How to Buy a Used Cell Phone


In this guest post, Aaron Powell explains how to successfully buy a used cell phone. Aaron is a high school music teacher who started buying and selling cell phones and electronics on Craigslist to assist his efforts in shedding 89k of debt in two years.You can read more from Aaron and follow his journey at his blog

It was too good to be true, it had to be. Upon seeing the recently released iPhone 4s listed on Craigslist for $170, only one word entered my mind: Scam. “…On the other hand, it never hurts to call and ask,” I thought. Upon making the phone call, I was met with a barrage of nearly unintelligible sounds loosely resembling the English language. Through the muddled southern twang I was able to decipher two things: 1. This guy wanted to move to Arkansas, and 2. He needed gas money NOW. 15 minutes later I arrived to the scene of a spindly man in a wife-beater hauling junk from his aging one-bedroom home into the back of an old Chevy pickup. Out of the pocket of his tattered denim jeans he pulled it out: An iPhone 4s in pristine condition with the original box and all accessories. Within 24 hours I sold the phone online for $465 and had it shipped off to New York.

Whether buying used cell phones for personal use or for resale, there are bargains to be found on Craigslist. My example was, of course, an extreme case, but thanks to the brilliant marketing of large corporations, most people purchase their handsets at  heavily subsidized rates with two-year contracts and are simply unaware of what their phone is actually worth. You, the informed consumer, can take advantage of this anomaly and discover a great deal on a new smartphone.

However, buying a previously-owned cell phone is similar to buying a used car because you aren’t always sure what’s “under the hood”, or whether the device you are going to purchase is a lemon. It is important to take the time to research what you’re looking for and to go through an inspection checklist in order to minimize the chances of having buyer’s remorse about your new $200 paperweight.

Note: The scope of this article is how to successfully purchase a phone on Craigslist after you have determined what you are looking for, not to compare and contrast which phone is best for you.

Know What You’re Looking For

1. Hardware Variations – The average consumer may not be aware that many of the newer smartphones are issued in multiple different versions, each bearing a unique model number and offering subtle variations. Usually, these are made in order to accommodate the different cellular radio bands, frequencies, and LTE networks used by different service providers and countries, but their hardware can differ slightly in other ways as well. For example, the Samsung Galaxy SIII comes in at least 13 variants, with 7 being available in the United States alone. I have found that Wikipedia is a good source for comparing similar versions of a device, and you can use this as a tool to research which model of the phone will offer full compatibility with your provider.

2. Carrier Customization – Sometimes manufacturers will make a customized model variant branded for a specific service provider, resulting in phones bearing the same brand name that scarcely resemble one another. This is perfectly illustrated by the original Galaxy S phone with its slew of different code names including: Captivate (AT&T), Vibrant (T-Mobile), Epic 4G (Sprint), and Fascinate (Verizon). In my experience with Craigslist, most sellers simply list their phone as a “Galaxy S” leaving you to figure out whether or not it is actually the phone you are looking for. This can be especially confusing when a seller fails to include any pictures on their ad.

3. External Appearances – It is also helpful to become familiar with the subtle external differences between the phone you are going to purchase and a similar model. To the casual observer, the iPhone 4 and 4s might appear identical, but as illustrated on this website, there are distinct external features, and being aware of these could be the difference between purchasing a $250 phone and a $350 phone.

4. Unlocked – Unless sold from a dealer as a “factory unlocked” phone, nearly all phones are “locked” to the carrier they were originally purchased and activated on. This means that they may not be used on another company’s network. Even if unlocked, the phone is still limited to the radio bands of its hardware, and can only be activated on carriers that support that band. Perhaps the most frequent use of unlocked handsets is done by T-Mobile customers wanting to use an iPhone that was originally locked for use with AT&T. Be wary of purchasing devices that have been “jailbroken unlocked” or have been unlocked with a “Gevey SIM”. These are temporary work-around solutions that do not permanently unlock the phone and can sometimes cause more headaches than they are worth. The only way to tell whether or not a handset has been unlocked is to insert your SIM card from another company and to see if the phone receives a signal.

5. A Reasonable Price – eBay is a good barometer on what sort of price range is reasonable for a used phone. The best way to do this is to search through the recently “Sold Listings” and take note of the average sale prices for the last couple of weeks. This can be even more effective when the eBay’s sort features are taken advantage of. If you want to search for  the prices of recently sold, used White 16gb iPhone 4’s for AT&T, then it’s a simple matter to check the boxes of those desired features on the sidebar. Many sellers on Craigslist will set their asking price within the range of  those you may find on eBay, but you should be able to find several listed ads for $50-$100 less than the online rate.

