Best Budget Phones in 2021

Buying an affordable smartphone no longer means losing out on all of the latest features and performance. We review and rank the best budget phones available right now.

Flagship phones are more expensive than ever but as the high-end gets better, so too does the budget market. It’s possible to buy a new handset under £250 and still get a phone capable of handling everything you throw at it.

There’s even the odd handset here under £100, which might be perfect if all you need is the ability to make and receive WhatsApp calls; currently not available on most basic feature/keypad phones.

The best budget phones are also more attractive in the long-term thanks to cheaper contract prices, though you might prefer to buy these smartphones outright and then pay only for your minutes, texts and data, if you can swing it.

This is also the area where most people in full-time education will be shopping. Whether you’re a parent looking for your child’s first smartphone, or looking for an upgrade before you leave for uni, check out our student-specific buying advice below the chart. 

If value-for-money is your number-one priority, you won’t find a more useful list of budget phones elsewhere. We’ve tested, rated and ranked the best cheap phones from the likes of Xiaomi, Oppo, Motorola and many others. Alongside our reviews, you’ll also find expert buying advice to help decide whether a particular cheap phone really is the bargain it claims to be.

Best budget phone 2021

Xiaomi Poco X3 Pro – Best overall

  • Pros
    • Phenomenal performance
    • Big 120Hz display
    • Long-lasting battery
  • Cons
    • Big and bulky
    • No 5G
    • Average camera
  • From £229 (around $320)

The Poco X3 Pro isn’t perfect. The big battery makes it bulky, the cameras could be better and MIUI 12 leaves much to be desired, but they don’t stop this phone from being an outrageously good budget offering.

In contrast, the phone boasts a myriad of strengths; strong specs leading to exceptional performance, a beautiful display and absolutely fantastic battery life.

The fact that you can get all of that for as little as Xiaomi is asking is almost unbelievable and like the Poco X3 NFC last year, the X3 Pro is on track to serve as the best budget phone of 2021.

Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro – Best camera

  • Pros
    • Stunning display
    • Incredible value
    • Big battery
  • Cons
    • No OIS
    • MIUI not for everyone
  • $379

The Redmi Note 10 Pro is essentially an upgraded Poco X3 NFC with a nicer display and better camera.

The 6.67in 120Hz panel boasts AMOLED tech, meaning superb contrast and vibrant colours. The 108Mp lead camera, meanwhile, excels and comes accompanied by a pair of secondary snappers that exceed expectation.

Fun extras like 33W fast charging, a headphone jack and even an IR blaster elevate the Redmi Note 10 Pro from good to great budget offering, considering what Xiaomi’s incorporated here.

Xiaomi Poco X3 NFC – Incredible value

  • Pros
    • 120Hz display
    • Two-day battery life
    • Excellent camera
  • Cons
    • Thick and heavy
    • MIUI is clunky
    • Unreliable fingerprint scanner
  • From £199 (around $250)

Xiaomi’s Poco range has always stood for great value but 2020’s X3 NFC went above and beyond.

Like the newer X3 Pro, it’s a big, bulky, budget blower but it also delivers on so many fronts that – for the price – it’s hard to criticise.

With the exception of 5G, the X3 NFC is feature-packed, delivering great performance, a good camera experience and exceptional longevity.

With everything Xiaomi poured into it and the fact its already-low asking price continues to drop, the X3 NFC is still a great budget buy and proved deserving of our award for the best budget phone of 2020.

Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T – Best for budget 5G

  • Pros
    • Affordable 5G
    • Stereo speakers
  • Cons
    • Big and bulky
    • Plastic build
  • From around $313

An incredible budget performer, the Redmi Note 9T packs in premium features like 5G and doesn’t skimp out on performance either, considering its low price.

Its design is a little lacklustre and you’re going to have to settle for 60Hz visuals but beyond that, there’s plenty on offer here.

