How To: Buying a Used or Refurbished Phone? Here's Everything You Need to Know

Buying a Used or Refurbished Phone? Here's Everything You Need to Know

You can feel it in your bones. You may die if you don't get this phone. There's just one problem — the price. Suddenly, you come across what seems like manna from heaven. That very device, at a deeply discounted rate, can be yours.

The only thing that makes you pause is that some of the wording you are seeing makes you feel uncertain. Terms like "pre-owned," "certified," "refurbished," "remanufactured," and "used" are being thrown out there by the seller to describe your dream phone. What exactly do these terms mean?

A New Standard in 2017

Prior to 2017, there really wasn't a commonly accepted definition, nor were there any set standards, for the re-manufacturing or refurbishment process. It's been left to the seller's discretion how they want to classify their device, and the standards they choose to uphold. As you can imagine, this left consumers wide open to unwittingly purchasing a variety of unreliable — and sometimes low-quality — products. The times are changing, though.

In February 2017, the Remanufacturing Industries Council received final approval from ANSI (American National Standard Institute) for the guidelines set forth by its "Specifications for the Process of Remanufacturing" (ANSI-RIC001.1-2016).

ANSI is responsible for setting standards across a variety of industries, but if you are into computer programming it might sound familiar to you. That's because ANSI helped to develop and approve standards for ASCII and C programming languages. This approval of a definition, with more specifics on standards to follow, is at least a step in the right direction towards transparency when you buy pre-owned, certified, or refurbished smartphones.

Seller Reputation Still Matters

While the move towards standardization is exciting news, the changes are slow to take hold. Right now, what has been finalized is this definition of remanufacturing for the US only:

Remanufacturing is a comprehensive and rigorous industrial process by which a previously sold, leased, used, worn, or non-functional product or part is returned to a "like-new" or "better-than-new" condition, from both a quality and performance perspective, through a controlled, reproducible, and sustainable process.

— Remanufactured Industries Council

The Remanufactured Industries Council is still trying to have this approved as an international standard, and there's much more work to be accomplished when it comes to detailing the remanufacturing processes. In mid-2018, it's not likely you will find too many (or any) devices designated as ANSI-approved when it comes to how they were refurbished. So it's still useful to examine the definitions for the terms that major smartphone vendors assign to their own used products, and the standards they set for themselves.

Image by geralt/Pixabay

General Definitions

We're going to cover some of the major OEMs, carriers, and third-party refurbishers specifically, but recognize that we'll still be omitting many refurbished smartphone vendors. To help account for this, the list below provides some general, common, and often confusing terms associated with used smartphones. These definitions are not one-size-fits-all.

This is kind of a hot market right now for sellers. Refurbished phones are the fastest growing category of the smartphone industry right now, and this is only projected to increase over time. These phones are inexpensive, and it can be marketed as a greener approach than the traditional manufacturing process.

Used or Pre-Owned

You probably have a used/pre-owned phone in your possession right now. Chances are, you haven't put your own personal device through testing, rigorous or otherwise. Perhaps nothing is wrong, but if so, why would you want to sell it at a discount? And if something is wrong, do you always know how to fix it to the extent you would place a monetary bet that all is well (i.e., warranty)?

That may be a tall order for a phone you are merely trying to get rid of. Used or pre-owned phones are often sold as-is. Typically, the only expectations of these devices are that personal information from the previous owner is wiped or deleted. Hopefully, you'd mention that glitch or lag you noticed that one time, but it seems to be gone now — so why bring it up? Unfortunately, that's how some people view these matters.

Certified Pre-Owned

So what happens if we place the word "certified" in front of pre-owned? Certified is typically a qualifier that at least lets you know the phone has been tested and will function properly. Some sellers go so far as to assert that the device will perform like new, while others reserve the "like new" status only for refurbished phones. Either way, now we're talking.

