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Here’s How to Buy a Used Phone (That Actually Works)

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Here’s How to Buy a Used Phone (That Actually Works)

Looking to update your old cell phone? A phone that is not necessarily new but is new to you could save you a lot of money without costing you quality.

“There’s such an appetite for consumers that don’t need to have the newest but would still like a phone with all the latest and greatest features,” said Chase Freeman, spokesperson for Gazelle, an online company that buys and sells pre-owned consumer electronics.

There are many places to buy a used smartphone and several things you should do before spending your hard-earned money.

Here’s how to buy a used phone.

Why Are There So Many Used Phones Available?

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), there were 225.4 million shipments of used smartphones in 2020, an increase of 9.2% over 2019. The used cell phone industry is growing steadily with a predicted volume of 351.6 million units and a market value of $65 billion by 2024.

Trade-in deals are part of the reason. People looking to get the newest technology are turning in their old phones for deals on new phones. That spells opportunity for the person looking to save some money but still snag a great phone.

“You have consumers that need to have the latest and greatest every single year a manufacturer releases a new phone, so those people are going to always want a new phone,” Freeman said. “Those phones they’ve used for 12 to 18 months … are like new more than half the time. So there is a lot of life left in those devices.”

Once there was a time when the technology changed a bunch between phone versions, but that has slowed down a bit.

Used vs. Refurbished: What’s the Difference?

Two types of non-new phones are out there, used and refurbished. They mean different things.

“Used would mean someone like a consumer used the phone and when they were done with it, they traded it in with no issues in good working order,” Freeman said. “Refurbished would typically mean something has been fixed in the phone. Maybe there was an issue with the hard drive or maybe there was an issue with the battery and something had to be fixed within that phone because it wasn’t working properly.”

With both kinds, you’ll save money.

“I think the word has gotten out that you can go and buy a gently used phone — or newish phone as we like to say — and you can get something that is still modern and up to date and you can save a lot of money,” said Sara Beane, media relations specialist for Swappa, a user-to-user marketplace for gently used technology.

What To Look For When Buying a Used Phone

A used cell phone is only good if it works — and it hasn’t been reported lost or stolen. If it has been reported lost or stolen, built-in technology will keep it from being activated by someone new.

That’s how Swappa came into being.

“Our CEO bought a phone from Craigslist and it seemed like it was fine and then when he got home he couldn’t activate it,” Beane said. Companies like Swappa, Gazelle and others put phones through thorough testing and checks before allowing them to go up on their sites for sale.

Still, there are many shady sellers who traffic in stolen phones. So the first thing to do is find a trusted retailer or website to buy your used phone.

Some of the top sellers for buying a used phone include:

  • Cell service providers: Many of the nation’s cell carriers refurbish and resell phones they receive as trade-ins. Some have a program where subscribers automatically get a new phone every few years, meaning they always have used phones in stock.
  • Phone manufacturers: Companies like Apple, Samsung and others repair and refurbish phones that are returned to them and then sell them at a reduced price. Often these phones have some kind of warranty.
  • Amazon: Several third-party phone resellers operate on Amazon. Some get their phones directly from manufacturers or cell carriers and offer them at a discount.
  • Individual sellers: Places like eBay and Facebook Marketplace allow individual sellers to post their phones they want to sell.
  • Gazelle: On this site, each device is inspected to make sure it operates and charges properly, and there is a 30-day return window. The company also uses CheckMEND to make sure a device hasn’t been reported lost or stolen.
  • Swappa: This site is a user-to-user marketplace where people buy and sell directly to other consumers. The company checks serial numbers to make sure the phone hasn’t been lost or stolen and requires sellers to upload photos of the phone powered on, with a custom listing code for each device.

If you’re looking at other retailers or websites, make sure you read reviews and if everything seems perfect with few details, be wary.

No matter where you choose to buy a used phone, make sure the company accepts payment methods that allow you some recourse if the phone either never arrives or isn’t what you expected.

Paying with cash or directly out of a bank account offers little protection.

Credit cards, payment systems like PayPal, or buying through reputable companies with buyer protection provide the best options to recover your money if something bad happens.

Finding the Perfect Used Phone

“Used” doesn’t necessarily mean old and outdated.

Freeman said many people don’t realize when a new version of a phone comes out, what was the best and latest just a month ago might now be coming in for trades. That’s good news for someone looking for a deal.

He also suggests the following to help you narrow down your search:

  • Know what you want: Do you want Android or iOS? Samsung, Apple or something else?
  • Features: What are the top things you’re looking for? Is it a good camera? Big screen? Storage? Something else?
  • Pick your condition: Do you care if there are a couple of scratches on the phone, or do you want it in pristine condition?
  • Carrier: Do you want it to be a phone that was originally from a particular carrier?

“I think it’s also an important question [to ask yourself]: How long do you expect to use it?” Freeman said. “Do I maybe want to spend a little bit more to get some more life out of it? Or do I want to maybe spend a little bit less because I’m not as heavy of a user as other people?”

Other things Freeman and Beane suggest looking for when buying a used phone online:

  • Serial number: If the phone has been reported lost or stolen, it won’t work with a new activation. Ask for the phone’s serial number, which is also known as an ESN or IMEI. You can check the device at CheckMEND for a small fee. This service will also confirm the make and model, tell you if the phone has had several owners, was involved in a serious crime, was subjected to an insurance claim and more.
  • Details: If a listing has very few details about the phone, it might be too good to be true. Also, check for photos of the actual phone, not stock photos of the product. Note if some of the photos are of the phone during operation and not just when powered off.
  • Accessories: Verify whether your phone will come with an original charger or other accessories.
  • Questions: Is there a place to ask a seller questions? If it does not say in the description, you might want to ask if the phone has a new battery or has ever been water damaged. Even if a phone works after water damage, the components inside might have a shorter life.
  • Compatibility: Make sure the phone you want to buy will be compatible with your service provider. Some phones used in other countries will not work in the United States.
  • Support: Check with the phone’s manufacturer to make sure the phone is still supported with security updates. Older phones without the ability to update might be easily accessible to hackers.

Once you have the phone in your hand, check the following:

  • Camera: Take a few photos and make sure everything works.
  • Speakers: Play a few songs or a video to check the speakers.
  • Call quality: Make a call and ask if the person on the other end can hear you clearly.
  • Charging: Plug in the charging cable and make sure the phone charges properly and the connections are secure. Make sure there are no bulges near the battery.

When looking online, prices for used phones vary widely. Prices depend on the condition and storage capacity. Freeman said knowing what the phone would cost brand new is a good place to start.

So is understanding there is more to a successful purchase than just price. Make sure you’re comfortable with the seller’s return policy and verification process. “It’s important for sellers to offer all of these security points to ensure you’re getting what you’re paying for and something that will last you more than just a couple months,” Freeman said.

Tiffani Sherman is a Florida-based freelance reporter with more than 25 years of experience writing about finance, health, travel and other topics.




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