Top 5 best budget phones for less than $500 in 2021

The best budget phones for less than $500 – Excellent performance, big screens, and all features you might need

While you need to invest a top dollar into the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S series, you can still get a lot from more affordable phones. For $500 or less, you have devices offering impressive speed, giant screens, or every feature you might need. If your budget is even tighter, I’ve also provided phones for less than $300 or even $200. You’ll be surprised about their quality and performance, as the compromises they make may not even affect you. Furthermore, I wanted to focus on the widely available models, so you can get them today and for the best price.

Google Pixel 5A Google Pixel 5A6.34″12.2 MPSnapdragon 765G
6 GB
Apple iPhone SE Apple iPhone SE4.7″12 MPApple A13 Bionic
Samsung Galaxy A52s Samsung Galaxy A52s6.5″64 MPSnapdragon 778 5G
4/6/8 GB
OnePlus Nord N10 OnePlus Nord N106.49″64 MPSnapdragon 690 5G
Moto G Power Moto G Power6.6″48 MPSnapdragon 662
Google Pixel 5A SEE ON GOOGLE
Samsung Galaxy A52s SEE ON AMAZON
OnePlus Nord N10 SEE ON AMAZON

What are the essential characteristics of the best budget phones under $500?

While buying a budget phone means that you have to make some compromises, all of them should include the following:

Decent battery – Powerful phone doesn’t mean much if you need to recharge it before bed. You don’t want a device that requires you to carry a charger with you all the time.

Quality screen –  Budget phones can still have giant screens, but if the color reproduction and resolution are weak, what’s the point?

Performances – Not all budget phones can compete with the flagship models, but those listed here run all current software. This includes not only your favorite apps but also games. While you’ll maybe have to lower some details, they still play and look great.

Camera quality – Even if taking selfies is not among your favorite activities, having a decent camera is necessary.

Internal storage – It’s great if the phone supports memory cards, but it’s even better if it already has impressive internal storage. This way, you don’t need additional investments.

Google Pixel 5A
Google Pixel 5A review

Google Pixel 5A review

The best overall budget phone also brings the best camera for the money
Google Pixel 5A 5G specifications:
  • Display: 6.34 inches OLED, 1080×2400
  • CPU & RAM: Snapdragon 765G, 6GB RAM
  • Camera: 12.2 MP, f/1.7/ (rear), 8 MP, f/2.0 (front)
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  • Fantastic display

  • Excellent night mode

  • Terrific battery life

  • Build quality

  • Image stabilization

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  • No wireless charging

  • A slight improvement over Pixel 4a 5G

The Pixel 4a is such a fantastic device that even Google wasn’t sure if it was the time to replace it. However, after months of delays and even news of cancelation, Google Pixel 5a 5G arrived. This phone looks astonishingly similar to its predecessor, so the physical difference is the size, as the 5a has a bigger screen. Nothing is exciting about its looks, but bezels are pretty thin as the device looks compact. Also, the body is now metal, although still coated with a soft, rubbery plastic. There’s also IP67 water and dust protection which wasn’t on the 4a series.

Unlike 4a, 5a comes only in one color, Mostly Black. Yet, under a light, you’ll notice that it’s actually dark green! There’s also a single variant, meaning that the 128 GB memory option is the only one available. While that’s plenty of space, it may run out if you love taking photos and ultra HD videos. Of course, memory cards won’t solve this since Google devices don’t support them.

Stunning OLED screen 

As 4a has a gorgeous OLED screen, we expected the same from 5a too. The resolution is slightly higher at 1080×2400 (compared to 1080×2340 on 4a), which is still impressive for a budget phone. However, the screen is also visibly larger at 6.34 inches, and it supports HDR. Furthermore, the brightness is excellent, and OLED pretty much guarantees rich colors and infinite contrast. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, this is still a 60Hz display. While that’s still expected for the budget phones, the Samsung A52s is much better at 120Hz for a similar price.

Despite being a year younger, the Pixel 5a has the same spec as 4a 5G. The Snapdragon 765G and 6 GB RAM are still respectable, especially if you focus on regular apps. Opening them is quick, and scrolling is exceptionally smooth, without noticeable hiccups. You can still have a good gaming experience, but the iPhone SE is a much better choice for the purpose. The most significant improvement comes from battery capacity, which rose to 4690mAh. With average use, it will easily survive the whole weekend without recharging, so you don’t need to use the extreme battery save mode.

