The current state of inflation has a lot of us looking harder at price tags lately. While your grocery receipt may be full of bad news, we’ve actually got some good news: 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 built-in stylus 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 buying through a carrier and signing up for a wireless plan. There’s a fresh crop of new flagship phones likely coming very soon, so it might be worth waiting to see what your trade-in options look like, particularly if you’re on Android.
The best smartphone for under $500 in 2023
The best iPhone under $500
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.
There’s no night mode for brighter photos in very low light, which is a curious omission
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 2022 iPhone SE will last for upwards of 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 web pages continue to be designed for bigger screens.
The best Android phone under $500
The Pixel 6A comes with a $449 MSRP, but it’s often marked down for much lower than that. It’s a good buy at its full retail price, but if you catch it for less than $400 — as is often the case now — it’s a screaming deal.
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.
The 6A will keep up for many years to come
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 screen under $500
The Samsung A53 5G offers an outstanding value for its $449 MSRP. It has one of the best screens in its class — no surprise from display maker Samsung — with a 6.5-inch 1080p OLED that provides richer contrast than the LCDs that are common in this category. It also uses a top refresh rate of 120Hz, which makes for smooth scrolling and a little bit more of a “premium” experience.
The A53 5G’s battery lasts a full day of use, and the Exynos processor gets through daily tasks fairly smoothly. The phone’s main 64-megapixel camera is a cut above the usually unremarkable cameras in this class, with optical image stabilization to help get more sharp shots in poor lighting conditions.
The A53 5G’s best feature might just be its excellent software support policy
It stands out from other budget Android phones in a lot of ways, but the A53 5G’s best feature may be its excellent software support policy. Samsung has promised four years of Android OS version updates and five years of security updates. That gives the A53 5G an exceptionally long shelf life, especially among Android phones, where two or three years of security updates is more common. Considering that the phone is also IP67-rated for dust and water resistance, it should last a long time.
The best phone under $300
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.
The N20 5G also supports 33W wired fast charging — another feature you’d be hard-pressed to find in any of the its competitors
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
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.
The screen on the Galaxy A13 5G is nothing special, but battery life and performance are very good considering the price
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.
The best budget phone with a stylus
This year’s 4G-only edition of the Moto G Stylus continues to offer the excellent balance of features and cost-saving measures as last year’s model. It’s a good phone for the price, whether you’re a stylus devotee or just want a big cheap phone, and it works on all three major US networks.
The Moto G Stylus has a big 6.8-inch 1080p LCD display, good battery life with its 5,000mAh cell, and ample internal storage with 128GB of capacity. With a capable MediaTek Helio G88 processor and a healthy 6GB of RAM, the G Stylus performs well with everyday tasks. The cameras, though flawed, are good enough to get by. You won’t find an amazing night mode or top-notch picture quality here, but for a sub-$300 phone, it does the job just fine. The G Stylus is missing an NFC chip for contactless payment, and it doesn’t have wireless charging or an IP rating for water resistance, which are all common omissions at this price.
The Moto G Stylus’ stylus lives in the device, like the one on the Galaxy S22 Ultra. Popping it out brings up a quick menu of shortcuts to stylus-friendly apps, like its coloring book app. It’s a feature set intended for a more casual user than the likes of the S22 Ultra and, as a result, feels more approachable.
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.