How to recycle your phone for cash

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

James Martin/CNET

So you're about ready to get a new cell phone (our top picks here, if you need some inspiration) -- 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.

Even if you're not in the market for a new device, owners of ancient, cracked, and broken electronics that won't even turn on can still cash in on this promise of recompense. Here are some practical tips about the different ways you can convert your phone into at least a little bit of cash -- pointers that typically apply to big-ticket electronics, too, like digital cameras and laptops.

I wouldn'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.

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

How much can you get?

Whether you're talking trade-ins through a retail store (Apple, Best Buy, GameStop), your carrier, or some other online site, the questions will remain the same: Is the device in good or poor condition, is there water damage or screen cracking, what is the storage capacity, and which carrier is it with? All these factor into your final offer, so long as the details check out.


Premium smartphones in good working order, with the original packaging, could sell for around $350, or possibly higher if you offload it directly to a buyer through Craigslist or eBay. You'll typically get more for newer models, unlocked phones that aren't tied to a specific carrier, and in-demand colors.

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.

1. Raid the closet

As long as you're planning to cash in on one phone, you may as well look for other dusty, rusty electronics you forgot you had.

Holding on to 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. Don't stress if it's broken

How much money would you expect to get for a cruddy old handset with chipped paint and evident marks of wear and tear? 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 in malls across America where you can sell your cell phones and sometimes tablets. 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 takes a picture of you as well, for security measures, and 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 all have buy-back programs, as do the wireless carriers.

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. 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.

To illustrate the fluctuations, I checked the price of four popular phones on five different services, plus Apple's own trade-in program, which is managed by refurb industry player Brightstar. These sample handsets include a flawless AT&T 16GB iPhone 6 in gray, a cracked-screen version of the same device, a 16GB black Samsung Galaxy S5 on Verizon, and a 32GB black LG G3 and in all cases but one reflect each service's highest possible resell price.

Sample cell phone trade-in values

iPhone 6 AT&T (16GB), space gray, flawless iPhone 6 AT&T (16GB), space gray, damaged screen Samsung Galaxy S5 Verizon (16GB), black, flawless LG G3 Verizon black, 32GB, flawless
EcoATM $170 $60 $65 $50
Best Buy $155 Recycle only $145 $38
Amazon $223.80 N/A $212.68 $115.31
GameStop $116 $12 $88 $40 $245 $125 $150 $70
Apple (Brightstar) $200 Recycle only N/A N/A

Not every service takes every phone, and some are still expanding their portfolios to include more popular devices. You may find there's no trade-in value posted yet for brand-new phones that owners haven't had a chance to offload.

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.

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. Online vendors may offer you a check, a cash card, or an infusion to your PayPal account. Retailers like Best Buy and Apple will more commonly hand you an in-store gift card, or possibly 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.

A word to the wise: read the fine print. When you give away your phone, even to a carrier buy-back program, you won't be able to get it back if something goes wrong.

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.

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

MyPhones Unlimited
Best Buy Online Trade-In
Swappa (Marketplace, more like eBay)
Your carrier's buy-back program

Physical sales and national recycling outlets

Best Buy (also online)
GameStop (also online)

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 which phone to pick for an upgrade? Check out our list of the best phones you can buy.

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