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Are you thinking of buying a used smartphone? Don’t want to be stuck with a long-term carrier contract or simply can’t afford to fork out the full price of a brand new smartphone? Whatever your reasons, the following are a few things that you should consider before buying a used phone.

Ebay, Amazon and other online marketplaces are flooded with used smartphone offers. These tips will help you avoid being scammed and get value for your money.

Physical Appearance

This may seem like a no-brainer but a visual examination should go beyond just looking out for a scratched screen or loose back cover. You should be particularly concerned about liquid damage which leads to slow buildup of rust.

Open the back cover and check the battery sticker for any signs of discoloration – specifically a yellow or orange hue. In case the owner has changed the battery, check any similar internal stickers for signs of rust. Also, check all the ports (USB and charging) for any signs of discoloration. These are metallic parts and any discoloration is an indicator of water damage.

When looking for cracks, ensure that the device is switched on. Examine the camera lens for any signs of scratches as well. Also, a phone with many dents and cracks is a good sign it has been dropped or banged up a lot, so the internal components may not be reliable.

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Technical Specifications

Buy a used phone with the technical specifications that meet your needs. Do you watch videos a lot or spend many hours browsing the Internet? If that’s the case, you would need a phone with a large screen to enhance your experience. Find out the technical specs of the camera. How many megapixels does it offer? Consider if you need a phone with a front facing camera as well for social media interaction and making video calls. You can get all the technical specifications of the used phone from the manufacturer’s website. Just do a search for the phone model and visit the manufacturer’s website.

Also, the phone may look brand new but some features may not be functional. Test the touchscreen to see if it works. Swipe and tap to confirm that everything is in good working order. Take note of any lags as this may be indicative of problems with the internal circuitry and a sign that the phone may go to sleep permanently in the near future.

Is the Phone Stolen?

Confirm that you are not buying a stolen device. It would be tragic to buy a phone only to discover that it has been reported stolen and the authorities come knocking on your door. These days this is a very serious problem. Hundreds of smartphones are stolen and then shipped to foreign countries where they are sold to unsuspecting customers. Buying such a phone fuels the growth of global mobile phone theft crimes. Though phone manufacturers worldwide have yet to create a global database of stolen phones or some other cost effective technical method to block the use of stolen phones, you can play your part by exercising due diligence.

Ask the seller for the IMEI, ESN or MEID and check various online resources to find out if the phone is stolen. A simple search for ‘IMEI check‘ or ‘ESN check‘ yields several good websites where you can check if the phone is legit. For example, for just $2.99, the CheckMEND website generates a report of your smartphone’s history. If the phone is locked to a particular carrier, you can request the IMEI or ESN from the seller and call the carrier for confirmation. For more more information on this, I recommend you read Christian’s article on finding out if the smartphone you bought was stolen How Can I Tell If My New (Used) Smartphone Is Stolen? How Can I Tell If My New (Used) Smartphone Is Stolen? Read More .

Is The Phone Unlocked?

An unlocked phone offers greater flexibility when choosing a cellular carrier. However, whether locked or unlocked, the price of the phone will eventually determine whether the purchase is worth it. You may find that even though the phone is locked, the price is fair enough to warrant a purchase. It is also possible to unlock a phone so you can always purchase a used locked phone at a fair price and then unlock it. Used unlocked phones are usually more expensive.

Android vs. iPhone

The next thing you need to consider is the operating system. Which operating system do you prefer? If you are looking for security, ease of use and a sleek polished look, then you should go with the iPhone. However, if you are more into device personalization and versatility, then pick an Android phone. We have several articles that can help you out with the Android versus iPhone dilemma. For example, Danny wrote an interesting article on five things that iPhone users cannot do iCan't: 5 Things Android Users Take For Granted and iPhone Users Just Can't Do iCan't: 5 Things Android Users Take For Granted and iPhone Users Just Can't Do Have you ever thought that there might be a reason Android users brag about their customizability? Sure, as an iPhone user, you can add and configure apps, change your wallpaper, and otherwise make yourself feel... Read More while Tim published an article on why you should choose an iPhone over Android 5 Reasons To Choose iPhone Over Android [Opinion] 5 Reasons To Choose iPhone Over Android [Opinion] If you’re considering buying your first smartphone, you’ve got a fairly big decision to make. As well as choosing a carrier, plan and minimum contract period you then have to trawl through the barrage of... Read More .

