Used iPhones: A guide on where and how to buy one

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Wed April 17, 2019

It's no secret -- breaking or losing an iPhone is a real bummer. They've become cultural icons in their own right, but also might be your third hand.

And not having Apple Care or a budget to fix a broken iPhone -- or worse, replace a lost or stolen one -- makes the situation worse. Especially with a new iPhone XR costing $749 or an XS at $999, which aren't the most affordable handsets.

But fear not, there are a few options that won't break the bank for replacing a broken iPhone with a used or refurbished model.

Used vs. refurbished

Whatever your reason for needing a new one, you may wonder what's the difference between used and refurbished.

A used iPhone is essentially being sold as is, with a restored software experience. It generally falls on the seller to provide images of the device, so you can see if it has any scratches or cosmetic issues. The listing should also say if there's a feature that doesn't work, like a cracked screen or foggy front facing camera.

A refurbished iPhone has gone through diagnostic tests to make sure it meets the standards for sellable condition. In some cases, these might be returned iPhones or ones that were broken and have been repaired. An additional factory-refurbished warranty might be included, depending on where you get it.

Whether you go for "used" or "refurbished," you need to be sure you know what you're getting. If you plan on purchasing from Decluttr, Gazelle, certain eBay sellers, a wireless carrier or even Apple, this is less of a concern. These select eBay users would be wireless carriers and big box electronic retailers, like Verizon, which operate stores on the site. Buying from a true third-party seller, like an individual on eBay or Swappa, will require some due diligence.

Know what you're getting

Results will undoubtedly vary with used iPhones on eBay, but you can increase your chances of a positive experience by performing a few checks. On any bidding site, you'll want to steer away from listings that use promo photos. With these, you have no idea what the actual phone you're bidding on will look like. The seller will still likely list a condition, but you have to be a bit wary of these. It's worth a shot to ping the seller and ask for a photo, but looking for alternatives is an equally wise move.

As important as seeing the device is knowing the network bands. There are many iPhone models under each generation (6, 6s, 7, 8) and you'll want to make sure a particular phone will work on your network. Most sellers will list this and make it clear in the title, and when searching on eBay typing, for example, "iPhone 7 AT&T" should bring up the right results. Some iPhones might be listed as CDMA or GSM only, and these are just fancy terms for the type of antenna bands inside. In the United States, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. It's how your phone talks and uses the network. The third option is Unlocked, and these iPhones will work just fine across all the major US networks.

Now that you have your checklist, you're ready to find your new-to-you used iPhone. Here are a few places to start.

Decluttr

If you want to knock out two birds with one stone, Decluttr might be the best option. Not only can you trade in an iPhone or other used smartphone, the site also sells refurbished devices. Decluttr has a proprietary check for testing the devices and ensuring they work, plus you can choose from a variety of conditions they might be in along with storage size, screen size and color. And if you have unwanted CDs, DVDs, other electronics and even Legos around the house, you can send them in for cash. Decluttr doesn't provide a box, but you will get a prepaid shipping label so they can evaluate the goods.

Gazelle

Not the wild animal, but the site to buy and sell used electronics. Gazelle has a large number of certified devices, since it buys used models from consumers. Before these iPhones go on sale, they pass a proprietary 30-point inspection to ensure they're in good condition. Each iPhone listing clearly says which carriers it will work on, the condition, storage size, and color. Big thumbs up to Gazelle for including this info front and center, plus the site includes customer reviews.

eBay

Across the online auction site, you will find thousands of iPhones in a range of conditions, dating back to the original model (yep, the one from 2007). We'd advise going a little more recent, like a device that can handle 4G to set you up for the future. Luckily the site has a dedicated page where you can quickly start your search by clicking on the iPhone model you'd like.

It starts with a simple search that can be as wide as "iPhone" or as precise as "T-Mobile 64GB iPhone 7 Plus jet black." Whatever it might be, triple check the photo to see the condition and the network bands. Unless it's being sold from a carrier's eBay store, you likely won't get a warranty on the device.

Wireless carriers

Wireless carriers routinely offer refurbished iPhones. Similarly to Gazelle, these go through a testing process by the carrier to ensure proper functioning. The stock supply from carriers can be limited; for instance when the XS and XS Max launched there was a bit of a rush for refurbished iPhone X's, since that model was discontinued.

The iPhone 6 is still in somewhat hot demand since it has a headphone jack. For instance, AT&T's online store has a solid selection, but if none are listed, it can't hurt to call telesales or visit a store.

Apple's Refurbished Store

Yes, the company that makes and sells iPhones has a fully certified refurbished store. It offers a minimal selection that includes only the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. However, these devices have all been checked by Apple, are unlocked, and come with a one-year warranty. The savings vary from $80 to a maximum $220 off.

Looking for more ways to save? Be sure to to check out CNN Coupons to find the latest deals.