Used Cell Phone Buying Guide

One way to save money on a cell phone is to buy a used cell phone. Given the variety of phones and the excellent prices you can find on Internet sources, like eBay, it can be a great way to buy the phone you want and save money. However, there are traps to avoid and situations to consider when you do this and that’s what we’ll be looking at in today’s buyers guide.

Guide Continued Below…

One of the first things to consider is that you have to buy a used cell phone that is compatible with the wireless service provider you’re planning to use. In the US, Verizon, Sprint and several smaller carriers use CDMA technology while AT&T (previously Cingular), T-Mobile and others use GSM. There are a few other wireless technologies around as well. It is essential that you know the type of technology your wireless provider uses before you purchase your ‘new’ used phone.

Now there is the matter of the used cell phone being locked or unlocked and being free and clear of any flags that might stand in the way of activation. To save yourself time and money, I recommend only buying unlocked phones or phones that are already setup for a provider you’re already using. It’s important to know if the phone has been flagged as being lost or stolen or if it’s ESN (electronic serial number) is tied to an unpaid account. If this is the case it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get the phone activated. Sprint is particularly bad about helping out customers in this situation. Often it’s a matter of working with a decent representative at a store or over the phone. Some sellers will provide you with the ESN of a phone they’re selling so that you can check out this status for yourself before you buy.

Lastly, when you’re buying a used cell phone, you have to know a something about the seller. Are they an individual selling a phone they don’t use anymore? Could it be a stolen phone? Are they a dealer in used cell phones? A general merchandise or ‘drop off’ reseller? In my opinion, it’s generally better to buy from an established dealer with a good customer service reputation in the area of used cell phones. While you may score a better deal from an inexperienced seller, the savings may be offset by problems you encounter after the purchase. Also check the seller’s return policy and avoid sales that are labeled “As Is” and “No Refunds”, indicate damage, use stock photos rather than photos of the phone you’ll be getting or where the seller is not forthcoming about information about the phone. These are often signs of trouble and should be avoided.

With a little caution and common sense it’s not that difficult to score a really good deal on a used cell phone.


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Comment by free ringback tones
2008-09-10 18:09:07

I’m always too paranoid of buying a beat up phone … on ebay you don’t really get a return policy. Maybe I’ve heard too many horror stories.

Comment by jfc
2008-09-10 18:35:55

Hi Ringback,

If you pay for the phone using a credit card through PayPal you’ll have pretty good protection from fraud. That way you’ve got 3 layers that tend to favor the buyer, eBay, PayPal and your credit card company.

I’d also recommend buying from sellers who have a long track record with a lot of good feedback, at least 99.9%, and good detailed seller ratings. Given that seller can no longer give negatives or neutrals to buyers this means that the feedback is a lot more honest now.

Comment by trade show booths
2008-09-10 18:43:40

hi Frank,
You might also want to mention to assume the battery is so so or even no good. I got two new phones a few years ago, both were free. I needed a new line, and decided to renew my existing line since I was signing a new contract, so got two phones for free. Anyway, I kept one of the new phones (upopened) as a backup (I already had a perfectly good phone for the first line). Anyway, a few years later (maybe two) the battery on the one new phone died. Ah ha! I opened the other phone box (brand new) to use that battery and guess what - wouldn’t charge! It was even a lithium-ion I think, but if they sit around too long, they won’t work. Anyway, I am very leary of buying anything with rechargable batteries unless I am sure they are truely fresh and new, or unless I don’t care if the battery won’t work.
~ Steve, purveyor of battery-free trade show booths (our trade show booths never need charging, guaranteed!)

Comment by jfc
2008-09-13 10:57:51

Hi Steve,

That is true. One should also inquire about the battery when purchasing a used cellphone. I had an old phone that I used for about 3 years and by the end it would only last for about 15 minutes of calling time!

Comment by SoLinkable
2008-10-04 23:02:00

OK, so, I’m not exactly sure why I am reading this… I already have my phone and I’m not about to give it up.. but with that being said, this was an excellent post. I had no clue about “unpaid accounts”. Up here in Canada, we dont tend to run into this sort of thing as often, as its harder to get used cell phones - they tend to really wrangle us into 3 year contracts, there aren’t as many pay-as-you-go people around. This seems scary, and I’ll be sure to keep this in mind if I ever end up going after a used phone. Thanks!

Comment by kouji
2008-10-22 19:55:09

just to add to what you guys have said, if you are buying a used phone always ask for the ESN ahead of time. What you can do is you can call up the phone carrier you are going to use and have a history check of the phone you are buying. Usually when you call them and tell them you are buying a phone on ebay, they are usually very helpful. I’ve done it several times and have always been told if the ESN is clear and the history on it so I know i’m not getting scammed.

2008-10-27 23:14:24

Also another pearl of wisdom, if you have a GSM provider such as AT&T, or T-Mobile, you don’t really have to worry about the ESN number. All you have to do is switch your sim card, and your whole cell phone account get transferred to your new / used cell phone.

I would avoid Sprint cell phones like the plague unless the seller has a good amount of feedback selling specifically Sprint cell phones just for the simple fact that getting Sprint to reactivate certain used cell phones is a pain and a half.

Comment by Kitchen Remodeling
2009-01-24 11:31:09

Thanks. This is good information for me. I lose a lot of cell phones on construction sites either to misplacing them or damaging them so I’m always looking for a good deal on a replacement phone.

Comment by Save Money Tips
2009-03-02 06:02:18

I think buying a used cellphone is a great way to save money. You can often get a great deal - as kids and other fashionistas always want the newest model - while last year’s mode of used cell phone works just fine

2009-03-09 12:03:51

Just make sure your cell phone uses a sim card. This way you can just swap sim cards in the cell phones to start using your old cell phone number.

Comment by Patty
2009-05-12 07:39:44

I lost my AT&T phone. If I buy a phone on ebay that is unlocked and is an “AT&T” phone, does it need to have a sim card? or can I buy a sim card separately? I acctually have no idea what a sim card is. All I know is I don’t want to have to add more time to my AT&T contract.

Comment by donna
2009-07-11 20:58:02

finding deals is the way to go via the great ebay solution. Just be sure that you are investigating beyond the feedback..the city, history of transactions, and careful descriptions to avoid scams

Comment by Elizabeth King
2010-05-10 04:46:42

When buying Cellphone Batteries make sure that you are not getting those chinese fakes and knockoffs.”‘-

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