Buying a used phone can feel overwhelming–there’s a wide variety of quality, reliability, and sources, and for those who feel like industry outsiders, it can seem like too big a risk. Sure, buying used can save you money, but is it really worth it in the long-run? We’re here to tell you that, for most people, it is. With this guide, you’ll be fully equipped to make good choices about where and how to buy a used phone, and it could save you hundreds of dollars!
We’ve covered it all, so read on to find out everything you need to know in our Ultimate Guide to Buying a Used Phone.
The 5 W’s
Every good writer knows to start with the 5 W’s – Who, What, When, Where, and Why. We’ll cover these basics before diving into the details of used phone buying.
- Who – Who can buy a used phone? Anyone! Yes, even you! That’s the whole point of our guide. If you like saving money, then buying used can be for you.
- What – A lot of people think that buying used means that you’ll only get old phones or phones that have already been trashed. But really, any phone, even the newest ones can be found online being sold second-hand. There are some legitimate reasons a person may want to sell their device that was purchased recently. For instance, buyer’s remorse is commonly coupled with poor return policies from stores, and unwanted gifts often end up listed online from buyers seeking some fast cash.
You’ll find some phones in pretty poor quality, or people looking to sell broken phones for parts or repair, but you can also find phones in great condition that may even look brand new!
- When – It seems that the goldilocks zone for getting a great deal on a used phone is 2-3 iterations behind the newest generation. The most current, cutting-edge phones won’t be that much cheaper and are more likely to be stolen or financed (more on that later), and eventually phones only get so cheap. Technology usually depreciates with a bias towards the first year it is available, and the steepest discounts are typically applied to last year’s new tech. Tech from two years ago also shows some significant decrease, slowly stabilizing afterwards at a more consistent rate of depreciation. Manufacturers also stop making older phones eventually, so it can be difficult to determine if you’re getting a good deal or not, since there’s little to compare it to.
- Why – If you want to be savvy with your hard earned cash, buying a lightly used phone can add up to massive savings for your bank account. Why spend $1200 on the newest iPhone XS, when you can spend $400 on a lightly used iPhone X? The savings for “2nd best phone” is incredible value waiting to be snatched up.Plus, it’s better for the environment! The production of smartphones requires a lot of rare-earth minerals, and less than 1% of phones get recycled. Most of a cell phone’s environmental impact comes from its production (as opposed to powering it), so buying pre-owned not only saves a phone from ending up in a landfill, it helps lower the carbon footprint that results from making a new phone.
- Where – Where to buy a used phone is probably the most complicated of the 5 W’s. There’s a number of options of where to buy when you’re looking for a pre-owned device, and they range in reliability and price. You won’t be surprised to know that it’s usually the case that the more reliable the seller, the more it will cost. The exception is UpTrade; here you’ll find great value on pre-owned phones with none of the guess-work.There are three main options for where to buy a used phone, and that’s at a brick-and-mortar store, an online retailer of pre-owned phones, or through an online marketplace. Here’s a little more about each of your options:
- Your Local Phone Carrier or Electronic Retail Store – This option includes anywhere you would go in person to find a phone. You can buy certified and pre-owned from any of the major carriers like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, etc., or you can purchase a used phone, either unlocked or for your specific carrier, from a retail store like Best Buy or Wal-Mart. Carriers may be the most straightforward and risk-free option for buying a used phone, but they’re also the most expensive as carriers typically subsidize the cost of a phone while recouping their profits through long-term service contracts.
Both carriers and retailers offer many of the same incentives. Both of these kinds of locations have high markups because they have to pay for the overhead of their business and storefront, as well as the direct labor cost of servicing the phone and testing to verify its functionality. Doing this yourself is what saves you money. This option is paying for convenience and security.
If you choose the retailer route, instead of buying from your carrier, you can often find a wider variety of phones to purchase as these stores aren’t locked into the same kinds of contracts as the phone carriers. Just be sure to buy a phone that’s unlocked or made for your provider.
- UpTrade – Here at UpTrade, we offer certified pre-owned smartphones through a digital store-front. We’re able to offer the same phones at lower prices than traditional retailers because we don’t have to cover the same overhead costs–and those savings are passed on to our customers.
