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How to Buy Used iPhone Without Getting Conned

Updated on September 11, 2017
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Alfred is a long-time teacher and computer enthusiast who works with and troubleshoots a wide range of computing devices.

If you choose to buy a used iPhone pay close attention to its activation and carrier lock status, find out if it is fake or stolen, and of course, do not opt for a really old iPhone! In brief, find out if it really serves your purpose for buying it.

A used iPhone 4
A used iPhone 4

Unlike brands like Samsung, Nokia and HTC, Apple has resisted the urge to manufacture really cheap iPhones for markets in Asia, Africa and South America. Usually, iPhones come pricey during release and only become affordable a year later, when new versions hit the shelves.

Having gone through nine iPhone iterations in the last nine years, the original iPhone through to 5 are available really cheaply anywhere.

However, buyers around the world also have to contend with trickeries that come with purchasing used products. First, these phones come devoid of warranty (even if official warranty still stands) when considering distance related complications and secondly, con-men get the cue to affect havoc.

No wonder, stories in the media continue to be told of brick packages, non-deliveries, stolen iPhones and fake Chinese iPhones. Ultimately, purchasing used iPhones is not the straightforward business many expect it to be.

If you choose to purchase these phones however, below are a few guidelines which should keep you safe from con-men and ensure you get the value for money.

1. Watch Out for Activation Lock

Beware not to purchase an iPhone locked to an Apple ID whose email address and password is still active, and unknown to you. Apple warns that an iPhone locked to an Apple ID will not be accessed whatsoever.

Up until today, no hack exploit is available to help disassociate an Apple ID from an iPhone.

As a rule of thumb, make sure the iPhone you buy online, from a dealer or friend, has the Apple ID attached to it removed. This way, you can enter your own Apple ID upon purchasing it.

Just a reminder that without the password to the Apple ID in the iPhone, you will

  • not be able to re-activate it following IOS or other restore
  • be unable to turn off Find my iPhone
  • not be able to erase your device for security related reasons

There are several ways to find out if an Apple ID is active and still attached to the previous owner. Usually, the iPhone should come erased or newly restored, but if not, find out its carrier lock status using the iCloud settings and Activation tool with Apple:

The iCloud Settings

  • Tap the Settings icon
  • Scroll downwards
  • Tap iCloud
  • Check to make sure the email address and password spaces are blank.
  • If an email address is present, make sure the previous owner dissociates it from the iPhone.

Activation Lock status check with Apple

  • Another way to tell the activation lock status of your soon to be iPhone involves visiting the Apple verification page.

  • Enter the IMEI number of the iPhone and the code provided in the spaces displayed and press Continue.
  • If you entered the IMEI and code correctly, Apple will notify you about the iPhone activation lock state as shown below.

  • If an Apple ID is attached as shown above, make sure it is deactivated by the seller.

Do you always buy used iPhones instead of new ones?

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If so, is it always because of the price?

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2. Watch Out for iPhone Carrier Lock

While watching out for Activation lock in the iPhone, also find out its carrier lock status. This is important if the iPhone is to be used in a country other than where it was purchased.

Suffice to say, most used iPhones shipped from the western to developing counties are locked to select carrier networks and have to be unlocked before use.

Thus, if your intention is to purchase a cheap iPhone, the one locked to a distant carrier network will become expensive in the long run. Unlocking iPhones in developing countries is costly by any means.

There are several ways to find out if an iPhone is locked to foreign network carrier:

Use of sim card:

  • Start by inserting the sim card of your network provider
  • If the iPhone is factory unlocked, the carrier network signal will display promptly at the top left of the status bar and you should be able to make outgoing and receive incoming calls
  • If no signal appears, the iPhone in your hands is probably locked and you are better off returning it to the seller
  • Unless of course you are ready to incur the cost of unlocking it

Attempt to activate it:

  • In order to use internet to verify iPhone lock status, you will have to reset it first by erasing all content
  • Click Settings
  • Tap General
  • Then tap Erase All Content and Settings
  • When your iPhone content is erased, connect it via cable to a computer running iTunes or Wi-Fi
  • Make sure the new sim card is installed in the iPhone before launching the activation process
  • iTunes will cross-check with Apple servers in a bid to activate your iPhone
  • If the iPhone is factory unlocked the following or similar message will show up

  • Otherwise, the message below or similar will show up

You can also tell the iPhone lock status by visiting third party websites that sell unlock services. These sites use iPhone IMEI number to find out the carrier lock status.

Be warned though that many services erroneously report that your iPhone is carrier locked simply because they want your money to unlock it.

3. Assess the Condition of the iPhone

The drawback with buying used iPhones online means receiving what you have not verified physically. An iPhone advertised in good condition may arrive at your doorstep looking bad and probably without recourse and money back guarantee.

It is advised to purchase an iPhone from trusted and reputable retailer and if possible, directly from a known person. That way, the possibility of being conned is minimized.

Remember that iPhone models bought in good condition will maintain their resale value even with a few additional years and you may want to sell it to the next buyer as you upgrade to the next used iPhone!

iPhone features susceptible to damage include:

  • Faulty audio jack
  • Water damage -save for iPhone 7x
  • Scratches vis-à-vis glass protector
  • Bad battery (more on battery below)

A good battery even in a used iPhone should last an average of 10 hours if used moderately. It is unlikely therefore you will come across a battery that underperforms unless it was used badly.