android vs iphone

Buyer Protection

There is no shortage of horror stories on the Internet about people who bought used smartphones only for the seller to fail to ship the item and disappear with the money. Protect yourself from this misery by using buyer protection services.

eBay’s Money Back Guarantee offers a good level of protection from online scammers. If you are not using eBay, insist on paying via PayPal to take advantage of PayPal’s Purchase protection. Many other online marketplaces also have similar programs to protect buyers. But, if you are making your purchase via Craigslist, I recommend you read our article to learn how to avoid being scammed on Craigslist Taking The Battle To Craigslist Scammers: How To Avoid Scams On Craigslist Taking The Battle To Craigslist Scammers: How To Avoid Scams On Craigslist Launched way back in 1995, Craigslist took the Internet world by storm with its innovative cross of classified ads with the web. But as with all Internet-based transactions, some users prefer to game the system... Read More . You can also use an escrow service where funds are held by a third party service until the item is delivered to the buyer and receive confirmation that the goods shipped are as described.

ebay-moneyback

A Quick Word on Refurbished Phones

The main difference between a used phone and a used refurbished phone is that a used phone is sold as it is. A refurbished phone, on the other hand, is tested and repaired for any flaws. It should function just as well as new smartphone but is much cheaper. Some vendors offer warranties on refurbished phones though much shorter than the typical warranty periods for new handsets. You can find deals for refurbished phones on eBay and Amazon.

The Take Away

It generally isn’t a good idea to purchase a used smartphone over the Internet because you obviously cannot perform a proper examination. You can always ask the seller to send you high resolution photographs before you make a purchase decision but nothing beats actual physical examination.

Finally, get an idea of the cost of a used handset. Browse eBay and other sites to get a general idea of the average prices. When you perform a price comparison make sure you are not comparing apples and oranges. The phone models you compare must be as similar as possible in terms specs, age, general physical condition and all the parameters mentioned above.

Have you ever bought a used smartphone online or offline? How did you go about it? Please share your experience with us in the comments below.

Photo credits: robertnelson via FlickrMaksim Kabakou via Shutterstock, 37prime via Flickr, zugaldia via Flickr

  1. Travel Writing
    March 30, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Im getting ready to buy the galaxy 6 from guy that bought it for his girlfriend but she wont switch from iPhone. He says its brand new, has pics of it in the box and is meeting me around 1. He wants $350 for the phone, I offered $225 and it seems b done deal. Ive never bought smartphone on craigslist b4... The more I think of it, the more I wonder what is wrong w the phone? Didnt those phone jus come out? Does it seem odd to anyone else he would sell a "brand new" smartphobe @ $225??? Please help. Thanx!

  2. James
    January 27, 2016 at 6:01 am

    I bought a phone off Craigslist as it was a last minute situation. I tested 15 features that were critical to me, and then wrote a checklist to help it go faster. This was especially important for me as I was using a different carrier's SIM than the device. Checklist here: https://medium.com/@bsemaj/checklist-for-buying-a-used-smartphone-4808ca140182#.f0q94dm6p

  3. Anant Aggarwal
    May 12, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Nice tips there but additionally you can do hardware service tests on the device as well using USSD codes. If someone is planning to buy a Samsung Galaxy device, he/she could check out the steps given in the following tutorial to know if the device they are planning to buy is damaged or not.

    http://www.technovoltage.com/2014/05/how-to-check-samsung-galaxy-smartphone.html

  4. Spiker
    January 11, 2014 at 12:08 am

    I have purchased two Android phones through Craigslist ads. Basically followed the suggestions/steps in this article and got good, clean phones for a reasonable price both times. Just be smart (get as much info as possible before meeting the seller; meet in a busy public place and examine the phone carefully before handing over cash).

    A question that I have not gotten a satisfactory answer to is:

    How do I get the Android software update (4.3 or 4.4) on my unlocked, originally AT&T, Samsung Galaxy S3 using Simple Mobile as MVNO?