We provide the labor of acquiring used phones, testing their functionality, and completing repairs if necessary. Between traditional retailers and online marketplaces, we offer the best of each. Maybe you’ll find a unicorn price-slashed phone on the marketplaces that undercuts our stable rates, but at UpTrade we take out the guess-work by applying our expertise and by doing the vetting for you. You’ll basically be getting the same services that you would from a carrier or retailer, just without the store front. And let’s be honest, who wants to go to an actual store anyways?
- Peer to Peer (P2P) Marketplaces – Lastly there’s peer to peer marketplaces like Letgo, Offerup, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Also, if you’re part of a college or university, you may find local deals through private FB groups. This is the do-it-yourself method of buying used. When using P2P, there’s a lot more potential for deals, but as the purchaser, it becomes your responsibility to inspect the device for quality and functionality. It’s possible that with patience, consistency, and a little bit of luck, you can rock a top-end phone for as little as $200.
The Next Step – How to Buy a Used Phone
So we’ve made it through the 5 W’s, and now we’re on to the big question: how? This is where things get a little trickier. There’s a lot that can go into buying a used phone, but hey, that’s why we’re here! We’ll cover all the steps you need to take, no matter where you choose to buy from. There’s some things you’ll want to know whether you buy from a carrier or a rando on FB–we’ll start there–but don’t worry, we’ll also cover the steps to buying P2P.
- What to Know for Any Location, Any Phone
Wherever you decide to buy your phone, used or new, there’s a few things you should be thinking about and looking for before you make a purchase:
- Features – Step one in buying any phone, new or old, is to make sure that it has the features that you want. You don’t have to buy the newest phone just because it’s the newest, and don’t feel like you have to skimp on features you really need just because a phone is cheap. There’s plenty of great deals out there, so start by asking yourself what you want in a phone: a great camera, high processing power for streaming and playing games, loads of memory, or excellent video and audio to become the next TikTok star? Whatever it is, make sure that the phone you get is the phone you want.
- Storage Space – Do you have a huge music collection? Always use the hottest reaction gifs? Are you a selfie addict? If these sound like you, you will need a higher amount of storage space. Movies, apps, games, ebooks and everything else on a phone will quickly fill up the storage space of a base model, and most people will want at least a little extra.You can look at your current phone’s storage space in settings, and if you feel like you are running out, you will want to consider buying higher storage for your new phone.
Storage space can have a huge impact on price, so if it looks like you’re getting a too-good-to-be-true deal, double check you’re getting the storage space you need (most new phones don’t have a way to add storage either, so what you have is what you get).
- Model Number – Not all phones are created equal. Carriers often lock their phones to their network, and while Apple or Google may sell their phones unlocked from their site, different versions of the same phone are optimized for specific networks.
Starting with the iPhone 7, Apple opted to use different modems in the same basic model of phone; some 7’s are made by Qualcomm, some are made by Intel. These differences have continued through the present iPhone XS. These different modems lead to different levels of performance on the various carrier networks, despite the fact that the phones technically have the capacity to run on any network. In fact, in almost every case the Qualcomm model had better reception and speed than the Intel model. If you want the full performance from your phone, be sure to check model numbers and buy the modem that works best on your network.
- Pricing – Believe it or not, you are not always at the mercy of the seller’s asking price. Carriers often have discounts for students, teachers, and even employees of many major corporations. Be sure to ask if your employer is on the list and about any current specials happening when you buy your phone–even if you’re buying used.
And bargaining is common and expected on P2P platforms. You can get a sense of how much a used phone is worth based on how much a retail company (like us) is willing to pay for it. When buying a phone P2P, the ideal price of the phone should be slightly above the trade-in value on carrier websites. Phones on P2P marketplaces, however, will almost never be listed at these prices. Instead, prices on P2P sales sites are always inflated. It’s common for a seller to knock off a quarter or even half the listing price after some simple negotiation.
- Buying Used from Any Location – Buying used, as the details in this guide would suggest, comes with its own set of variables that any buyer should be aware of. Ideally, when buying from a trusted seller like a chain storefront or from us at UpTrade, these won’t be issues you need to worry too much about. However, wherever you buy from, it’s a good idea to double check these elements before you sign on the dotted line.
- IMEI – IMEI stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity, and this unique number will tell you almost everything you need to know about a phone. The IMEI can reveal if it was blacklisted for being stolen, whether or not it is still being financed, and it confirms details like the model name and storage space, which you can use to verify the details of the listing.
