Liberate Your Device!
For beginners, the easiest is to start with liberating your phone from proprietary apps. They are dedicated Free Software app stores that offer free apps for the most common use cases, for example messaging, navigation, or games.
Most operating systems on phones you can buy are not free. They contain pre-installed proprietary software which limit your freedoms and harm your privacy. Advanced users should therefore install a mobile operating system that is as free as possible.
A few devices are already shipped with free software by default, so you don't need to liberate them. Easiest option for non-technical users..
For most people, the Google Play Store is the only or the main source for their applications. It doesn't even tell you whether an app is Free Software or not, let alone its license. Unfortunately, most apps from this or other markets are proprietary. Even if you install a Free Software app, there is no reason to trust the downloaded binary. Using Google Play also requires a Google account, and is itself proprietary software. It is recommended to not use this market at all.
The F-Droid initiative was started to change the sad Free Software app situation in the Android world. It builds a repository of easily-installable Free Software apps for the Android platform. There is an Android client application that makes it easy to browse Free Software applications, install them onto your device, and keep track of updates. Apps available on F-Droid do not contain hidden costs and are transparent about possible antifeatures.
The F-Droid repository contains details of multiple versions of each application. You can also easily create and add own repositories. But since the initiative is very active, developing in a decentralised fashion and open to collaboration, creating own repositories is not really necessary. Its goal is to include all useful Free Software Android applications and to keep up with their updates.
We collected some information about how you can help out F-Droid.
Selected apps for common use cases
Nowadways, we fortunately live in a world in which we can choose from various Free Software apps for almost any use case. This section aims to present a small selection of apps which are fitting for starters. By no means can such a list be ever perfect for every individual case. We also recommend you to look at the complete F-Droid repository or app recommendations by PRISM Break, Me and My Shadow, or Security in a Box.
In F-Droid you can find many web browsers for different audiences. Probably the most well known is Mozilla's Firefox Mobile which is available in a completely Free Software edition as Fennec. Another alternative is Firefox' GNU rebranding IceCatMobile. Users who prefer lightweight and privacy-aware apps may also want to try Firefox Klar (also known as Firefox Focus).
K-9 Mail enables its users to add multiple email accounts and offers a wide range of options. It also supports integration with encryption apps like OpenKeychain and is able to read GnuPG encrypted messages.
The situation of Free Software apps for instant messaging is complicated. While there are 100% Free Software solutions like Conversations and Zom (for XMPP/Jabber, iOS users can use ChatSecure), Delta Chat (using email) or Element (using Matrix), they probably will not be very widespread among your friends because their user bases are relatively small. Other apps are completely or mostly Free Software but have other antifeatures like dependencies on non-free servers and libraries, or no server federation, for example Signal or Wire. There are several initiatives to make instant messaging as free, secure, decentralised, and user-friendly as possible, and we hope to be able to make clearer recommendations in the future.
Plenty of Free Software apps aim to make you enjoy audio and video on your mobile phone. Notable apps are NewPipe as a lightweight interface for YouTube which adds some unique features, the VLC Player for videos, or RadioDroid to listen to thousands of radio stations. Podcast listeners may like AntennaPod.
When you are travelling, your mobile phone can be a helper for you. Transportr knows public transportation networks of countries and cities all over the world. OsmAnd serves detailed offline and online maps of whereever you are right now, and also includes navigation when riding your bicycle or car.
F-Droid contains various mobile games for almost any taste. For example puzzlers may enjoy 2048 while block sandbox fans can play Minetest in single as well as multiplayer mode. For fans of 1010! there is 1010! Klooni.
The Operating Systems
An operating system is a collection of software that enables you to use your phone and run other applications on it. Even though Android is mostly free, many phones ship with proprietary components and add-ons. Some phones also have a locked boot loader which prevents you from booting and installing other operating systems. If you want to buy an Android phone, make sure that the boot loader can be unlocked.
On some devices it can only be unlocked with clever hacks and their manufacturers tend to declare your warranty void when you unlock their device's boot loader. But, given European Directive 1999/44/CE, just the fact that you modified or changed the software of your device, is not a sufficient reason to void your statutory warranty. See Carlo Piana's and Matija Šuklje's analysis for more information.
There are also companies that ship their devices with an unlocked bootloader or provide you with the means to unlock it. These phones should be preferred for easy installs and usability.
Replicant "is a free software mobile operating system putting the emphasis on freedom and privacy/security" and is 100% Free Software. Since it does not use any non-free drivers, it currently works on a limited number of devices. List of supported Replicant devices.
LineageOS is a very popular Custom-ROM that works on a huge number of different devices. This is because it uses proprietary drivers and firmware. Even though it is usually more free than the default software your Android device comes with, freedom is not its main objective. You do not need a Google account to use LineageOS, neither does it contain Google Play services. LineageOS works pretty good with the Free Software implementation microG. List of supported LineageOS devices
GrapheneOS "is a privacy and security focused mobile OS with Android app compatibility developed as a non-profit open source project. It's focused on the research and development of privacy and security technology including substantial improvements to sandboxing, exploit mitigations and the permission model." Graphene OS currently only supports Pixel phones. GrapheneOS does not support microG. List of supported GrapheneOS devices.
CalyxOS describes itself as "Privacy by Design". It is not as restrictive as GrapheneOS though and optionaly allows the user to install microG. CalyxOS only works on devices with a verified boot, which means the boot-loader is locked and can't be manipulated. CalyxOS also offers to go back to your stock Android, if you change your mind in the future. You probably won't but it's good to know that you can. List of supported CalyxOS devices.
/e/ is "is a complete, fully “deGoogled”, mobile ecosystem". The idea is to form a privacy-enabled internal system for your smartphone with no Google apps or Google services accessing your personal data. Google services have been completely removed and replaced with microG. You can set up an account for advanced backup features. It does support a large number of devices and it is also possible to buy smartphones with /e/ pre-installed. List of supported /e/ devices
These are just some of the available Custom-ROMs out there. See our dedicated wiki-page for more options or scan the Internet to find others.
Other Factory Free alternatives
Even though this page is focused on liberating you current Android phone, if you are looking to buy a new device, you should also be aware that they are also factory free devices in the market, that are already sold Free and don't require you to do anything to them after you purchase them.
The Nitrophone is an Android phone that already ships with Free Software. It's a Pixel4a with GrapheneOS installed, so you don't need to do anything to it once you purchase it.
This is newest free alternative as it was announced the 2nd of September 2021.
Linux phones may one day become a third option alongside iOS and Android. However, today they are still under heavy development so are still considered to be in beta, so they might not be the most suitable option for standard users yet. For those how like to be at the edge of the curve, we currently have the Purism Librem 5 and the Pine 64 Pinephone. Librem 5 currently ships with PureOS and the Pinephone ships with Manjaro, even though multiple other distributions are supported.
On a linux phone you can install many Linux distributions and the same software you can install on any Linux PC. Additionally, installation of Android apps on linux phones is also possible thanks to emulators like Anbox or the newer and more efficient Waydroid.