54 is built with durable glass panels on the back and front, and it carries an IP67 rating for protection against dust and immersion in shallow water. It’s also backed up with a robust software support policy. Samsung promises four years of OS version upgrades and five years of security updates, which is one of the best policies for any Android phone at any price. There’s also a big 5,000mAh battery that can power through a full day of heavy use, but you’ll need to purchase a charger separately if you want to take advantage of its fast 25W charging speeds.
Camera quality is okay, but it’s not a strong suit. Photos and videos in good lighting look fine, but the A54 struggles to keep up with any kind of motion in low light. There’s a night mode for static subjects, but getting a sharp photo of your kid or pet in dim indoor lighting will be difficult, and the year-old Pixel 6A is still way ahead in this department.
The Galaxy A54 offers a few creature comforts not often seen in the budget class, including that excellent display. It’s not the best option for image quality, but as a total package, it’s hard to top. Until we see what the Pixel 7A is made of, it’s easily the best budget choice on Android.
The best camera on a phone under $500
Screen: 6.1-inch 1080p OLED / Processor: Tensor Cameras: 12-megapixel f/1.7 with OIS, 8-megapixel selfie / Battery: 4,410mAh / Charging: 18W wired / Weather-resistance rating: IP67
The Pixel 6A is likely at the very end of its lifespan since the 7A is heavily rumored to be arriving in early May. So if you can hold off a little while, it’s worth seeing what Google will bring to its budget device this time around. In the meantime, the 6A is apparently on fire sale. You can easily find one for about $300, which is a heck of a deal. It’s only scheduled to get two more OS version upgrades, but it’ll receive security patches until at least July 2027. At that point, you’re practically making money off your device.
The phone’s biggest asset is Tensor, the custom-built chipset Google used in the company’s 2021 flagships, the 6 and 6 Pro. Not only does it enable very good overall performance now, but it also means that the 6A will keep up for many years to come. Google promises five years of security updates for the 6A, and with an IP67 water resistance rating, it’s a good all-around bet if you want a budget phone that will last.
The 6A’s least impressive feature is its screen — a 6.1-inch 1080p OLED with a standard 60Hz refresh rate. It’s not bad; it’s just not the best screen you can get for the money. The fingerprint sensor under the display is also on the slow side. Again, it’s not unusable, but it’s noticeably a beat slower than the best fingerprint sensors out there.
And unlike previous Pixel A-series phones, the 6A doesn’t include the same cameras as the flagships, but that’s okay. It uses the same 12-megapixel standard wide camera as the Pixel 5A, which is still a very good camera — especially for the midrange class. The phone’s 4,410mAh battery is on the small side, but overall battery performance is better than its size would suggest.
All that said, the 6A offers the best all-around package of essential features plus a top-tier processor that you can buy right now for around $450.
The best phone under $300
Screen: 6.4-inch 1080p OLED / Processor: Snapdragon 695 5G Cameras: 64-megapixel f/1.8, 2-megapixel macro, 2-megapixel monochrome, 16-megapixel selfie / Battery: 4,500mAh / Charging: 33W wired / Weather-resistance rating: None
The OnePlus N20 5G is a $280 phone that feels like it should cost a lot more. It offers a 6.4-inch screen with good 1080p resolution. Better yet, it’s an OLED panel in a category where lower-contrast LCDs are much more common. You’ll have to make do with a standard 60Hz refresh rate, but unless you’re coming from a phone with a faster 90Hz or 120Hz screen, you won’t know the difference. Refresh rate aside, it’s a good screen that’s enjoyable to use. Plus, there’s a good fingerprint scanner under the display that makes unlocking the phone a frustration-free experience.
The N20 5G is sold unlocked, but take note: it does not work on Verizon. It’s also limited to 4G on AT&T, which isn’t the end of the world given the carrier’s slow expansion of their mid-band 5G network (that’s the good 5G). The unlocked N20 does work on T-Mobile’s 5G as well as 4G, and you can buy a network-locked version of the phone directly from T-Mobile if you want to take advantage of a free phone offer or bundle the cost with your monthly phone bill.
The N20 5G is equipped with a good Snapdragon 695 processor and generous 6GB of RAM for very good daily performance. It also supports 33W wired fast charging — another feature you’d be hard-pressed to find in any of the N20’s competitors — with the included charger. You can charge the phone from 0 to 30 percent in just 20 minutes, which is really helpful if you’re in a jam and need a quick battery boost. NFC is also included for contactless payment; many cheaper phones exclude it to cut costs.
Camera quality is a bit of a weak point for the N20. The main rear 64-megapixel camera is fine; the other two cameras (a low-res macro and a monochrome sensor) are best ignored. The phone also ships with Android 11, which is a version behind most other new Android phones at this point. But on the brighter side, OnePlus is promising three years of security updates — a pretty good policy in a class where two years isn’t uncommon.
It’s unfortunate that the N20 isn’t an option for Verizon subscribers, but if you’re on T-Mobile or AT&T, it’s a heck of a deal — with or without 5G support.
The best basic Android phone for Verizon customers
Screen: 6.5-inch 720p 90Hz LCD / Processor: MediaTek 700 5G Cameras: 50-megapixel f/1.8 main, 2-megapixel macro, 2-megapixel depth, 5-megapixel selfie / Battery: 5,000mAh / Charging: 15W wired / Weather-resistance rating: None
Samsung recently announced the A13’s successor — you guessed it, the Galaxy A14 — which we haven’t been able to test yet. It comes with some promising updates, including an additional year of security updates, but the Galaxy A13 5G remains a good deal if you can still find it on a retailer’s shelf. It’s a no-frills $249 phone that delivers the basics.
Its screen is nothing special, but battery life and performance are very good considering the price, and the device is backed up by a solid support policy promising three years of security updates. It’s not as polished as the N20 with its fancier OLED, but it’s also a bit cheaper and works on all major carriers (the N20 doesn’t work on Verizon).
The A13’s 6.5-inch screen is certainly big, but it’s a fairly dim, low-contrast LCD with a resolution of just 720p. Related: battery life is very good since the screen drains less power than brighter displays. Overall performance from the MediaTek 700 5G chipset and 4GB of RAM is very good, too.
On the camera side, the A13 lacks a couple of features you can find on other budget phones — namely, a night mode and an ultrawide camera. What you do get is a good 50-megapixel main rear camera that takes reliably good photos in daylight and dim indoor light. Just don’t expect much in very low light.
If you can live with a mediocre display and a basic camera, then the A13 will deliver on performance and battery life — pretty important stuff. Just make sure you budget a little extra for a MicroSD card because the phone’s 64GB of built-in storage is a little skimpy.
Other budget phones we tested
We also tested the OnePlus Nord N300, which doesn’t make an appearance among our recommendations. The N300 is very affordable at $228 but cuts too many corners to include fast charging. The slightly pricier N20 that snags our recommendation above is a generation behind but offers better overall performance and a nicer screen.
We’ve also looked at two TCL phones over the past year: the TCL Stylus 5G and 30 XE 5G. The latter provides fairly good daily performance for its very low $200 price, but ultimately neither TCL phone is worth recommending over the competition from Motorola and Samsung.
Finally, the Motorola Moto G Stylus (2022) that previously appeared on this list is still being sold new but is due for replacement. It lacks 5G, but its built-in stylus is handy, and its big 6.7-inch 1080p display is nice for the price — which is well under $200 these days.
Update April 14th, 2023, 2PM ET: Added the Samsung Galaxy A54 5G as the best overall Android pick and moved the Google Pixel 6A to an also-consider. Removed recommendation for Motorola Moto G Stylus (2022).