Prologmobile.com is a great resource for checking an IMEI for yourself. It will display the intended carrier for the phone, as well as if it’s blacklisted or financed. When a phone is “blacklisted,” it means that the manufacturer or carrier has flagged the device as stolen. You only want to buy a phone that has been fully paid off and not stolen, because if a manufacturer thinks your phone is stolen, they can lock the phone, an action that cannot be undone.
- Financing – Running an IMEI check should also include information from the carriers on whether or not the phone is being financed. Sometimes owners try to sell a phone that they haven’t finished paying off; if you buy a financed phone, you could be on the hook for the difference. Financed phones are bound to a network, and if the original owner stops paying their bill, the phone can be cut off from service, even if it is being used on a different line on the same network.
- iCloud/Find my iPhone/Factory Settings – When purchasing a used phone, be sure that the previous owner has been signed out of iCloud and Find my iPhone. You can’t sign out without entering a password, so it’s up to the original owner to do this (or in the case of a carrier, they’ll wipe the phone).This may sound like a design flaw, but it’s actually a feature. Phones requiring a password to be able to sign out and fully reset enhances the device’s security by discouraging theft and redistribution. If you buy a phone that is still signed in, you won’t be able to use features like the app store or your own iCloud account. And in the worst case, if Find my iPhone is still turned on, the original owner could track you and even accuse you of stealing their phone.
Ideally, before a phone is sold to you, it should be reset to factory settings. That way, no one else’s photos, apps, or private information are on the phone. Even if it seems like a brand new phone, make sure that no one else is signed in to Find My iPhone or any similar security or tracking systems. When buying from a carrier or store, this should all be done ahead of time unless someone is really sleeping on the job. Individual sellers may not be as vigilant about this, though, so be sure to check and double check.
- Issues Specific to Buying P2P – When you choose to purchase a used phone from an individual seller on an online marketplace, there’s a lot that can go sideways. Because you’re not paying for the coverage of going through a third party, the price difference can be really enticing. If you decide to go this route, here’s a few things you should consider:
- Who you’re buying from – buying peer to peer, there’s a high chance of being scammed. Try to buy from a “regular Joe” instead of a dealer (or worst case scenario a scammer). Regular, legitimate sellers usually only have one phone for sale. Their posts will look something like this:In contrast, dealers have a wide variety of phones listed for sale, and will often refer to themselves as “stores” or may even pose as a phone carrier. These sellers are acquiring phones in bulk, and selling them for profit. This obviously means you won’t find your bargain here, since they won’t sell at a loss; moreover, it is likely they are dealing in stolen goods, or selling defective phones. Worst case scenario, you buy a stolen phone with a blacklisted serial number and the manufacturer completely locks the phone from being used. Dealers aren’t necessarily doing anything illegal, but they have a system in place to make money, which usually means you’re going to lose out.
Their posts look pretty different from the individual sellers’:
In your search for the ideal used phone, you may also find yourself engaged with a scammer. “Scammer” is a broad term and can range from anyone selling a defective phone to someone whose suspicious behavior indicates they may have the intention of running off with your money.
Signs of scammers include
-They only take online or mobile payments
-They’ll only mail the phone, not meet in person
-They pressure you to buy quickly
-They lie about the phone’s components or specs
-They refuse to give out the IMEI
Checking only one or two of these boxes does not necessarily make the seller a scammer, but it is reason for caution. If your gut reaction is bad, skip and move on. The best deals are with easy-going people looking to conveniently get rid of their old tech.
- How to Seal the Deal – There are some crucial steps to completing a successful deal when purchasing a used phone P2P. The most important thing to consider is staying safe, but you also want to make sure that you’re not getting scammed and that you’re purchasing the phone you want. With our guide, buying a used phone should be a smooth and safe process.
- Ask for information – On a typical listing, you can expect to find the storage space and intended carrier, but sometimes all that is listed is “iPhone 6” or even worse “Smart Phone” with only one single blurry picture to go on. Regardless, you’ll likely need information not found on the listing, so know that it’s okay to ask some follow up questions.Start by asking 1 or 2 questions that give you the rest of the info you need. Assuming the model and carrier is in the title, your opening message can be something as simple as: “Still available? How much storage does it have?” If you ask for too much upfront, the seller may decide you’re more trouble than you’re worth.
