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The Best Budget Smartphones for Travel in 2023

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How things have changed in the world of budget smartphones. Until a few years ago, we didn’t bother recommending the best cheap smartphones for travel, mostly because there weren’t any good cheap smartphones for anyone.

All the budget phones were badly-made, with low specifications and worse battery life. You’d almost have been better off having no phone at all than relying on one on the road.

In 2023, though, it’s a different story. Asian manufacturers, in particular, have been producing phones offering most of the features travelers (and most other people) need for a relatively small amount of money.

No longer are dim screens, slow processors, and awful cameras the only option when you’re on a budget. These phones aren’t up there with high-end options costing three times as much, but for many people, they’re good enough.

For our purposes, a budget smartphone is one costing under $300/£300/€300, off-contract and unlocked for use with local SIM cards around the world.

Some of these recommendations get close to that amount, while others cost much less. They all run some version of Android, as even the cheapest iPhone is over that limit.

Best Overall: OnePlus Nord N20 5G

  • Screen: 6.4-inch AMOLED
  • Storage: 128GB + microSD slot
  • RAM: 6GB
  • Battery: 4500mAh
  • Dual SIM? No (USA) / Yes (International)
  • Runs On: Android

Best for Features: Motorola Moto G Stylus

  • Screen: 6.8-inch LED
  • Storage: 128GB + microSD slot
  • RAM: 6GB
  • Battery: 5000mAh
  • Dual SIM? No (USA) / Yes (International)
  • Runs On: Android

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Best for Battery Life: Motorola Moto G Power

  • Screen: 6.5-inch LED
  • Storage: 64GB + microSD slot
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Battery: 5000mAh
  • Dual SIM? No (USA) / Yes (International)
  • Runs On: Android

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Best on a Tight Budget: Nokia G10

  • Screen: 6.5-inch LED
  • Storage: 32GB + microSD slot
  • RAM: 3GB
  • Battery: 5050mAh
  • Dual SIM: Yes
  • Runs On: Android

Best From a Big Brand: Samsung Galaxy A33

  • Screen: 6.4-inch LED
  • Storage: 128GB + microSD slot
  • RAM: 6GB
  • Battery: 5000mAh
  • Dual SIM?: No (USA) / Yes (International)
  • Runs On: Android

What to Look For

While budget smartphones for travel are still phones and need to tick all the basics, there are a few specific things to consider if you’re planning to take it on your next trip.

Going Overseas? An Unlocked Phone Is Vital

If you’re planning on traveling overseas, especially if you’re considering using a local SIM card or international eSIM to save money instead of roaming, this section is the most important part of the article.

Carriers often offer excellent deals that will let you get even the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy if you sign a long-term contract. On rare occasions, those deals can be a real bargain, since you get a phenomenal phone without having to pay a small fortune in cash upfront.

To make sure they make their money back, however, carriers that subsidize phones like this will often lock it to their network. In simple terms, this means you can’t use SIM cards (or eSIMs) from other carriers, definitely when you’re at home, and often when you’re traveling overseas as well.

That discounted phone doesn’t look quite so cheap when you’re paying ten bucks a day or more to roam with it overseas.

You’ll also want to read the fine print of your plan, especially if it’s prepaid. Some carriers limit which countries you can roam in, so even if your phone technically could work in a certain country, you may not be able to get service if you’re limited to whatever your carrier allows.

Of course, all of that may be why you’re reading this article in the first place: many people get around this issue by buying a cheap, unlocked phone to travel with, and leave their main device at home or turned off while they’re overseas.

If you’re here because you’re planning ahead, though (well done on being that organized), the best thing you can do is to buy a completely unlocked phone from the start, with no contracts and, ideally, from a manufacturer that has full support around the globe (we know about the Google vs HUAWEI dispute).

Camera Quality and Features

It’s needless to say that for most people, taking photos and videos is an integral part of traveling, so it makes sense to get a phone with the best kind of camera you can afford. Phones with great cameras are often expensive, however, so at the budget end of the range, you’ll need to make some compromises.