Similarities with 4a 5G continue with the camera, as it’s exactly the same! The main 12.2 MP cam is holding very well, to the point it’s the best on my test. The included image stabilization is rare on this budget and helps you produce sharper photos. Yet, the 5a is the most impressive in low light conditions, which far exceeds anything available for a similar price. The primary camera is also excellent at handling contrast and includes plenty of post-processing software. The video recording options are excellent, as you can make [email protected] fps clips or [email protected] fps. 

Google Pixel 5a 5G is only a slight improvement over 4a 5G, as it has a bigger screen and better build. However, this is still an excellent sub-$500 phone which offers a beautiful OLED display, excellent battery life, and decent performance unless you are a serious gamer. The main camera shines as it handles colors, contrast, and low light conditions better than any device at this price point. Finally, despite the improvements over 4a 5G, it’s still cheaper than it. Unless you already have 4a or 4a 5G, this is a worthy upgrade. While the new Google Pixel 6 improves significantly, it’s still not nearly as affordable. 

Apple iPhone SE
Apple iPhone SE review

Apple iPhone SE review

The best alternative offering top performance
Apple iPhone SE specifications:
  • Display: 4.7 inches Retina IPS LCD, 750×1334
  • Chipset & RAM: Apple A13 Bionic, 3 GB RAM
  • Camera: 12 MP, f/1.8 (rear)/ 7 MP, f/2.2 (front)
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  • Marvelous performance

  • Excellent build

  • Water-resistant

  • Compact

  • Color reproduction

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  • Sub-HD resolution

  • No headphone jack

With its iPhone SE, Apple finally has a winner in the budget-friendly market. The $399 retail price makes it compete against the best affordable Androids, but can this lone warrior take on all of them? Well, while I still rate Google Pixel 4a as a better overall device, the truth is that iPhone SE beats it in some aspects. This is a very compact phone which is all good and nice, but it does look outdated. By that, I mean that bezels are massive, making the already small screen even tinier. That’s too bad as the combination of glass, and aluminum design would shine more otherwise.

The color choice is pretty decent, as it includes white, red, and black. Unlike Pixel 5a, iPhone SE comes with different storage options, starting with the 64 GB model. There are also 128 GB and 256 GB versions, though the last one is above our $500 limit. Of course, keep in mind that the device doesn’t have a card slot, so maybe a 64 GB model won’t be enough for you.

The speed that no Android can match

Of all the phones on the test, iPhone SE has the smallest screen. A 4.7-inch LED display at relatively modest resolution still surprises with excellent color reproduction that even slightly beats Pixel 5a OLED. As for the brightness, it goes above 600 nits, so it’s pleasant to look at outdoors. Despite the sub 1080p resolution, the details shine, so that’s much less of a problem than I’ve expected.

The iPhone SE is an absolute beast when it comes to performance! The A13 Bionic chip introduced in iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro runs this one too, and it’s not crippled in any way. The gaming experience even beats Galaxy S20, so you can run pretty much anything. Likewise, video encoding annihilates Pixel 5a. Also, 3 GB of memory might be the minimum on Android devices, but Apple uses it much better. A small 1821 mAh battery allows up to 13 hours of video playback. However, you’ll need to purchase an 18W charger separately if you’re not happy with the included 5W one.

A single 12-megapixel rear camera is rather impressive thanks to software including Smart HDR and Portrait Lighting. On the other hand, the lack of night mode makes it trail behind even Pixel 3a. However, you can record beautiful 4K 60 fps videos.

As the best performer on the test, iPhone SE is an excellent choice for gaming or other heavy-duty tasks, such as video editing. It’s also a very compact device, despite the pretty big bezels. While the camera is impressive, expect very modest results when shooting during the night. If speed is your priority, and you don’t care about the relatively small screen, iPhone SE is a terrific choice.

Samsung Galaxy A52s
Samsung Galaxy A52s review

Samsung Galaxy A52s review

The best screen on a budget phone
Samsung Galaxy A52s specifications:
  • Display: 6.5 inches Super AMOLED, 1080×2400, 120Hz
  • CPU & RAM: Snapdragon 778 5G 6/8 GB
  • Camera: 64 MP, f/1.8 (rear)/ 32 MP, f/2.2 (front)
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  • Beautiful and massive screen

  • 120Hz refresh rate

  • Battery life

  • Significantly improved performance

  • Water and dust resistant

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  • The camera is the same as on regular A52

  • No adaptive refresh rate

Samsung is on a roll in 2021, as they gave us an excellent A52 series. This goes for the regular and the 5G edition as they offer impressive screens and good cameras. Even the performance is decent, as it substantially improves over the A51. Yet, it’s surprising that the company already has a new model that makes the A52, A52 5G, and even the A72 obsolete! The phone certainly looks attractive and closely resembles Galaxy S21, despite being made of plastic and slightly thicker. Luckily, it also has IP67 dust and water resistance which isn’t widely available at this price point.The Samsung A52s comes in four versions, as you can combine 6/8 GB RAM with 128 GB/256 GB memory capacity. Yet, the basic 6/128 edition feels the best and is the only one below $500. The additional 2GB RAM won’t mean much, and if 128 GB becomes tight, you can add more via memory cards. You can choose between four colors – the usual black and white and more exciting mint and purple.

