Time for an Upgrade? Here’s How to Sell Your Old Cell Phone

The average American upgrades their cell phone every 29 months, but I have a friend who goes through phones much more quickly than that. He likes to get the latest model every year.

During a recent hangout, he startled me by opening a desk drawer to reveal what can only be described as an electronics graveyard. It contained six iPhones, an old flip phone, chargers, cables, cases, and every dongle imaginable. There were arguably enough in there for him to open his own mall kiosk and sell phone parts on the side.

He told me how his drawer was filling up because he didn’t know what to do with the old phones. He knew he shouldn’t toss them, but he also didn’t want to go through the hassle of selling them. I offered to sell them for him and we agreed to split the profits.

Then, I had to dig into all the options for selling a used phone. What my I found was that there are always going to be tradeoffs. You won’t find a solution that is fast, easy, and lucrative. In general, the less sweat equity you want to put in, the less money you’ll earn.

Here are some of the best options for selling a cell phone:

Highest earning potential: eBay

After conducting my research, I chose to sell the phones on eBay. It’s the largest online auction site, with a robust used cell phone marketplace, so it allowed me to quickly get my listings in front of millions of potential buyers.

The downside of using eBay is that it takes a bit of effort to create an attractive listing. You need to understand how to take crisp photos, how to write a good description, the ideal days of the week to list, and at what price to start the bidding.

You also need to potentially deal with scam buyers and answer all the questions that come in from potential buyers.

Another thing to keep in mind when using the eBay auction method is that there’s a chance you sell the item for much less than it’s worth. That’s because, in order to attract bids, it’s generally recommended to start the auctions at an artificially low price. But, due to timing and listing issues, or any complex combination of factors, you might end up with very few bidders and a final sale price that will make you want to cry.

A few years ago, back when I was an eBay amateur, I convinced my girlfriend to let me sell her slightly used shoes on the site. Let’s just say she was less than pleased when I had to sheepishly mail off a pair of heels worth at least $75 for a whopping $5. My argument that we should just look at it like charity did not go over well.

For some people, learning the ins and outs of eBay and dealing with the hassle won’t be worth it. But, if you have the time and energy, you’ll usually sell your phone for a higher price on eBay than if you use the other options.

I was able to sell my friend’s phones with relatively little hassle. All the buyers paid on time and were very respectful. To me, the extra effort was worth it.

eBay also has a quick sale service, where you mail in your phone and eBay then pays you a price determined by their staff. If you take this route, you’ll sacrifice profit for convenience. For instance, if you’re selling an iPhone 6 in good condition, the current trending price on eBay for auctions is $225 and the “eBay quick sale” value is $150. For some people, the convenience may be worth sacrificing those $75.

Keep it simple: Trading in with your carrier or cell phone retailer

Any big U.S. carrier or cell phone provider will happily take your old phone off your hands via their buyback programs. Best Buy, Walmart, Target, Apple, Amazon, and all the major cell phone carriers offer this service.

The offerings of these companies are much like the eBay quick sale. You mail in your phone and get paid a fixed price in return. The difference is that they each make their payouts in the form of online gift cards or credits toward a new purchase. While credits are obviously not as fungible as cash, they can be useful to the person who’s simply upgrading and wants to keep things simple and minimize transaction costs.

If you’re particularly loyal to a certain company and you don’t want to deal with selling a phone on your own, this isn’t a bad deal. But, all things considered, you’re likely to get less money (and in a less liquid form) using these sellers than if you go elsewhere.

Keep it local: Craigslist

Craigslist, the free online classified site, is similar to eBay in that you’re in charge of creating a listing for your item. It differs from eBay in that there is no bidding system. You’ll receive direct offers from potential buyers, and sometimes people will try to lowball you.

But, if you’re patient, a Craigslist sale will usually result in more cash in your pocket as compared to doing the carrier trade-in option, or often even eBay. That’s partly because there are no shipping fees and no transaction costs (eBay takes 10% of every sale, and even a simple PayPal transaction carries a 2.9% transaction fee), and you can set your desired price without worrying about getting enough bidders. Plus, you’re almost always going to be paid in cash. As long as you know the fair market value of your phone and you’re willing to be firm, you should be fine.

Also, Craigslist is good for those who want to build social capital in their neighborhood. There is something nice about having personal interactions and potentially getting to know people in your community.

That being said, some people are wary of meeting up with strangers. The meetups also take time to coordinate, and sometimes people flake out at the last second. As with eBay, the time and effort needed to make the extra money might not be worth it.

Easy and flexible: Dedicated buyback companies

Gazelle, Flipsy, NextWorth and BuyBackWorld are all dedicated electronics buyback companies. They’re not affiliated with a particular cell phone provider or carrier. Like the giant corporations mentioned above, they’re targeting consumers who want to get money for their phones with minimal hassle.

They each operate on the same general principle: You mail your phone to the company and they take care of the rest. Some, like Gazelle, even offer to wipe your phone of all personal data so you don’t have to (I wouldn’t trust a third party to do this, but for the less tech-savvy it can be an intriguing option). Payments come in the form of a check or a PayPal deposit.

These companies also offer a 30-day price lock. If you upgrade every year like my friend, this could save you quite a bit of money. That’s because the resale price of a cell phone drops by 15% to 20% in the month leading up to a new release. If you know you’re going to upgrade every year, then you can sell your old phone the month before a new release. That way you can use your phone in the month leading up to the release without having to worry about it losing value when you want to sell it.

Flipsy is a particularly intriguing option, as they act as a sort of clearinghouse for all the authorized buyback companies. They vet and verify buyback companies who can then make competing offers to buy your phone based on the age, make, and condition of your device. These companies are likely to multiply as cell phones become more and more popular, so it could be nice to use a service that consistently assures you that you’re getting the highest offers.

A note about electronic waste

Most people selling used phones are doing it to make some extra cash from what would otherwise become a lifeless rectangle in a junk drawer. And that’s great. But, it’s also important to keep in mind that there are compelling environmental reasons to resell — or, at the very least, properly recycle — your old cell phones.

Far too many people simply discard old phones without thinking about the environmental impact of that choice. And as cell phones grow in popularity, the problem will only get worse.

In 2017, more than 50 million tons of e-waste are expected to be generated globally. While that’s just a small fraction of the total trash generated, electronic waste is particularly toxic. Phones are full of heavy metals that tend to leach into the local water supply if not recycled properly. For instance, a single lithium battery can contaminate 60,000 liters of water.

This is a particularly bad problem in China, where most of the world’s e-waste is processed. Lead levels in children are dangerously high in villages that process the most electronic waste.

By reselling rather than discarding, you’re earning money and helping to combat the global e-waste problem. If your phone is too old or damaged to be worth anything on the resale market, you can find a responsible recycling program near you on e-stewards.org.

Summing up

Every situation is unique, so the make sure to explore all of your options before selling a used phone. Keep in mind that nothing will be perfect. If you want to get rid of a phone quickly and easily, you likely won’t get as much money for it. If you want to maximize profit, you’re going to have to work a little harder.

It all comes down to how much free time you have and whether the benefits of earning extra money outweigh the opportunity costs of your time spent.

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Drew Housman
Drew Housman

Drew is a former professional basketball player and a Harvard graduate. He is passionate about writing content that empowers people to improve their careers, save more money, and achieve financial independence. His writing has been featured on MarketWatch, Business Insider, and ESPN.

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