Refurbished or Certified Refurbished

Unfortunately in the smartphone world, these terms have been thrown around loosely. To some, it's only refurbished devices that are restored to "like new" condition. To others, refurbished means the phone has been tested and repaired. To others, refurbished is a blanket term to refer to phones returned to the manufacturer for any reason, with required testing and repairs more rigorous than what a brand new device might have to undergo.

Are you seeing the need for standardization yet? The terms "used," "pre-owned certified," "refurbished," etc. end up being relative — without any general consensus on their meaning. You can't simply rely on the terms themselves; you have to do more research. But that's what we're here for.

Your Best Bet

The average eBay seller peddling his or her wares has still probably never heard of the Remanufacturing Council or ANSI. They are just trying to make what they consider an honest (or some people are just dishonest) dollar.

Sites like eBay aren't necessarily bad, but they do promote their own terms and definitions for what they consider refurbished. Everyone has been doing that, because a lack of a standard has been the standard. You can also get some idea of a seller's reputation through their ratings, but selling a satisfactory pair of jeans isn't the same as selling a stellar phone.

Your best chance of scoring a high-quality phone is still going to be those who will stand behind their word monetarily with a warranty, and typically that is going to be manufacturers and carriers, to some extent. However, some retailers are also pretty reliable. If you do opt to go through a third-party site, be prepared to do your research before buying. You will need to do your own inspection when you receive the phone also.

Image by R M MEDIA LTD/Creative Commons

Specific Seller-Defined Terms

Remember when Bill Clinton said "It depends upon what the meaning of 'is' is?" Not to mention that recently the phrase "alternative facts" was coined by US Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway. Sometimes it seems that everyone has their own version of reality. But the good thing (and simultaneously, a sad thing) is that some of the highest grossing smartphone vendors are probably more honest than many politicians.

Still, it's very helpful to know how sellers actually define their used phone wares, how they actually set their standards, and whether they abide them. These definitions will get us started.

Retailers

In this next section, I'll go over all of the policies for some of the biggest retailers of pre-owned phones.

Best Buy

Best Buy places its phones (and other products) into two categories: Open-Box" and "Refurbished. "

Say you receive a phone as a gift, but it was the wrong color; or what about those devices you see on display in Best Buy? Best Buy can no longer sell these products as new, so they "test to verify that they are in working order and inspect physical appearance, and assign a condition—Excellent-Certified, Excellent, Satisfactory, or Fair."

Most often, they include all parts and accessories, but when they don't, it's factored into the product's condition and noted. When it comes to questions about water-proofing, Best Buy is quick to distinguish that the devices are water-resistant, and not water-proof. But that is also the same description you get from manufacturer Samsung themselves regarding their IP68 rating, even for brand new devices.

Best Buy's other category of used phones is called Refurbished. These products include lemons and phones that have had battery, screen, or casing issues. They are then repaired to new condition (but still may have minor cosmetic damage). The phones are tested to ensure functionality, and you don't lose out on any accessories.

  • Warranty: Open-Box: Yes, but some exceptions may apply. Refurbished: Yes, minimum 90 days unless otherwise noted.
  • Return & Exchange Promise: Yes.
Best Buy in Pittsburgh, PA. Image by Nicholas Eckhart/Wikimedia

Gazelle

Gazelle is proud of its socially ethical mission to recycle phones. The certification process for their Gazelle Certified refurbished phones is described as "a rigorous inspection process involving a 30-point functional and cosmetic inspection." All phones have to pass inspection.

Gazelle's inspection is designed to ensure that the devices it sells are "fast, high-performing, and high-functioning phones that work just like a new phone." Battery health is evaluated by Gazelle's technicians, and if the battery does meet the threshold Gazelle requires, it is replaced. The same is true for a phone's screen if it does not function properly.

