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.
1. Xiaomi Poco X3 NFC - Best overall
The Poco X3 isn’t perfect. The big battery makes it bulky, the name is a mess 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 Poco X3 NFC boasts a myriad of strengths; strong specs, an excellent camera, 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 landed the Poco X3 as the best budget phone of 2020.
Read our full Xiaomi Poco X3 NFC review
2. Realme 7 - Best display
The Realme 7 isn't the best budget phone around right now, but it's pretty darn close. 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 too, but beyond that, there’s not much to complain about here.
Read our full Realme 7 review
3. Realme 6 - Great value
While it may have been superseded by the Realme 7, the Realme 6 is still one of the best budget phones on the market.
It's slightly chunky size won't be for everyone, aside from its successor you'll struggle to find a 90Hz display at this price and it also comes with decent cameras, speedy performance and solid battery life.
There's very little to dislike, especially when you can now get it for even less than its already competitive RRP.
Read our full Realme 6 review
4. Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S - Great all-rounder
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.
Read our full Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S review
5. Oppo A9 2020 - Superb battery life
The Oppo A9 2020 is a budget handset the manages to excel in multiple areas - with an attractive design, 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, there's no fast charging. 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 very good 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 Oppo A9 2020 is a budget contender.
Read our full Oppo A9 2020 review
6. Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T - Best for budget 5G
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.
Read our full Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T review
7. Motorola Moto E6s - Most affordable
Once you recognise just how cheap the Moto E6s is, it’s hard not to be impressed by everything you’re getting.
Performance, an area cheap phones so often cut corners, 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 E6s, but for what you’re paying these are incredibly easy to forgive.
Read our full Moto e6s review
8. Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 - Best for tight budgets
If you're on a tight budget, the Redmi Note 9 is a fantastic smartphone for the money. It ticks a great many boxes and - though it isn't flawless - you can't argue with the value it offers.
Though it's plastic it is well designed, not to mention it comes with impressive-sounding features, such as a quad-lens camera that generally performed well in our tests, save for lacking some finer detail.
There's enough power for casual users, though we had hoped for better performance from the huge-capacity 5020mAh battery.
Read our full Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 review
9. Xiaomi Redmi 9 - Versatile camera
The Redmi 9 is one of the best cheap Xiaomi phones there is, namely thanks to its big battery and a quad-lens camera - something you don't expect to find at such a low price point.
While real-world performance means it doesn't give entrants higher up this list cause for concern, it's still an impressively well-rounded smartphone considering how much it costs.
Just be aware that features like NFC (at least in some markets) aren't on the table and the plastic design won't be to everyone's tastes.
Read our full Xiaomi Redmi 9 review
10. Samsung Galaxy M31 - Best for ease of use
By sneaking in at the upper threshold for our definition of 'budget phone' the Galaxy M31 still gives you a superb Full HD OLED display, but also doesn't disappoint with its bevvy of cameras and, perhaps most impressively of all, a whopping 6000mAh battery.
Samsung's user experience is also to be applauded for its rich feature set and ease of use, while patchy performance and a dated design are the main things holding it back from being truly excellent.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy M31 review
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 the case for cheap Chinese phones, as some of the most competitively-priced devices on the market.
All the phones here cost under £250/$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. What you need to watch out for is whether these phones are sold locked to that operator's network.
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.
What's the best phone for a child?
Most children want to make up their own mind about phones as they enter 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 the 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.