When buying a smartphone, it can be hard to know exactly what you’re getting. Retailers, as well as manufacturers, offer refurbished devices, such as Amazon's Renewed programme and Apple's official refurbished store.
In some cases, the phone will have had parts replaced (such as the battery) while in others, traded-in phones have simply been sorted into various categories depending upon their condition and state of operation.
For this reason, you need to have your wits about you because it can affect things such as the warranty offered. With this in mind, here’s how to use your detective skills so you're sure of what you're getting before you press that 'Buy' button.
How to check if an iPhone is refurbished or new
iPhones are hugely popular in the second-hand market, presumably because they often come with such hefty price tags when new.
If you're buying from a private seller, then assume the phone is used and any references to 'like new' or refurbished are because the seller has kept it in good condition, or has opened it but not used it. Unless they can offer a receipt from an Apple store or another retailer, assume there's no warranty.
When buying from Apple, refurbished models are clearly marked (and this is why they're a bit cheaper). Visit Apple Refurbished Store where there is much more than just iPhones at discounted prices.
On Amazon, look for its Renewed devices program, as you can save quite a bit of money if you don’t mind buying a great-condition phone that has been used by others in the past.
Another option if you're looking to save is to browse Amazon Warehouse, as this often has new phones that have damaged boxes and similar defects that don’t affect the phone itself but mean they can’t be sold at full price. They're typically customer returns. You won’t want to give them as gifts, but for yourself, they could be an excellent way to reduce the cost of a new phone.
If you've already bought an iPhone, you can find out if it has been sold as refurbished - by Apple - by checking its model number.
Open Settings on the iPhone, then select General > About and you’ll see various details regarding the device. The one you want to pay attention to is Model.
This will have a string of letters and numbers, indicating the status and type of device you have. The first letter is the all-important one, as this is there to let you know whether the device is new, refurbished, or a replacement for an original item that was returned.
Here’s how to know which is which;
M – if the first letter is M then this means the device is new.
F – this means the device has been refurbished
N – this means the device was issued as a replacement for an iPhone that developed problems
P – indicates if the device was initially sold with a personalised message engraved on the chassis, which you can check by looking on the back.
How to tell if an Android phone is new or refurbished
The process is the same as for iPhones when you're looking on Amazon, eBay, Laptops Direct or any other retailer. Because there are many different manufacturers, you might want to check their websites to see if they offer refurbished models.
If you've already bought the phone and wonder whether it's actually new or not, there’s no easy way to be certain. You used to be able to enter a code into the phone dialing screen, but that seems to have long since been disabled, leaving you with very few options. If the box was shrink-wrapped and the protective plastic covers were on the phone and any accessories, you can be fairly sure no-one has used it before.
There are a number of useful apps on the Google Play Store that give you a breakdown of the status and current operating capacities of your handset, but of the ones we tested, none could tell you if your phone had been refurbished or not.
Is a refurbished phone bad?
If the device has been refurbished by professionals, then there’s nothing wrong with one at all, so long as it was clear before you bought it that you weren't getting a brand new phone.
In fact, if the phone is an older one, where the battery may have deteriorated over time, then a refurbished model can sometimes be better than a used model that still has the original factory parts - particularly if you get a brand new battery or display.
The only concern is whether the repair was handled by skilled technicians or give-it-a-go amateurs. One thing to bear in mind is that if your phone is advertised as waterproof, then this could have been compromised when the refurbishment took place. So, we’d advise you to treat it as if there is no waterproof protection, just to be safe, or check with the seller.
Should you still be in the market for a new device, then there are a number of reasons why you should consider buying a refurbished or used phone.
While you might not be getting a fresh-out-of-the-box device, you can get have the peace of mind that the phone has been through rigorous testing and comes with a guarantee from retailers such MusicMagpie, SmartFoneStore or 4Gadgets.
Refurbished models in this context are second-hand which have been sorted into 'pristine', 'very good' and 'good' categories - or similar - but unlike buying from ebay or Gumtree, you get the reassurance of a warranty in case something stops working.
To see all of the pros and cons of used devices, take a look at our guide on refurbished vs used tech.