Tips for Buying a Phone on eBay

What You Need to Know Before Buying a Cell Phone on eBay

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Mobile phones have become centerpieces of modern life, but buying a mobile phone is often still a strange and stilted process.

Retail stores want you to sign a year-long or even multi-year contract. You can't take your phone with you if you move from one carrier to another. You only get to replace your phone at certain times unless you're willing to pay full retail price. When you replace your phone, your carrier may or may not be offering the phone that you really want.

Used or refurbished phones at retail stores are few and far between, meaning that you always pay a premium.

Benefits of Buying a Phone on eBay

eBay has become a solution to many of these problems, and the benefits of buying a phone on eBay have become clear:

  • Phones of every make and model are sold on eBay, from the very common to the very rare.
  • Many of the phones on eBay are unlocked, meaning that in theory you can take them from carrier to carrier.
  • Used phones are in abundance, so you can avoid emptying your pocketbook for the latest-and-greatest if last year's model suits you fine.
  • You can buy a phone without a contract on eBay, then take it to a pay-as-you-go carrier and save money and the need for a contract.

But buying a phone on eBay can also be a minefield. In the retail stores, the products offered are guaranteed to be safe, functional, clearly documented, and compatible with your carrier.

On eBay, all of this is up to you.

How to Buy a Phone on eBay the Smart Way

Here are the points to keep in mind as you shop eBay for your next mobile phone, aside from the usual considerations like the feedback of the seller, shipping, and return policies, and so on.

Note Whether the Phone Requires a Contract

On eBay, you'll find some phones that require you to sign a contract in order to buy them and many more that include just the phone.

Know which one you're after—if you have an existing contract or provider, you likely don't want another contract, so avoid phones that are listed as requiring that you sign one. Instead, you want just a phone—one that you can take to your existing carrier and have activated for you.

Look for Phones Compatible With Your Carrier

Among the four major American carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon), only AT&T and T-Mobile phones are potentially compatible across networks—and even then, there are limits. For the most part, the phone that you buy must match the network that you use. In eBay terms, this means to search for the phone that you want and the network that you use ("iPhone 4 Verizon") rather than just the phone itself.

Buy Unlocked If You Want International or Cross-Carrier Support

If you use a GSM-based service (your carrier requires a SIM card), consider searching for an "unlocked" phone, which will allow you to consider more phones (AT&T and T-Mobile phones can work across networks if they are unlocked) and may make it easier for you to travel internationally (by using inexpensive local SIM cards wherever you go). Beware, however, that AT&T and T-Mobile operate on different frequencies in the U.S. Using a GSM device on a competitor's network often involves some limits—notably on data transfer speed.

For international travel, look for a "world phone" or an AT&T phone, since the T-Mobile U.S. frequencies are less common abroad.

Be Careful About SIM Cards

If you use a SIM-based carrier, be sure that the SIM card required by the phone you're considering matches the SIM card you already have. There are several SIM sizes these days (the classic "mini SIM" and the newer "micro SIM" being the most common), and they are physically different. When eBay listings don't spell this out for you, use Google to find out which kind of SIM your would-be new phone requires. If in doubt, ask your carrier whether a new SIM can be issued if necessary, or visit a local mobile phone shop to have them identify the SIM you already have (and to ask whether they can trim it or adapt it to fit your new phone).

Read Descriptions Carefully

Very many of the used phones sold on eBay have defects of some kind—a cracked screen, a broken button, a serious scratch, and so on.

Read phone descriptions very carefully to be sure that the phone meets your needs and doesn't leave you bearing the burden of unmet expectations. If a description states that a phone needs repair, trust the description, it does. It is being sold for parts and is intended for someone who repairs and resells phones—not for end users.

Avoid Phones With "Bad" or "Blocked" IMEI or ESN Numbers

These phones are often in good condition and perfectly functional; their "only" problem is that they have a "bad" or "blocked" network identification number. This means that the phone in question was stolen or has been blocked for some other serious reason by carriers; you will never be able to get your carrier to allow this phone on their network. For all intents and purposes, for regular users, this is a phone that is for parts and cannot be repaired. There's a reason these sell so very cheaply.

Be Wary of "Enhancements" to Phones

If you're shopping in the smartphone space and are tempted by "jailbroken" or "rooted" phones or phones with "custom" firmware, realize that these modifications—usually made by the phone's owner—may enhance some features of the phone, but also ensure that no customer service agent (including those of the manufacturer) will ever touch you or your phone with a ten-foot pole in response to questions or other needs. Realize that these kinds of enhancements also often contribute to instability in other areas of phone use or functionality and that sometimes these cannot be reversed.

Check Included Accessories ​

Read carefully to see whether or not the phone in question includes a charger, battery (if applicable), case and/or screen protector, and whether or not these are in good condition. If they are not included or are not in good condition, remember to include in your cost calculations the prices of these necessary items—and also take into consideration the effort involved in getting them. Depending on where you live, it may not be easy to find such items for the phone you're considering in local retail stores, which tend to carry accessories only for the latest and greatest models, and then only at very high prices. Consider searching eBay instead if you need them.

Test Early and Carefully ​

Once you've made a phone purchase and your new phone has arrived, charge it immediately and attempt to connect to your network. When it comes to phones, the proof of the pudding is in whether or not it can be used—and used well—on your network and where you live. If there are any indications that this will not be the case, pack up the phone and return it if you're able. Don't make the mistake of dragging your feet for two weeks because of the hassle involved, only to find—when you finally do talk to your carrier—that it can't be used.

As a Last Resort, Sell It Again on eBay ​

If you find an issue and at the same time find that you can't return the phone for whatever reason (whether this is because of seller return policies, damage you have done, ultimate incompatibility with your network, or some other issue), file a dispute and seek remedy through buyer protection and/or a credit card dispute. But remember, too, that you can always sell it again on eBay, often for a good percentage of what you paid for it. Just remember to include anything new you've learned about the phone in your item description so that you're not facing a frustrated buyer at the end.