6. Time the Market – Unlike trying to guess when the best time is to purchase that next winning stock, you actually can know exactly when a used cell phone is going to be “on sale”. This is thanks to companies’ successive product lines that encourage users to upgrade to flashy new versions of their “outdated” 6-month old device. The information on product release dates are readily available online (or at least the rumors are), and if you wait until the next model’s debut to purchase an older phone then you’ll be guaranteed a bargain.

 Broken Phone 1

Ensure That You Buy A Quality Device

1. Physical Imperfections – If the seller has been accurate in their ad, then you should go into the deal having a good idea of what physical defects, if any, to expect. Red flags should be raised if, upon arrival, you find that issues went unmentioned or were grossly understated. The few times I chose to purchase a phone in this situation, rather than walking away, I found other hidden problems later on and regretted making the transaction.

Small cracks in the glass, scratches, and small chips in the plastic do not usually indicate internal damage, so how “well traveled” or pristine you want your phone to be is your preference. However, beware of shattered or “spider-webbed” screens and large chunks missing from the casing, as these are usually caused by a traumatic incident. You will want to thoroughly test a phone’s functionality before purchasing a device in this condition.

Other physical issues might include damaged pixels or lines of “static” going across the lcd screen, slide-out keyboards not moving smoothly or not sitting flush to the main body of the phone when retracted, or any loose-feeling removable plastic panels. When buying any iPhone, be sure to check that the two screws on either side of the charging port are still in place. If these are missing, then it implies that the phone has been previously opened, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what might have been done to it..

2. Functioning Buttons – Next, you’ll want to ensure that all of the buttons are operating properly and cause an action to occur on-screen. The most common issue I’ve seen is the side volume rockers being completely unresponsive. Also notice if you’re having to push the power button or a “home” button on an iPhone harder than normal, as this could indicate a possible wearing out or failure in the near future. You should not have to apply significant pressure to any of the phone’s buttons or have to press than more than once. Some phones, including all iPhones, have a “silent toggle” that switches the phone from silent mode and back, so check this as well. Lastly, be sure to engage all areas of the phone’s touchscreen to ensure a functioning digitizer. I have come across iPhones where certain regions of the screen had no reaction, whereas other parts of the screen responded just fine.

A special note about Blackberry smartphones: many of these phones have a roller ball in the middle of the keypad, and about 1 out of 4 of these that I have tested have been less than perfect and were pretty frustrating to use.

3. IMEI / MEID Check – Every phone has a unique identity. GSM network phones have an IMEI number, whereas on CDMA phones this number is called the MEID number. This Wikipedia article is a good source to determine if your service provider uses GSM or CDMA technology.When someone reports their cell phone as stolen, or breaks their contract without fulfilling all of their monetary obligations, their provider will “blacklist” the identification number of the device, and prevent it from ever becoming active on their network again. As of October 2012, all U.S. carriers supposedly share the same blacklist, meaning a blacklisted phone would become useless in the United States. I have heard about these phones being successfully activated overseas, but I cannot speak from personal experience.

I recommended getting the seller to send you their IMEI or MEID number prior to ever going to meet them. With this number, you can call the respective phone company’s customer service line and ask whether or not the phone is currently activated on someone elses account and if it is “clean” and ready to be activated. Finally, when you have the phone in your hands, check to make sure the identification number they gave you earlier actually matches the number of the device they are trying to sell you.  On an iPhone, this number is located under Settings > General > About and on an Android phone you can find it under Settings > About Phone > Phone Identity.

4. Camera Check – I have come across a small number of phones whose cameras have produced consistently blurry or unfocused pictures or just did not work at all. Open the phone’s camera app and take a quick picture to check.

5. Make a Test Call – This is probably the most important test to make, as a phone that can’t make a call is little more than a way to have 24/7 access to Angry Birds. If you have a SIM card, you can pop it in and make a call from the device on your own number. If not, and the phone is still active on the seller’s account, then have them call you from it to ensure that it connects. This can double as your evaluation of the speakers to ensure that they are producing a clear sound.

6. Jailbroken/Rooted Phones – When someone goes around the security systems in place on a phone and installs custom software this is known as Jailbreaking (on iOS devices) or Rooting (on Androird devices). Unless you are a tech-savvy user who is familiar with these processes, I would recommend staying away from phones in this state. Sometimes a jailbreak is irreversible, or when done incorrectly can cause the wifi to become inoperable or can permanently “brick” a phone if a factory restore is attempted. You can tell a jailbroken iPhone by its installation of the app “Cydia”, and oftentimes a rooted Android phone will have an altered menu interface or other edited features. People are usually honest about the status of their phone, and many view the jailbreak as a positive selling point, so just be sure to ask.

