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What to Do With Your Used Smartphone

Your used smartphone can still provide a valuable service even after it’s dialed its last number. For instance, you can sell it for cash or trade it in to offset the cost of your new model.

Phone tech hasn’t changed all that much in the last several years, and there are lots of people out there who’ll appreciate your old model, especially if it has the important basics: a sharp display (720p or higher) that’s at least 4 inches wide, support for 4G LTE networks, and a decent amount of storage (32 gigabytes).

And carriers are so desperate for your business, each phone they accept as a trade-in from competing carrier is like a trophy. Just remember the deal you get largely depends on the make and model of your phone, the condition it’s in, and even the carrier it was on.

Trade It In

Providers often use credit or full phone replacements to lure customers away from one another. For example, AT&T currently offers up to $200 toward a new phone or the monthly bill when you trade in your used smartphone. And Sprint promises to pay off your contract or your old phone balance through an American Express Reward Card. But there are many conditions: For one thing, you'll need to submit the latest itemized bill from your current carrier to show that your account is in good standing. You also have to prove that the phone you trade in is the phone you were using at the time of the trade-in.

Sell It

Lots of retailers and websites will give you cash or in-store credit for your used smartphone. But don’t expect a big payday. A lot depends on the desirability of your model, its storage capacity, age, carrier, condition, and status (locked or unlocked). And prices vary from business to business. For instance, we were quoted $70 for a Verizon 32GB LG G3 smartphone with normal wear from Gazelle.com, while BestBuy.com’s Trade In program offered a $95 gift card.

In the end, it costs nothing to price a phone, and it’s certainly educational. Other retailers with trade-in programs include Amazon, Apple, and Costco. Additionally, ecoATM accepts phones at kiosks in locations around the country that will scan the device and pay you on the spot what the company estimates it’s worth. Of course, you can also try your luck on eBay and Craigslist.

Wipe It

Whether you're selling your used smartphone or trading it in, it's important to first clear off all of your personal information. A factory data reset should remove photos, email, app accounts, and other data you don’t want to fall into other hands.

On Android phones, the Reset option is usually under Backup in the Settings menu.

On an iPhone, it's found at the bottom of the General page, under Settings. Most iPhones (those running iOS 7 or later) have an anti-theft feature called Activation Lock that prevents others from using them. To release your iPhone from Activation Lock so another person can use it, log in to your iCloud account, select All Devices, which opens a list of devices linked to your account, then choose the one to be removed. Follow the prompts to remove your device.

Information isn’t actually erased when you wipe a phone. The data remains, but there’s no longer a file name pointing to it, and the space occupied by the data is now free to be used by the next email or text message to come along in search of a home.

iPhones, by default, further protect your data by encrypting it so that it can't read even if it is found unless that person knows the password or pin for decrypting it.

On Android phones, encryption protection is available but it’s far more complicated and activating it is less uniform from model to model. To find out how to protect your device, read “Why Android’s ‘Factory Reset’ Isn’t Really Secure.”

...Or Just Keep It as a Spare

Don't be discouraged by pitiful sales quotes or not-as-hot-as-you-thought trade-in offers. You can always hold onto to your used smartphone as a backup in case the new one is lost or stolen. And that's certainly a good way to save on phone insurance and extended warranties, which have high premiums (often $10 and up), high deductibles (more than $100), and unclear language about what to expect as a replacement.

More from Consumer Reports:
8 Ways to Boost Your Home Value
Why your cable TV bill is going up
Get the Best Cell Phone Plan for Your Family—and Save up to $1,000 a Year

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