Don’t go to a carrier just to get smartphone financing — there are better ways

There are better ways to buy a phone affordably than running to the nearest carrier stores.

Ever since traditional two-year phone contracts fell out of vogue, carriers have come up with new and inventive ways of locking you in. One of the best examples of this is a monthly installment payment plan for a new device. It's so simple to walk into a carrier store and walk out with a phone for $0 down, paying that total over the course of the next 12, 18, or 24 months. It just gets baked right into your monthly phone bill — super easy.

But it's also super restrictive, because just like a two-year contract, your phone's cost is once again tied to the carrier. What if you want to take your phone elsewhere? You have to pay it off at the carrier, cancel your service, and move. And if you're financing a $700+ phone (or four), that could be tough — so now you're staying with a carrier you don't want to be with, just because you need longer to pay off the phone.

At the same time, people keep going to their carrier because they often think that's the only way they can get long-term, interest-free financing on what are increasingly expensive phones. But actually, you can get financing with identical terms from all of the major phone companies today, as well as from many retailers that sell phones — even phones that are exclusive to your carrier.

Financing from the phone companies themselves

Phones are expensive, and the top-end models are seemingly increasing in price over time. More and more companies are also offering unlocked models that don't have the option of carrier financing. To help keep the phones accessible, they're offering no-interest financing for these phones.

HTC offers financing through PayPal Credit, which offers 18-month no-interest financing for purchases over $540. That means a new HTC U11 at $649 will set you back $36.05 per month. Pay it off in full on time and you won't pay a penny over that price.

Samsung's financing offers a no-interest term for everything it sells over $250. It typically reserves 24-month financing for $1499+ purchases but also offers it for its top-end phones; that would price out a new $725 Galaxy S8 at $30.21 per month over two years, again with no extra financing charges. The nice thing here is you can buy carrier-branded versions of the Galaxy S8 and S8+ with Samsung's financing, meaning you can get the exact model you want, without having its financing tied to the carrier.

Motorola will let you finance its phones using the third-party service Affirm, and its terms are very similar to the others. 6-, 12-, or 18-month financing terms are available depending on the purchase price, and there's no interest or additional fees. The financing offers are available through Motorola's website, whether you're buying an unlocked phone or carrier-exclusive model.

Google has 24-month no-interest financing on phone purchases from the Google Store. So you can pick up that Google Pixel XL directly from Google for $32.04 per month, rather than going to Verizon just to pay over time.

OnePlus has one of the weakest financing options, but then again, it also has some of the cheapest top-end phone models. When shopping on the OnePlus store, all purchases over $99 are able to be financed with PayPal Credit over 6 months with no interest if paid in full in that term.

Financing from retailers

If the phone you're looking at doesn't have manufacturer-backed financing, there's a chance you could finance it with similar terms from a third-party retailer instead.

Amazon, where we all buy so many small things, offers convenient financing for larger purchases, like phones. The financing is no-interest like the others, and the length of financing offered depends on the purchase price. A $149+ phone can be paid off over 6 months, but a $599+ purchase gives you 12 months to pay it off.

Best Buy will let you buy anything in its store with monthly payments if you sign up for its own-branded credit card. Purchases over $199 can get 6-month no-interest financing, and purchases over $399 get 12-month no-interest financing. This goes for unlocked phones but also carrier-branded phones, which is a great piece of flexibility — just be sure not to confuse it with the carrier-backed financing Best Buy also offers.

Seriously, consider financing outside of the carrier

As you can see, there are several different ways to buy the latest devices on a monthly installment plan while keeping that bill separate from your commitment to the phone carrier itself. It also gives you the ability to shop around and potentially find better deals at the manufacturer or retailer of your choice without giving up monthly financing. While it's a slightly bigger hassle to deal with two bills instead of one, the freedom of having your long-term phone financing separated from the carrier is worth it. Get the phone you want, the way you want.