Massive, beautiful, and high refresh rate screen

The A52s shares the screen size (6.5 inches) with earlier versions of the phone. The Super AMOLED display also offers the identical 1080×2400 resolution, excellent color reproduction, and impressive brightness. The viewing angles could be better, but that’s a bigger problem with budget TVs. Yet, the refresh rate is increased from 90Hz to 120Hz, the same as on the top of the line products! Yet, unlike those flagships, there’s no dynamic refresh rate. Still, you can manually set the refresh rate to 60Hz to save battery life. 

To better showcase the smooth 120Hz refresh rate, Samsung upgraded the chipset from 720G to 750G. This is a considerable improvement, and in some GPU-heavy tasks, the performance can be better by 50 percent. The regular apps work incredibly fluid in practice, but you also won’t be disappointed with gaming! Even the demanding titles like Genshin Impact will operate fine with some necessary compromise. The 4500 mAh battery handles the tasks well, and it may survive two days of average use. I suggest investing in a 25W charger, as only the 15W one is included in the package.

However, nothing has changed with the camera, which still includes the depth sensor and the 5MP macro cam. The primary 64MP sensor is the best one as it creates bright images with impressive colors and contrast. Yet, while it can’t compare to Pixel 5a night mode, it still makes quality images at low light. The selfie cam is an average performer, as is the ultrawide one. Surprisingly, the macro cam is rather impressive, although some details may remain blurry. Finally, you can make 4K videos with a 30 fps limit, and there’s no high frame rate option.

A52s is the best buy Samsung phone with enough speed and features to make everyone happy on this budget. While you’ll fall in love with the excellent screen, there’s also a nice main cam, impressive build quality, and improved performances over A52. Even though this is the most expensive phone on the list, there’s no doubt it’s worth it!

OnePlus Nord N10 5G
OnePlus Nord N10 5G review

OnePlus Nord N10 5G review

The best budget phone under $300
OnePlus Nord N10 5G specifications:
  • Display: 6.49 inches IPS LCD, 90Hz
  • Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 690 5G, 6 GB RAM
  • Camera: 64 MP, f/1.8 (rear)/ 16 MP, f/2.1
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  • 5G compatible

  • 128 GB internal storage

  • Headphone jack

  • Impressive battery life

  • Large screen

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  • The macro camera is useless

  • Average performance

Budget phones rarely are 5G compatible, so it’s a miracle that the OnePlus Nord10 5G is, despite selling for under $300. While this sounds like the manufacturer had to make some wild compromises, this device still has much potential. This phone doesn’t look cheap with its polished and glossy design, despite not particularly thin bezels. Of course, it’s also heavier than the top models from OnePlus, but that shouldn’t really make a difference nowadays.

To make the manufacturing costs lower, OnePlus decided to offer a single model, but luckily, you can expand the storage via a memory card slot. However, 128 GB should be plenty of space. Nord N10 5G comes in a single color, labeled as Midnight Ice. Well, at least it’s not the usual black.

5G for less, but that’s not all

Another visible compromise is the screen, although, at 6.46 inches, it’s among the largest on the test. The LCD does have the above-average 90 Hz refresh rate for some smoother scrolling. While the technology is behind the usual AMOLED screens on OnePlus models, that’s really hard to notice in practice. Viewing angles are still decent, as well as the 440 nits brightness and the color reproduction. Also, no one will complain about the 1080×2400 resolution, identical to most phones listed here.

As expected, this is not a top-performing Android device, so it can’t keep up with Pixel 5a. However, the Snapdragon 690 combined with 6 GB of RAM is still a decent combination for everyday use, and it doesn’t lag much. At 4300mAh, the battery capacity is excellent, lasting for two days with moderate use.

Similar to Samsung A52s, N10 5G has four rear cameras. A monochrome camera has limited use, while a 2-megapixel macro cam is pointless. On the other hand, ultra-wide and standard cams are excellent, providing sharp and vibrant pictures with an impressive digital zoom. There’s a night mode here (Nightscape), but the results are nothing to write home about. The recording is limited to [email protected], as expected.