If 5G isn’t on your shortlist of key features, your money does, of course, go further but otherwise the Note 9T is a great enabler to enjoy next-gen data speeds.

Xiaomi Poco M3 Pro – Great for budget 5G

  • Pros
    • 90Hz display
    • Great battery life
    • Affordable 5G
  • Cons
    • Average cameras
    • MIUI isn’t great
    • Only 4GB RAM in base model
  • Unavailable in the US

Similarly priced to the Redmi Note 9T, the Poco M3 Pro pulls back in certain areas to offer more in others.

This like-minded Xiaomi handset has a marginally more conservative Dimensity 700 chipset but also delivers a high 90Hz refresh rate viewing experience.

Beyond that, a large 5000mAh battery with 18W fast charging and some eye-catching finishes make this a compelling fit for those after a touch more fluidity in their user experience.

Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S – Great all-rounder

  • Pros
    • Brilliant battery life
    • Value for money
  • Cons
    • Big and bulky
    • No NFC
  • $219 (64GB), $249 (128GB)

The Redmi Note 9S is one of the best budget phones we’ve seen. This is a fantastic phone for less than £200, a real all-rounder with decent performance and cameras, as well as mind-blowing battery life.

In our Geekbench 4 battery life tests, it clocked in some of the best longevity we’ve ever seen from a smartphone.

The rear camera module could be better and the lack of NFC in some territories is a shame, but those niggles aside it ticks all our boxes at this price point.

A fine example of not a lot of money very well spent.

Realme 8 – Best value AMOLED display

  • Pros
    • Great screen
    • Thin, lightweight body
  • Cons
    • Divisive design
    • Plastic build
  • Not available in the US

While under the hood, the Realme 8 doesn’t look all that different from the Realme 7, which launched half a year earlier, the company updated the design and the user experience, while also swapping out a 90Hz LCD display for a more conventional 60Hz panel that boasts superior Super AMOLED tech.

As a result, while visuals aren’t as smooth, they’re unquestionably better-looking and the rest of the hardware, including the phone’s 64Mp sensor-led rear camera, make for a competent all-round budget offering.

Realme 7 – Nice display

  • Pros
    • 90Hz display
    • Fast performance
    • Attractive design
  • Cons
    • Average camera
    • Realme UI isn’t great
    • Only 4GB RAM in base model
  • From £179.99 (around $230)

The Realme 7 isn’t the best budget phone around right now, but it’s pretty darn good nonetheless. It looks great, runs fast and packs a 90Hz display for an astoundingly-low price.

Provided you swing for more RAM than the base 4GB, the 7 offers up strong performance, packed into an attractive design at an affordable price.

The cameras could be better, but beyond that, there’s not much to complain about here.

Oppo A54 5G – Superb battery life

  • Pros
    • Great longevity
    • Sharp 90Hz display
    • Affordable 5G
  • Cons
    • Middling performance
    • Inconsistent fingerprint reader
    • Slow charging
  • £219

The Oppo A54 5G is a budget handset the manages to excel in multiple areas – with an attractive design, 5G, a 48Mp quad-camera and a massive 5000mAh battery that outshines even some of the most expensive phones on the market. 

It’s not without faults, of course. Though the battery life is excellent, 10W charging is glacial in this day and age. Though the night mode on the camera is stellar, the user-experience of taking photos really needs refining to be simpler and cleaner.

For the price point, however, you’re getting a solid camera phone that feels high-end and a device that won’t die on you quickly. For these reasons we’d definitely say that the A54 5G is a budget contender.

Motorola Moto E7i Power – Most affordable

  • Pros
    • Ultra affordable
    • Good battery life
    • Nice design
  • Cons
    • No USB-C
    • Lacklustre camera
  • Unavailable in the US

Once you recognise just how cheap the Moto E7i Power is, it’s hard not to be impressed by everything you’re getting.

Performance – an area cheap phones so often cut corners on – is surprisingly great despite what the benchmarks tell you. There was no need for Motorola to change what was already great software, while the modern design does a good job of imitating more expensive handsets.

