The best smartphones to buy for less than $100 (and without a long-term contract)

by Marty Gabel

Great deals on smartphones are not always what they appear to be.

Most smartphones that are “on sale” for less than $100 will end up costing you thousands over the course of a required two-year contract. Of course, you can buy a smartphone without a contract, but end up paying several hundred dollars for a device that could be outdated by the time you leave the store. Neither of these options are great for the pocketbook.

Thankfully, there are quality phones available at smart prices that you won’t have to commit to long-term. Whether you sign up for a more flexible plan from a smaller cellular carrier, go with a prepaid billing option, or purchase an “unlocked” smartphone from an online retailer, there are excellent deals to dial into.

Here are the best smartphones to buy for less than a hundred bucks, but with no strings attached.

BlackBerry Curve 8530/Virgin Mobile ($99.99)

Have you ever wanted to get your hands on a RIM BlackBerry device but felt priced out by the two-year contracts required by the major carriers including Verizon, AT&T, Spring and T-Mobile? Enter Virgin Mobile. Right now, Virgin is offering the BlackBerry Curve 8530 smartphone for just $99.99. This rugged device is still a favorite in the corporate world, offering great security and plenty of connectivity options. With a full QWERTY keyboard, access to thousands of apps in BlackBerry’s App World, a 2-megapixel camera, and social networking features, the Curve is a good way to enter into the world of RIM without the hassle of a long-term contract.

Virgin Mobile’s smartphone plans start at just $35 a month and include 2.5GB of full-speed 3G data. Best of all, there are no credit checks, activation fees or service contracts.

HTC Wildfire S/U.S. Cellular ($99.99)

Largely for its affordable offerings, U.S. Cellular often tops the charts when it comes to customer satisfaction surveys. As well as a good selection of contract-based smartphones, there are prepaid ones too, and we spotted the gray HTC Wildfire S (also in purple) for just $99.99 online. Though it is not the fastest or newest Android smartphone out there, the HTC Wildfire is still perfectly capable of running thousands of Android apps, boasts a 3.2-inch capacitive touchscreen, 5-megapixel auto-focus camera and runs on the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system.

U.S. Cellular offers a variety of prepaid plans for the HTC Wildfire S starting at $40 per month (there are cheaper plans, but you’ll need a data plan if you’re buying a smartphone). U.S. Cellular also provides strong 3G coverage across the United States and high voice-call quality.

ZTE Score/Cricket Wireless ($89.99)

Cricket Wireless offers a decent selection of no-contract smartphones under $100 that work on its 3G network. The ZTE Score is an Android smartphone available for just $89.99. Admittedly, this is a pretty basic device, yet it still features a 3.5-inch HVGA display, accelerometer, 3.2-megapixel camera and, most importantly, access to the hundreds of thousands of apps in the Google Play Store. Despite its lowly processor and smallish screen, it’s still perfectly capable of running many of your favorite games, social networks and productivity tools.

Alternatively, for customers seeking an Android smartphone with a traditional slide-out keyboard, the Samsung Transfix is available from Cricket for just $99.99 for a limited time. With a 3.5-inch HVGA touchscreen, 3.2-megapixel camera and an 800MHz processor, like the ZTE Score, the Samsung Transfix will run most Android apps on its Gingerbread 2.3 operating system. With a removable microSD card, storage isn’t an issue, and that slide-out keyboard is handy for those who prefer them.

Cricket’s smartphone plans start at $55 per month, but there is no need to sign a two-year contract and no activation fees. These Cricket deals are online-only, so get clicking if you want to take advantage of them.

Samsung Replenish/Boost Mobile ($99.99)

Carrier Boost Mobile is another popular way to get no-contract smartphones for a good price, cheaper monthly fees and no long-term commitment requirement. For $5 or $10 extra per month, Boost customers can also make cheap calls internationally to landline phones. The Samsung Replenish is available for Boost customers for $99.99. It runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread and offers a touchscreen and separate QWERTY keyboard. Like Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile also offers the prepaid BlackBerry Curve 8530 for $99.99.

Boost Mobile offers a wide variety of plans, many of which boast “Shrinkage”, which can reduce your monthly costs if you keep payments up-to-date. Unlimited plans begin at $50 per month, but expect an extra $5 per month for Android and $10 per month for BlackBerry plans. But with no contracts and a dependable nationwide network, these are still good deals.

Great deals not offered by the carriers

Online retailers often have great bargains on certain smartphones that may usurp the deals offered by the carriers. Walmart, for example, is currently offering the LG Optimus V for $99.99, a $20 reduction on the device at Virgin’s own site. This Android smartphone runs an older version of Google’s operating system (Android 2.2), but that should still serve many people just fine. It has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, and boasts Swype text entry for easy virtual keyboard input.

Also, prospective prepaid customers should keep a careful eye on AmazonWireless.com. There are often no-contract Android devices available like the Samsung R720 Vitality prepaid smartphone on Cricket for $73.99, or the Samsung Admire on MetroPCS. Be warned, however, that these deals come and go quickly.

Want a Windows 7 phone or older iPhone?

Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to find any no-contract options for new Windows 7 smartphones that come in under the $100 mark. The Nokia Lumia 710 Windows 7 device can be purchased on T-Mobile as a prepaid smartphone but you’ll need to pony-up $329.99 for it. If you do want to get your hands on the latest Nokia Lumia 900, it is available at AT&T for a mere $99.99, but you’ll need to be a new customer signing-up for a full two-year agreement. That means you will spend nearly as much as you paid for it each month for the entire length of your contract (or suffer early termination fees).

As for Apple’s iconic iPhone? Well, the newest iPhone 4S is pretty much a contract-only device with AT&T, Sprint or Verizon, and is likely to set you back $200 right off the bat. Thereafter, you will be on the hook for an expensive two-year commitment. Older iPhone models are available at better prices from AT&T, however. A new iPhone 3GS with 8GB of storage on board can be had for just $0.99, or choose a refurbished one for a mere penny. The catch? You guessed it – you’ll be signing a new, two-year contract with a required data plan. If you are looking for all the great apps and games the iPhone offers, but don’t want the long-term monthly payments, you’re best bet is to pick up a new Wi-Fi only iPod touch for $200 (and not have access to an actual phone). You can also take your chances and buy an unlocked used iPhone on eBay and other sites.