How to Buy a Used Cell Phone: 7 Things to Check Before You Buy

Based on stagnating 2017 phone sales – including reports that Apple will no longer be reporting iPhone sales – it appears that more people are turning to pre-owned, gentle-loved cell phones as alternatives to upgrading or replacing their current smartphones.

Whether it’s a lack of user interest in recent hardware innovation or users finally paying off carrier contracts and no longer wanting monthly payment, used cell phones have become a viable option for savvy individuals looking to get the latest gear without paying the highest prices.  And similar to the used car market, used phone buyers have many options – from online marketplaces, such as eBay, as well as online stores, like Victory Phone.

However, if you’re not careful that too-good-to-be-true, underpriced Apple iPhone posted on Craig’s List could turn into a lemon.  Like buying a used car, there are things you must consider to make sure you’re truly getting a great deal on a used iPhone or Samsung Galaxy phone.

From incompatible cellular networks to unseen water damage, there are a lot of things to inspect to ensure you avoid a lemon when you really want an Apple!  Here are the 7 Things You Need to Check Before Buying a Used Cell Phone to make sure you’re getting a great deal on a used cell phone.

1. Make Sure It Has a Clean ESN/IMEI Number

One of the first things you should check to verify that the smartphone the genuine article by virtue of a clean ESN or IMEI number.  These unique identifying numbers are connected to that device by the manufacturer and activate by the cellular carrier. 

What’s the difference between an ESN (electronic serial number) and an IMEI (international mobile equipment identify) designation?  

ESN for CDMA Phones – CDMA networks in the US include cellular carriers Sprint, Verizon and US Cellular (and their respective MVNOs 3rd party providers) feature mobile device handsets using the ESN designation.

IMEI for GSM Phones – GSM network in the US include cellular carriers AT&T and T-Mobile (and their respective MVNOs 3rd party providers) feature mobile device handsets using the IMEI designation.

Action to Take: For Sprint, Verizon or US Cellular on GSM networks, you need a phone with a clean ESN number.  For AT&T or T-Mobile, you need a phone with a clean IMEI number.

Tools You Can Use: A reputable seller should be able to give you the ESN or IMEI number of the smartphone so you can verify that it has a clean ESN or IMEI number.  Take this number to any one of the following online resources:

Next, make sure the cell phone can be activated by your current carrier (or future carrier if you plan to switch carriers via a BYOP (Bring Your Own Phone/Device) plan.  

If you’ve done any previous searches online for used cell phones, you’ve probably noticed the seller emphasize two things: A) locked or unlocked and B) which carrier the phone is enabled, e.g. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile.  

Unlocked phones have the highest resale value (especially unlocked flagship phone models) because they’ve been sold through retail channels and were never assigned a carrier. Provided the SIM cards fit inside the phone, you should be able to swap SIMs out and interchangeably change cellular carriers on the same GSM or CDMA network.

What’s the difference between unlocked phones?

Roughly, 12% of the US smartphones are unlocked, meaning they are not bound to any one cellular provider, but they are bound to either the GSM or CDMA networks.

Unlocked GSM Phones – Unlocked GSM cell phones are GSM carrier agonistic which means provided the SIM card fits in the cell phone, they will work with any GSM carrier (AT&T or T-Mobile).

Unlocked CDMA Phones – Unlocked CDMA cell phones are CDMA carrier agonistic which means provided the SIM card fits in the cell phone, they will work with any CDMA carrier (Sprint, Verizon or US Cellular).

What are Locked Phones?  

As the name suggests, locked (or carrier-locked) phones can only be used by ONE cellular carrier – the one that activated the phone.  Pre-owned locked cell phones were sold to the original owner, along with a cellular contract which has now expired.  And now, presumably, the owner is looking to part with the cell phone.

Action to Take:If you are currently on (or moving to) Sprint/Verizon/US Cellular, purchase an unlocked CMDA –OR–  carrier-locked Sprint/Verizon/US Cellular-ready pre-owned cell phone.  If you are currently on (or moving to) AT&T or T-Mobile, purchase an unlocked GMA –OR– carrier-locked AT&T/T-Mobile-ready pre-owned cell phone.

Tools You Can Use: WillMyPhoneWork is a convenient free online tool which allows you to check the cellular carrier compatibility of many different smartphone hardware configurations.

Simply input the cell phone’s original cellular carrier, brand and model and the new cellular provider you intend to use the phone, and WillMyPhoneWork will tell whether you’ll be able to access your desired carrier’s network from 1G up to 4G.