Unshackled phones: is the future of your phone unshackled?

SIM-free is so last year. Allow us to introduce unshackled smartphone deals

When you’re buying a new smartphone you tend to have two choices: buying on contract, where the cost of the phone is rolled into the monthly cost of the call and data plan; and SIM-free or Pay As You Go, where you buy the phone yourself and then add the call and data option that suits you best. But now there’s a third option, and it’s called unshackled.

What is an unshackled phone?

An unshackled phone claims to offer the best of both worlds: the financial savings of going SIM-free without the up-front costs of buying a phone. You can buy a phone outright if you wish - they’re all unlocked, SIM-free and priced competitively - but Unshackled.com offers another option: unlocked, SIM-free phones with affordable monthly payments.

Three reasons to go Unshackled

With traditional contracts, the phone and data plan are bundled together - and that means there’s a very good chance you’re paying too much, because such bundles tend to involve compromise: if you want data allowance X you usually also need to pay for call allowance Y and text bundle Z. 

Wouldn’t it be better if you didn’t have to compromise, if you could simply choose the right phone, the right plan and the right way to pay for it?

That’s what the unshackled offer promises.

There are three key benefits to buying an unshackled phone. One, you decide how much you’re willing to pay. Two, you can choose the exact call and data package you want without having to compromise. And three, you’re not tied to a particular network or its contract, so you can change your package whenever you want.

Why unshackled phones are different

Let’s say you want an iPhone or a Galaxy S7 Edge. Normally you’d have to wade through endless tables of confusing call plans, none of which quite suit: that plan has the right data but costs too much, that one looks ideal but has a massive up-front cost and so on. With an unshackled phone the cost of the phone is separated from the package, so you can find a combination of phone and SIM that fits your exact requirements and your budget too.

How do I get an unshackled phone?

Unshackled phones come from Unshackled.com, which was developed by former executives from a household name phone provider. Like other internet-only operations it doesn’t have any expensive high street shops, commission-crazed sales people or any of the other overheads that traditional retailers have to worry about. That means it can undercut the prices of more established operators.

When you look at the phones on Unshackled.com you’ll see some extra options: in addition to the usual brand, model and colour options you can specify how much you want to pay and whether you want to pay anything up-front. The prices change as you adjust those numbers, so if you’re willing to put a little money up-front the monthly cost goes down. You can also tell the site how good your credit rating is to see what effect a less than stellar history will have on your monthly costs.

What phones are best to go Unshackled with? 

High-end ones, because those are the ones in most demand - and that tends to mean they’re the ones with the priciest contracts. Top-end Apple and Samsung phones are particularly attractive when they’re unshackled, especially if you’re like us and use tons of data but don’t make many calls.

Let’s look at an example. If you can put down £199 right now then an iPhone 7 is just £17.41 per month and a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge just £16.49 per month. At the time of writing, to get anywhere close to those prices with standard contracts costs a whole bunch more: the closest iPhone 7 deal we can find is £1.08 per month more expensive for a very basic data plan - just 500MB of data per month - and requires a whopping £469.95 up-front.

And you can trade your existing phone too. At the time of writing an iPhone SE will net you £200. So it’s quite possible to trade up from last year’s phone to this year’s without spending anything up-front at all, and you’ll still benefit from the really low monthly cost. 

Once you’ve chosen a phone, the next step is to use Unshackled.com’s SIM search to find the one that suits you best. Unshackled.com doesn’t sell any SIMs itself, so there’s no potential conflict of interest here: when you find a SIM deal that suits you’ll be taken to the appropriate network’s page so that you can sign up. 

With 4G SIMs starting at just £3.99 per month, it’s possible to put together a really great phone and SIM combination that’ll save you a packet compared to a normal contract. At the time of writing it’s possible to get SIMs offering 16GB of data for just £9.99 per month, so our iPhone and SIM combination would be £27.50 per month. The closest contract equivalent we can find is £30 per month and £466 up-front.

The Unshackled return plan

The Unshacked return plan enables you to take out a finance plan over 29 months, however at the usual 24 month cut off you can swap their phone for a new one or send back their phone to clear the rest of the contract.  It’s explained on the diagram below. In the usual Unshackled way though, you can  choose to pay off the phone whenever you want with no exit fees, but this just allows the customer to bring down the monthly payments if you want.

Should you just go SIM-only instead? 

That’s really up to you: if you already have a phone you’re happy with or have the funds to buy a new phone outright then yes, SIM-free makes more sense; Unshackled.com’s monthly payments aren’t interest-free, so you’ll be paying interest on the borrowed amount, especially if your credit history isn’t brilliant.

But if you want a new phone and don’t want to pay the full cost up-front then SIM-free means either spending money you don’t want to spend, or getting a phone that isn’t as good. If your ambitions exceed your budget, unshackled phones are definitely worth considering.

Check out our guide to going SIM-only, plus the latest SIM-only deals

Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written more than a dozen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote seven more books and a Radio 2 documentary series; her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, was shortlisted for the British Book Awards. When she’s not scribbling, Carrie is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind (unquietmindmusic).