Second hand smartphone

We explain how to choose the best secondhand phone, and offer advice on buying a used smartphone.

So you're looking to save a bit of money by buying a second-hand smartphone. On the face of it, this makes sense. Last year's handset is still better than the phone you loved three year's ago, and we could all do with saving a little dosh.

But we'd advise caution. You can, after all, buy newly manufactured 'old' phones. Apple still sells the iPhone 4S, for instance. And you can pick up a new Samsung Galaxy S3 from Argos with change out of £300 (cheaper than you can buy the S2, oddly).

Also with the exception of Apple, all the tier-one phone makers now make cut-down versions of their high-end devices. Indeed, if you count  the iPhone 5C, there is a cheaper version of the iPhone, HTC One, Galaxy S4 and more. See also: Samsung Galaxy S4 mini vs HTC One mini comparison review.

Choosing the best secondhand phone

Remember that handsets age in different ways. If you cannot remove the battery - as is the case with any iPhone - you may find that it is all wrung out and no longer holds charge. And you have to consider what OS the phone runs on, and what phone can be made to run on it. You can't put iOS 7 on an iPhone 3GS, for instance, but you can on an iPhone 4. That will effect the apps you can run. And that's on a phone you can update: Android smartphones are stuck with the OS with which they were born.

Any Windows Phone or BlackBerry handset that runs Windows Phone 7 or BlackBerry 9 is in essence unsupported. You won't be able to sideload apps or media. Would you really rather have a formerly expensive Android, BlackBerry or WP device rather than a new cheap one if the OS is out of date?

Buying even a 'cheap' new high-end smartphone still leaves you in expensive territory of course, and perhaps your budget can't stretch even to the Nexus 4 or Nokia Lumia 520 - both of which can be picked up with change out of £160. Then eschewing the worst, cheap Androids and looking for a good second device may be the way to go. See also: The 11 best smartphones of 2013.

Advice when buying a secondhand phone

There are several decisions you need to make when purchasing a secondhand phone, each of which will have a bearing on what is the best used handset to purchase.

Firstly, are you prepared to go for an individual seller or will you place your trust in an established second-hand reseller? You can of course grab a great bargain by shopping via the likes of eBay, Freecycle or Loot. And your rights are the same from whomever you are purchasing.

But if you buy from an established online store that is registered with Companies House and has a verified street address with a phone that is answered when you call it, you have a better chance of getting decent help when something goes wrong. You are also likely to be able to buy using a credit card, which means refunds are the banks problem.

On the flip side the reseller may be limited in the stock they can sell. And they have to make a profit somewhere, so it's possible you will pay more than when buying from an individual seller. Either way make sure you know exactly what you are buying by considering the following things...

Buying a secondhand phone: what condition is it in?

What condition is the phone in? This is critical, and involves more than just a quick glance at the state of the bodywork. Try to find out how the battery life is holding up, and whether the screen is chipped or scratched. And how is the phone's performance? The more you can get in writing before committing the more chance you have of redress if things go wrong.

There are a couple of key phrases to look for, especially when buying from an indivisual: one being 'nearly new'. This is a loose description but you would expect the phone to be in very good condition and not used very much. If this isn't the case, send it back.

Easier to quantify is 'as new'. The suggestion here is that the goods are secondhand but the owner hasn't used them. Look for original packaging in this case - it's not required, but is a good indicator.

Other terms you are likely to come across when buying from a secondhand reseller are 'reconditioned' or 'refurbished'. These terms are used for electrical items where someone has repaired the item or added components to bring it up to good working order, and you should ask for a warranty in this instance. Really, you are buying what the vendor says is a good, working handset. See also: The UK's best Android phones of 2013.

Buying a secondhand phone: other things to consider

Second hand smartphone A key thing to check, especially when buying from an individual, is what networks that phone can be used with. Remember that many phones are locked to accept sim cards from only certain service providers.

You are also honour bound to check that the phone is not stolen. Remember that ignorance is no defence when being in receipt of stolen goods. That said, PC Plod is unlikely to throw at you the full weight of the law if you have made an honest attempt to find out from where the seller got the phone and why they are selling it.

More important on a personal level is to make sure you're buying a phone that the seller owns. If they are still under contract they are merely borrowing it from the service provider. That may even be the case then the contract runs out - although the telco is highly unlikely to ever ask for it back!

We'd strongly recommend not buying secondhand a contract phone, but if you do check if the phone is part of a contract with airtime minutes - you won't be able to buy the phone without the attached contract for minutes. Look closely at the contract terms and conditions: they often don't allow for the contract to be transferred to someone else. And even if they do, be aware that the company who owns the contract may carry out a credit check on you. Again, don't buy a phone that's under contract, it really isn't worth the hassle.

Finally, if buying a secondhand phone it's best to buy one that's been PAT (Portable ApplianceTest) tested. That way you know it's going to be safe, and all secondhand electrical goods should be tested (and often aren't). If you buy one that's not been tested it's not a bad idea to pay an electrician to PAT test it before you use it. See also: Group test: what's the best Windows phone?