If you need a cheap 5G phone and appreciate a large screen, there’s nothing better than OnePlus Nord 10 for under $300. Plus, it has a MicroSD card slot, headphone jack, and large storage. Just keep in mind that it won’t get a version upgrade after Android 11.

Moto G Power
Moto G Power review

Moto G Power review

The best smartphone under $200, with an impressive battery life
Moto G Power specifications:
  • Display: 6.6 inches IPS LCD, 720×1600
  • Chipset & Memory: Snapdragon 662, 3 GB/4GB RAM, 32/64 GB storage
  • Camera: 48 MP, f/1.7 (rear)/ 8 MP, f/2.0
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  • Very long battery life

  • A decent camera

  • Large display

  • Extremely affordable

  • The design

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  • Average performance

  • 720p resolution

In 2020, Motorola already launched a Moto G Power phone, but don’t confuse it with the one we will talk about. This model is all about being dirt cheap while having a massive battery, the largest on the test. Despite its low price tag, the device looks unique with its spiral pattern on the back, but thin bezels impress me even more.

Moto G Power comes in two versions. The sub $200 one has 3 GB RAM and only 32 GB internal memory. For $50 more, you’ll get a 4 GB RAM/64 GB storage version. In both cases, a MicroSD card slot is included. The color choice is also minimal and includes Flash Gray and Polar Silver. Finally, the device supports the headphone jack.

A champion of durability

As expected, Moto G Power has the most modest display on our test, as it’s an IPS LCD. The colors are still solid, but the 720p resolution (720×1600) means that the picture isn’t sharp on this massive 6.6-inch screen. At 438 nits, the brightness is tolerable and even better than the OnePlus Nord N10 5G.

The Snapdragon 662 chipset certainly isn’t worthy of praise, but it’s still fine for watching YouTube videos, surfing the net, or even playing PUBG. While a 3 GB version is fantastic for the price, get a 4 GB edition if you can afford it. Whatever you do, you’ll feel a slight delay, but honestly, it’s hard to complain at this price. A gigantic 5000 mAh battery can easily last four or five days with moderate usage! Interestingly, this is the same capacity as found on Samsung S21, but as this far less powerful device, it’s much easier on the battery.

The 48-megapixel primary camera is better than expected, providing nice pictures when there’s a lot of daylight. Night Vision mode is very limited, so expect the results to look washed out. The same can be said about the color accuracy and the dynamic range. This is also the only phone on the test limited to 1080p video recording. Despite some severe cuts made, the results are still pretty decent.

Moto G Power delivers for the price, despite some cutbacks. The battery life is by far the best on the test, with a solid camera. Performance probably won’t bother you while surfing the web or watching videos, especially on the 4 GB version. Keep in mind that the phone comes with Android 10, and Android 11 is its only update.

The best budget phone – Frequently asked questions

Should I buy a refurbished phone?

You can often find phones at an attractive price, but be careful, as they are almost always refurbished! This means they are second-hand phones that had a significant flaw, like a cracked screen or dead battery. Of course, these phones are guaranteed to work and usually come with a 12-months guarantee, so you might be tempted to save money and choose them. However, even though there’s a high chance they will serve you well for years, don’t forget that you are taking a risk. Buy a refurbished phone only if they offer a year-long guarantee and come from respected companies. Also, if a refurbished model is not radically cheaper than the new one, I don’t think it’s worth it.

Should I save money by buying an older device?

Even big manufacturers continue selling their old phones, introduced three or four years ago. They indeed have an attractive price and even solid performance if they were top models once. However, stay away from these! The trouble is that these phones either don’t receive software and security updates or will soon stop getting them. So no, an older iPhone like XR is not an excellent investment, no matter how limited your budget is. Whatever phone you buy, make sure that it’s not on the market for more than two years.

How long should I use a phone before replacing it?

Well, I have great news for you, as the phone manufacturers won’t let you use it for more than three years on average, anyway. Why three years? Well, because that’s the average lifespan of the battery inside them! A long time ago, I had a Nokia phone for eight years, and I was pretty happy with it. Yes, my battery died a couple of times, but I could easily replace it and buy a new one for five bucks. Nowadays, finding a phone with a replaceable battery is impossible, and I’m not sure why this practice is even allowed.

In theory, you can find shops that will perform the delicate operation of replacing the battery for you, but that might not be cheap. The second thing is, you’ll still have to buy a new battery, and if you are lucky to find it, it might not be original and will probably die sooner. In short, even if you are satisfied with your device, when the battery is in bad shape, you’ll have to replace it.

Apple or Android – Should I care about it when buying a budget phone?

