If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, checking prices could give you a serious case of sticker shock. Both the iPhone 7 and Google’s Pixel start at $649 and go up from there, with a top-of-the-line iPhone 7 Plus selling for $969.
If you’re OK with having something that’s a little less than the latest model, going with a used phone can save you a bundle. The downside? Getting a good deal — and a phone that works — takes more effort than buying a new phone off the store shelf. If you’re willing to put in some legwork to save cash, here’s what you need to know about buying a used cell phone — and seven questions to ask before doing so.
Where can I buy a used phone?
Buying anything used comes with a certain amount of risk. Your new-to-you smartphone could be damaged, still under contract (meaning you won’t be able to activate it with your carrier), or even stolen — so be careful when and where you buy. You have these four basic shopping options, and each has its own level of risk.
A classified ad site like Craigslist
This option involves the most risk. Because you’re probably buying directly from an individual, there are no guarantees and no return policies. However, this is also where you’ll find the best deals if you’re careful and avoid potential scams.
An auction site like eBay or Swappa
These kinds of sites don’t inspect the phones but do guarantee that products should arrive as described. Simply confirm that the product description is clear enough for you to argue the point — for example, a phone described as working doesn’t turn on when you receive it — if something’s amiss.
A used-tech marketplace like Gazelle
These marketplaces act as intermediaries between buyer and seller, and guarantee the transaction. The sites inspect used goods before selling them, so you’re sure to get what you’re paying for.
A traditional retailer selling refurbs
A certified refurbished product is guaranteed to be like-new, but it’s also the most expensive used option. However, you can get a nearly new product at a good discount.
Can I use the phone with my carrier or in my region?
Different carriers use different tech to connect to their networks: CDMA (Sprint, Verizon) and GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile). Some phones are built to work on both networks. But some aren’t — like certain models of the new iPhone 7 — and you’re locked into one or the other when you buy.
If you do any international travel, know that GSM is more widely supported around the globe. You can easily swap a local SIM card into your GSM phone when you’re in another country to get coverage at a reasonable cost.
Is the phone unlocked?
Some phones may be locked to a specific carrier, meaning you can’t activate them with another carrier. This is common for a phone that’s still under contract or originally bought through a carrier. Look for an unlocked phone if you aren’t committed to a specific carrier, though you can usually save by buying a phone locked into a certain network.
Is the used phone stolen?
If you’re not careful you might, through no fault of your own, buy a stolen smartphone. It could work for a while. But when someone reports it as stolen, it’ll suddenly be as useful as a brick. The carriers will blacklist its serial number and it won’t be usable.
Some sales sites — like Swappa and Gazelle — check the serial number and make sure the phone isn’t stolen before it’s sold; but if you’re doing a deal on Craigslist or eBay, you’re on your own. The easiest way to check is to ask the seller for the serial number, then call your carrier to see if the phone can be activated.
What condition is the used phone in?
You may be OK with some dings and scratches in exchange for a discount — after all, you’re probably putting a case on your new smartphone anyway — but you may not want a phone that shows extreme signs of wear. While buying a phone in less-than-perfect condition can get you a serious deal, that poor condition could also indicate damage to the electronics that will haunt you down the road.
What’s a used smartphone worth?
A used phone has no MSRP, so you need to do some research to figure out whether you’re getting a good price. The model, carrier, condition and even the color can have a big impact on price.
Is now the right time to buy?
The newer the model, the higher the price — and with recently announced models, you may not have the option to buy used or refurbished. It helps to be aware of the manufacturer’s release schedule, as prices on the previous year’s model often drop immediately after a new model is announced. However, patience can save you a bundle; prices should keep falling for a few months after a new model is released.
Readers, what are your used phone shopping tips? If you have a used cellphone, how has it worked out? Let us know in the comments!