Buying a Used Cell Phone: The Tips and Tricks You Need to Know

If you’re reading this, you might be in the process of buying a new phone. Alternatively, you might be in the market for a new phone and are wondering if you can save money by making your “new” phone a used one. And you can. But like most deals and opportunities for savings, there are hangups and potential risks that you need to work around. Nothing is free, and a used phone is not the best choice for everyone.

Therefore, we wanted to create a guide to help you, whether you know you want a used phone or are on the fence. Here is what you need to know when buying and setting up a used phone:

Why Might You Want to Buy a Used Cell Phone?

Let’s go over the pros and reasons you’re even considering buying a used phone in the first place.

  • The first and most straightforward answer here is that used phones are cheaper. You can get them at a discount, and if you pick out the right phone, it won’t make much of a difference. 
  • Just note that you might have a phone with a reduced lifespan, making the cost per month of owning a device similar if you don’t do your research.
  • Sometimes you may want to buy a particular older phone (perhaps for research or a very limited feature). Stores generally don’t carry around old phone models for very long. They’ll try everything to move inventory beforehand, so you will likely have to get a used phone if you’re that particular.
  • You might also have the opportunity to buy the phone from someone you know. While the people you know aren’t infallible, it can work out well for everyone involved.
  • Sometimes you don’t want the best phone; you want a cheap smartphone that will work that you could potentially give to someone younger or someone who won’t use it all the time for emergencies. A used smartphone that one gets for a discount is perfect for this.

The Reasons Why You May Not Want to Buy a Used Phone

Used smartphones are not for everyone. In fact, we’re confident that most people won’t be entirely happy with a used phone. Here are the major reasons why:

  • While a used phone is cheaper in the short term, it might not provide as much long-term value. If a new phone will last three years and a used phone will last two, how much does the discount on the used phone matter? If you can make a phone last, that’s one thing, but your quality of life is also to consider.
  • When you get a new phone, you will likely get plenty of customer support, all the related peripherals, options for service, and the latest and greatest features. You can certainly get some of that with a used phone (depending on the used phone), but it likely won’t be as comprehensive.
  • There are also plenty of reasons one shouldn’t buy a particular used phone. It might not be to your liking. It might not be a good value for the asking price. The specific phone on sale could confuse you or make you wonder how long it will last. You should feel confident in whatever you buy, so listen to your emotions and reason to some extent when purchasing a used cell phone.
  • If you want a flagship phone but are unsure if you can afford it, buying a used one from a year ago might not be the way to go. Today’s mid-range or mid-high-range phones will often match what was cutting edge a year ago for the same price. And you won’t have to deal with the risks of a used phone.
  • Speaking of risks, someone wanted to get rid of their old phone for a reason. Perhaps it was a perfectly good phone, and the previous owner of a given device just wanted to upgrade to the latest and greatest smartphone when it came out. Though often, there might be wear and tear, and everything might not work correctly.
  • This problem can be mitigated through careful inspection of the phone before you buy (more on this later) and working with a seller with an acceptable return policy.

Used Versus Refurbished

When shopping for a phone online, you might see both phones that are “used” and others that are “refurbished.” You will want to treat these two categories the same in many ways, but they are still quite different in terms of what to expect.

A refurbished phone is a mobile phone that was returned for whatever reason (perhaps an error or just a return) and then repaired and looked over by an expert. It is fixed if needed, set back to its factory settings as though it was new, certified, and then repackaged. It’s usually the closest thing a phone will get to new without being new. While they can have problems, a refurbished device generally comes with a better warranty and return policy.

A used phone is what you would expect. A phone that another person has used for some time. It could mean that it was used for a few days or that someone regularly used it for a year. Both are used phones, and quality is not so guaranteed.

A refurbished phone can be used and was likely used to some extent. A used phone does not have to go through the refurbishing process. Outside of a cursory check by the seller, you are getting what the previous owner left off. Keep these things in mind when you are shopping for phones.

Picking Your Store

You will be looking at phones soon enough, but one of the first choices you should make outside of new or used (maybe you haven’t decided yet, and that’s fine) is where to look for phones. After all, the stock will vary by location, as will the prices and policies. To help you, let’s go over the major options:

