How to find the best replacement deals for your old iPhone or Android phone

That unused phone in your desk drawer doesn’t just collect dust. They also lose value quickly – hundreds of dollars in cash that you can put in your pocket by trading or selling them online.

You probably have one or two old, unused devices that you’ve forgotten about. Once you upgrade to a newer model, it’s about every 38 months in the US, according to market researcher International Data Corp. Many of us put away our old phones. There are hundreds of millions of these idle devices in the United States, according to used device buyers EcoATM.

Apple and Samsung buy old devices when you buy a new model. Retailers like Best Buy and Amazon offer gift cards. Wireless service providers in the United States give credit for the purchase of a new phone. Some third parties, including EcoATM and Back Market, will buy your old device with cash, while others like Swappa will help you find a buyer. If you’re adventurous, you can get your old phone delivered directly to buyers on Craigslist, eBay, or Facebook Marketplace.

Companies usually set prices based on what you can get to resell your old phone. But these amounts fluctuate depending on the request form, timing, and condition. About phone launches, some carrier buyback promotions can be so violent that they make a new device free.

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T-Mobile and Verizon offered up to $1,000 on new phones with trade-in, while selling a 2.5-year-old iPhone 11 on Swappa could fetch around $400.

Once you’ve decided to part with your old phone, here’s what you’ll want to consider:

Manage your expectations

If there’s any prospect of your device going to sell out in the future, there’s one major rule of thumb: put a cover on it, and maybe even a screen protector. Devices in “like new” condition will make you more money.

Your phone model will determine how much it can bring. Unlocked variants, those not associated with a specific wireless service provider, are generally worth more. And iPhones tend to hold their value longer than Android devices.

Set your priorities

When preparing to sell, think about what matters most: getting the most money, or making the easiest transaction. Selling directly to the buyer will probably get the most return (except for some crazy carrier deal). But it also takes a lot of work.

Swappa appeared as an option to make this process easier. For a small commission, he checks that devices aren’t stolen, suggests on-demand pricing and helps connect sellers with buyers. You still have to handle the transaction and charge the device.

The next option is to sell your phone directly to a reseller you recycle, such as Decluttr and EcoATM.

EcoATMs—commercial kiosks located in nearly 5,400 malls, Walmart stores, and other locations across the United States—use cameras and smart computers to scan your old device, pull the IMEI number to make sure it’s not stolen, and provide an offer on the spot. If you agree, you will be given cash immediately, and the device will keep your phone. If you don’t like the offer, you can restore your device.

EcoATM, top and Gazelle, operated by the same company, buy old hardware with cash. EcoATM has kiosks all over the US while mailing the phone in with Gazelle.


Photo:

Chara Tebken / The Wall Street Journal

Gazelle, which is owned by the same company, offers you an online quote after you provide details about your device. Then it asks how you want to be paid, either by Amazon Credit, which earns you an extra 3%; Check mailed within 10 days; Or pay with PayPal.

You ship the device to Gazelle at no charge. Final offer is confirmed after physical examination. If you don’t like the give, Gazelle will return your phone. It might be worth the extra effort: Gazelle’s offerings are usually higher than EcoATM’s.

The easiest and most common way is delivery with the carrier or retailer who will sell you your next phone. Apple ships a return box for your old device, or they’ll take it from an Apple Store. Many retailers will also recycle appliances that aren’t worth any money to keep out of landfill.

Choose your timing carefully

When it comes to buy-back offers from carriers, you often get the best deal with a new model launch. When Samsung’s Galaxy S22 hit the market last month, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon launched aggressive promotions. They had similar promotions for the Apple iPhone 13 launch in September.

These trades do not follow a specific time frame. For example, AT&T’s trade-in offers during the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro launch lasted for three weeks, but you can trade in an old phone at a good discount on iPhone 12 Mini and 12 Pro Max for more than 10 months. The exchange deal at the launch of the iPhone 13 was available for a month. With no crazy promotion from the three carriers, trading in a fully loaded iPhone 12 Pro Max, which costs $1,399 in 2020, will earn you $550 at most.

Back Market was launched in 2014 so hardware refurbishers could sell their new gadgets. It has now started allowing people to sell their old devices to refurbishers for cash.


Photo:

Chara Tebken / The Wall Street Journal

Ben Edwards, CEO of Swappa, said that while prices for used phones are dropping over time, there is still “seasonality in the market.” He said there are usually more new listings around Apple events, especially when people have new devices on hand and are looking to unpack their old phones. Instead of waiting to sell your phone until after launch, you can make more money by listing it before.

Read the fine details

Many recent carrier promotions are good deals if your device qualifies as a trade-in and if you’re using the right service plan. Many are only available to customers with high-quality, unlimited plans. If you are not subscribed to one of these plans, you will have to change your service to take advantage of the trade deal.

Carriers now offer more for swaps on an expanded list of devices, but check out this fine print, too.

And if you get the carrier’s $1,000 swap offer, you’ll likely find that it’s paid off over time, in conjunction with your phone’s payment plan—over 24 or 36 months—to keep you connected to service. If you leave the carrier before your plan ends, you’ll have to pay the remaining cost of the phone.

Shop around

Barter companies let you see approximate prices for your device, without sharing identifying information. You should check a few of them to get a feel of your phone’s running rate. (Be honest about its condition, or else you’ll get burned later.)

If you wait, the value of your phone may go down. Researching this article, Apple’s iPhone 11 prices fell on some sites — including Best Buy, Swappa, and Decluttr — after Apple updated its closest competitor, the new iPhone SE. Prices can also fluctuate from day to day.

On a given day in March, an unlocked iPhone 11 in decent condition with 64GB of storage can sell for anywhere from $140 (Samsung’s trading) to $383 (on Swappa). We didn’t try to sell it on eBay, as it could fetch more.

“You have to look for deals,” said Maribel Lopez, principal analyst at tech industry analysis firm Lopez Research. “It’s not as if they are ubiquitous and all are easy. But they can be found, and some of them can be very profitable.”

If you find a swap offer that you’re happy with, go for it. Whatever you do, never put your phone in the tray again.

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Write to Shara Tibken at shara.tibken@wsj.com

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