Some of us take a kind of “I eat to live” rather than an “I live to eat” approach to gadgets. They’re tools that help you get things done, not something you want to invest a lot of time or money in. If that’s you — and there’s no judgment here from a certifiable gadget nerd — then you can probably think of more worthwhile ways to spend $1,000 than on a phone.
Budget phones to the rescue. These devices are roughly $500 or under, and they’re more capable than ever before. You won’t get all the bells and whistles, but you will save a little money to spend on, I don’t know, actual bells and whistles. It’s your world.
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.
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. Read our review.
Screen: 4.7-inch, 1334p LCD / Processor: A15 Bionic Cameras: 12-megapixel f/1.8 with OIS, seven-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 an older 12-megapixel camera, 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
The Pixel 7A includes several features that are hard to find for around $500, including wireless charging and an IP67 rating for dust and water resistance. It’s not the cheapest phone in the class, but it’s the one that’s best suited to go the distance.
Screen: 6.1-inch, 1080p OLED, 90Hz / Processor: Tensor G2 Cameras: 64-megapixel f/1.89 with OIS, 13-megapixel ultrawide, 13-megapixel selfie / Battery: 4,385mAh / Charging: 18W wired, 7.5W wireless / Weather-resistance rating: IP67
The Google Pixel 7A raises the stakes for what you can expect from a midrange phone. At $499, it’s right at the top of what we’d consider “budget” — and a bit more expensive than its closest competitor in the US: the $449 Samsung Galaxy A54. But with a class-leading camera and flagship-esque extras like wireless charging, it’s a step ahead of anything else in the midrange bracket.
One of the 7A’s major upgrades is a new 6.1-inch, 90Hz display, which makes animations and scrolling look much smoother than on last year’s 60Hz panel. The 7A uses the same Tensor G2 chipset that’s in the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro coupled with a healthy 8GB of RAM. That translates to excellent performance for day-to-day tasks and even heavy lifts like gaming. The 7A is tougher than your average midranger, too, with an aluminum frame and an IP67 rating for resistance against dust and dunks in water.
Battery life is good enough to get through a full day with moderate use, but if you add an extended gaming session, you might need to top it off before bedtime. Wireless charging is available, which is extremely rare in the budget phone class. If you already have a wireless charging habit, then the 7A will fit right into your routine.
The camera is where the Pixel 7A really shines. It’s based around a new 64-megapixel main camera with optical stabilization along with a capable ultrawide. It’s not everything you would get from a flagship camera — no video portrait mode or telephoto lens — but it’s reliable even in dim lighting conditions where competitors like the A54 struggle.
You might notice that Google’s current flagships are the Pixel 8 and 8 Pro, making the 7A look like it’s a step behind. In some ways it is — the 8 series phones use the latest Tensor G3 chipset, and they come with some worthwhile updates like face unlock for mobile payments and seven years of software support. The Pixel 7A is technically just six months behind the 8 series, but a lot of small updates make the 8 and 8 Pro feel like kind of a leap forward. The 7A remains the best in its category for now, but if you can hold off, it might be worth waiting to see what the Pixel 8A offers; that’ll probably be in summer 2024.
The budget phone with the best screen
Screen: 6.4-inch, 1080p OLED, 120Hz / Processor: Exynos 1380 Cameras: 50-megapixel f/1.8 main with OIS, 12-megapixel ultrawide, five-megapixel macro, 32-megapixel selfie / Battery: 5,000mAh / Charging: 25W wired / Weather-resistance rating: IP67
The Samsung Galaxy A54 5G’s best feature is its screen. It’s a 6.4-inch, 1080p OLED with a smooth 120Hz refresh rate that can almost fool you into thinking you’re using a $1,000 phone. Its camera and overall feature set don’t quite measure up to the Pixel 7A’s, but it’s a very good midrange phone in its own right and starts at a slightly lower $449 MSRP.
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 Pixel 7A is way ahead in this department.