Specifically, Gazelle's inspection looks to ensure that the front camera and rear cameras work perfectly, the speakers are all working as intended, the mute switch works, the phone's data connections work as intended, and the IMEI is clear for activation. They also test LED flash, physical buttons, GPS, the SIM tray, headphone jack, microphone, and USB or Lightning connection. The screen is inspected to ensure touch functionality works properly, there are no dead pixels, and the backlight is functioning.

Gazelle ensures you are "getting the genuine article. " The device should be free from both dirt and the data of the previous owner. Whether you are talking to Google or Siri, or phoning a friend, Gazelle makes sure your voice will be heard. And you shouldn't face power problems, as the phone's ability to charge is tested before you receive it.

The devices are then assigned a cosmetic rating. Cosmetic ratings range from "Excellent," to "Good," then "Fair." As to be expected, the devices are factory reset.

  • Fair: The screen is good. There may be scuffs and nicks on the side and back, but they can be easily hidden with a cover.
  • Good: The screen is very good. There may be small scuffs or nicks on the side or back.
  • Excellent: The screen and body are in excellent condition. If there are blemishes, they are minimal.

We were able to speak to Chase Freeman, Public Relations Manager for Gazelle, who provided the benefit of having different cosmetic rating categories, and gave specifics about what the process entails:

Having different categories allows Gazelle customers to pick the device that best suits their needs. When customers buy from Gazelle, they buy Certified devices and nothing else. No contracts, commitments or fine print — simply the make and model of the device they want at up to 40% less than buying new. All products are backed by a 30-day return policy.

— Chase Freeman
  • Warranty: None.
  • Return & Exchange Promise: Yes, if within 30 days, and as long as all Gazelle's conditions are met.

Amazon

Amazon indicates that for all of the below types of products, it is selective about who is allowed to sell on its site, and only those "who maintain a high performance bar" are granted the privilege.

The products are part of Amazon's "Renewed" program, which requires the phones to be tested by certain suppliers to ensure like-new functionality and appearance. Amazon describes its inspection and testing process as including "a full diagnostic test replacement of any defective parts, and a thorough cleaning process carried out by the qualified seller, vendor, or by Amazon."

All accessories should be provided, unless specifically noted otherwise. Amazon's cosmetic standard is "no visible imperfections when held 12 inches away."

  • Warranty: Yes (90 days).
  • Return & Exchange Promise: Yes, although refund amount is based on item condition, your length of ownership, and how the phone was purchased.

eBay

eBay does inform you whether the phone was refurbished by the manufacturer or seller. It also sells used phones, and phones to be utilized for parts only.

eBay states that a Manufacturer Refurbished phone "has been inspected, cleaned, and repaired to meet manufacturer specifications and in excellent condition." It might even include the original packaging — maybe. Each seller is to provide more details.

Seller Refurbished is defined as "an item that has been restored to working order by the eBay seller or a third party not approved by the manufacturer." The expectation for these phones is that they have been cleaned, inspected, and repaired to full functionality. Condition should be excellent, original packaging is a big maybe, and the seller should provide more listing details.

Used devices are at least expected to work, although they might have cosmetic issues. Store returns or floor models fall into this category.

With phones labeled For Parts or Not Working, you get what you get.

  • Warranty This largely depends on the seller. You can contest a sale with eBay, but speaking from experience, it may only damage the seller's reputation for selling future goods on eBay. eBay has partnered with Square-Trade to offer or extend warranty coverage, but it does cost extra.
  • Return & Exchange Promise Yes. If you receive the item in faulty or damaged condition, eBay does offer a money back guarantee, although it requires that you attempt to resolve the issue with the seller first. For all Certified Pre-owned devices, it allows for the item to be returned within 90 days.

Manufacturers

This is your best bet for receiving a quality refurbished device, but it's probably also going to be a little more expensive. You also may not have quite as many choices, and they aren't likely to be the very newest models — but the warranty usually lasts for a year. These phones are tested and restored to working condition. The cosmetic condition may vary, however.