Extra Tips

Accessories – Many times, a seller on Craigslist will not only be offering their phone for sale, but will include any variety of chargers and accessories.  Unless the seller’s asking price is exceptionally low for the phone and more than makes up for the cost of having to buy necessary accessories yourself, I would wait to find someone offering a package deal. Rarely do people inflate the original asking price to account for the extra gear, unless a heavy duty Otterbox case is one of the items included.  Extras that I have had thrown into my purchases for no additional cost include: a slew of cases from cheap plastic ones to the $40 Otterbox Defender, an FM radio transmitter with cigarette lighter adapter, a Morphie “Juice Pack” extended battery, and any combination of the original box, manuals, headphones, chargers, and USB cables. If you do end up having to purchase some of these items, then buy online at sites like Amazon where brand new OEM accessories can be had for way cheaper than the in-store retail price.

Sim Cards SIM Cards – A SIM card is what attaches your phone number and personal account information to the phone that you are using. This technology is only used for phones on the GSM network. CDMA network phones do not use a SIM but have a unique identifier integrated into the handset itself. When purchasing a phone, be aware that it’s SIM card slot may require a smaller SIM card than what you are currently using. This can easily be ordered from your mobile provider, or can be cut down to size (DIY SIM cutting instructions can be found online), but it’s nice to have that taken care of in advance so that you can immediately start using your new phone. 1st generation smartphones use a mini-SIM card size, and most currently being produced use the Micro SIM. Some of the newest phones on the market like the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy s4 require an even smaller card called a Nano SIM.

Storefront Account Swaps – With CDMA phones, it can be beneficial to have the seller meet you at your local service provider’s storefront. An employee there will ensure that the device is functioning properly and will transfer the phone directly from the seller’s account to yours. This has the double benefit of ensuring that you are not buying a blacklisted handset and having a trained professional give your phone a once-over.

Safety – Exercise caution and common sense whenever you are meeting people from Craigslist, especially for popular items like smartphones. I will usually have sellers meet me during the day at a public place with some moderate traffic and visible security cameras, like a bank. Trust your gut when communicating with a potential seller, and if you aren’t comfortable, just walk away.

Please leave any feedback or questions for me in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you.


  1. Hey Ryan, thanks for the info. I will be referring to this page in the future when I get into selling more cell phones. The one and only purchase I’ve made thus far has turned sour. It was a Sprint I-Phone that was still activated on the seller’s account. The next day when they deactivated the phone, they didn’t pay their last bill. So when we tried selling it to a potential buyer at a Sprint store, it couldn’t be re-activated. The original seller of the phone denied owing any money to sprint and, of course, refused to take the phone back.

    At first I didn’t think it would be that big of a problem; I’ve read that unless a phone has been reported lost or stolen, it can still be flashed to another carrier (assuming, of course, the phone is compatible with that carrier). But if the information in this article is correct–and I’m sure it is–an unpaid bill will blacklist a phone just the same as if it had been reported lost / stolen. Guess I need to do a little more research before I make my next cell phone purchase. Grr.

    Anyway, thanks again for posting this article. It’s very informative and will be tremendously helpful to me as a reference page. Hopefully next time I can avoid making such a costly mistake!


    • J,

      I’m sorry that happened to you. In my first year of buying and selling phones, I got burned in multiple different ways and treated each one as a learning experience for the future.

      Flashing was one of the only topics I left out of my article, simply because I have no experience with the process, and the legality of it is questionable at best. As far as I understand it, “flashing” a phone actually rewrites the identity of the phone to another cloned IMEI. Yes, it is a backdoor around blacklisted devices, because the blocked IMEI is overwritten and replaced with another. I’ve seen local Boost and Metro PCS dealers advertise their ability to do this.

      And yes, you are correct in saying that an unpaid bill is no different than being reported lost/stolen. Both give you a fancy paperweight.

      At the very least, blacklisted phones still hold quite a bit of value on eBay. You might not get what you paid for it, but you may come close.

  2. Do you specialize in certain types of phones? On what carriers/brands/models have you had the best luck making money?

    • Far and above, iPhones are where I make the most money. They hold their value more than other phones as they are in such high demand. Also, with the different “tiers” – 3g, 3gs, 4, 4s, 5, soon to be 5s, people are always wanting to sell their old one to get the next one.

      Last year, I found the iphone 3’s and 3gs’s to be the most profitable, but they’ve gone down in value so much that I now find myself buying the 4 and 4s more than any other phone.

      The Samsung Galaxy phones would be a distant second, but I’m mostly holding off on buying those until after the s4 is released in April and the resulting price drops on earlier models stabilizes.

        • Prices are constantly declining (usually $10-15 dollars a month online), so the price I pay changes as well. Last month I was buying iPhone 4’s at $200 and 4s’s between $275 and $350, depending on GB. Those were my average buy prices, every once in a while an outlier was much lower than the average.

          Average sell price on the 4’s ranged from $260 to $300 and between $360 and $400 for the 4s, both ranges depending on GB. Those numbers represent my net income after online selling fees, so the buyer actually paid around 8% more than those numbers.

