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How to buy a second-hand smartphone

Alan Martin
17 Sep 2018
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Buying a pre-owned handset can save you hundreds of pounds. Here’s how to minimise the risks and bag a bargain

Phones just keep on getting more expensive – and the latest handsets often bring only small improvements over last year’s models. That might stick in the throat if you’re buying a brand new phone. But it also means that if you’re willing to buy second-hand, you can get a phone that’s very similar to the latest and greatest – at a much lower price.

What’s more, in addition to getting a great deal on the handset, buying pre-owned means you don’t have to deal with restrictive operator contracts. As long as the phone’s unlocked, you can take advantage of some excellent SIM-only deals.

Before you buy, though, there are some things you need to be aware of, because the process isn’t without its pitfalls. Here’s our guide to finding the right phone at the right price, to ensure you don’t get ripped off or end up regretting your purchase.

1) Find the right seller

Around 80% of adults own a smartphone, and a big proportion of them upgrade at least once every two years. That means there’s a lot of spare smartphones doing the rounds. Plenty of people choose to sell their old phones directly on Gumtree, eBay or Amazon Marketplace, and since they often just want to get shot of something they no longer need, you can find some real bargains. However, there’s precious little in the way of buyer protection, so you’re taking a bit of a leap of faith – as we discuss below.

For peace of mind, therefore, we’d recommend buying through an established reseller. Some operators sell refurbished phones with contracts, exactly like the latest handsets – see, for example, O2’s “Like New” range – but you can normally do better by buying outright. Look around the likes of Music Magpie, Smartfone Store, CEX and Envirophone, and compare prices on the handsets you’re interested in. Remember to compare warranty terms too, as the original manufacturer’s warranty will likely have expired.

2) Do your due diligence

If you’re still tempted by a private sale, go into it with your eyes open. Remember that seller ratings can be gamed, and while eBay and Amazon have their own mechanisms for dealing with disputes, other classified sites leave you very much on your own – so there are a few things you should check before handing over the cash.

First, make sure the phone isn’t stolen. Even leaving aside the ethical issue, phones reported as stolen can be easily blocked by the network, and simply won’t work. To check a phone’s history, the simplest course of action is to type its IMEI number into the CheckMEND website – though this service costs £1.99.

It’s also a good idea to check that the connectors all work: if you bring along a laptop or a portable battery and a charging cable, you can quickly make sure that the phone takes power. You might also want to plug in a pair of headphones and a microSD card, and you could even think about bringing a spare SIM, to make sure the phone registers on the network and can make and receive calls.

3) Check the condition

Even if the phone is fully functional, it’s also worth inspecting its physical condition. Examine the screen, of course, but also look for dings on the edge and scratches on the camera lens. The more knackered the handset, the less you should be paying.

If you’re buying online, and don’t have the opportunity to inspect the phone for yourself, it pays to be cautious. We suggest you steer clear of eBay listings that just have a single picture, or use an official product image rather than a real photo. Look for thorough listings which list any defects and have close up photographs and you’re less likely to get any nasty surprises.

Retailers that specialise in used phones often use a range of gradings to give you an idea of what kind of condition a phone is in. CEX, for example uses grades A to C, representing a range of states from mint condition to merely functional. Smartfone Store has a similar system, as does Music Magpie, so you should have a solid idea of what you’re letting yourself in for.

4) Check whether it’s network locked

Many phones these days are sold unlocked, which means they can be connected to any network – but there are still some that will only connect to a specific operator. If you find a phone that’s locked in this way, that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t buy it, but it’s worth doing a little research to find out whether it can be easily unlocked, or whether a high-street repair shop might be able to do it for you cheaply.

Of course, if the phone is locked to the network you want to use then you may choose to use it as-is. This may not be obvious, however, as some “virtual operators” actually use other providers’ networks: a phone that’s locked to O2, for example, will also work with Giffgaff, while an EE phone can also be used with Asda and Virgin Mobile. Even so, we suggest you avoid paying full price for a locked phone, as this will make it harder for you to sell it on when you’ve finished with it.

5) Find the right contract

Once you’ve bought your new phone, you’ll probably also need to invest in a service plan for it, so you can make calls, browse the web and so forth. The good news here is that this doesn’t need to be a long-term commitment: there are dozens of great-value month-to-month plans out there, and you can take your pick.

Consult our pick of the best SIM-free contract deals to get the most bang for your buck – just remember to check coverage in your neighbourhood, and be sure to get enough data for your needs.

When should you buy new?

Buying pre-owned is a great way to get a smartphone for a knock-down price. But before you pull the trigger, check out what you can get brand new for the same money. There are some excellent budget phones out there right now, and our budget smartphone buying guide will point you in the right direction.

There are, after all, some benefits to buying new. For one thing, a new phone will come with a full manufacturer’s warranty; if you buy privately you probably won’t get any cover at all, and even if you buy from a dedicated retailer, you’re likely to get only a limited warranty.

Pre-owned phones can also be tricky to insure. Some providers are happy to offer coverage – including Nationwide, Endsleigh and Gadget Cover – but your usual provider might not.

A final thing to bear in mind is that a pre-owned phone is likely to have been charged and discharged hundreds of times, which means the battery probably won’t last as long as a brand new handset. You might want to check whether it can be cheaply replaced – or, at the very least, consider buying a power bank to go with it.

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