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5 Important Considerations When Buying a Used iPhone

iPhone through the decade
iPhone through the decade (Image credit: Rene Ritchie/iMore)

When it's time to upgrade our iPhone, most of us will go to our carriers and see what deals they have to offer — but don't forget about the bustling used smartphone market. You can find your next great phone at a discounted price by buying used, but we've got some tips to consider before hopping on Craigslist and buying the first phone that pops up.

Always inspect the phone in person — if possible

Honest folks will properly photograph and report any and all damage on the phone in their online ad, but if you're buying a used iPhone from a local seller, you'll want to do a full inspection before sealing the deal. If you're buying from a local seller and are planning to meet up in public (always choose a public location for in-person meet-ups), be sure to take the time to look over the device thoroughly.

Chances are the phone isn't going to be as rough as the one above, but look for all signs of wear— especially any dents along the side or chips around the edge of the screen. Those denote that the phone has taken some serious bumps in its lifetime. Since it's likely the phone will no longer be under warranty, you don't want to end up buying a phone that's on its dying legs or on the verge of some serious issues, like a cracked screen. Also always make sure the phone powers on properly and that it doesn't have any security locks — a telltale sign that someone's trying to sell you a stolen phone.

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Look beyond Craigslist and eBay

While you might instinctively search Craigslist or other local swap sites for used iPhones being sold in your city, or try and score a big deal on an eBay auction, there's an inherent risk involved with both services that you might get ripped off.

That's why you should check out reputable phone reselling sites, which acts as a third-party intermediaries between the seller and the buyer, while also verifying the condition and value of the phone. You've got two main options to choose from:

Gazelle logo (Image credit: Gazelle)

Gazelle (opens in new tab) sells certified pre-owned devices that go through a rigorous inspection process to check for any functionality or cosmetic issues. Gazelle also ensures that all devices are reset prior to shipment and include a USB charger and charging cable for your phone. With unlocked phones as well as models locked to specific carriers available, you can save some money and get a new (to you) phone at a steep discount.

Swappa (opens in new tab) is the other site worthy of your attention. Swappa relies on PayPal for all transactions, allowing you to pay the seller directly while remaining protected by PayPal's outstanding buyer protection policy. Swappa offers more comprehensive information about the market prices for phones, too, so you can see how the average price has fallen over time.

No matter which service you go with, make sure you've done your research and know exactly what you're buying.

It pays to be patient

If you're in no immediate hurry to buy a used phone, it might be well worth waiting for the next big phone launch before buying a phone. Consider that the average price of a used 64GB iPhone 6s Plus on Swappa has dropped by around $40 since March 2017 and expect those prices to continue to go down as we get closer to the release of the next iPhone as early adopters look to offload their older devices.

So the lesson here is to be strategic. Wait for the next big phone release and watch the market for a flood of last year's device. The iPhone 8 is expected to drop in the fall, so if you can hold off for a few months, you should be able to get an even better deal.

Be aware of any carrier locks

Typically, you're going to find the better deals on a phone that is locked to a specific carrier. This is fine, as long as you buy the right phone for your carrier. While certified sellers will absolutely include whether a phone is carrier-locked in the posting title or description, Chuck from across town might be oblivious to this and think he's selling an unlocked phone when it's actually from AT&T.

To save yourself a headache, if you're buying in person, try inserting your SIM card in the phone and powering it on. If you get any network lock notifications, that's an immediate red flag, especially if it was advertised as being unlocked.

Alternatively, with sites like Swappa or Gazelle you're typically going to pay a premium for an unlocked phone, so if you can find the phone you want that's available on the carrier you're with go for it. If you have no intentions of switching carriers any time soon, you can save some serious cash.

Another issue specific to iPhones is ensuring the phone isn't iCloud locked. This is a security measure put in place by Apple to prevent stolen phones from being used and despite what you may read online, there's no way to get around it without the original owner's credentials. If the person you're buying the phone from can't unlock it or refuses to, that's a major red flag and you should back out of the deal — unless you're interested in buying a rather expensive paperweight.

Use some of your savings to protect your purchase

Around these parts, we always recommend getting a case or screen protector for your new phone. This advice goes double when you're buying a used phone because you can't be too sure what hell a phone may have gone through before it got into your hands.

I've had phones take a drop and appear to be fine, only to have the screen crack weeks or months later from something much more minor because the structural integrity of the phone had been somewhat compromised. The thing is, you just never know the full history of that used phone you're buying, so it's always best to err on the side of caution. Besides, you're already going to be saving a ton of money by buying used, what's $10 or $20 for some accessories that will extend the life of your phone?

What are your tips?

Have you bought used phones before? What was your experience like? Got any tips to add to our list? Share them in the comments below!

Pop culture geek, hopelessly addicted to streaming movies, tv shows, and podcasts. Would be lost in life without unlimited data.

4 Comments
  • One suggestion I always make is to make sure you know if the model you are buying is still going to support iOS updates. Sure if someone is buying, lets say a used iPhone 6 there is a good chance that you are still safe from "Software Obsolescence" for likely a year from the time you buy it, but can the same be said if the seller is offering something in the iPhone 4 or 5's respective design life cycles?
  • I recently sold a few phones (Note 4 and iPhone 6) on Facebook's new marketplace. As for buying, Swappa is great. They have much higher standards for listsings than eBay. I bought an Android replacement for my waterlogged GS3 a few years ago and it was great. It even came rooted with CM.
  • I had very bad experience buy used iPhone 4. I'll purchased it and checked out personally but forgot to check front camera. In that when I start front camera, phone gets reboot every time. I never had selfy in my iPhone 4. From that time I decided to purchase it fresh.
  • I have an iPhone 5 that is locked and the original provider is no help in Unlocking it. I would like to sell it, great condition, but it needs to be unlocked before I can. Is there any reliable online service that can do it for me. I'm not sure who to trust. Or are there instructions somewhere that can help.