7 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Used Phone

Opting for a site like Craigslist could save you a bundle up front, but cost you more headaches down the road.
used smartphone

If you're in the market for a new smartphone, checking prices could give you a serious case of sticker shock. Both Google's Pixel and Apple's iPhone 7 start at $649 and go up from there, while a top-of-the-line iPhone 7 Plus sells for $969.

But 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.

With a classified ad site like Craigslist, there are no guarantees and no return policies.

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.

SEE ALSO: 3 Easy Ways to Use Your Phone Abroad (Without Going Broke)

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 It Stolen?

You may, 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.

A stolen phone could work for a while. But when someone reports it, it'll suddenly be as useful as a brick.

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, and then call your carrier to see if the phone can be activated.

What Condition Is the 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.

SEE ALSO: What Does Refurbished Mean? How to Tell the Difference Between Not-New Items

What's It Worth?

A used phone has no MSRP, so you need to do the 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 cell phone, how has it worked out? Let us know in the comments!

Elizabeth Harper
Contributing Writer

Originally working in IT, Elizabeth now writes on tech, gaming, and general consumer issues. Her articles have appeared in USA Today, Time, AOL, PriceGrabber, and more. She has been one of DealNews' most regular contributors since 2013, researching everything from vacuums to renters insurance to help consumers.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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TechPayout is a competitor to Gazelle. I actually prefer them. Higher payouts and better service.
I find that the best bargains are the refurbished phones I find on eBay. I personally use one and have bought them for friends and people at work who are apprehensive. I would say that I have purchased at least 2 dozen refurbs at steep discounts in the last 2 years. I don't know of a single one of these phones that has failed other than because of cracked screens or something else the person who purchased it has done to it.

I always buy from a seller who has at least 1000 feedback ratings that are over 97%. These sellers generally back up their sale with a guarantee of some sort.
@nematoda, actually changing the battery on an iphone is really simple, they sell the kits on eBay for around $5 that comes with a battery (for example an iphone 4), and search youtube on iphone 4 battery replacement.

@xterra, I disagree, some of my best used phone purchases have been from eBay. I will admit, it is hit or miss, but when it is a miss, eBay along with Amazon has one of the best buyer protection policy.

I would advise buyers to try to find a listing with many pictures from different angles as well as listings with a lot of details in the description. Make sure at least one of the pictures show the phone's model # either on the screen or on the back of the phone as some sellers will accidentally say it's one model, but it's another model.

Lastly, check the seller ratings and their respective return policies. If their rating isn't above 97%, then definitely check the feedback for clues about the seller's customer service.

Good luck folks.
Best not to buy a used phone, especially from eBay.
One concern I have with used phones is with the life of the battery. Even reputable sites that refurbish phones will not replace the battery. As we all know, the older and more used the battery, the less it will hold a charge. If the phone has user swappable battery (some Galaxies and most LGs), of course, that's not an issue, but I'd be wary of any phone (e.g., iPhone, Galaxy S6), no matter how well kept, that does not allow for an easy battery swap.