How to recycle your phone for cash

Six tips to know before converting your old electronics into cash.

James Martin/CNET

So you're getting a new cell phone, huh? Terrific. In that case, you may want to offload your old phone to make way for the new, and chances are good you'll be able to recoup at least some of the cost by selling or trading in what came before.

And yes, you owners of ancient, cracked, and broken devices that won't even turn on, this promise of recompense includes you. In this article, I list some practical tips about the different ways you can convert your phone into at least a little bit of cash. (Psst, some pointers apply to big-ticket electronics, too, like digital cameras and laptops.)

Don't count on financing a Hawaiian vacation for your efforts, but depending on how much you hoard or how savvy you sell, the dollars could really add up.

How much can you get?

Before I lay out the tips, let me answer what what is probably your most burning question: How much money you'll get for a phone.

The final sum depends on the type of phone you have, how new or old it is, the kind of condition it's in, and how and where you plan to sell it. New, premium smartphones in good working order, with the original packaging, could sell for around $350, or maybe even more if you sell it directly to a buyer through Craigslist or eBay.

Yet even your old broken flip-phone can get you at least a dollar if you take it to the right spot, so you won't wind up completely empty-handed, particularly if you have a whole stash of them. Your other handsets will fall somewhere in between. Not that unlocked phones are typically worth more than those tied to a specific carrier.

1. Raid the closet

You may know exactly which phone you want to sell and replace with the next hot thing, but it's worth checking for other discards as well. When's the last time you slid open desk drawers or checked under the bed? You may have at least one ancient flip-phone hiding out in a closet somewhere that you've been saving for a rainy day that never came.


Holding onto a phone you're no longer planning to use makes good sense. You never know when you or a family member or friend will need a spare, but at some point, it'll be time to let go. When you add up the old cell phones, cameras, and laptops you have at home, you might find a nice little stash to sell.

2. It's broken? Don't stress

How much money would you expect to get for a cruddy old handset with chipping paint? Or for an iPhone with a cracked screen? For most Web sites and trade-in programs, the answer is a big, fat zero. However, if you're smart and don't mind a little driving, you're almost guaranteed to get at least a little pocket change through one vendor.

EcoATM is a physical kiosk where you can sell your cell phones, and soon your tablets (this is in trial). There are currently 800 units in malls across America, with outlets continuing to mushroom.

In a nutshell, EcoATM scans your phone and compares it with a database to make an offer based on the phone's market value and current condition. If you accept -- and yes, you can also decline -- the machine spits out money on the spot.

It does require a driver's license and a thumbprint scan to use, and it also takes a picture of you as well for security measures, to help guard against theft and fraud.

Using the EcoATM does require you to trudge all the way over to the mall to use, but it's often the only option that will pay for your very old or broken phones.

3. Shop around. Really

EcoATM is a terrific resource, but it isn't the only one. In fact, the electronics resale space is positively packed. Big-box retailers like Best Buy, RadioShack, Amazon, and GameStop have all launched buy-back programs, and many major carriers have also launched trade-in programs of their own.

Unfortunately for the lazy seller (me), no single service is more reliable or offers a better deal than all the others. Plain and simple, you just have to shop around. EcoATM may be the only game in town for older phones, but it won't necessarily offer you the best price across the board.

It's worth mentioning again that prices vary by condition and by demand -- you'll get less for a handset with water damage, and more if it's a flawless phone right out of the box. Expect to take home a larger amount for newer phones than for older ones.

To illustrate the fluctuations, I checked the price of four phones on five different services: a flawless and broken iPhone 5 (16GB) , a Samsung Galaxy S3 (16GB), and a third-edition Motorola Razr. In all cases but one, I listed the phones in flawless condition; that is, like new. The second iPhone 5 I listed as broken. When asked, I chose AT&T as the common carrier for the iPhones and Verizon for the Galaxy S3.

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Phones EcoATM Best Buy Amazon BuyMyTronics Gazelle
iPhone 5 AT&T (16GB), Flawless $200 $183.75 $230 $237 $210
iPhone 5 AT&T (16GB), Broken $93 Recycle only Recycle only $69 $90
Samsung Galaxy S3 Verizon (16GB), Flawless $110 $110.25 $105 $138 $115
Motorola Razr, 3rd ed., Flawless $75-$95 Recycle only 75 cents Recycle only N/A

Not every service takes every phone., for instance, focuses on Apple products, but has expanded to include other phones. Still, you'll find a more limited array of what's accepted; Gazelle sticks to newer models. Amazon doesn't have offers up yet for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 , for instance, presumably because the phone is still new enough that their customers aren't trying to offload it.

If you're planning to sell a bundle of phones and you don't mind putting in the research time, check three or four online spots before hitting an EcoATM, your carrier, or another brick-and-mortar store. Armed with comparison pricing, you'll be able to decide on the spot whether to take the offer in person or take the digital sale. (I've never tried negotiating with a brick-and-mortar against online pricing, but if you have, let me know how that goes.)

One Web site, Sell My Cell Phones, promises to compare top online sellers for you, and is a fair place to start if you're short on time, though it doesn't include carrier trade-in offers or EcoATM, and it didn't seem to actually scour the full range of resellers when I searched for top phones like the 16GB iPhone 5.

Craigslist and eBay are two other great options for selling electronics to strangers, though this method requires more effort on your end to manage in-person meetups or shipping yourself.

4. Know how you're getting paid

Before you sell a phone or any electronic device, consider how you want to receive the funds. Several online vendors may offer you a check, a cash card, or an infusion to your PayPal account. Retailers like Best Buy will more commonly hand you an in-store gift card, or cash if you have a receipt proving you bought the item there to begin with.

Cell phone carriers apply the value of your trade-in to your next phone, or might assign you credit. EcoATM deals only in cash that, fittingly, is stored inside the locked-down machine, ATM-style.

One important thing to keep in mind: if you opt for an online vendor, you'll have to wait a few weeks to get paid. After you box up the goods and ship them, employees will match the device to its actual condition, to keep any fibbers honest. Only then will they authorize your payment.

5. Never throw old phones away

In the event that you have electronics that nobody else will pay you for, take the high road and recycle. Almost every reseller that takes phones will do it for you, archaic chargers and all.

The benefits of donating old phones are threefold: it clears old gadgets out of your home, it could improve someone else's life, and you won't be directly responsible for throwing toxic chemicals into the dump.

Read also: Your smartphone's secret afterlife

6. Plan ahead

The cell phone's lifespan is typically much shorter than any other category of consumer electronics. Most of us ditch our phones after 18 months, which means that there's plenty of time to plan how you'll keep or dispose of your future phones.

Resellers -- the guys who initially buy your phones from you before selling whole items or parts to someone else -- see a boom right around the winter holidays. If you opt to sell a lot of used electronics online, timing the eventual receipt of your payment with an extra-large bill or purchase could work out in your favor.

Resources: Sell or donate your cell phone

There are many ways to pass on unwanted cell phones after they've served their purpose, but here are a few resources to get you started.

Online sales and trade-ins
Cash For Smartphones
Best Buy Online Trade-In
Swappa (Marketplace, more like eBay)
Your carrier's buy-back program

Physical sales and national recycling outlets
Best Buy

National charities
Cell Phones for Soldiers
Hope Phones
Hope Line Phones (Verizon)

Local charities
City drives -- check with your city government
Local domestic violence centers

Not sure what to upgrade to? Check out our list of the best phones you can buy.

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Smartphones Unlocked is a monthly column that dives deep into the inner workings of your trusty smartphone.


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