Buyer Beware: How To Buy A Used iPhone

If you’re not still “attached” to a big network in the traditional sense, meaning you went in, picked a plan and phone(s) with installment payments and are paying a LOT more for a cell phone service than others like me, then you are likely buying your iPhones from a third-party (eBay, Craigslist, OfferUp!, etc) or some other avenue. As intimidating as it may sound, purchasing a used iPhone (or any expensive device) from a third party can be just as straightforward as going into a store and checking out with a cashier. It’s more about doing your due diligence/homework and understanding that there are good people like me and you that just want to sell an item in hopes of making some money.

Obviously, buying a refurbished iPhone from Apple or other major reseller ensures that you get the highest quality device for a discount and the assurance that if anything IS wrong with the device, you’ll likely receive a manufacturer’s limited warranty. With that said, let’s look at your other options:

Buying From Craigslist, LetGo, etc:
Buying a used iPhone from Craigslist can be tricky. Be sure to check these tips before buying!
Craigslist Listing for iPhone 6s Plus 64GB for $170


In the screenshot above, you’ll see a Craigslist post I found in my area that stood out to me. It stood out because I see that the seller is advertising an “Almost Brand New” iPhone 6s Plus 64GB. Let’s dissect this a little bit:

iPhone 6s Plus, as you may already know, is currently one generation old (we’ll talk about this later). That tells me that I should expect to see prices slightly less than advertised for the newest models. For this phone, I will turn away any similar listing selling for less that approximately $450 (depending on the overall condition, or if the seller is including additional accessories). Next, let’s talk about the price listed on this particular example and the description I found when I clicked this link. It’s listed at $170 which I stated earlier is an immediate red flag. The description states: Hello, Selling my iPhone 6S Plus (Space Grey) 64GB is in phenomenal cosmetic & operational condition–looks brand new. The phone includes the leather Apple protective case, original charging cable & power adapter, and Apple earbuds. FACTORY UNLOCKED–works with any GSM carrier.” I always look at grammar and the overall comprehensiveness of the details. I will dismiss an item that has any of the following:

  • Pictures (stock from Apple or taken personally) of a model different that what is listed. (example: If the picture shows an iPhone 7 Plus, but the title lists iPhone 7 or other)*
  • If the seller doesn’t include storage capacity or color.
  • If the seller doesn’t include details about what specifically you’re getting with the phone (example: does it come with Apple EarPods? Charging cable? Charging adapter?)
  • I also like to ask WHY they are selling it (when talking to the seller over the phone). I listen for verbal clues like hesitation or shakiness in their voice. If I hear that, I walk. Likely, they have had a problem with the phone and are trying to pass it off as great quality to get more money and pass the problem on to you.

*This is where you have to be extra careful because sometimes someone will try and sell an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, but put pictures and titles indication that it is a 6S or 6S Plus, which has many different features, not to mention it’s false-advertising.)

Next, the title lists it as “Sprint” being the original or most recent carrier. As we’ll discuss later in this post, you have to consider who your service provider will be. I never buy phones listed as being from Sprint, because they don’t work with Total Wireless**, which is the prepaid cell providers my family uses.

**That claim is not guaranteed, as I have not purchased a Sprint-orginated phone and attempted to activate it with Total Wireless. Again, this is a situation that I don’t consider being worth getting stuck with an iPhone that I will lose money on. 

There are many factors to consider when purchasing a used (or reportedly NEW) iPhone, iPad, or other Apple device. Today, we’re focusing on iPhones and the first thing you should look for is Carrier compatibility. We can get technical and go with the fact that every iPhone model since the iPhone 5 is made to be compatible with all major cell providers. But, if you’re buying the phone for use with a MVNO (mobile virtual network operator, a wireless communications services provider that does not own the wireless network infrastructure over which the MVNO provides services to its customers) like Straight Talk, Consumer Cellular, or Total Wireless, I would be sure to check the wireless technology used by your prospective service provider.

For example, the technical term for one form of wireless technology, CDMA, is used by many MNVO providers. Another common term is GSM. Let’s use my two favorite MVNO Cell providers as an example for this scenario: Straight Talk Wireless and Total Wireless.