Now, an in-depth discussion of phone cameras is beyond the scope of this article, but the following are a few of the more important features in a travel phone. You won’t get them all in a budget model, at least not high-quality versions, but it’s worth trying to get at least one or two.

  • Ultra-wide camera: this feature is important for landscapes, since it lets you capture more in a single shot. I got one for the first time on my most recent phone, and use it for probably 70% of my travel photos.
  • Macro lens: this sensor allows you to take close-up shots, which is a good option if you are a nature lover and always find yourself taking photos of flowers, insects, and other small, nearby objects.
  • Selfie camera: if you like to take group photos with friends or you just want to snap photos of yourself, pay attention to the quality of the front camera. Every phone comes with one, but the quality differences between them can be vast.
  • HDR: this feature can improve the quality of your photos and to some degree make up for deficiencies in the camera, so it makes sense to get a phone that fully supports HDR and does it well.
  • OIS: optical image stabilization is a feature that helps reduce the blur caused by movement and shaky hands when taking pictures, a common problem when you’re on the move.

As for the raw stats themselves, such as the number of megapixels, more is better to a certain extent. Don’t automatically assume that every camera with more megapixels is better than every camera with fewer, however: lens, manufacturer, software, and other features all play just as big a role.

Phone Size

Nowadays, phones tend to be huge, as screen sizes get bigger and bigger. The pros and cons of these are endlessly debated in normal life, but when you’re traveling, it’s more of a problem. Not only is it harder to carry your phone, since it won’t fit every pocket and is tougher to hold in one hand, it becomes an even bigger target for thieves as it draws more attention.

You’d think that budget phones would be smaller, but often the opposite is true: some of them are truly huge. That’s because it’s easier to fit all the components you need into a bigger space, and it’s easier to disguise poor power optimization if you can stick a bigger battery inside as well.

Still, while it’s harder than you might think to find small phones at the cheaper end of the range, it’s not impossible. Pay attention to the size (and weight) of any phone you’re considering buying, and make sure it’s not so big that it’ll cause you problems in a far-off land.

Battery Life

Speaking of battery life, while it’s important no matter where you are, it’s an even bigger issue when you’re traveling. Taking photos and videos all the time and using your phone for navigation all day will drain the battery much faster than usual.

You can have the best camera, and the fastest phone with the sharpest screen and best signal, but if your device is constantly out of juice, it’s worthless. Sure, you can use a power bank to charge it back up again, but that’s another thing to carry, charge, and try not to leave behind in your hotel room.

The raw capacity (measured in mAh) matters, but as I mentioned above, power optimization plays a part too. Look for reliable estimates of how long the phone should last on a single charge while doing everyday activities.

Durability

Traveling is hard on electronics, and you don’t want a fragile phone that will get destroyed by a gentle knock or small drop, which is why the build quality matters. Aluminum shells are the best option, but, regardless, you should consider investing in a durable phone case and screen protector.

Water resistance is also important. I’ve killed two phones in the past thanks to water damage while traveling: once by getting caught in a storm in the Netherlands, once by knocking over a glass of water onto my phone during turbulence on an international flight.

If you can get at least a degree of water resistance, usually expressed as an ingress protection (IP) number, you should. It’s the second number that relates to water: look for something like IP67 or IP68 if possible.

Connectivity

Out of all of the features we look for when buying a phone for everyday use, connectivity in terms of signal strength and frequency support is probably something we don’t worry too much about. It’s very important while traveling, however: you need to know that your phone is actually going to work.

If you’re traveling within the same region that you bought your phone (Europe, for instance, or North America), there’s a good chance that your phone will support the right frequencies for your destination.

Beyond that, especially with cheaper models, it’s anyone’s guess. Plug your exact phone model into this site before you travel to be sure what kind of connectivity you might expect.

As for the other connectivity features, NFC is very useful, since it lets you use your phone instead of credit or debit cards to make a contactless payment. In some cities and countries, public transport cards and other useful services can also be loaded onto your phone and used via NFC.

