How to buy used and refurbished phones to save money

A couple of years ago, I made a conscious decision to stop buying new phones.

While I used to always stay on the cutting edge when choosing a new iPhone or Android phone, I realized that buying used or refurbished devices made more sense. These days, one- or two-year-old phones aren’t much different from the latest models, and buying them second-hand lets you save money without getting locked into long-term wireless carrier contracts.

Buying used or refurbished tech also helps make a tiny dent in the world’s e-waste problems. By purchasing an older device, you’re delaying its journey to the scrap heap and reducing demand for new products. The idea seems to be catching on; a survey from February commissioned by Back Market found that 25% of people listed environmental reasons for buying refurbished gear, up from 16% in May 2019.

For me, the used phone lifestyle has been working out pretty well. I’ve been able to bounce between a few different phones before selling them back into the used market, and I never have to get AT&T involved with activation. (Instead, I just move my SIM card from one unlocked phone to the next.) Besides, with companies like Apple and Samsung facing supply issues amid an ongoing chip shortage, buying used could become easier than getting what’s new.

Save more with used tech

My personal go-to for used phones has been Swappa, a marketplace where individuals can buy or sell used gear to one another. In other words, it’s like eBay, but categorized in a way that makes finding specific devices easier. Each phone, laptop, or tablet has its own master listing page, and from there you can filter by condition, color, or storage size. Swappa also requires sellers to verify their phones’ IMEI numbers before listing them, ensuring that they’re not stolen and barred from carrier activation.

In recent months, I’ve become something of a Swappa addict, perusing the marketplace to see what you can get on the cheap. It’s been fascinating to watch Samsung’s Z Fold2 foldable phone come crashing down from its $2,000 list price (I’m seeing one for $1,175 in like-new condition) and to see at what point Apple gear starts seeing significant discounts. (You can get an iPhone 11 Pro Max for $730 in mint condition now, down from the original $1099.)

The other upside with Swappa is the way sellers sometimes throw in their extra accessories. My most recent purchase was a like-new OnePlus 8 Pro for $580—that’s $120 off the new price—but the seller also included the original box, charger, and two official cases that normally cost $20 apiece.

Swappa does have a couple of downsides. You can’t pay for devices in monthly installments like you would with a wireless carrier, and aftermarket warranty coverage costs extra. More importantly, you can’t return a phone after you bought it unless it’s not as described, and even then, you have to work things out directly with the seller. In my case, I ended up keeping an iPhone XR that wasn’t quite in its advertised mint condition last year, since I didn’t feel like dealing with return shipping.

On the whole, though, I’ve had a positive experience buying phones on Swappa, and I’ve also sold both a phone and laptop back into the market without issue.

Refurbished for better perks

If you’re antsy about buying a phone or computer directly from another owner, you can always buy refurbished devices instead. They offer benefits such as warranty coverage and and hassle-free returns—though prices may be higher than those of used gear.

Back Market, for instance, aims to replicate many of the perks of buying new. The products on its marketplace come with 30-day return policies and one-year warranties, and it offers installment plans through Affirm (albeit with interest rates on top.) As of this writing, you can get a last-gen iPhone 11 in “Excellent” condition for $500, which is $100 less than what Apple charges for a new phone.

Once you’re ready to trade up to a new device, you don’t have to go back to Apple or your wireless carrier.

Some retailers also have their own refurbished operations. Amazon, for instance, will often include a note on its product page when it has a “renewed” version of the product you’re about to buy. (One example: Last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, selling for $648 instead of its $1,399 list price.) Such products are sold by third-party merchants who must comply with the rules of the Amazon Renewed program, such as guaranteeing that products “have no visible cosmetic imperfections when held 12 inches away.”

If you’re shopping at Best Buy’s site, you’ll find open-box or Geek Squad re-certified deals by hitting the “Buying Options” tab at the bottom of each product page. This is an especially good way to buy a laptop, which have significant discounts for open-box versions. Keep in mind that when Best Buy puts a product on sale, its open-box prices tend to drop accordingly.

Apple also has its own store for refurbished gear, and while its prices aren’t always great, it promises that they’re in “like new” condition and you can occasionally find some solid deals. Right now, for instance, the company is selling a refurbished Mac Mini with an M1 processor and 512 GB of storage for $759, which is $140 off the price of buying new. Buying from Apple also gives you a one-year warranty from Apple itself,  Apple packaging and all the original accessories, and the ability to purchase AppleCare+ coverage.

Once you’re ready to trade up to a new (at least to you) device, you don’t have to go back to Apple or your wireless carrier. Sites like Backflip, Gazelle, and BuyBackWorld will give you cash for used electronics, all without having to lock yourself into another phone contract.

Pitfalls to watch for

While buying used or refurbished gear has its upsides, it also comes up with some risks.

In some cases, you may not get the original packaging or accessories. That means you may get a generic phone charger instead of a fancier official one, or possibly no charger at all.

Warranty coverage can also vary by seller. Amazon and Best Buy, for instance, only offer a 90-day warranties for renewed products, and if you want warranty coverage from sites like eBay or Swappa, you’ll have to pay extra.

You’ll also have to watch out for wear-and-tear that doesn’t show up in product photos. A phone that’s been extensively used, for instance, won’t get as much battery life as one that new, which is why you sometimes see buyers on Swappa inquiring about battery health levels from sellers. And as Back Market points out, the refurbishing process can affect waterproofing, so the site doesn’t guarantee that any of its products can withstand a drop in the pool.

Finally, buying an older phone or tablet means getting fewer years of software support than a brand-new product. Even with new Android phones, you’re lucky to get a couple years’ worth of updates, after which you’ll miss out on new features and may be stuck with unpatched security holes.

And yet, accepting those risks can feel like its own reward. Buying used phones has made me realize I don’t need to rush out and get a new iPhone regardless of how revolutionary Apple says it might be. And when I do feel a pang of gadget lust, taking an existing phone off someone else’s hands feels better than helping to bring another piece of e-waste into the world.