If you’re shopping for a new phone on a budget, we’ve got good news: there are more great, affordable phones on the market than ever. Companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung are spreading the wealth of features enjoyed by their flagships down to less expensive options. Other brands like OnePlus are finding ways to challenge more established manufacturers with budget devices that make smart sacrifices to keep costs down.
The bad news is this makes the job of picking the best budget phone that much harder. Bear in mind that it’s impossible to buy a phone that does everything at this price point; instead, prioritize the features that matter most to you. You’ll have an easier time deciding, and you’ll end up with a great phone that you should be able to use for years to come.
Our pick for the best inexpensive iPhone is the 2020 edition of the Apple iPhone SE. Even though it’s well over a year old, we think it’s still the best bet for most people. While it does a competent job at everything, its standout feature is that it should last four or more years if treated well.
If you’re looking for the best cheap Android phone, then the Google Pixel 5A is our top choice right now. You won’t find a big, show-stopping screen here, or bells and whistles like a fast refresh rate screen. Instead, you get a phone that covers the basics really well, plus IP67 waterproofing and timely software updates — all at a lower price than last year’s model.
What most people are looking for in a sub-$500 smartphone are the same things people want in a more expensive model: long battery life, good screen, good camera, and decent performance. It’s difficult to get high straight A’s in every single one of those categories, but if you’re able to decide where you’ll tolerate the occasional B grade, you’ll find a phone you’ll love.
The best smartphone under $500
The phone that strikes the right balance of camera, build quality, speed, battery life, software, and longevity for most people is the Apple iPhone SE 2020. Even though it’s over a year old now, it should still give you an excellent return on your investment. We recommend upgrading to the model with 128GB of storage for $449, which is $50 over the base price but well worth it long term.
The iPhone SE follows a very tried and true formula. It has the same body and 4.7-inch LCD screen that Apple has been using since the iPhone 6. That puts the display on the smaller end of screen sizes today and also means the phone’s bezels are bigger than anything else sold on the market. High refresh-rate screens with smoother animations and scrolling have been trickling down into the budget class recently, and you definitely won’t find one here.
It’s a familiar design and not one that screams “modern.” But in exchange, you get a lot of value. The 2020 SE is part of the iPhone 11 generation, so its A13 Bionic processor is a year behind the latest and greatest. (That would be the A14 chipset in the iPhone 12 lineup.) However, it’s still one of the fastest processors you can get on any phone, but especially one in this price bracket. Normally, speed isn’t something we prioritize on phones at this price point, but it’s nice to have.
Why that processor really matters, though, is overall longevity. Apple consistently supports its phones for four or more years with software updates. (That’s in opposition to Android, where getting software updates on anything but the Pixel is still a struggle.) So Apple’s choice of a fast processor means, in a few years, the iPhone SE will still feel snappy and still be supported with iOS updates.
Battery life is good but not best in class. It should last about a day. Luckily, this iPhone supports wireless charging, which is still uncommon at this price point. And because it has the exact same shape as the iPhone 6, 6S, 7, and 8, there is a huge ecosystem of chargers and cases for it. Unlike many inexpensive Android phones, finding compatible accessories for the iPhone SE will be a breeze.
The iPhone SE has just one camera on the back and just one selfie camera on the front, 12 megapixels and 7 megapixels, respectively. Neither is great by 2021 standards, but both are significantly better than what Apple shipped in older iPhones. It’s also fairly good by the standards of sub-$500 phones, though the Google Pixel 4A continues to win this category by a knockout. You will get a lot of camera features on the iPhone SE, including portrait and HDR, but unfortunately, there is no night mode.
As a total package, the 2020 iPhone SE is the best smartphone under $500 for most people. If you think of it on a cost-per-year metric, it ends up being significantly less expensive than the competition because it’s likely to last four or five years if you take care of it. Just as importantly, it’s a great phone on its own merits. You get access to the vast array of iOS apps, Apple’s strong support network, and a huge ecosystem of accessories.
