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How to recycle your phone for cash

Five tips to know before selling or recycling your old electronics.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So you're about ready to offload your old phone for a new one (our top picks here if you need some inspiration). 

The next step is figuring out what to do with yesterday's hardware. You can always keep it around as a spare just in case, or pass it on to a family member or friend. Or, you could angle to get some cash, credit or trade-in value to offset the price of your hot, new handset.

Don't stress if your phone is cracked; you'd be surprised how much you can get for the right phone with the wrong screen. Used handsets are often refurbished or stripped for parts, so they're still valuable. And even if you can't find anyone to pay for your dusty dialer or other electronics, you can at least recycle it responsibly. 

Any way you look at it, you probably won't get enough from a single sale or trade-in to cover the cost of a new phone, especially one as sky-high as the iPhone X ($1,099.99 at Best Buy) or Galaxy Note 8 ($897.90 at Amazon.com), but if you're smart about it, you can lessen your financial load.

Editors' note: This story was originally published on December 19, 2013, and is updated periodically.

How much can you get?

The amount of cash or credit you can get for a phone varies widely by the model, age and condition. Trade-ins usually top out at around $300 or $400 for a top-of-the-line device, but a brand new iPhone X could go for considerably more -- that's between you and your buyer (on eBay at the time of writing, prices range from $800 to over $1,000).

You get more money if the phone is:

It's time to let go of old phones.

CNET
  • In good condition
  • "New," about 1 to 2 years old
  • A premium device (rather than budget)
  • Popular. iPhones and Samsung phones are in high demand.
  • A popular color (black or silver might net more than gold)
  • Sold directly to a buyer, like through Craigslist 

You won't be able to trade in phones that are still being financed through your carrier.

1. Before you sell, raid the closet

If you're going to cash in on one phone, you might as well see which other dusty, rusty electronics you forgot you had lying around in a drawer somewhere: phones, camera, consoles and laptops, too. 

If there's a resale value, your total will add up. 

2. Decide: Cash, credit or trade-in

You can probably make a trade even if your phone looks like this.

Josh Miller/CNET

Before you start researching which vendor gives you the best deal, you can narrow down your options. Can you wait for a gift card or payment card to arrive in a few weeks, or do you need cash now? Trading in the phone with your current carrier or with the vendor won't work if you're switching to an unlocked device like the OnePlus 5T.

If it's cash on the spot you need, your options are limited to direct sales, GameStop and to EcoATM, which has physical kiosks at malls across America.

It used to be that EcoATM would give you at least a buck for your trouble. That doesn't appear to be the case anymore, though it still accepts popular phones, albeit for significantly less than many online offers.

For security and antifraud reasons, EcoATM does require a driver's license and a thumbprint scan before spitting out cash. And since you do have to drive to a mall, I recommend doing this only after you research other options online -- that way you'll be able to decide on the spot if EcoATM gives you more or less than another retailer.

2. Shop around. Really.

You'll almost always get more money selling a phone directly to a buyer through Craigslist or eBay, but it takes more time and there's higher risk of buyers changing their mind. It also helps if you have the original packaging and all included cables and cords.

Good news: It takes less time than you think to hit up a few websites for trade-ins and credits. You'll get less for a handset with water damage, and more if it's a flawless phone right out of the box (this is one reason why screen protectors and cases are so important).

Prices change depending on the phone, carrier and condition. Here are current offer prices for several phones. Not every service takes every phone.

Sample smartphone trade-in values


iPhone 7 (32GB), AT&T, black, flawless iPhone 7 (32GB), AT&T, black, cracked screen Galaxy S8 (64GB), Verizon, black, flawless LG G6 (32GB), Verizon, black, flawless Motorola Moto G5 Plus, unlocked, black, flawless
Amazon $260 (silver) $130 (silver) $260 $100 $6.80
Apple (via Brightstar) $325 $95 N/A N/A N/A
Best Buy $210 $52.50 $283 $280 $6
EcoATM* $140 $25 $165 N/A N/A
GameStop $240 (Up to $288 for Elite Pro member) $120 (Up to $144 for Elite Pro member) $260 (Up to $312 for Elite Pro member) $100 (Up to $120 for Elite Pro member) N/A
Gazelle* $245 $90 $280 N/A N/A

*EcoATM owns Gazelle.

3. Know how you're getting paid

tarnished-coins.jpg

Sometimes you'll be paid in cash; other times, expect a gift card.

Taylor Martin/CNET

Are you getting cash, credit or a gift card? In most cases, it's the latter two. Best Buy and Apple will give you gift cards to use at their retail stores. Carriers will deduct the trade-in value from your next phone. EcoATM and selling straight to buyers will put cash in your hand (though EcoATM will probably hand over less). 

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 make good.

4. Read the fine print

A word to the wise: know exactly what you're getting into. For example, Apple phone trade-ins only apply to the iPhone 5 or above, which won't work if you have an older phone you're trying to unload.

You'll also want to make sure you've reset your phone according to the vendor's instructions, typically a factory reset with no screen lock of any kind.

Follow these additional steps before selling, recycling or donating your phone.

And make sure you already have a plan or stopgap device when you quit the phone you're trying to sell. When you let it go, even to a carrier buy-back program, you won't get it back if something goes wrong. Gone is gone.

5. Never throw old phones away

Get rid of them by all means, but never in the trash can -- you don't want to be responsible for toxic chemicals leaching into the land. Most resellers will take old electronics off your hands, archaic chargers and all.

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

Gazelle
YouRenew
USell
NextWorth
Best Buy Online Trade-In
Amazon
Target
Swappa (Marketplace, more like eBay)
eBay
Craiglist
Apple (Apple products only)
Your carrier's buy-back program

Physical sales and national recycling outlets

Best Buy (also online)
GameStop (also online)
Staples (any electronic item)
Apple (also online)
EcoATM (at select malls)

National charities

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

Local charities

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


Not sure which phone to pick for an upgrade? Check out our list of the best phones you can buy.