Skip to main content

Buying Second-Hand Tech

Buying second hand is a good way to help reduce waste generated by the fast upgrade cycle for new products. There are plenty of second-hand tech products on the market, but identifying a functioning device with a decent battery life, sold through a secure site can seem like a surprising struggle.

Here we show you how to navigate the market for second-hand tech.

The world’s population generated an estimated 50 million tonnes of electronic waste in 2018. That’s equivalent to the weight of 6,850 Eiffel Towers. Much of this could be reused, as second-hand devices or be recycled, but instead sadly goes to landfill.

Thankfully there is a way to help reduce this waste, buying second-hand tech and most of the pitfalls of buying second-hand can be avoided when you know what to look out for.

Choosing a second-hand model

One of the biggest challenges when buying second-hand tech is just choosing the model to buy. A good way to begin narrowing it down is by working out how recent you need the second-hand item to be. All technology slows down over time, but the timescale for this is different depending on what you are purchasing.

Mobile Phones

At the time of writing there are around 76.8 million unused phones in the UK. That equates to about 1.28 devices per person that could be reused or sold on to a new owner, so second-hand devices are widely available.

For a smartphone, look for a model that came out within the last three years. Beyond this, battery life is likely to be poor and you may be unable to install newer features and apps. If you are just buying a basic non-smartphone model, you have a little more leeway: the more basic the longer it is likely to last as there are fewer things to go wrong.

Battery life and storage capacity

Mobile phone batteries are often one of the first things to degrade, so it is good to read reviews that discuss battery life or check for details of battery life on the buyers’ page. In some models, batteries can be replaced, so it may be worth factoring this into costs when comparing models, although increasingly rare. The ability to change the battery also has the added advantage of being able to take a spare battery on long trips without access to a power source.

New smart phones often use a sealed design whereby the battery cannot be replaced without a complicated disassembly.


A quick web search will reveal lots of detailed comparisons and tests to give you an idea of which models tend to last longer. You will also find a range of ‘rugged’ models, which have physical robustness as their key selling point, although these tend to be on the more expensive end of the scale. Among the more standard designs, smartphones with plastic casing may look cheaper, but will actually be more durable than those cased in aluminium, which has a tendency to overheat and warp.

If you don’t need the all the capabilities of a smartphone, a basic model (known as ‘feature phone’) will usually save you money and last longer – you could even choose a rugged-design feature phone, which should last even longer and survive any mishaps along the way.

Laptops and Desktops

Laptops have a longer lifespan than mobile phones, so you can often opt for an older second-hand model. However, the lifespan also varies more depending on original cost. With laptops, if you can afford it, it is often better to go for a model that was more expensive when new: either you’ll get more years use out of it, or you can opt for an older laptop, making greater savings, and have a fair amount of confidence that it will last a few years.

Original cost Average lifespan
Under £500 2 – 4 years
£500 – 750  3 – 5 years
£750 upwards 4 – 7 years

Obviously these numbers are just estimates and will depend on the brand and the amount of usage that the item has had. As with phones, laptop batteries degrade over time, so look for information about the cost of replacing the battery on the models you look at and factor this in to your purchase decision.

Desktops often have an even longer life expectancy, partly because it is much easier to repair or replace parts. Almost all elements of a desktop PC can be replaced if they break or slow down too much, so this might be a good option if you don’t need the portability of a laptop.

Upgrading the hard drive on either a laptop or desktop PC to a fast Solid State Drive (SSD) is a good way to extend the lifespan and speed up the performance for a reasonably low cost. Not all second-hand computers will be compatible with SSD’s, so it’s good to look into whether this is an option when choosing your model.

Other things to consider

Scratches and scrapes

Even if you’re not bothered about the aesthetics, scratches and marks on a device can indicate that it’s had a lot of wear and tear and may not be in the best condition internally either. It’s worth considering, though, that screens can often be replaced for not very much–so buying a cracked phone or tablet might be a good way to find a bargain.