  • A seller from a site like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace: Under no circumstance would we ever recommend getting a phone from these sites. We would barely recommend taking a free phone from someone on these sites. What you’ll be getting is unreliable, potentially dangerous given what might be installed on the phone, and is unlikely to last you very long. There is a reason the seller is getting rid of the phone. While you could score a good deal, the risk of inheriting that reason is much too significant. And if things go wrong, there’s very little you can do about it, and you’ll have to eat the cost.
  • If you are buying a used phone from an individual, make sure that it is someone you know and can track down if they try to scam you. The fact that you can track them down makes it less likely that they’ll try anything.
  • Some people track down stuff and make money, hoping to sell old electronics to people who don’t know any better. Don’t be one of those people who don’t know better.
  • A pawn shop or a public place selling used phones might not be the best place to go. While better than a random seller online, and you’ll ideally be able to inspect the phone, it takes time to understand how well the phone works and return policies will likely not be the greatest.
  • However, a store that sells used phones that specializes in phones can be a much better option. Suppose it is a service carrier outlet or phone brand retail location that does occasionally sell used phones. In that case, there are likely decent return policies in place, and some tests were likely done to make sure the phone at least functions on a basic level.
  • Online retailers such as Amazon shopping are so large that their trustworthiness is almost a given. Such stores will go to great lengths to keep their reputation, and if they work with outside sellers, they will regulate them heavily to ensure that users are not scammed.
  • The same goes for stores that sell electronics. If they sell all sorts of gadgets, they know a thing or two about how to sell a smartphone properly.
  • Some online stores have reputable brand names and have been in business for some time. 
  • We cannot go over all of them, but we recommend performing a search on them and looking up reviews if you are concerned. You’ll be able to get the general idea of their reputation and business practices in a few minutes and then decide whether you look further or skip them over.
  • With these, the more information you consider on the used phone, the better. You ideally should be able to see the phone from several angles. Additionally, look for a good return policy that makes returns painless. Remember that your money, time, and convenience are factors here. Saving $100 on the phone isn’t worth it if you have to take several extra hours to get things right.
  • You might be looking at phones offered by a carrier online, whether they are new, refurbished, or used. These phones are by far the most likely to be fine, though your savings might be somewhat limited compared to the other options. If you enjoy peace of mind, though (we know we do), something from a carrier might be the easiest and best choice.

You may find additional opportunities or places to buy a used phone. Whatever your instance, follow the general principles and ideas mentioned in this guide, and use your better judgment. It is generally better to be cautious than aggressive when picking out a device that will be by your side constantly for several years to come.

How Much Should You Pay?

It would be best if you were looking for a significant discount on the phone; otherwise, the risks and inconveniences of getting a used phone far outweigh the savings, no matter the phone. 

However, the exact discount you can expect is based on two things: the condition of the phone and how old the phone model is. If the phone’s condition is poor, you shouldn’t be paying much for it if you’re still interested in it. And the older the phone model, the better the discount should be. A new phone model that came out three months ago is probably used only for a little bit before a return or upon the realization that the buyer made a mistake.

We cannot tell you the market rate for every phone. There are too many phones to go over, and the rates will likely change when you read this article. However, you can compare the shop with other sellers for phones of the same model in the same relative condition.

Also, haggling down the price is not recommended. You will not be able to do so with most retailers. And with individual sellers, as much as we advise against them, the trouble is usually not worth it.

Inspecting a Phone Before You Buy

Inspecting the phone is the of the best ways to assure you make the right choice before you hand over your credit card details.

The phone should start up as though it was new, and you shouldn’t notice anything wrong with it unless it was clearly stated and agreed that it was acceptable for the discounted rate. Unfortunately, different sellers have different definitions of “acceptable,” which puts the task of checking it to your satisfaction on you.

If you are ordering the phone online, you can still properly inspect it after you buy it while giving yourself enough time to make a return if you want to.

Your inspection should include, if possible:

  • Ensure all the ports work correctly, ideally testing them with the devices you use daily. A phone’s most common problem is a bad port that makes it hard to charge or connect the phone to other devices.
  • Alongside this, see how well the phone charges. Unless the battery has been changed, 
  • Test the screen and check for cracks, problems, and the like. Try it with all lighting settings, and in all forms of lighting you can access. Sometimes a crack might not show up unless it’s under the right light. 
  • You will want to test it out for performance as well. Perhaps try to install an intensive app or a game, ideally, one you know the specifications for. If you have a general idea of how well a phone should perform, you can usually look up the specifications and get performance reviews online. It might not work as well as it did when it was new, but it should certainly be comparable.
  • Is there anything odd installed? Is it as though you started up for the first time? You’ll want to perform a factory reset (or equivalent) on the phone before you set it up with your phone service, but a phone still being bloated at the time of near-sale is a bad sign.
  • Test out the hardware. You’ll want to play a video on the phone and listen to it on some headphones. Remember that the touchscreen is also part of the hardware as well as part of the software. See if Bluetooth devices connect well and the WiFi acts as it should.
  • Make sure all the buttons work correctly in as many situations as you can think of. There shouldn’t be anything that sticks or doesn’t work half the time. Such a problem quickly becomes infuriating and ruins an otherwise perfectly good phone.
  • Taking a look at the camera or cameras is also a good idea. While not every camera is perfect, there should be no signs of damage.
  • Check for water damage, rush, and the like as best as you can. Most phones made today have some degree of water resistance. That does not mean that they are waterproof.
  • We repeat that under no circumstances should you ever buy a used phone online (or even not online) unless there is some return policy. Even if you think the savings are excellent or the phone looks great, a lack of a guarantee or such a return policy should raise every red flag in your mind that the seller is trying to pull one over on you.