The cameras are a bit hit-and-miss, but if you’re prepared to be patient, it will pleasantly surprise you. There are compromises dotted throughout the Moto E7i Power, but for what you’re paying these are incredibly easy to forgive.

Your buying guide to the best budget phones in 2021

In our experience, the ideal way to get a cheap phone is to buy it SIM-free, then grab a great-value SIM-only deal. You won’t be paying £50-odd per month for a phone for the next two years and you can swap it for a newer model whenever you fancy; without a massive impact on your wallet. This is especially true for cheap Chinese phones, as some of the most competitively-priced devices on the market.

All the phones here cost under £250/US$250, which is a quarter of the price you’d often pay for select flagship phones – take a look at our guide to the best phones on the market for more on those high-end offerings.

Here are what we consider to be the best cheap phones on sale right now. We’ve based this rundown on devices’ SIM-free pricing, as contracts change so frequently.

You can click through on a phone you’re interested in to read the full review, see example photos from the camera and check out benchmarking results. 

Should you buy a locked phone?

You’ll quickly find that some of the best deals on cheap phones are sold via mobile operators (also known as carriers). What you need to watch out for is whether these phones are sold locked to that operator’s network.

Nokia 1.3 in hand front

In such situations, you won’t be able to put another operator’s SIM card into your carrier-locked handset and will likely have to call the device’s carrier to get the phone unlocked, which can cost money.

What about a Chinese phone?

As already alluded to, there’s value in opting for a phone from a Chinese manufacturer, particularly in the budget space. You might not have heard of some of the brands featured and many still aren’t available on the UK high street (such as Ulefone and Cubot) but Chinese phones are well-known for offering amazing value, not to mention undercutting their more established rivals.

Of course, there are downsides – for example, what should you do if a phone bought from China is faulty? We’ve rounded up the major pitfalls in our article on buying grey-market tech but if you’re still interested, you should see our round-up of the best Chinese phones.

Note: Not all Chinese phones are inherently grey market purchases. If Chinese brands (such as Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Realme) are already selling devices in your country through their own retail channels or carrier’s stores, then they’re likely to come with additional assurances and a more robust customer support network to deal with faults and repairs.

What’s the best phone for a child?

Most children want to make up their own mind about choosing a phone when it comes to entering young adulthood, but if they’re a little younger you’ll probably want to make the decision for them.

You’ll want to look at something ultra-affordable for a first smartphone (so you’ve come to the right place), it’ll need to have a decent-sized screen, long battery life and be fairly durable, so you should probably avoid phones with a glass back. 

As it’ll likely be your main point of contact with your child, you’ll also want to look for good call quality, something that’s often overlooked on modern smartphones.

Which phone is best for students?

We’d recommend a more affordable phone here too, but many of the options in this chart may be within reach.

General buying decisions should be whether you prefer a near-stock version of Android (as is available on Google’s Pixel phones, Nokias and Motorola phones), or don’t mind a heavier skin, as found on devices from Samsung, Huawei, Oppo and so on. 

Also, considering what the most important aspect of a phone is to you is key, and how many compromises you’re willing to make in other areas. Many handsets at this price point will target one specific feature, meaning corners are inevitably cut elsewhere. 

What will you get for your money?

If you’re looking for a cheap phone, you have to accept the fact that the manufacturer is going to cut some corners to achieve that low price and you aren’t going to get the same performance, features or display quality as that of a phone costing two, three, or four times the price.

It used to be the case that budget phones were instantly recognisable by their low-resolution displays, meagre storage and chunky, plastic bodies, but things are improving in this area all the time. These days, for £250 or less, it’s quite possible to buy a phone with a Full HD display, a svelte body and a camera that takes pictures you might actually want to share.

Most will support 4G (or even 5G) connectivity but features like NFC, wireless charging and water resistance will likely be absent, unless specifically stated.

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