Apple

Apple states on its online shopping site that it "tests and certifies all Apple refurbished products." Apple also seems to be the only seller that always replaces the existing battery with a brand new one. The company also provides a new outer shell, and you get a shiny new white box to put it in.

The site does advise that "availability is guaranteed once we receive your full payment." When it comes to Apple refurbished devices, they have to meet a lot of the same standards that brand new phones do, and this may include waterproofing. The warranty is identical regarding waterproofing for a remanufactured phone as it is for a brand new iPhone. But here's the kicker — even your brand new iPhone isn't covered by the warranty for liquid damage, so neither is a refurbished device.

  • Warranty Yes, 1 year.
  • Return & Exchange Promise Yes, plus free shipping.
Image via Max Pixel

Samsung

Samsung refers to refurbished devices as Certified Pre-owned. You get up to $60 in new accessories, including a charger. Samsung phones are "remanufactured to original condition by Samsung engineers." The refurbishment process is described as "a detailed, top-down, inspection of every feature and function by the same engineers who build our new phones."

The site goes on to state that those same engineers "take it apart, inspect it, replace damaged parts, reassemble it, and update the software." Samsung doesn't list the tests it conducts, but it does give a number — "400 rigorous tests to make sure it's back to its original condition and ready for you." Most devices come with new headphones, with the exception of a few.

Samsung states that if any repair is done by a registered repair center, the device maintains its water resistance. However, if you read the Samsung Galaxy S7 manual, it seems that like Apple, you still won't be covered by warranty for water damage. Also, in keeping with Apple's policies, this is not any different than what you would experience with a brand new phone. Some users have decided to conduct their own water immersion tests on their Galaxy devices, and the outcome has been undesirable.

  • Warranty Yes, 1 year with terms explicitly laid out.
  • Return & Exchange Promise Yes, if within 30 days.

Carriers

Carriers are another source of refurbished devices. They are also an important consideration regardless of where you buy. You'll want to ensure you are choosing a device that your provider will support service for. If you purchase through your carrier, that goes without saying.

On the other hand, it's also very likely the phone will be locked to that specific carrier. And generally speaking, the manufacturers either allow you to choose your carrier or give you an unlocked device; so it still may be advantageous to go through the manufacturer, depending on your circumstances.

Verizon

Verizon refers to its phones as Certified Pre-owned, but it relies on manufacturers to do its remanufacturing. That's not a bad thing, from what we learned about Samsung and Apple's processes and warranties.

Verizon does have its technicians conduct inspections on the devices, and they assign a grade to the cosmetic appearance of each item, such as "Like New" or just "Good." The Verizon techs also examine each phone's functionality, and require 100% scoring on all external and internal audio, buttons, battery life, camera, SIM card, and display performance.

  • Warranty Yes, 1 year.
  • Return & Exchange Promise Within 14 days of purchase.
  • In-Store Support Yes, at least to some extent.
Verizon Wireless Cell Phone Mobile Store, Waterbury, CT. Image by Mike Mozart/Flickr

AT&T

AT&T is pretty good about laying out its refurbishment process. Used phones are also referred to as "Certified Pre-owned." AT&T's website lists the systems they test as the following: Power, Display, Audio, Port, Connectivity, and Keypad & Software. Cosmetic blemishes are mostly minimal, but may include minor scratches and dents.

Phones that have been used for only a brief period of time, and have been refurbished to appear almost new, are referred to as Certified Restored or Like-New. The restored phones have been "repaired, refaced, and updated with the latest software." They have been checked to ensure no cosmetic damage remains and no parts are misaligned or missing. There should be no dents, scratches, or discoloration. Both types of phones are available only to those purchasing service through AT&T.

  • Warranty Yes, for Certified Like New or Restored Only (90 Days).
  • Returns Yes, within 14 days.
  • Service To some extent.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile puts its Certified pre-owned devices through an 80-point inspection. Its website states that "each device must pass a rigorous and thorough exam — and we do (sic) not grade on a curve." The company then goes on to elaborate how it tests the phones' power, display, audio, buttons, ports, communications, and networking and camera hardware and software. The site also provides an extensive list of the cosmetic features that are checked and/or tested.

