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How to buy second-hand or refurbished mobile phone

By Callum Tennent

Hesitant about being tied down to a lengthy phone contract, but don't like the idea of spending a ton of cash up-front? Buying a used or refurbished model could be a good move.

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With smartphone sales on the decline in the UK, and the advancements in technology between models getting smaller every year, many consumers are beginning to turn their back on the conventional smartphone upgrade cycle. 

Take the prices of modern phones into account, and it's not difficult to see why. The best part of £1,000 upfront will get you one of the very latest models, but why pay out for a new device that's only marginally better than your current handset? Why lock yourself into a two-year, or even three-year, contract for a phone that might be worth half as much in a year's time? 

Buying a used mobile phone could make perfect sense, but it's important to understand exactly what you're getting into first.

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What's the difference between a used smartphone and a refurbished smartphone?

It can be easy to confuse the two, but there are key distinctions to be made, with each one having its own set of pros and cons.

Refurbished

  • These handsets will always be sold directly from a manufacturer, retailer or reseller.
  • They will either look 'as-new' or graded by quality (see below), so you know for sure what it condition it will be in before you buy it.
  • Prices will often be higher than on the second-hand market, as the phones have been checked over by professionals to ensure they're in working order and good physical condition.
  • You're guaranteed a warranty of some sort, as it's being sold on to you by a professional retailer.

Used or second-hand

  • You'll often be buying directly from its last owner, meaning that transactions can be riskier.
  • The warranty is likely to have expired, as there's no renewal when a phone changes hands between owners directly.
  • You can get a great price, as sellers may not know how much a used handset is truly worth. Online auctions often result in low final prices, too.
  • The handset may well look visibly worn, and it may not come in its original box or even with the correct accessories such as a charger or headphones.

Find out more about your rights when buying second-hand goods.

What do handset grades mean on second-hand or refurbished phones?

Some sellers of used smartphones have a grading system to help potential buyers know what level of quality to expect from the phone. While they vary between merchants, here's a general overview of what you can expect:

Grade A

The handset is in visibly flawless condition, with no scuffs, scratches or marks to the outer case. It will come in its original box and (most likely) with all of its original accessories. This is as close as you can get to buying brand new, and will cost the most to reflect that.

Grade B

The handset is visibly used, but any damage is purely aesthetic (so no cracks to the screen or broken buttons). It will still come in its original box and will probably have the original accessories with it. It could be anywhere between £10 and £30 cheaper than a Grade A handset of the same model.

Grade C

Its wear will be heavier than a Grade B unit, but it will still be in full working order - again, that still means an intact screen. You might not get it in the original box, and it possibly won't have its accompanying accessories either. It will probably be priced anywhere between £10 and £30 cheaper than a Grade B version of the same device.

'For parts' or 'broken'

You'll see a lot of these on online auction sites such as Ebay - it goes without saying, but they should probably be avoided. Any handset that doesn't work as intended cannot be graded, and most people will simply try to sell them for parts or to someone happy to put the time and money into restoring them.

Even with these grades in mind, it's important to understand exactly what you're buying with a second-hand or refurbished phone. Look for additional details on a product listing so you understand the specifics about any potential issues a phone might have.

What sort of warranty will I get?

One of the big perks of buying a brand new handset, either outright or on contract, is that you receive both a retailer and manufacturer warranty as standard. When you buy second-hand or refurbished, things can work a little differently.

If you buy refurbished or second-hand from a retailer

If you buy a handset either second-hand or refurbished from a retailer (such as Apple or CeX), your consumer rights are very similar to if the handset was brand new.

You receive whatever sort of warranty the retailer offers as standard, plus basic protection from the Consumer Rights Act 2015. You still have a 30-day right to reject if the phone isn't as described, fit for purpose or of satisfactory quality. If you discover a fault within the first six months, it is up to the retailer to prove it wasn't there at the point of sale.

You also may be covered by the manufacturer warranty. For example, if you purchase a 2017 Samsung handset that comes with a two-year warranty, you would be covered by it until 2019 - even if you are its second owner. Manufacturer warranties do not renew when the item changes hands.

If you buy second-hand from a private seller

Buying from a private seller (as you would do on Ebay, for example) leaves you less protected. The manufacturer warranty still applies, as above, but your consumer rights are slightly different.

The item you receive must still be as described to you by the seller - so a handset listed as 'new', for example, must be genuinely unused. The seller doesn't have to disclose faults, but they aren't allowed to misrepresent it, either. This creates a fine line: a handset that doesn't turn on cannot be listed as 'working', but it doesn't have to be listed as 'not working', either. Always be sure to ask the seller questions if you have any doubts.

You will not receive protection from the Consumer Rights Act 2015, so the six-month return window does not apply.

Where can I buy a used handset?

There are plenty of ways to get a bargain price on your next handset without having to take risks or compromise on quality. Here's some of our top choices to look into before making a purchase:

  • Amazon
  • Carphone Warehouse
  • CeX
  • Ebay
  • Envirofone
  • Game
  • Samsung Outlet

In addition to these, most major UK networks will also have deals on refurbished handsets - although you will be tied into a contract with that network.

What problems should I look out for when buying a used mobile phone?

Even with the best of intentions, things can still go awry when you buy used. Here's a list of some of the most common problems to look out for:

  • Poor battery life - Smartphone batteries are notoriously short-lived. Unless the second-hand unit you're buying has been refurbished with a new battery, it's unlikely you'll be getting peak lifespan, even if it's in otherwise perfect working order.
  • Faulty charging port - There aren't many points of wear on a smartphone, but the charging port is often the first to go. Don't be surprised if the connection can be iffy, and be sure to give it a good clean to remove any lint or dirt that may have built up.
  • Faulty buttons - The only physical moving parts on a smartphone – elements such as the volume rocker on a Galaxy S device or the home button on older iPhones – naturally lose that crisp, clicky feeling after a while. While that's a shame, it can become a real problem if those buttons then completely cease to work.
  • Missing accessories - Make sure you check with the seller or retailer that the handset you're eyeing up comes with a charging cable, power adaptor and any other accessory that it normally comes boxed with, such as headphones. If you've managed to accumulate cables over the years, this may not be quite as important - plus, the idea of using someone else's in-ear headphones isn't the most appealing.
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