Whenever we put these two in the same discussion, the result is an endless and entirely pointless debate. If you really don’t care about brands, then you have a considerable advantage. In short, iPhones generally offer the top build quality, and you know what you are getting. It also has much longer software support than most Android devices, including those made by Samsung. However, Apple can’t compete in the $300 or $200 market, so in that case, Android is the only choice. The iPhone becomes a viable option at around $400-500, as iPhone SE is a great choice. In short, the best pick for someone might not be the best for you!

What is the minimum amount of RAM I need to have on my phone?

In 2021, you shouldn’t consider a phone with only 2 GB of memory. These devices might be fast on factory settings, but even if you don’t install tons of background apps, they will be disappointingly slow after a couple of weeks or months. While 3 GB is already a considerably better choice, I wouldn’t suggest going below 4 GB.

How much storage do I need?

By this point, I really, really hope that people know the difference between storage memory and random access memory (RAM). Unless you are a massive photo and video enthusiast, 128 GB should be plenty, even though the phone will take up to 10% percent of that space even before installing anything. Finally, you should also check if the device supports SD cards. They are pretty cheap but also consistently slower than the internal memory. When buying an SD card, make sure you have the fastest one, especially if you love 4K videos!

What are the characteristics of a good phone cam?

Hopefully, you’ve heard this before, but the megapixel count is not a guarantee of quality. Some phones make massive images, but who cares if they are grainy or blurry? Instead, focus on optical image stabilization, aperture, and dual lenses. Don’t be afraid to take a picture when buying a phone in the store and see if it’s good enough for you.

Should I care about smartphone radiation?

News flash – every smartphone emits radiofrequency radiation, but that doesn’t mean it will hurt you. Based on the current evidence, the FDA believes that radiofrequency energy from your phone won’t give you cancer or any other health problems. However, you can still reduce unnecessary exposure in several ways. For example, don’t sleep near your device or have it close to your body whenever you can. Also, speakerphones and headsets are safer ways to make calls. The most important advice is the most simple – use your phone only when you need it!

Buying guide for budget phones under $500

What is the best budget smartphone you can buy in 2021?

As a smartphone is pretty much with us all the time, it’s imperative to choose the best one for you. However, the device that is considered the best might not be the perfect choice for you. If you want something compact, you won’t get a Samsung A52s. Also, if performance is your top priority, none of these phones can hold a candle to Apple iPhone SE. However, among the devices I mentioned, at least one should fit your needs.

Google Pixel 5a 5G is currently the overall champion, as it’s the fastest among budget Android phones with the best camera and the terrific OLED screen. Despite lacking MicroSD card support, 128 GB of internal memory should be enough for everyone. While this is almost the same phone as Pixel 4a 5G, it improves over it for a lower release day price. Also, Google is still the Android champion at system software support.

iPhone SE is the best Apple budget phone ever, and while its design is a bit outdated, the build quality is the best on the test. Furthermore, it’s the fastest device on the test by far, so if you’re into gaming or are doing a lot of video processing, you’ll appreciate it. The camera is also terrific and comparable to Pixel 5a, not counting the limited night mode. Skip it if you don’t want a smartphone with a small display, restricted to 750p.

Samsung A52s is the best choice if you favor a massive screen using Super AMOLED technology and a high refresh rate. Plus, this is the best device if you need options, as it comes in many different versions. However, the one with 6 GB RAM/128 GB internal memory is currently the best. With the upgraded chipset, this is now a viable gaming option, especially in 120Hz mode.

OnePlus Nord N10 5G is a rare 5G device costing less than $300. While that’s its main claim to fame, you also get substantial internal storage and a massive screen. The battery is impressive, and the two main cameras provide results that won’t disappoint amateur photographers. However, don’t expect performances that will blow you away.

Moto G Power (2021) does make a couple of significant compromises, as it has a 720p screen and the average camera. On the other hand, performances are still good enough even for some gaming, while the battery life is unbeatable. At less than $200, you can even think about it as your secondary phone.

How to choose the best cheap smartphone in 2021?

Unless you really don’t want an Android phone or are looking for a compact device, Google Pixel 5a is a steal. It’s fast, has excellent software support, and is the best cam on the test. iPhone SE is the best alternative with its ultimate performance, compactness, and a great camera, although a night mode is limited.

Samsung A52s looks gorgeous thanks to its thin bezels, massive screen, and high resolution. It still is a decent performer, with a pretty powerful camera and 120Hz refresh rate. At less than $300, OnePlus Nord N10 5G is the cheapest 5G solution and features a 90Hz screen and an excellent camera.

Finally, if battery life is your priority, no one does it better than Motorola and its G Power. The performance is incredible for a device costing less than $200, and its 720p screen is the only significant drawback.