Expert advice

Technology changes fast, so it’s good to get up to date recommendations from someone that is involved in the sector or has just gone through the second-hand buying process. Otherwise, lots of websites have reviews of phones that will be available second hand. The easiest option is talk to someone who knows about technology. If you don’t know someone personally, staff in second-hand shops like CeX are a good source of knowledge.

How old is too old?

All PC’s and phones will eventually reach an end of life point after which they will no longer receive new updates from the manufacturer. This can make them more susceptible to viruses, and mean you that won’t be able to use the latest software applications. Check the manufacturer’s website to make sure the model is still compatible with the latest the latest Windows or MacOS updates.

Is it ready to use?

If you already have a SIM card you want to use in your second-hand phone, be sure to check whether the phone is unlocked or else that it is locked to the network you wish to use, this information should always be available from the seller.

Apple iPhones have a security feature called Activation Lock, which helps prevent theft. However, it is often left on accidentally on second-hand phones, and can prevent you from being able to use the phone without the previous owner’s Apple ID. Where possible, ask a seller to confirm Activation Lock is disabled if you want to purchase an iPhone.

For laptops and Desktops, you will want to ensure that there is a clean install of the operating system (e.g. Windows), so you don’t have to worry about any files or settings left over from the previous user.

Getting a fair price

The best price isn’t always the cheapest—be sure to factor in the age and condition of each item when assessing the value. You are often better off paying a little more for a model that was expensive the first time around than trying to find the cheapest option. Cheaper models often degrade at a much faster rate, so that by the time you get your hands on it isn’t worth the savings made.

Sites like eBay can be useful tools for checking what the going rate is for specific models: you can tick the box that says ‘Sold items’ and see how much the model you are looking at went for in the past.

Different types of sellers will give you different prices, but also involve different levels of risk. Buying direct from the previous owner will be cheaper but you are more likely to get a duff deal. On the other hand, buying a refurbished phone you will pay a small premium for seller assurances and often some period of warranty.

Used or refurbished?

Used items are typically sold by the previous owner, and as have not not have been tested repaired prior to sale, so the condition can vary a great deal. You will tend to find the cheapest deals on used items, but this carries a greater risk of ending up with a faulty or damaged product.

For greater reliability, look for items that have been refurbished, either by the manufacturer or seller. A refurbished device is one that may previously have been faulty, but that has been serviced and restored to full working order and should work exactly the same as new. Refurbished devices also tend to come with a warranty, so even if you do receive a faulty unit you should get a replacement.

Where to buy

Buying direct from a private seller: You can buy direct from the previous owner through lots of online shops such as eBay or Facebook Marketplace. These forums are where you are likely to find the cheapest options, but they will also involve the highest level of risk. Each will have different levels of protection for consumers, so it is worth checking this before buying anything. Experts also suggest using an established payment method such as PayPal for such purchases.

Before purchasing used items online, try to get a sense of the seller’s reliability:
    1. Check when the account was opened. As a rule of thumb, go for someone that has been using the site for over a year, and definitely avoid any sellers that are brand new. If using social media site like Facebook, check the seller’s profile to make sure they have a genuine, active account.
    2. Check the seller’s feedback. Many online marketplaces have a ratings system, where sellers will be marked down for poor conduct.
    3. Check what other items they have for sale. If they seem to specialise in electronics and refurbished goods, their quality of their repairs is likely to be higher.

Buying from a second-hand retailer: You’ll pay a slightly higher price for items sold through established second-hand shops, but in return get a certain level of security. Often second-hand retailers will offer a warranty, as well as guaranteeing certain checks on the item pre-purchase.

Become a subscriber today

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. A wealth of data at your fingertips.

From only £29.95 for 12 months web access and the print magazine. Cancel via phone or email within 30 days for a full, no-questions-asked refund!

Start your subscription - find out more