A headphone jack can also be useful, if you don’t already use wireless headphones, or you lose them while you travel and need to replace them with something cheap and cheerful.

Dual SIM

Being able to use two SIM cards at once rather than having to swap them in and out all the time is extremely useful while traveling. You can still use your home SIM to receive texts and (in a pinch) calls if you have to, but can also use a local SIM for data to save money on roaming and to have a local number if you need it.

We talk much more about dual SIM phones here.

Storage

Considering we all use cloud services such as Google Drive, internal storage is becoming less important than it used to. Even so, it’s still a good idea to have plenty of space available when you’re traveling, especially if you plan to shoot a lot of video.

You don’t want to have to keep deleting old footage to free up storage space, and phones generally perform very badly when they’re almost out of space.

Some phones let you expand your storage with microSD cards, which is a very flexible and affordable way of doing it. It’s a feature worth getting if you can.

Price

This is a budget travel phone list, so there’s no need to explain why the price is important. This is particularly true when you take into consideration our recommendation to get unlocked, no-contract devices, which means you’ll likely being paying full price up front.

As I mentioned above, we only consider phones that cost under $300/£300/€300. As you can see below, though, there are still many very good devices that fall within this price range.


Best Budget Smartphone: OnePlus Nord N20 5G

Samsung A33 5G + 4G LTE (128GB+6GB) 6.4' 48MP Quad Camera Factory Unlocked (NOT Verizon Boost At&t Cricket Straight) SM-A336M/DSN (25W Charging Cube Bundle, Awesome Blue)

We’ve always liked OnePlus phones around here, since they’re renowned for having impressive performance for not a lot of money. The cost of the flagship model crept up year after year, though, leaving space at the low end of the market for competitors.

The company returned to its roots with its Nord series, a lower-cost alternative to the premium versions that attempt to keep most of the good bits while dropping the price. The N20 5G is currently the pick of the Nord range, and our choice as the best budget smartphone right now.

It’s an attractive phone, large but not heavy, and coming in a stylish midnight blue color. The reason it’s light, though, is due to the use of a polycarbonate frame and back: that makes it easy to hold, but less durable than metal versions. Speaking of durability, there’s no official water resistance: drop it in the toilet at your peril.

Inside, there’s a big 4500mAh battery that helps drive the phone for over a day of moderate use despite the big 6.4″ LCD screen. The OLED display is bright, colorful, and looks good even in direct sunlight.

OnePlus phones have always had some of the fastest charging you’ll find in a smartphone, and it’s no different here: the bundled USB C 33W charger promises “a day’s power in half an hour”. In this case, that’s going from flat to around a two-thirds charge in 30 minutes. There’s no wireless charging, however.

With 6GB of RAM and a mid-range Snapdragon 695 chipset, performance is pretty good for a budget phone. Unless you’re playing a lot of demanding, high-action games, you’re unlikely to notice slowdowns or delays in daily use.

As with most OnePlus phones, and pretty much all budget phones in general, it’s the cameras that let things down. While you’ll likely get some decent, even good shots in daylight, low light is a whole other story. Blurry images and dull colors are the norm, and while Nightscape mode tries to correct the worst problems, it doesn’t do a great job of it.

On the upside, unusually for a budget phone, NFC support is built in so you can use your phone to make payments in store with Google Pay. The in-display fingerprint scanner is pretty good (I still prefer physical sensors on the back, mind you), and there’s even a headphone jack, increasingly a rarity these days.

Other than the mediocre camera, the N20 5G is an impressive phone that delivers on the original promise of OnePlus: an awful lot of phone for not a lot of money.

Pros

  • 5G support
  • Good battery life
  • Bright, colorful screen
  • Fast charging
  • Headphone jack and NFC

Cons

  • Mediocre camera
  • No wireless charging
  • No official water resistance

Buy on Amazon

Best for Features: Motorola Moto G Stylus

Motorola Moto G Stylus | 2022 | 2-Day battery | Unlocked| Made for US by Motorola | 6/128GB | 50MP Camera | Twilight Blue

Motorola has been turning out decent budget smartphones for years, and the latest Moto G series is no exception. There are a few different versions, but the best for most travelers is the Moto G Stylus.

