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By Mallika Mitra
Updated: October 21, 2020 12:00 PM ET | Originally published: September 21, 2020
Shutterstock

If you own an iPhone, you’ve likely felt the horror of dropping it, or panic as you rushed to throw it in a bowl of rice after a spill. But the real trouble might come later, when you’re looking at the price of upgrading to a new iPhone.

The costs of Apple’s newest phones — the iPhone 12, which will be available starting Oct. 23 — vary from up to $879 for the Mini to up to $1,399 for the Pro Max. While there are certainly cheaper options if you look for older versions (like the iPhone SE for $399 from Amazon or the iPhone 8 for $599 from Best Buy), there’s another option to cut the cost even more: buy refurbished.

A properly refurbished item is one that has been taken apart, inspected, and tested, and then, perhaps after some repairs, determined to work almost like new. Of course, that’s the best case scenario. Some sellers’ definitions of “refurbished” differ from others, and you have to do your homework before making a purchase of any items that’s been previously owned. Keep in mind also that a refurbished iPhone is different from a used iPhone, which hasn’t necessarily been touched up at all.

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Confusing, right? Well, that’s why we’ve created this guide for how to buy a refurbished iPhone.

Is it safe to buy a refurbished iPhone?

Buying refurbished can mean incredible discounts on perfectly functioning tech, with shoppers often saving anywhere from 30% to 60%, says Andrew Chen, senior tech editor for the deals website Slickdeals.

But is it safe to buy a product that’s refurbished instead of brand new? Chen says yes, as long as you do your research before shopping. First, ask why the iPhone is listed as refurbished: Was it just returned by another customer and simply could no longer be sold as new? Was it previously broken, then fixed?

Often, answers to these questions aren’t always easy to find. Chen notes that with bigger, well-known retailers, you can likely trust the official recertification process for selling refurbished merchandise. So don’t sweat too much if you can’t get every single question answered.

With smaller retailers, like local electronic stores, you might be able to get a little more information about the iPhone you’re purchasing directly from a person. But they might not have the same rigorous recertification process as some of the bigger resellers, so make sure to check that they’re certified to resell Apple items.

Even if you can’t get all the background info you want, there are ways to increase the odds of getting a great deal on a refurbished iPhone. For example, when Apple releases a brand new iPhone — like it just did with the iPhone 12 — we’re likely to see a ton of the previous models, like iPhone 11s, on the market. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the old iPhone 11s; it just means people who simply have to have the newest tech are parting with their old phones, Chen says.

If you’re buying refurbished, Chen recommends staying within one or two generations of the newest iPhone — some aspects of the phone, like the battery, may be nearing the end of its life if you pick up a phone as old as the iPhone 6, for example.

Overall, if you do the necessary checks, buying a refurbished iPhone should mean you’re buying a good-as-new iPhone (but with a better price!).

How to buy a refurbished iPhone

A common — and generally considered one of the safest — ways to purchase a refurbished iPhone is to go to Apple directly. The tech giant promises these refurbished devices will be cleaned, inspected and “like new.” They’ll also come with a one-year limited warranty. You can get a refurbished iPhone X for $549 — $350 below what the phone cost when it was first released.

David Payette, a former Apple employee and the founder of upphone.com, which helps people to compare cell phones plans and phones, says “refurbished” can sound scary to shoppers. But Apple has high standards when it comes to their refurbished phones.

“I’ve seen 1,000 refurbished iPhones and nothing but perfection would get back in the hands of a customer,” Payette says.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for directly from Apple, an authorized dealer should be your next stop, Chen says. These sellers have to follow specific protocols from the manufacturer, so you know there are definitive standards in place, like running diagnostic tests, performing repairs and thoroughly inspecting each product. Be sure to check the return policy and the warranty, which may not be as good as one for a brand new product, but should offer you some protection.

It’s best to avoid third-party sellers, like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, completely, Chen says, as there is likely no vetting process other than your own. (If you ignore this advice, make sure to at least check the serial number via Apple’s site so you can know what type of technical support it’s eligible for.)

And use your common sense. Don’t go for that refurbished iPhone that costs $30.

“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Chen says.

Where can you buy refurbished iPhones?

Apple has its refurbished store on its site, making it easy for you to shop around. But, it doesn’t have a ton of models (at the time of publication, the earliest model available is the iPhone X). If you have your heart set on something specific, it might be best to shop around.

When it comes to authorized dealers, Amazon Renewed is one place to look. Amazon says its refurbished items have been tested and inspected, and they come with a 90-day replacement or refund policy if the item doesn’t work as expected. An unlocked iPhone 8 is available for $239.99 via Amazon Renewed (much lower than that $599 for a brand new one we mentioned earlier).

If you’re looking to spend less and don’t mind an older model, Walmart has refurbished iPhone 6s for as low as $102 and an optional two-year protection plan that covers screen, lens and battery failure.

Best Buy has an outlet where it sells refurbished items, and eBay has a newly launched feature specifically for refurbished items and includes many sellers’ storefronts where you might be able to snag a deal. Often, you’ll see listings that say a phone is “unlocked,” which means it isn’t attached to one specific carrier (like Verizon or T-Mobile), but can be used with any carrier. Make sure to find a phone that is either carrier locked with your specific wireless carrier or is unlocked.

Do some looking around for authorized sellers you may not be as familiar with. B&H Photo Video, for example, which has a physical store in New York City and an online store. Adorama and Abt Electronics are also authorized resellers.

With sites like Slickdeals, DealNews.com and NowInStock.net, you can also set up deal alerts, so when the refurbished iPhone you’re looking for comes to the market for a price you want, you’ll know. Chen recommends not looking for the “best” possible price, but to identify what price you’re willing to pay and look for phones from trustworthy sellers that fall into that budget. (Plus, they’ll always be new refurbished phones coming to the market, so looking for the lowest price will be an endless chase.)

The good news is that with holiday deals and Black Friday approaching, the coming months will likely be a great time to grab a deal on a refurbished iPhone.

This story has been updated to reflect the release of Apple’s latest iPhone 12 models.

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

EDIT POST