We understand that some of these checks cannot be done quickly or within a few minutes. However, do what you can and prepare to return the phone later if you find issues that make the device unacceptable to you.

If, upon inspection, you find an issue that is not mentioned in the listing or the seller didn’t bring it up already, it is time to bring it up. You might get a further discount on the phone, or it might result in you being uninterested in the phone overall. 

Make Sure the Phone Is Compatible with Your Carrier and Setup

It would be a problem if you bought a used phone only to find out it isn’t compatible with your mobile service provider. Yet such events do occur, and you want to avoid them. You should be able to quickly check online whether a phone is compatible, either with your carrier or using a general site that keeps track of such things. 

Before spending money on the phone, you will also want to ensure the phone isn’t locked to a particular provider (or at least it works with your provider). If you buy from a retailer, it should be labeled as such, and you will likely get an unlocked phone.

This should be a quick step and not your primary concern. 

Trading in Your Old Smartphone

Chances are, when you are looking for a new (or used smartphone), you have an old smartphone. It is up to you whether you want to do this or not, but we would recommend against it unless you would get a good return. Having a backup device, even one without wireless service, can be helpful. Additionally, a lot of your personal data is held on your smartphone, so at least make sure to wipe it or reset it before turning it in.

Essentially, if you are going to get less than $100 for your old smartphone, it isn’t worth it. The device is best used by you for another purpose or handed off to a family member or friend in greater need. You can also look up how much your smartphone is worth to ensure you’re not getting the wrong end of a deal.

Make Sure It Isn’t Stolen

This likely will not be an issue if you are buying through a reputable phone dealer or good online marketplace, but stolen phones are often sold, and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of a problem or feel the guilt of buying fenced goods. 

What you will want to do is check the ESN online. There are tools online you can search for to do so. Swappa has a great tool for this and includes instructions on finding your IMEI for checking.

And as always, your impressions and gut feelings should be listened to. At the same time, they shouldn’t be the only thing driving your decision-making; back out if you feel uncomfortable with a potential deal. There will be other smartphones.

Setting Up Your Used Cell Phone Properly

So you’ve bought a used cell phone. Congratulations, but you might be wondering what you should be doing next. For the most part, a lot of the setup and getting started will be much like starting up a new phone. There will be personalization and some tinkering, but that is at your discretion. Of course, there might be variations depending on the phone and your carrier, but nothing that a tiny bit of research cannot overcome.

Some steps you should take include:

  • Clean the phone. There are electronic wipes and products specially designed for this so that the phone is at no risk of being damaged. Phones are incredibly unhygienic overall, so it’s helpful to clean your phone regularly.
  • Clean out the ports as well, if you can. There are ways to do this safely without the chance of damaging the port.
  • First, you’ll want to make sure to charge it and have all the peripherals handy that are related to the phone. The charger is the first thing that comes to mind, but if there are headphones or other peripherals, make sure they can connect or have them on hand.
  • If it hasn’t been done, you will want to factory reset the phone and ensure all traces of the previous owner are gone. You don’t know what was on there or what can be traced back, and you don’t want to know.
  • You’ll need to set that up depending on your SIM card situation. Perhaps your phone will come with a SIM card in the same package, or you might already have one you were planning to use. You may also need to remove it from your old phone and insert it into the new one. Mind the potential activation fee and follow your carrier’s instructions for activating a phone.
  • Once the phone is activated, you should also check if the phone number is correct, whether it’s a new or old one.
  • You will also want to set it up for how you’ll use it daily. If you need to install social media apps, now is the time. A screen protector and phone case should be applied now or ordered if you don’t have one on hand. Test out the apps that you know you will be using daily. 
  • It is also an excellent time to test out the new features that your phone might have. Many will go unused, and that’s fine. Yet it would be a shame if you missed something genuinely helpful because you were in a rush and just stuck with what your old phone had.


Buying a used phone for yourself or someone else can be scary, and you might not know what you are getting until you use it regularly. Yet using some of the above strategies, you will better handle what you should and should not buy. Additionally, you should better understand who to buy a phone from.

We hope that whether in the end, you decide to buy a used cell phone or not, you have an idea of what to expect from both the phone and the process and that these tips and tricks help you. Make sure to protect your interests, and we wish you the best of luck in your search for your next phone.