Both of these providers are owned by TracFone Wireless and sold exclusively on their respective websites and Walmart, in-store and online. For years, my family has used Straight Talk because of the great value and network coverage. Straight Talk’s network is hosted by AT&T, Spring, T-Mobile, and Verizon, so they are pretty much covered. What this means is that, when buying a used iPhone, you should be looking in the listing for indicators that it is currently or formerly “locked” to one of those carriers. Once you’ve confirmed this, you simply need to purchase the Straight Talk SIM* card Activation Kit that correlates with this particular phone (either GSM or CDMA).

*When you begin using prepaid cell service with a company like Straight Talk, you must remove the SIM card from your phone (if any) and purchase/insert Straight Talk’s SIM card so that your phone can connect to that network.


Moving on, just like you would do when buying a car from a private party, you want to make sure that the iPhone is not stolen. Apple has many standards in place to ensure that every iPhone is tied to the person it is supposed to belong to. If its not, it will be known. Apple has recently removed the service offering for users to inquire as to whether an iPhone is in “Activation Locked” status. Because of this, when I purchase from a private party, I ensure that I put my SIM card in the phone I am purchasing (before giving money to the seller) and wait a few minutes to see if my service activates on the phone. This is probably not the most highly recommended method, but I’ve done it at least five or six times over the past few years and it has always worked. When I first started doing this, it would take much longer (as long as 12+ hours), but MVNO carriers have since become exponentially faster. The last three or four times I’ve inserted my SIM card in this situation, I was three minutes or less before I was able to successfully make a test phone call and begin using data services. As always, you can always contact me here if you have any questions about your specific situation and I will be glad to help!

Always check for physical damage when purchasing a used iPhone from a private seller.
One of my old iPhone 5 models that my son now uses as a chew toy or drumstick.

As far as physical condition, it depends on what you are willing to consider acceptable. Personally, I can live with a small nick or two (with no discoloration) if it means a good discount. Otherwise, I won’t buy it unless the screen, buttons, ports and casing is in near-mint condition. “You’re so picky, Michael,” I hear you say. It’s okay, my wife tells me that all the time, and not just about this. I’m picky about food, organization, volume levels, you name it. When it comes to iPhones (or any other device I buy), even a small ding on the corner of the phone that you have to hold right up to your eyeball in order to see means that the iPhone has been dropped (or hit). If the iPhone has been dropped, you can immediately assume that there is a chance that some internal component could very possibly be compromised. I know that sounds like a long shot and admittedly, it is. BUT, I say that to say that I know I will find an iPhone with a flawless physical condition if I keep looking, and unless I’m just in a pinch, I’ve got plenty of time and patience and I’ll wait until I find the right phone to meet my “pickiness.”

Also, keep in mind that a lightly used iPhone is likely to still have a solid battery life, but to be sure, check with the seller to see if they are willing to either have the battery checked by a repair shop beforehand (be sure to request a receipt containing the iPhone’s serial number or IMEI number) and date/proof of service. If a seller is not willing to comply with this simple request, move on. If you, the buyer, are willing to take the risk and buy it anyway, it’s not terribly expensive to go through Apple or a third-party for battery replacement.

Storage capacity and features are the last consideration when buying a used iPhone. As a rule of thumb (as of 2017 standards), my recommendation, as shared by many industry professionals, is to buy a phone with AT LEAST 32GB storage. Obviously, if you just like iPhones or Apple products, but only use it for making calls, checking light email, and playing a few games, you may be the exception. However, if you’re like many smartphone users, you take a lot of pictures and videos, send and receive work email with potentially large attachments, and other storage heavy tasks, then let’s say its safe to consider 64GB or greater. As far as features, you’re probably buying an iPhone that’s at least one generation behind the current model(s). Take it from me, I do this as a great way to save a good chunk of change. If you’re really new to iPhone (i.e., you’ve never owned one and don’t know much about smartphone capabilities), it’s safe to do some research first.

As always, we can go much deeper and wider in our discussion about this topic, but this is one of my longer posts, so I want to give your brain and eyes a break. This would be a great post to start a discussion, so if you want further elaboration about anything we’ve talked about, leave your question or comment below and let’s chat!

Until next time, happy shopping! 🙂


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