Bad use means,

  • Used in harsh conditions: iPhone batteries charged and used in hot weather conditions degrade fast
  • Stored badly: iPhone batteries stored out of use for many months will also degrade fast
  • Too many charge/discharge cycles: iPhones that have too many charge/discharge cycles will have really bad battery!

Before forking out cash for that beautiful iPhone, make sure to assess its battery life, lest you get stuck with a battery that lasts measly two hours or thereabouts.

iPhone 5 battery
iPhone 5 battery

4. Beware of Fake iPhones

So many fake iPhones abound in the market. Whereas the difference between fakes and genuine iPhones is clear enough, many first time users get easily conned.

What you need to know is that the finishing in Phone design, the screen resolution and touch experience are all excellent. On the contrary, fake iPhones manifest the opposite of these features – at least if you choose to pay attention.

When buying a used iPhone in a box, make sure to open the package and inspect the contents.

A sample fake iPhone 5 doing the rounds in many African markets
A sample fake iPhone 5 doing the rounds in many African markets

A few things should get you concerned when shopping for a used iPhone.

Fake iPhones

  • are always lighter
  • are unrealistically cheap
  • they have unconvincing screen quality
  • run poor resolution software
  • the touch response is appalling

5. Beware of Stolen iPhones

While shopping for used iPhones be aware that a good number of them are actually stolen! iPhones stolen in Europe, USA and developed Asia, somehow find their way in the markets of developing countries.

While it is difficult to pinpoint stolen devices, there are tale tell signs which should tip you to steer clear:

  • iPhones locked to Apple ID: the fact that the person selling it does not know its Apple ID implies he purchased it cheaply from anywhere, thieves included.
  • iPhones sold in the streets: iPhones sold in the alleys will surely lead you to the long arm of the law. Any one selling stuff in the streets is smartly distancing himself from any link whatsoever, and that leaves you, the buyer as the last person in the chain.

To avoid being caught, only purchase used iPhones from trusted retailers and persons known to you.

Apple also has the Activation Lock tool (mentioned earlier) which you can use to find out the activation status of the iPhone you intend to purchase.

And again, make a point to verify the activation lock and carrier lock stat status before forking out your cash.

6. Not Every iPhone Model is Worth Buying

Since the first iPhone was released back in June 2007, plenty of user experience features have been added to latter iPhone models. The original iPhone and 3G+ models shipped with only the basics while newer models have continued to spot advanced features.

As much as iPhones have been popular through the years, the many years that stand between the first generation and new models should ring a bell that technology in-between them has evolved considerably.

Besides display and overall iPhone size, a lot has changed in regards to processor, internet speed, camera etc.

An iPhone 3GS has 3MP camera and supports 3G network, but may not be what you need in 2016
An iPhone 3GS has 3MP camera and supports 3G network, but may not be what you need in 2016

Why you may want to avoid really old iPhones

  • If your intention is to take really good pictures, stay clear of the first to 3rd generation iPhones. Only opt for iPhone 4 if your budget is still the limiting factor. Yes, the iPhone camera is known for good quality pictures, but you have to understand that old version iPhones have no chance in the modern world!
  • If your intention is to use modern apps, then you are better off with iPhone 5 and above. Most apps today require that you install current IOS firmware which unfortunately can not run in old iPhones. For example, an app like WhatsApp still runs in IOS 6, but it's only a matter of time before IOS 7 becomes the minimum.
  • New IOS firmware restore in old iPhones can also render it sluggish and unusable. For example, you are better off with IOS 8 in iPhone 4S than 9.

The table below illustrates the advancement of the iPhone since the first iPhone in June 2007. Use it to figure out which iPhone model actually suits your needs.

(click column header to sort results)
Screen size  
2007 - iPhone 2G
480 x 320
2G + Wi-Fi
4 - 16GB
2008 - iPhone 3G
480 x 320
3G + Wi-Fi
8 - 16GB
2009 - iPhone 3GS
480 x 320
3G + Wi-Fi
16 - 32GB
2010 - iPhone 4
960 x 640 - Retina
3G + Wi-Fi
5 + 0.3MP
16 - 32Gb
2011 - iPhone 4S
960 x 640 - Retina
3G + Wi-Fi
5 + 0.3MP
16 - 64GB
2012 - iPhone 5
1135 x 640 - Retina
4G + Wi-Fi
8 + 1.2MP
16 - 64GB
2013 - iPhone 5S & 5C
1135 x 640 - Retina
4G + Wi-Fi
8 + 1.2MP
16 -64GB
2014 - iPhone 6 & +
4.7' & 5.5'
1334 × 750 & 1,920 × 1,080 HD Ret
4G+ Wi-Fi
8 + 1.2MP
16 - 128GB
2015 - iPhone 6S & +
4.7' & 5.5'
1334 × 750 & 1,920 × 1,080 HD Ret
4G+ Wi-Fi
12 + 5MP
16 - 128GB
2016 - iPhone 7 & +
4.7' & 5.5'
1334 x 750 & 1920-x 1080
4G + WiFi
12 + 7MP
32 - 256GB

© 2016 Alfred Amuno


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