  5. Crescent D
    January 10, 2014 at 8:54 am

    I love unlocked phones and would never get tied down with a 2 year contract. I find used/refurbished phones to be a good deal. Ebay 's my favorite place- I can get phones in excellent condition, no tax, free shipping and 14 day returns from sellers who have 10,000-30,000 sales and a 97% or higher rating. It's a no-brainer. I've bought a total of 4 phones from there and so far, so good. I do find that there aren't any real deals in terms of iphones- but I'm not a fan of tiny screens so ... not a problem for me.

    I also take likefunbutnots point. Any phone too old ... you have to start wondering about battery life if it's not replaceable.

  6. LSSJPrime
    January 10, 2014 at 4:07 am

    Iphones do not offer more security than Android as stated here. Android is just as good if not better than Apple's security. Android knows when intruders try to unlock your phone and when you try to download malicious content on your phone. Really, its the user that ignores security warnings from their phones that gets them screwed over, and they just blame everything on their phones. :/

  7. Fenestrator
    January 10, 2014 at 3:15 am

    I just bought 2 Android phones on Swappa who makes sure there is no cracked glass, and seekers must state the truth of the phone's condition.

    Went smooth as silk and finally got my dad and sis on an MVNO and into the digital world!

  8. Manuth C
    January 10, 2014 at 12:59 am

    Where is Windows Phone?

    • Mark
      January 11, 2014 at 2:07 am

      Once someone has a Windows Phone, they keep it forever. That's why there is no sense discussing buying a second hand one. You can have mine after you wrestle it from..............

  9. Halim
    January 9, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    swappa.com is a great place for used smartphones since there are moderators that make sure the items are valid. Check it out if interested. And it's not a spam or I'm a bot lol...

  10. Jarrett H
    January 9, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    Probably the best place I've seen to buy/sell a used phone (or tablet) would be Swappa.com. They are recommended by XDA-Developers (Android developers), and carry both Android and iPhone, unlocked and for the major US carriers. Each seller has to enter their IMEI when creating the listing to show it is good (the IMEI is not published out, just verified good). Pictures need to be posted with the listing number before the listing is approved by staff. Almost everything is there, including if it has been rooted, if a custom ROM is installed, if it's unlocked, if they will ship internationally, etc. Finally, all transactions are via Paypal, with some sellers being Paypal Verified or requiring a Confirmed Paypal Address. It is easy enough to post a question to the seller if you want more info. Finally, they have detailed specs on the phones, links to the manufacturer, and a graph showing selling price history.

  11. likefunbutnot
    January 9, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Kind of a biggie that's really missing from this list: non-replaceable, used battery life. Too many charge cycles or just poor charging habits are going to leave any smartphone a wreck with a battery that won't even go half a day. On most Android phones, that just means a visit to Amazon.com to buy a new one, but for some phones (including all the iFruits), this means getting someone with confidence and skills to do a little surgery, or living with a phone that can't even make it through a work day without having a USB love connection.

    All used phones need to have their power connections examined prior to purchase, and you should also verify that the headphone jack functions normally and is capable of providing stereo audio. In either case, the cables should fit snugly and not wiggle.

    You may also want to take a few test pictures that you can export and examine on a larger screen if you're remotely concerned about the condition of the camera lens.

    In the world of Android, not all devices are created equal. If you're going to buy a used Android handset, you're almost certainly better off buying an older flagship phone (Samsung S3 or S2, HTC One X) rather than a much newer low or mid-spec device. You'll probably get a better screen and have a much easier time getting accessories (and parts, if necessary), though perhaps at the cost of being able to update to a newer Android version.

    Finally, no one should ever buy an iOS device ever under any circumstances.

    • Kevin
      January 10, 2014 at 3:12 am

      Great advice. Love the jab at iOS at the end. In reality, it comes down to what you need. iOS devices tend to be more expensive even as a used device, so android may be worth it.

      The buy of a flagship phone almost promises you'll have the latest supported OS, instead of buying a phone that could support a newer OS if the company wasn't lazy to release it. ROM's are useful though.

      I always disliked the permanent battery deal. I stay away from those, especially used, since once they go bad, they typically need someone knowledgeable to replace them (not a problem for me, but I still don't want to open up the device).

    • kihara
      January 10, 2014 at 4:16 am

      Sounds like you are a die hard Android fan :) Thank you for the insightful comments!

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