Unlike many lower-cost handsets, the G Stylus doesn’t look terrible. Available in couple of different colors including an attractive twilight blue, the clean design and small hole-punch camera notch make this phone appear more expensive than it is. The plastic casing doesn’t feel amazing in the hand, but I’ve held worse.

What’s inside is pretty good for the price, with a MediaTek G88 chipset, 6GB of RAM, and a hefty 128GB of storage that you can also upgrade via the micro-SD slot. I’d have liked to see a faster processor, but on the upside, it helps the 5000mAh battery get through a full day two days of moderate use.

It ships with a 10W USB C charger in the box, something that’s increasingly rare. I’d have liked to see something more powerful for a battery this size, especially since that’s the max charging rate even if you use a higher-power charger. You’ll be waiting a while to get back to 100%, put it that way.

There’s a big (ok, huge) 6.8″ FHD+ display, three rear cameras (more on those below) plus the selfie camera, and a fingerprint sensor that’s part of the power button on the side.

The Moto G Stylus also has features you won’t find on many smartphones three times the price: a headphone jack, for instance, that micro-SD slot, and of course the stylus that’s right there in the name.

Living in a compartment accessed from the base of the device, the stylus activates whenever you take it out. If you’re one for writing or drawing on your phone, it’s pretty much the only budget model you’ll find with this feature.

If the phone has any palm rejection built-in, however, it doesn’t work very well. The cursor jumps around when you rest your hand on the screen, which will put many people off from using the stylus regularly. It’s a strange misstep, given how much of the marketing revolves around the pointing device.

The camera quality is acceptable, and better than many others in this price range, including the sibling Moto G Power model we mention below. That triple rear camera array (50MP main, 8MP ultra-wide, and 2MP depth sensor) does a pretty good job in daylight, while night mode gives at least some chance of useable shots.

What’s not to like about the Moto G Stylus? Not much, really. Other than the slow charging, it’s only splash-proof rather than having true water resistance, and Motorola’s lack of commitment to more than a year of Android updates remains a disappointment. You’ll get an update to Android 12, but that’s it.

There’s also no NFC or wireless charging either, the former of which is more of an issue than the latter.

Those are the only real shortfalls, though, in what is a good phone for the money. If you’re looking for a budget smartphone with a big screen and many of the features of a device costing far more, go for the Motorola Moto G Stylus.

Pros

  • Attractive for a budget phone
  • Micro-SD card
  • Good battery life
  • Headphone jack
  • Takes pretty good photos in daylight

Cons

  • Moderate performance
  • Slow charging
  • Low-light photos are unlikely to impress
  • No official dust or water resistance
  • No palm rejection when using stylus
  • No NFC or wireless charging

Buy on Amazon

Best for Battery Life: Motorola Moto G Power

Moto G Power | 2022 | 3-Day Battery | Unlocked | Made for US by Motorola | 4/128GB | 50 MP Camera | Ice Blue

Known as the G9 Power outside the United States, the 5000mAh battery on the Motorola Moto G Power makes it one of our top picks for a smartphone with long battery life in 2023. Given the price, it’s an obvious inclusion here in our budget phone recommendations as well.

You should get at least two full days of use out of it, and if you’re not using it heavily, closer to three. That’s better than anything else worth owning in this price range.

The MediaTek Helios G37 chipset isn’t the greatest chipset in the world, but about what you’d expect for the price. Likewise the 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage: it’s a low-cost device, and the specs reflect that. It’s perfectly usable, but don’t expect blistering performance here.

There’s a headphone jack and a micro-SD slot that lets you add up to 1TB of additional storage, both of which you often don’t find on devices costing far more. A 10W USB C wall charger comes in the box (I’d have liked to see something faster), and the fingerprint scanner on the back works reliably well.

