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How to Buy a Phone Secondhand Without Getting Ripped Off

July 20th, 2019

Are you tired of making monthly payments to Verizon or AT&T on your iPhone or Android? Are you looking to save money and purchase your next iPhone or Android outright? Then consider these trustworthy tips to ensure you don’t get ripped off while saving money.

Carrier Compatibility

Most iPhones and Android phones are sold direct through carriers like T-Mobile or Verizon and most are locked to a specific carrier. The reason is, if you buy a phone from AT&T (particularly when financed), AT&T doesn’t want you to take that phone and use it with another carrier like Verizon as then they lose your monthly payment via a service contract. Instead, they want to keep you as a customer so they restrict the phone for use only with AT&T. This means AT&T phones generally only work with AT&T postpaid plans (billed monthly). The same applies to other carriers whether Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile. For example, you generally can’t use a phone that is locked to AT&T with Cricket or Ting. So when you’re looking to buy a phone secondhand, be sure to match up the carrier to your current carrier. If you’re with Verizon, buy a Verizon phone; if you’re with T-Mobile, buy a T-Mobile phone. On a side note there are unlocked phones that are designed to work with most carriers, but even then there can be complications as select carriers may not be fully compatible with unlocked variants. Also many prepaid plans and carriers along with smaller submarket carriers (Xfinity, Ting, Cricket, US Cellular, etc.) may require an unlocked phone, even if they technically use the same cell towers as one of the big four (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint). 

IMEI Check

Every phone has an IMEI number, which is a unique serial number that identifies the phone while carriers use it to keep up with the original point of purchase. If you are planning on buying an iPhone or Android phone secondhand you definitely need to check the IMEI in advance to ensure it isn’t reported lost or stolen. Phones that have a lost or stolen IMEI are typically blocked from use not just from one carrier, but all carriers, so blacklisted phone can be a mere paperweight. The best means to check the IMEI is by calling your carrier or visiting a carrier store and giving them the IMEI to check firsthand. There are also third parties readily accessible from Google searches such as Doctor SIM and IMEI Pro that offer free IMEI checks online. This can be time consuming, but it is well worth the frustration avoided compared to buying a paperweight unintentionally. 

Activation Locks

Present day smartphones have anti-theft features to discourage theft and help trackdown stolen or lost phones. Apple has the iCloud "Find my phone" feature and Android has the "Device Protection" feature. Both are similar in that they allow you to register a device as belonging to you, and then the phone is permanently attached to your Apple ID or Google account until you choose to remove it and deactivate the service. Apple and Google only allow one account to register a device at a time, meaning if a previous owner has failed to deactivate Apple's "Find my phone" feature or Android's "Device Protection," then you will be stuck with an expensive paperweight, even if the phone itself has been erased and the previous owner's data removed. What happens is, Apple and Google designed their phones to force you to connect to WiFi or Cellular during setup, and that's when they check to determine if a specific device is linked to a previous owner's account. It does not matter if the device has been erased and cleared of the previous owner's data. In fact you can erase the phone a dozen times, but if it is linked to a previous owner's iCloud or Google account, it will not let you proceed through the welcome screens. This can be incredibly frustrating when buying a secondhand phone, so the best option is to check with the seller beforehand to ensure they have deactivated the anti-theft features, and ask them to proceed through the welcome screens after erasing the device to ensure their account is completely removed the from the device. Furthermore, when you first get a secondhand phone, immediately use the reset or erase option and proceed through the welcome screens to ensure it is clear. If you get to the home screen successfully, then you'll know the device is ready for use and free of the previous owner's credentials. If by chance you get stuck with a phone that is already linked to an existing owner, don't panic, but rather kindly ask the previous owner to remove the device or provide their credentials to disable the feature. For this reason when buying a secondhand phone, always use a credit card or PayPal, which typically gives you 180 days of consumer protection to file a chargeback or dispute if needed. Never pay cash for a secondhand phone, and we would discourage against purchasing a secondhand phone on Craigslist due to the anonymity factor. 