Here’s the key info you need:
-Model number or intended carrier
-Find my iPhone and iCloud locked
-The IMEI serial number
Wait until you have agreed on a price to ask for the IMEI number. Once the seller knows you are committed to paying a price they are happy with, they are more likely to accomodate your needs to inspect the phone. Remember, there are scammers on the buyer’s end too, so it’s as likely that a seller will be wary of you as you are of them.
- Negotiate a price – Once you know the carrier and storage, you can begin negotiations on a price. You can look up the phone’s buy-back value on our site or on your carrier’s site. You should expect to pay a little–but not much–more than this price. If you are looking to buy the absolute newest phone, sellers are going to be less willing to sell at the price phone companies are willing to pay to buy it back. In this niche case, you will need to use your best judgement, and perhaps your own research.
For phones a generation back and older, the online prices are very appropriate, even if they seem to contrast with the listing price on the P2P markets.
When negotiating, being polite and relaxed is key. Start $20 lower than your price, and slowly work up from there.
Ultimately, find what works for you, and stick to your price. If you are specifically set on a certain phone, this process may take several days, but if you don’t care about the phone model, storage space, or screen size, you could have several options a day.
Every once in a while, you will stumble onto a “True Deal.” This is your ideal target, but they are very rare. A True Deal is an honest people, getting rid of their old tech and wanting some easy, convenient cash. They’re likely to accept your first offer, and you’re likely to get a great deal.Here’s a review of key tips for a good negotiation:
-Start lower than the price you find from the phone company
-Politely give reasons to pay more or less
-Remember, it’s about how many people you message. If they aren’t even with $15 of your value price and can’t work with you, move on and check back later
-You may justify your price from the website you choose as justification
-Occasionally, a Unicorn appears where you can effortlessly buy below your value price. Be patient for these and they will show up.
-Keep in mind storage space impacts the cost of the phone on sites like ours, this may be an advantage to your negotiations to drive the price down.
- Set a Safe Place to Meet – Always meet in a public place, during the day. Never go to someone’s house and never meet at night.
Since you still need to check the phone’s functionality, you need a comfortable place to sit for about 5 minutes. Aside from obvious safety concerns, scammers may also have strange requirements like they can’t meet you in person and can only ship. It’s in the best interest of everyone to meet for the phone in a safe, well-lit and public environment. An electrical outlet and free wifi are helpful too, since you need to check the phone’s ability charge and to connect to wifi.For these reasons, an ideal place to meet is a coffee shop. The atmosphere is calming, which is a bonus for both you and the seller, as the seller is also likely trying to be diligent and not be scammed themselves. Coffee shops are relaxing and smell nice, so you can more comfortably make small talk while running the tests. Plus, there are always plenty of people, and the wifi and outlets are perfect to accommodate your testing needs.
Other excellent locations are phone carriers themselves, as they can verify the IMEI in person, and have the final authority to say whether the phone is paid off or not (for their network). Police stations are also good for the obvious safety benefit (though they probably don’t have plugs and wifi).
- Bring the Right Supplies – You may not think that bringing a bunch of supplies to a meet-up is common, but there’s definitely some things you will need to check on the phone, and bringing the right supplies will make sure your purchase goes smoothly.
- A Charger and Earbuds – Try to bring these for the make and model of the phone you are buying, but as long as the charging cable is made for the phone, the rest will be fine.
- Money – Unfortunately, sellers prefer cash and buyers prefer PayPal. Usually sellers want cash-only because it’s easy to get scammed with PayPal, Cash App and Venmo. If you bring cash and a counterfeit currency pen, everyone can feel safe about their transaction.Furthermore, people often misrepresent the value of their phone (like there may be a crack hidden somewhere or there could be microscopic scratches when they said it was a 100% new screen, or the storage may be different as advertised). Bring enough money for the agreed upon price, but keep some of the bills smaller such as in 5’s and 10’s so that if the phone is not as advertised, you may immediately make a counter offer after reassessing the value price of the phone, based on online reselling prices.
- Self Defense items, e.g. Mace – In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need this, but sadly there’s a lot of criminal activity around the buying and selling of used phones. Remember, only meet people where you feel safe. But keep some sort of defense on you anyways; it’s a good safety practice all-around.
- With all of these on your checklist, you should be set to safely assess and purchase the phone, in a nice spot where you can sit and talk for a minute.