It’s nice to see an official durability in a budget phone, and while IP52 isn’t amazing, it’s also not nothing. Don’t plan to swim with this device, but it should survive a bit of rain and dusty roads without complaint. The phone is also a bit on the heavy and chunky side, but I like the design more than previous models.

The biggest improvement over earlier versions is the camera. You’ll now get shots you’re happy with most of the time when the lighting is good. Low-light photos aren’t good, though, since there’s no dedicated night mode. You’ll get better shots from the Moto G Stylus mentioned above.

Overall, this would be a good phone for the money even if you weren’t going 2+ days between charges. Once you add that to the mix, you’ve got a very compelling budget smartphone indeed.

Pros

  • Very long battery life
  • Reasonably-priced
  • Micro-SD card slot for extra storage
  • Headphone jack
  • Official durability rating

Cons

  • Moderate performance
  • No official dust or water resistance
  • A bit heavy and chunky
  • Low-light camera performance is poor
  • Slow charging

Buy on Amazon

Best on a Tight Budget: Nokia G10

Nokia G10 | Android 11 | Unlocked Smartphone | 3-Day Battery | Dual SIM | US Version | 3/32GB | 6.52-Inch Screen | 13MP Triple Camera | Polar Night

While all of the phones on this list are fairly inexpensive, there’s still quite a price gap between top and bottom. When you’re really on a tight budget, but still want a usable phone, the Nokia G10 is the way to go.

It’s a simple device, and the specifications aren’t going to set a tech-head’s heart on fire. If all you need is a cheap phone that can handle basic travel tasks like web browsing, navigation, and social media, and lasts forever on a single charge, though, it’s the way to go.

For your money, you get a low-end Mediatek Helio G25 chipset, with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. That’s very much the bare minimum these days, and it shows when it comes to performance: stuttering and slow scrolling aren’t unusual, and gaming is largely out of the question.

On the upside, there’s a microSD slot that can handle cards up to 512GB, so you’re not going to run out of storage space. The 5050mAh battery is also impressively large: Nokia suggests you’ll get up to three days between charges, and while that’s unlikely for all but the lightest of phone users, a couple of days away from a wall outlet is common.

Once you do run the battery down, plan to set aside a bit of time to charge it back up again: it can take over three hours to get from from zero to fully charged.

Dual-SIM support is always welcome for travel, and unlike the vast majority of budget phones, Nokia actually supports its devices: you get a guaranteed two years of software updates and three years of security patches. There’s also virtually no bloatware, which is again a rarity at this price.

The camera isn’t going to break any records, but if you’ve got decent lighting, it’ll likely still take photos you can use. As usual with budget phones, though, it doesn’t do well at night. Blurry, dull, and noisy photos are the norm here.

Likewise, video recording isn’t great. The highest recording level is only 30fps at 1080p, and there’s no software or hardware stabilization, so you get a fairly jerky end result. Audio recording, however, proved to be much better than we expected.

There’s a headphone jack, which is always nice to see, but no support for NFC, so you can’t use this phone for contactless payments.

The Nokia N10 isn’t an exciting smartphone, and if you’ve got more to spend, the other devices on this list will likely give you a better overall experience. If all you want is a cheap phone with long battery life that won’t need replacing in a year, though, you could do an awful lot worse.

Pros

  • Low price
  • Headphone jack
  • Dual SIM
  • Long battery life
  • Good software support

Cons

  • Poor cameras
  • No official dust or water resistance
  • No NFC
  • Mediocre performance

Buy on Amazon

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Best From a Big Brand: Samsung Galaxy A33

Samsung A33 5G + 4G LTE (128GB+6GB) 6.4' 48MP Quad Camera Factory Unlocked (NOT Verizon Boost At&t Cricket Straight) SM-A336M/DSN (25W Charging Cube Bundle, Awesome Blue)

When it comes to Android smartphones, there isn’t a bigger brand out there than Samsung. While it’s best known for its premium Galaxy S models, the company makes a wide range of other phones that don’t create such a large hole in your wallet.