Paid in Full or Financed

Financing is the most popular option for purchasing a new iPhone or Android phone, and that can have implications for buying secondhand. Typically, if a phone was purchased as financed and there is still an existing balance being paid by the original owner, the carrier will not release the phone to be unlocked for use with another carrier. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot use the phone as a secondhand buyer. Traditionally, Verizon and AT&T will still permit another customer to use a financed device on their networks as a secondhand owner. On the other hand, T-Mobile and Sprint typically block another customer from using a device that is financed with an existing unpaid balance (even if payments are current). Furthermore, if a specific phone is not only financed, but the original account holder is late or past due on payments, the carrier certainly has the right to disable the phone altogether in an attempt to motivate the original owner to make payments. In our experience we find Verizon and AT&T are more lenient on blocking or disabling phones, even when balances are past due, but T-Mobile and Sprint tend to be fairly quick to blacklist phones for past due accounts and various other reasons. So, if you are with AT&T or Verizon, you’ve got less to worry about when buying a phone secondhand. Typically AT&T and Verizon will go after only the original customer who entered the financing agreement as opposed to the device itself. If you are with T-Mobile or Sprint though and you buy a phone with a financed balance present, you can expect them to punish the phone itself (and you) by blacklisting it, or blocking it from their networks. In summary, be careful to ask the seller of the device if it is financed or paid in full, and then run an IMEI check on the device yourself to confirm the status with the carrier. 

Battery Life

On secondhand phones battery life can vary greatly from phone to phone. If the phone is less than a year old, it’s probably got at least another 1-2 years of decent battery life left in it. However, if the phone is over a year old, the battery longevity will likely suffer, but how much is the question. Some phone batteries can last 5 years or more, whereas other phone batteries start to experience poor battery life only a couple years into their life. iPhones have a battery health percentage within the settings, but that’s only an estimate and not always 100% accurate. There are various third party apps that can give battery health analysis, but again keep in mind those are also only estimates based on algorithms. Certain models may be more prone to battery life issues with age, so research the model online carefully to determine if an existing battery issues are known. The best advice is to stick to phone that is less than a year old if battery life is important to you.

Hidden Damage

One risk to be careful on secondhand phones is hidden damage that occurred previously such as an accidental drop in a pool (or toilet) where the phone may have seemingly recovered without any symptoms initially. However, sometimes liquid damage can cause symptoms several weeks and months later ranging from unusual touch screen glitches or muffled speakers and microphones. Granted many of the newest phones have water resistance as their selling points, but we would still not recommend submerging any phone on a regular basis as there are points of entry for the liquid to cause damage to internal components. Most phones have liquid sensor indicators strategically placed in and around penetrations such as a charging jack, headphone jack, or SIM card slot. These sensors change colors when exposed to liquid, typically from white to pink. Research the particular model you plan on purchasing to become familiar with any liquid sensor indicators so you can check to ensure previous damage does not go unnoticed.


Most phones, whether Android or iPhone come with a one year manufacturer warranty when purchased brand new. If you like the additional peace of mind knowing your secondhand phone comes with a warranty you should stick to purchasing a phone that has been released on the market less than one year. Or, for Apple iPhones it is incredibly easy to check iPhone warranty status by visiting Apple’s Service and Support Coverage website with the serial number in hand. Keep in mind manufacturers reserve the right to refuse warranty service for a number of reasons in their fine print, so just because a phone is technically covered under warranty doesn’t mean you’ll be guaranteed coverage if the need arises. There are also a number of third parties such as SquareTrade that may offer extended warranty coverage at an additional cost if peace of mind is desired. 

Insurance Scams

Lastly, one thing to be careful of when buying a phone secondhand is insurance scams. Suppose an individual sells you their iPhone and you begin using it without incident. Unknown to you, the individual had insurance on the phone and after waiting a few weeks they report the phone as stolen to get a free replacement funded by the insurance underwriter. Meanwhile the phone you have gets blacklisted and you’re stranded with a dead phone that suddenly cannot make any phone calls. The individual who sold you the phone not only has your money, but now they have another replacement phone from through their insurance! We hear of scams like this from time to time, and the only means to really protect you against such a scam is to pay for the secondhand phone with a credit card or through PayPal, which generally grants you about 180 days of consumer protection to file a chargeback or dispute if needed. As mentioned before, never pay cash for a secondhand phone, and we would again discourage against purchasing a secondhand phone on Craigslist due to the anonymity factor. 

Buying a phone secondhand can save you hundreds of dollars. A typical flagship phone, when financed, can run you up to $1,000 over the span of two years. If you buy the same phone secondhand, even within the first year of its release, you may only spend $600-$700 on the exact same phone. Choose your secondhand phone wisely and use these aforementioned tips to ensure you don’t get ripped off, while saving hundreds of dollars!