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Refurbished phones and laptops can save you hundreds in cash. 5 questions to ask before you buy

Want to save yourself some money? Don't buy new, buy refurbished. Here's what you need to know before you do.

Jason Cipriani
Jason Cipriani
Jason Cipriani Contributing Writer, ZDNet
Jason Cipriani is based out of beautiful Colorado and has been covering mobile technology news and reviewing the latest gadgets for the last six years. His work can also be found on sister site CNET in the How To section, as well as across several more online publications.
Jason Cipriani
4 min read

Refurbished devices like phones and laptops are cheaper than buying new. Can you trust them?

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You can potentially save yourself hundreds of dollars by buying a used phone or laptop compared to purchasing brand-new, pricey electronics. There are several ways to buy a used device, including from sites like Swappa or eBay. While both sites have buyer protection policies to ensure you get what you paid for, we might suggest going with a refurbished device instead.

Refurbished electronics follow a set of guidelines from the seller that can offer you standards and assurances beyond buying electronics used from the original owner. But can you trust a refurbished laptop or phone? What do you get, and what should you expect in terms of warranty, accessories and customer support?

There are some important questions you should ask when browsing through a refurbished store, from Apple to Gazelle to Amazon. Here are the top factors to consider. 

What is a refurbished device, exactly?

When you sell or trade-in your old gadgets to a company like Gazelle, Best Buy or even your wireless carrier, it will go through an evaluation process. If it's a newer device and in working order, odds are it will go through a refurbishing process and end up being sold as a used or refurbished device. 

But each company has a different approach to how it refurbishes and ensures a phone or laptop will keep working. For example, Apple classifies all of its refurbished devices as "like new," after every device is cleaned, any faulty parts are replaced and the device is thoroughly tested. A refurbished iPhone comes with a new battery and housing. 

Amazon's Renewed program for refurbished products takes a similar approach by inspecting, testing and repairing broken parts. Amazon guarantees the battery has 80% capacity and cautions that you may see some scratches on the exterior of Renewed products. 


There are plenty of refurbished options available. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Is there a return policy for refurbished phones, laptops and other electronics?

Whether a device is brand new or refurbished, lemons happen. It's possible a device won't turn on or work as expected. Some companies like Gazelle and Amazon don't replace a device's housing, so you'll get a phone or laptop with some cosmetic damage. Gazelle does a good job explaining what you should expect when buying a phone in fair condition and even provides example photos. 

To be clear, the photos aren't of the device you'll be buying, but serve as examples of what the different levels of wear and tear look like on devices it sells. But what happens if you get a phone that has more damage (although it still works just fine) than you were expecting? 

In most cases, you should be able to return a device you aren't happy with. I suggest looking through the site's FAQ or policies, often linked to at the bottom of the site, to find the return policy. If you're having a hard time finding it, a Google search that includes the site's name and return policy (for example, "Gazelle return policy") usually will get you to the right place.


Extended warranties might be a good idea. 

Josh Miller/CNET

What kind of warranty applies to refurbished devices?

Just because a device is refurbished doesn't mean it shouldn't come with a warranty. Things happen, components quit working and if a company wants you to feel confident in your purchase, it should offer some sort of warranty beyond the return period. 

All of Apple's refurbished products come with a standard one-year warranty. Gazelle has a 30-day return policy that's also considered the warranty, but sells an extra year of protection with an extended warranty that also covers accidental damage. Prices start at $55 depending on the device. For comparison, AT&T wireless charges $15 a month for a similar service. 

Amazon offers a 90-day satisfaction guarantee during which you can return a Renewed device for a refund. 

As you can see, warranties for second-hand gadgets vary wildly. Take a few extra minutes to research what a vendor's policy is before clicking that checkout button. 


Does the phone work with your carrier?

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Will a refurbished phone work with my carrier?

When browsing refurbished phones, pay close attention to any carrier limitations. Refurbished sites like Apple, Amazon or Gazelle clearly state which carrier the device is intended to be used on, or if it's unlocked and can be used on any carrier. 

This is an important step when shopping for a phone, new or used. If you buy a phone locked to Verizon and want to use it on T-Mobile , you're likely going to run into issues. There is a possibility you can call a carrier to unlock a phone for you, but you can save yourself time and buy a phone that works with your carrier of choice. 

Do accessories come with refurbished products or do I buy those separately?

If a product listing doesn't list everything that's included with your purchase, such as a charger or cable, I recommend reaching out to the company or seller and asking what's included. 

Apple ships everything you need to use the device. Most important of which is, a charger. As does Amazon, but the charger may not be the official charger that would come with the phone or laptop were it a brand new purchase.

If you're comfortable with the idea of buying a refurbished phone or laptop, remember that you can save even more money by selling your device to the very companies that sell refurbished products. Can I offer some personal advice? Never buy or sell these seven used tech devices.