  • Warranty Yes, 90 days, limited.
  • Returns Yes, within 14 days.
  • Service To some extent.

Sprint

Sprint offers two types of used phones: Pre-owned and Certified Pre-owned (Refurbished). Michelle Mermelstein, of Sprint Communications, explains the difference between the two categories and what Sprint's refurbishment process entails.

Pre-Owned phones typically have been used by a former owner on a Sprint lease. The phones may have noticeable cosmetic blemishes including minor scratches and housing dents/dings/scratches. Functionally, the device is in good working condition. Each device must pass comprehensive functional testing to ensure the device operates as expected.

— Michelle Mermelstein

Tests include, but are not limited to: sending and receiving calls, the liquid indicator must not be tripped, handset is unlocked, screen has full functionality, and all of the physical keys work. Spring also checks all audio functions (receiver/transmitter/external 2-way speaker), proximity sensors, vibration, LEDs, both cameras (for both photo and camcorder workability), headphone jack, and connectivity (Bluetooth and Wi-Fi) operations. Battery and charging ability are evaluated. Finally, a full factory data reset is performed, along with flashing the most up-to-date software to the device.

To summarize, "A pre-owned phone from Sprint is a gently used, non-certified phone that has undergone functional testing and inspection to ensure it is in good working condition. It comes with an OEM quality charger and is covered by the Sprint Customer Satisfaction Guarantee…"

"Certified Pre-Owned phones are typically OEM Refurbished phones. These devices are also previously owned devices, which will be tested & any defect repaired. The cosmetic condition is brought back to a like new spec. OEM refurbished devices typically carry a refreshed manufacturer warranty."

  • Warranty Yes, 90 days.
  • Returns Yes, within 14 days.
  • Service To some extent.
Sprint Cell Phone Display in Best Buy. Image by Mike Mozart/Flickr

How Much You Can Save

Condition and warranty should always be considered along with the price of any refurbished device. It also helps if the timing is right. And that goes for getting a cheaper phone in general; not just for refurbished. For instance, we decided to buy my Samsung Galaxy S8 right when the Galaxy S9 was about to come out because we knew it would be cheaper. When it comes to refurbished phones, it's possible to score discounts as high as 75%, but what's more common is going to be in the range of 10–40%.

Did it seem obvious that buying straight from the manufacturer was best in terms of risk? Unfortunately, these also tend to be the most expensive type of refurbished phones. For instance, at the time of this writing, an iPhone 7 with 128 GB of storage costs $649 brand new on apple.com, $589 refurbished on apple.com, $429 on Amazon, and $459 on eBay. Another thing to consider is how much you will save on a device with a non-removable battery if the battery is no good.

A History Shrouded in Mystery: Lifting the Veil

When I bought a salvaged car, the seller was able to tell me exactly what had been damaged and how it was repaired. Inquiring as to whether a refurbished phone has had a sketchy past, or was just returned because it was the wrong color, is a lot more difficult. You can, however, ensure that you aren't purchasing a stolen device by checking the phone's ESN, MEID, or IMEI on CTIA's Stolen Phone Checker. These numbers are often located on the inside, back of, or within the settings of the device.

Image by Maxander/Wikimedia

Phones with bad ESN, IMEI, or MEID numbers have been blacklisted by carriers for one (or possibly more than one) of four reasons. A device-specific number such as these will be considered "bad" if there is still money owed on the previous owner's account, if the phone is still active on a prior account, sometimes if the former owner simply switched carriers, or if the phone was reported as stolen or lost. A lot of carriers will refuse to activate one of these phones, or will charge you a fee for the phone to be flashed a new ROM. Another downside to phones with a bad ESN, IMEI, or MEID is that if the device has been lost or stolen, there will often be no way for you to determine if it was lost versus stolen.

