Why Unlocked Phones May Be the Smarter Alternative

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I have a confession to make: I haven’t used a locked phone since 2005.

Of course, it would make perfect sense if I had hopped between several different carriers since then, but the truth is that I’ve been with one single carrier since 2004. Just yesterday, we made a good fuss about whether the $649 unlocked iPhone 4 is worth it. But what’s my rationale for wanting to cut the phone cord?

(More on TIME.com: Apple’s Top 10 Moments)

Many people, when they begin to look at cell phone contracts, often start phone first. What they don’t realize is that phones can be easily replaced or changed, but very often changing and switching carriers can be messier than saying “contract.” They are, unwittingly, entering into what is essentially a very expensive two-year relationship with a phone carrier. What if that carrier has craptacular customer service? I decided to go the other route, and shopped plan first.

That doesn’t change the fact that some carriers have phone exclusivity. While unlocked phones may cost more to purchase, does it really matter if you’re on a cheaper plan with one carrier versus the more expensive plan you would have been on with the phone-exclusive carrier? Though my phone might be more expensive, I save eons on my plan over the long term.

There is a reason for carrying an unlocked phone in the U.S. Back in the day when dinosaurs once roamed the earth, you had to go to AT&T for an iPhone. Unfortunately, what most people failed to consider was that AT&T’s cell phone reception was the equivalent of dropping your iPhone in a toilet.

(More on TIME.com: PHOTOS: The History of the Cell Phone)

So I chose to stay with T-Mobile instead. I picked up an unlocked iPhone 3G for $250 on Craigslist two years ago, and plugged my SIM straight in. While you won’t get the same 3G data speeds as you would with AT&T, I figured AT&T’s data network was so sluggish it didn’t make much of a difference in comparison.* The point is that you’re tied to your network unless you’re willing to shell out an often hefty ETF fee. But you are never tied to your phone.

Another key point to consider is flexibility. Like any good early adopter, sometimes I change phones more than Hugh Hefner changes Playboy bunnies. Unlocked phones are pretty common in the rest of the world and with so many models that never make it the shelves of your local wireless store, if you want to swap out to an HTC Desire HD, for instance, you’ve got free reign to do so. Unlocked phones often command a substantially higher resell value, too – perfect if you want to ditch your clunker for a new one. What can I say? I have trouble committing to a phone.

Besides, when I’m given an opportunity to be untethered from my desk, I take full advantage of it. I have this habit of roaming around the world – physically and digitally. The basic fact is that no matter where you go, roaming internationally is expensive. Often I pick up a prepaid SIM (some cards offer 3G data) for a few measly dollars at a local convenience store and go on my merry way. I’ve also got Google Voice integrated with my Android phone, so I get instant notifications, voicemails and texts sent to my U.S. number… with a cherry on top, please.

However, if you’re a loyalist, it makes no sense whatsoever to get an unlocked phone. But if you don’t want to be beholden to a particular carrier or to a particular phone, going unlocked might just be your yellow brick road to wireless freedom.

*Of course this T-Mobile or AT&T this or that may no longer matter in the upcoming merger.

More on TIME.com:

Is Apple’s $649 No-Contract, ‘Unlocked’ iPhone Worth It?

How an ‘Unlocked’ iPhone 4 Would Work

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