Most of Samsung’s lower-cost phones haven’t excited us in the past, but the Galaxy A33 is an exception to the rule. Typically just squeezing into our budget price range, it looks and feels more like a mid-range device.

It’s one of the cheapest 5G-enabled phones available, with a clean, minimalist design. Like most budget phones, it’s made from plastic rather than glass: this makes it nice and light, but also acts as a fingerprint magnet. Keep the cleaning cloth handy!

It’s a large device, with a good 6.4-inch AMOLED screen. Those with smaller hands may find it a bit awkward, but that’s not unusual: as mentioned above, phone sizes have been going up for years.

Contrast and color accuracy is fine, and because it’s an OLED screen, it’s bright and well-saturated as well. This is definitely one of the better screens you’ll find at the budget end of the market: Samsung making its own displays has to help with this!

The Galaxy A33 has impressive battery life compared to many budget models. Thanks to the big 5000mAh battery, you can expect at least a full day of normal use out of it, probably a little more unless you’re really pushing it hard.

Charging speed is fine if nothing too exciting in 2023: the 25-watt charger takes the A33 from zero to 50% in about half an hour. One thing that does excite me, however, is the presence of proper IP67 water resistance. Finally, a budget phone that won’t give up the ghost when you drop it in the toilet!

The phone has a modest Exynos 1280 processor that gets the job done, but that’s about it. This Samsung-made chipset is far from the fastest one out there, and while it handles everyday tasks fine, don’t plan to do much in the way of intensive gaming.

6GB of memory and 128GB is reasonable for a budget phone in 2023, and you’ve got the option of adding a microSD card for extra storage. Supporting sizes of up to 1TB, it’s almost impossible to run out of space.

Audio quality is impressive from the single bottom-firing speaker, but it’s a bit quiet: if you’re someone who regularly listens to music on your phone speaker, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere. As usual with many phones sold around the world, it’s dual-SIM in many markets, but the official US model is single SIM.

While you shouldn’t expect the same quality of photos from the A33 as you get at the high end of the Galaxy range, they’re fine at this price point, at least with good lighting. The 48MP main camera has a decent dynamic range, with less of the over-saturated colors we’ve seen from other Samsung phones.

Portrait photos are sharp, with good isolation of the subject from the background. Likewise, macro shots are crisp and detailed, with the dedicated 5MP camera giving a noticeable advantage over the 2MP version found in much of the competition.

OIS (optical image stabilization) is built in, which is far from a given in budget devices. It helps a lot if you have shaky hands or are trying to take photos in low light.

Even so, as with so many budget phone cameras, things fall down in low light. With quite a bit of noise and lack of detail, these aren’t shots you’re likely to be excited by. There’s a dedicated night mode, but it doesn’t really make a lot of difference.

Video shot with the main camera maxes out at 4K resolution and 30 frames per second, and while you’re not going to be creating the next Hollywood movie with it, it’s fine for casual use. While footage isn’t as crisp as we’d like, there’s little noise and accurate colors.

Overall, the A33 is a solid device from a major manufacturer with several nice features. While it has its flaws, none of them are likely to be showstoppers, and you get the benefit of owning a Samsung phone with the good software support that comes with it.

With 5G capability, reasonable performance, and several years of platform updates security patches, it won’t be obsolete after 18 months like so many other budget models. For that reason, it’s our current pick if you’re after a budget phone from a well-known brand.

Pros

  • 5G support
  • Good battery life and fast charging
  • MicroSD card for extra storage
  • Headphone jack
  • Major brand

Cons

  • The cameras aren’t great in low light

Buy on Amazon

Title image via MMckein, product images via Amazon

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Chris Andrews says:

    Thanks for this review, Dave. Just a small correction: you say: “plan to take a lot of phones and (especially) video”, where I’m sure you mean photos, not phones! You don’t have to publish this comment – this was just the easiest way to let you know.

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