Without knowing about the phone's past, bear in mind at all times what the worst-case scenario might be, and the likelihood of said scenario. Not to sound negative, but with any used phone, there is the chance it has taken some abuse. That's why buying from reputable sellers with satisfactory warranty, returns, and support resources is so important. Also, search for common and/or latent issues specific to the device you are considering and read reviews. But you might find it reassuring to note that a 2011 study by Accenture found that just 5% of returns were for defects. Do also note that the study was conducted for electronics in general; not just smartphones, however.

What about the other 95% of devices returned in the study? These products either did not meet the expectations of the buyer, or were not able to reproduce the software or hardware issues the buyer claimed they had during ownership when tested by the company the devices were returned to. The devices that failed to meet customer requirements were labeled "Buyer's Remorse" and comprised 27% of all returned products in the study, and the devices that displayed no discernible software or hardware issues (even though the allegation was made by the buyer) were categorized as "NTF" or "No Trouble Found" and made up 68% of products. This does seem to indicate that a lot of the products that are being sold as pre-owned are probably in good condition, especially after testing is conducted upon return.

Reveal Any Red Flags Early

From the instant you get your device, you are on a countdown to determine whether you want to return the phone. Ask for photos (if not already provided) before you buy from sites like eBay or Craigslist, and check for any signs of physical (especially water) damage. As soon as possible, examine the phone in person for any cosmetic damage you can't live with, and of course, for physical damage again. It should be a given that the seller factory reset the device, and it has no trace of any other user's data left.

If you are buying an iPhone, ensure the previous owner disabled the Activation Lock. Similar wiping complications can occur on an Android if the former owner didn't reset properly. If he or she didn't first remove his or her Google account, then reboot, and then wipe from within Settings, you won't even be able to use the phone without knowing their Google account password. It's a good idea to check this out early, and to collect contact information in case of issues.

When testing your new device, keep in mind the research you conducted specific to this year, make, and model, and what other owners have commonly had problems with. Also consider checking those potential issues that tend to arise over time, in older phones, such as holding a charge. There's a rule of thumb for when things start to go wrong with a house — 15 years — and you might be right in that window for cell phones, of 1–2 years of age.

It's important to mention that with older iPhone models like the iPhone 6, 6S, 7, and SE, Apple has released OTA updates (iOS 10.2.1 and higher) that actually throttle CPU performance to help mitigate aging lithium-ion batteries that may otherwise cause random shutdowns. At least, that was the explanation presented to TechCrunch to account for the throttling. Shutdown prevention is good; obviously, but slower performance is not. iOS 11.3 at least allows you to manually disable the throttling feature.

Also, Apple has included a way to tell if your battery is need of service in iOS 10.2.1 and higher. Just go to Settings, then Battery. If you need a new battery, your iPhone will let you know. It will say "Your iPhone battery may need to be serviced."

Image via Max Pixel

Is Refurbished Right for You?

If price is your first priority when buying a phone, you should consider buying refurbished (another reason is to reduce your environmental footprint). Be sure to compare the price of the used phone you are buying to the price of those that are new to ensure that there will actually be a savings. Sometimes, especially with iPhones, the price difference between refurbished and brand new is negligible. Samsung phones that are refurbished also tend to have pricing that isn't significantly lower than brand new.

Cost & reducing your environmental footprint are huge factors. Image by Delani Clatfelter/Gadget Hacks

But it may be a case of you get what you pay for. You need to be prepared and willing to do your homework and really research the device you are buying refurbished from less reputable sources, whereas most new phones or manufacturer-refurbished are pretty straightforward. Read all of the fine print, and be wary of phones designated "As-is." It's always a good idea to ensure that the refurbished device you are considering will be compatible with your service provider. If you like to choose from a wide selection, hate research, and/or only want the latest and greatest phones, refurbished might not be for you.

Cover image by Delani Clatfelter/Gadget Hacks

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