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Here’s exactly how to buy a second hand phone (without being ripped off)

Photography By Curology, Daniel Faro, Joshua Alarcon
Published 22.12.21

There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing outdated technology become cool again.

In the last two years, we’ve witnessed hot-pink flip phones, office-core BlackBerrys and Nokia bricks be plucked from early 2000s obscurity and be welcomed back into the mainstream. The trend has provided a nice little nostalgia hit for those of us who begged parents for them the first time around. As well as reminding us that we have, unfortunately, reached “throwback” age.

Obviously, nostalgic purchases are hardly a new trend. But our new interest in old phones is fuelled by more than pure aesthetics (and maybe a desire to cure our wi-fi addiction). It’s also a product of the broader, environmentally driven second-hand and circular movements that have so many people reconsidering the impacts of buying new. 

By now you probably know that smartphones are complex objects – not just from a carpal tunnel perspective. They’re a huge contributor to e-waste: currently the world’s fastest growing solid waste stream that’s increasing at a rate three times faster than general waste in Australia

Even before you toss anything away, new smartphones are creating issues due to the rare and dubiously mined raw materials that go into building them from scratch.

In comparison, refurbished phones offer a cheap, less wasteful alternative. It also doesn’t hurt that they usually come in at a fraction of the price. A brand new iPhone can set you back over two thousand dollars, but within months of its launch it will start appearing on second-hand marketplaces with perhaps a 15 per cent discount, and, after just two years, 50 per cent. No wonder the second-hand phone market is projected to grow to US$65 billion by 2024.

OK, so we’ve established why you should consider a second-hand phone. But there is still the matter of how to actually buy one. Unlike clothes or homewares, buying vintage electronics can be surprisingly tricky. It’s hard to assess quality, secure warranties and basically not get scammed. But never fear, that’s what we’re here for. Here’s a full rundown of why and how to buy a quality refurbished device. 

So, what exactly is a refurbished phone?

The key thing to remember: while all refurbished phones are second-hand, not all second-hand phones are refurbished. 

A decade ago, second-hand phones would typically be sold on marketplaces like eBay. But it was always hard for buyers to know the quality of the device and they were unlikely to get a warranty with the sale. Now firms sell professionally refurbished phones, which means they have been sold or traded in to a company that then runs quality tests, repairs and cleaning. This often means replacing the battery or a cracked screen. You’ll mostly see big name smartphones such as Apple or Samsung, but for a fraction of the price.

Ready Made

Are they better for the environment?

Ever upgraded your smartphone to the latest version, to find out the only real difference is a minute change to the phone’s optical zoom? The average person upgrades their smartphone every two and a half years, even though 77 per cent of the devices they already have are still working. If you were to keep that phone, or extend the life of it by just one year, you would reduce its lifetime CO₂ impact by a third

This is because up to 95 per cent of the device’s total CO₂ emissions over that average two-year lifespan come from making the phone. Smartphone production is carbon intensive, using a ton of raw materials. The factories are huge guzzlers of gold, silver and many types of metals and rare earths, not to mention plastic. The average smartphone is made up of around 40 per cent plastic, often mixed with other chemicals that make the phone only partially recyclable. 

In Australia, 88 per cent of electronics purchased in a given year wind up in a landfill. But according to recycling service 1800ewaste, the components that make up the most weight of electronics can actually be recycled; you just have to dispose of them to the correct parties. So when you do need to upgrade, make sure you sell, trade in or recycle your old device with companies like MobileMuster.

Buying a refurbished smartphone means avoiding the environmental footprint of both its production and destruction. And while it still does have an impact on the environment – there is the transport to the refurbisher and, sometimes, the need to replace certain parts – on average you’re saving 45kg of CO₂ being emitted

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What should I look out for when buying one?

Here’s the catch: lots of second-hand phone companies will try to rip you off. Buying a refurbished device requires a bit of foresight. But, if you take into account the tips below, you’ll end up with a sick new phone and money left over for a celebratory martini.

Refurbished grade

A refurbished phone is usually graded based on its appearance. There’s no standard grading system (so make sure you read the fine print). A device ranked as “good” with light signs of wear like minor scuffs will cost a little more, and “excellent” or “as-new” will be the most expensive. Regardless of wear, refurbished phones should all be fully functional but depending on age may not run as smoothly as a new phone.

Age

When it comes to iPhones, you’ll need to be careful of age as they are only supported with the latest iOS for five years, meaning it will be harder to update their operating systems. This could mean some apps and programs will progressively stop working as the technology advances.

Factory reset

Make sure that when you get your phone all of the personal data (like settings, apps, messages, contacts, browsing history, wi-fi codes, etc.) have been erased through a “factory reset”. This should have already been done by the refurbisher. If it hasn’t, you’ll need to make sure the phone doesn’t have an activation lock still on it, as many Apple and Android phones cannot be set up again after a factory reset unless the phone has been removed from the previous owner’s account and the lock has been deactivated.

Network locks

Check the phone works with the mobile network provider of your choice as some smartphones are originally sold locked to certain providers and must be unlocked before being used on another.

Warranty

Avoid refurbished phones that come without a warranty. Most companies will offer 12 months, but make sure you check the finer details of what they will cover.

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Where can I buy refurbished second-hand mobile phones?

OzMobiles

Talk about good for your pocket and the planet. Not only can you buy refurbished phones for a fraction of the cost, but OzMobiles has a bunch of buy-now-pay-later options (with a 12-month warranty and 30-day risk-free return). The packaging is also made from 100 per cent recyclable materials.

Back Market

Challenging people to rethink their tech consumption, Back Market works hard to make second-hand tech trustworthy. Operating in nine countries, the brand is a marketplace for you to buy electronics directly from certified sellers.

Coles

Did you know your local Australian supermarket giant Coles is starting to dabble in the refurbished world? After its huge success last year, it teamed up with Boost Mobile to offer a great deal on refurbished iPhone 8s for under $300.

Reebelo

Reebelo is an Australian company mostly selling refurbished electronics which are put through 40-plus checkpoints before being sold. Products are fully tested, have their data wiped and are repackaged. They also come with a 12-month free warranty, for those hesitant about the process. An added bonus is that you can sell or trade in your old electronics in the process.

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