  3. How can you out do the competition? In my town of about 80 thousand people I’d say there’s at least 4 to 5 people looking to buy and cell iphones. The good deals are snatched up pretty quickly.

    • There’s a few ways I’ve managed to find my niche.

      I live on the outskirts of the DFW metroplex, about 30 minutes from downtown Dallas. Yes, In the heart of the city, there are many people dealing in used phones. However, by being on the outskirts I have access to a variety of smaller cities that the guys in city don’t usually make an effort to drive to. Recently a couple have started popping up, but it hasn’t seemed to slow my business yet.

      I’d say that 50-60% of my business comes from people contacting me in response to my wanted ads on Craigslist, and the other 40-50% is me frequently monitoring the craigslist posts in my area and jumping on any good deals immediately. The good ones are never up long, even though I’m one of the only ones in my area.

      If I come across a really good deal, and I am unable to act immediately, I’ll offer more than what they’re asking. That way, they are more likely to hold the phone for me specifically. Also, I try to always meet a seller where they are, as trying to arrange a halfway meetup turns a lot of people off.

  4. Aaron,
    Do you ever haggle with people over their asking price on craigslist? Or do you just look for the price you want to pay? If you haggle, how do you do it?

  5. Will,

    I do haggle, yes. For most phones I have a price in my head that I know I have to pay in order to make a profit. If I see a listing within $50 of that price, I’ll tell them that I can give them $xx for the phone and can meet them in [wherever they live] today. 1 out of 4 or 5 times, they’ll come down on the price.

    Most people who buy phones on craigslist are obnoxious, and ask sellers to meet them halfway or come to them, in addition to lowering the price. If you make it convenient for them, they will me more willing to negotiate on price. I find that 9 out of 10 phone sellers are somewhat flexible on their price.

  6. Aaron, I went to your blog, and I’m impressed with what you were able to accomplish although you’re not buying and selling phones anymore. How can I buy and sell phones for a short while to pay off a $4000 in debt and save $8000 for a car in a year?

  7. First off, thanks for the article. There’s a lot of useful information here. I just purchased a used cell phone on ebay, and wonder how do you know that your information is private? Is there a way that the seller can install something on the phone that can get your info? FYI-I purchased a samsung galaxy.

    • When you get the phone, you need to do a “Factory Reset” or “Factory Restore”. You can get there via the settings on both iOS and Android devices. This will completely wipe the phone of any previous data or installed programs.

  8. Aaron, I recently had a Galaxy S3 stolen from me. Any tips on how to locate my stolen phone? I called the provider and black-listed the phone and I’m reporting it to the police and checking area pawn shops. Is there any other step I can/should take?

    • Renee, I’m sorry that happened to you. Several thieves over the years have tried to sell me stolen, and then blacklisted, phones.

      Unfortunately, other than blacklisting the phone, there’s nothing more you can do, unless you had some sort of GPS alert system set up beforehand. It is not likely that it will make its way back to you.

  9. GREAT info- thanks so much! Unfortunately I was reading so much and taking notes and by the time I got back to craigslist to send my email requesting the correct type of number after looking up your Wikipedia link, the ad is gone- my gut told me it was a pretty good deal and must have been- poof it’s gone! 😉 That’s ok- I would have NEVER have known to do some of what you adivsed! I was basically clueless on how to check that it was not stolen and what I now know is blacklisted 😉 Don’t see any on my local craigslist that look good to me, so I’m off to check out E-bay as you mentioned a few times- only thing is how do you trust sight unseen? Do you have the same protections etc. you normally have on E-bay esp. when you use paypal? Wish me luck. I’m clueless 😉

  10. Thanks for this great info, Aaron. I’m looking into buying a used phone. I’ve never bought any electronics off Craigslist, so I decided to do a little bit of research. I’m on T-mobile now, but I’ve heard that T-mobile phone sellers have the highest percentage of people selling their phones, and not paying their bills afterwards, resulting in the phone being blacklisted. What’s a good way to prevent this?

  11. I found a new galaxy s5 on T-Mobile For $110. I asked the seller the location and why the phone. Was so cheap but they have not replied. It’s been maybe 3/4 days since I emailed them , should I just give up and say it was a scam ?

  12. Hi Aaron,
    Thanks for your useful information. I am from Africa but reside in USA and planning going into used phone business to Africa countries. Could you please help me with any useful information where I can be getting the phone to buy very cheap and in many quantities. Thanks

  13. I’ve won a used phone in an auction and my question is, even though I was t.old that the owner is no longer on the account, why does their phone number remain on the phone? If they aren’t on the account shouldn’t their phone number be removed?

  14. Great advices, I agree with most of them. I would actually add one: “if you can, buy from someone you know”. If your friend is selling a phone, then you already know how he was treating it and in what condition it is.


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