- Check the Device – When you meet someone to buy a phone, there’s a lot to go over to ensure that it is in the shape as advertised. Take your time as you inspect the phone, and don’t let the seller make you feel rushed. This is your only chance to ensure that you are getting what you paid for. Here’s what to check out:
- Scratches – Unless the phone is brand new, it’s almost guaranteed to have a single imperfection somewhere on the glass, or side of the phone, driving the price down according to trade-in and reselling websites.
A cracked screen will be more obvious from online pictures; just be sure to not let the seller overrepresent the phone.
- Screen Functionality – Some screens have dead pixels; keep an eye out for that as well as for screen brightness. Additionally, some screens have dead spots that no longer react to touch. Check this by dragging an app icon all over the screen. If the app suddenly jerks back into place, the spot is likely dead, dramatically reducing the retail value of the phone and therefore allowing for steeper price negotiation (assuming you still want the half-functioning phone).
Another important test is the keyboard. A phone can pass the icon test, but parts of the screen may not react to very specific spaces, which you may discover when using the keyboard.
- Ask Siri (or Google Assistant or Bixby) – There is one golden test that can check volume, vibration, wifi, microphone and speakers at once: Hey Siri / Ok Google.
First, the phone’s assistant needs to connect to the internet; you can use the public wifi or your own hotspot. This is an important test in and of itself, and is also a convenient step one to weeding out defective phones. Ask the assistant to tell a joke. While it’s rattling on, play with the volume keys and vibration switch. If the volume goes down and back up, you should be fine.
- Check proximity sensor – Now, ask the AI to do that one more time, but hold the phone to your ear. The phone should switch from using the loud speaker to the ear speaker when brought in close proximity to your face.
- Charging Port – Bring a charger with you, and plug it in. Look at the battery icon and determine if the phone recognizes the charge. The seller likely won’t bring theirs, which is why it is important to keep this check in mind before you leave.
- Camera – Cameras crack too, so take a picture and a selfie. Test the flash while you are at it. Camera quality is a feature that is important to many users, so if this description fits you, be sure to test each feature–portraits, low light, wide angle. The more advanced phones require more testing, as you need to test the telephoto lens and portrait mode as well.
- Touch ID – This is another key inspection. Each iPhone has a unique Touch ID module. This cannot ever be replaced. If Touch ID is broken, you lose a key feature of the phone permanently. Testing this is a little bit tricky, so be sure you communicate with the seller and guide them through exactly how you are testing. If you look suspicious, it’s easy to get an impression that you are locking the seller out of their phone. Go to Touch ID in the setting, then “setup new fingerprint,” and give it a few taps with your thumb. If the phone vibrates after each tap, it should be fine. Back out before confirmation and don’t complete the setup process.
- SIM card tray and service – Another important feature is making sure the SIM slot works and that you can receive service. A legit seller will know that a buyer needs to check the functionality of the phone. Be sure your service is good in the location of your current phone. Then check to see if the service is about the same on the phone you are interested in buying. If you are denied service, you know something is up. Either politely cancel the deal, or offer to meet at a carrier store to work out the issue.
A Final Note
As you can see, when buying a used phone, there’s a lot to consider. After all this, is buying used worth the time? Worth the risks? Worth the hassle? If you’re already making bank, you can probably go ahead and buy the newest phone. But for most people, if a few hours of research a week can save you over $500, it’s worth it for buying a lightly used phone.
If you choose to go the P2P route, you will need to find the phone you want to buy, find a reputable seller, negotiate a price, run an IMEI check, find a safe place to meet, know how to inspect the phone, etc. It’s possible to save some money this way, but it also takes a lot of time, and you run the risk of getting scammed, even if you’re careful.
If you go to your local carrier or retailer for a pre-owned phone, you won’t have to wade through all of the problems with P2P, but you’ll pay for the luxury.
And then there’s us–UpTrade: where there’s no guess-work, lower prices than the retailers, and every purchase is backed by a 30-day money-back guarantee. For most people, unless you really know what you’re doing and you’re set on finding a “score,” buying from us is the way to go.
Buying used online from a respectable vendor–like here at UpTrade for example–is basically the best of both worlds. We do the legwork to verify our phones are neither blacklisted nor financed and are in full, working condition. You stay safe and your purchase is covered while still receiving many of the same savings.
Whichever route you decide to take, if you give buying a used phone a try, we are sure that you will find the right fit for you after using this guide.