The best budget Android phone
The $449 Pixel 5A features a 6.34-inch OLED screen that’s on the smaller side for the budget class, but it’s bigger than the previous-gen 6.2-inch panel on the Pixel 4A 5G. There’s a bigger battery too, a 4,680mAh cell that will last through a full day of heavy use and well into day two if you’re a lighter user. The 5A also offers IP67 water resistance for added peace of mind in the event of accidental spills or tumbles into the water.
That’s more or less the extent of the 5A’s improvements over its predecessor, and that’s fine. The 4A 5G was already a well-equipped midrange device and the 5A makes some strategic updates to its foundation. The dual standard / ultrawide rear-facing camera, Snapdragon 765G processor, and 6GB RAM / 128GB storage combination served the 4A 5G well and still deliver solid performance in this iteration.
Another thing we can count on Pixel phones to do well is software, and the 5A is no exception. It ships with Google’s own Android 11 OS and is refreshingly free of the added clutter that other manufacturers sometimes pile onto it. The Pixel 5A is also guaranteed three years of OS platform upgrades and security updates, which isn’t quite as long as Apple or Samsung’s standard software support timespan, but is certainly better than a lot of the Android competition.
There’s also, of course, 5G connectivity. You won’t get the super-fast mmWave flavor of 5G support, but that’s a highly range-limited network that’s still pretty hard to find. That’s fine, but there’s a weird question mark over whether Google will support another set of frequencies that AT&T and Verizon will start using later this year called C-band. The company isn’t committing to making the necessary software update to use it, despite supporting it in hardware. It’s a strange blemish on the 5A’s otherwise strong feature set.
The 5A is also getting somewhat of a limited release — it’s only available in the US and Japan, and isn’t being sold through any of the major US wireless carriers. Taking all of that into consideration, the Pixel 5A is still the inexpensive Android phone that we’d recommend to most people. It’s not flashy, but it’s well priced and has it where it counts.
The best budget Android phone with a fast refresh-rate screen
On the Android side, the Galaxy A52 5G is a great option, albeit at the very top of the price range considered in this guide. It includes some features that aren’t too common in a budget phone, like its fast-refresh rate screen, an IP67 water resistance rating, and for now at least, monthly security updates for fast access to bug fixes and improvements.
The A52 5G’s 6.5-inch screen is an OLED panel that’s bright with good contrast that’s generally nice to look at. But its best feature is a subtle one: a 120Hz refresh rate that gives a much smoother appearance to animations and content as you swipe and scroll through menus and social feeds. We’ll likely see this feature make its way into more budget phones soon, but for now the A52 5G is one of only a few to offer better than the standard 60Hz screen in its class, and it makes the experience of using the phone that much nicer.
The phone overall performs well for its class with a Snapdragon 750G processor and 6GB of RAM. You may notice the occasional hesitation or stutter with heavy tasks, but otherwise everyday scrolling, app switching, and navigating is handled easily. And even with a power-hungry display, the Galaxy A52 5G’s 4,500mAh battery should get you through at least a day of moderate to heavy use before needing another charge.
One of the A52 5G’s not-so-bright-spots is Samsung’s current take on Android, which puts a lot of pre-downloaded apps on your phone that you probably don’t want, and it even includes the occasional ad in places like the native weather app. For a cleaner or more grown-up Android skin, look to the Pixel or OnePlus. The Galaxy A52 5G’s camera is another consideration: it’s capable, but it tends toward an oversaturated look. If you prefer a more natural look to your photos, then the Pixel 4A is the winner here.
There’s also 5G, which we still don’t think is a feature you should run out and buy a new phone for, but it is nice to have the support here — particularly if you plan to hold on to your phone for a few years. This device doesn’t support super-fast mmWave 5G, but it’s hard to come by so that’s not a huge loss. Importantly, it supports more widely available sub-6GHz bands and should be able to take advantage of improving 5G networks in the US over the next few years.
You can buy a much less expensive device to get you through the next couple of years, and that’s just fine. But if you do want to make more of an investment in a phone that you can keep using three or four years from now, the A52 5G is your best bet right now on Android.