The best phone under $400
Screen: 6.1-inch, 1080p OLED / Processor: Tensor Cameras: 12-megapixel f/1.7 with OIS, eight-megapixel selfie / Battery: 4,410mAh / Charging: 18W wired / Weather-resistance rating: IP67
With a permanent price drop to $349, the Pixel 6A is sticking around in Google’s lineup even after the introduction of the 7A. Its standard 60Hz screen isn’t as nice as the faster display on the 7A, and it comes with older camera hardware. But there’s still a whole lot to like about it, especially at its new price.
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. It’s only scheduled to get two more OS version upgrades (Android 14 this fall and 15 next year), but it’ll receive security patches until at least July 2027. The 6A also comes with an IP67 water resistance rating, so it’s still a good all-around bet if you want a budget phone that will last.
The 6A’s 6.1-inch 1080p OLED offers a standard 60Hz refresh rate. It wasn’t too impressive for the phone’s original $449 retail price, but for under $400 it’s one of the better screens out there. Unfortunately, the fingerprint sensor under the display is also on the slow side. It’s not unusable, but it’s noticeably a beat slower than the best fingerprint sensors out there. Then again, so is the one on the 7A.
The 6A uses the same 12-megapixel standard wide camera as many Pixel phones before it, 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.
The best phone under $300
With a price around $300, the N30 is squarely a budget phone. It offers snappy performance that’s hard to find elsewhere in the class, though the lower-contrast LCD is a downgrade from the OLED panel on last year’s N20. Read our review.
Screen: 6.7-inch, 1080p 120Hz LCD / Processor: Snapdragon 695 5G Cameras: 108-megapixel f/1.7, two-megapixel macro, two-megapixel depth sensor, 16-megapixel selfie / Battery: 5,000mAh / Charging: 67W wired / Weather-resistance rating: none
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-performing $300 phone than the OnePlus N30. It comes with a capable Snapdragon chipset paired with 8GB of RAM, which is much more than the 4GB that’s typical for this class. It makes the N30 feel responsive in a way that most budget phones don’t.
There’s also a huge 6.7-inch screen with a top 120Hz refresh rate, giving animations and scrolling a super-smooth appearance. Unfortunately, OnePlus swapped the OLED on last year’s model for an LCD here, and as a result, the N30’s screen just isn’t as rich and contrasty.
The N30 carries OnePlus’ signature fast wired charging at a speedy 67W with the included charger. A sizable 5,000mAh battery powers the phone easily through a full day of moderate use and will often last well into the next day. There’s no wireless charging or IP rating for dust or water resistance, but those are both rare indeed in phones at this price.
There’s a high-res 108-megapixel camera on the N30’s rear panel, which allows the phone to offer a new 3x lossless crop zoom mode. In theory, it’s a nice alternative to a traditional telephoto lens, which is too expensive to include on a budget phone, but in practice, it looks very much like a first-generation feature with poor color rendition and some focus issues. Otherwise, photos are fine — just don’t expect much in low light.
You can’t have everything in a budget phone, and you really can’t have everything in a $300 phone. I don’t love all of the choices OnePlus made with this device, but all told, it’s a $300 phone that performs like a much more expensive device. Battery life is excellent, and if you can live with a camera system that’s just “meh,” the N30 is a great value indeed.
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 N30 that snags our recommendation above is a offers much better overall performance.
If your budget has some wiggle room, there are a few $600 phones worth considering that are just outside the scope of this guide. Apple still sells the standard iPhone 13 new, and its bigger 6.1-inch screen feels much more modern than the SE’s. The Samsung Galaxy S23 FE is a late addition to the S23 lineup that offers a telephoto lens and a great screen. And for something quite different, the Nothing Phone 2 is an option with its sleek appearance and flashy interface (literally, it flashes) — just know that it’s not fully compatible with Verizon’s network.
Update November 15th 6:30PM ET: Added iPhone 13, Samsung Galaxy S23 FE, and Nothing Phone 2 as also-considers. Updated the Google Pixel 7A section with information about the Pixel 8 and 8 Pro.