Sell or recycle a phone: how to make money or do good with your old handset

Sell or recycle your phone
(Image credit: Apple)

When it comes to buying a new smartphone, two hard truths have encroached on the conversation in recent years. One is that few of us have as much disposable income as we used to. And even for those of us who are more flush, the cost of most things has risen.

The second major shift is an increased awareness of how wasteful the mobile upgrade cycle can be, and what an impact old and obsolete tech can have on the environment. Those old internal components are far from biodegradable, so your phone’s ultimate resting place really matters.

Recycling or selling your old phone is more important than ever. Here’s how to go about ensuring your trusty old handset goes to the right place - and maybe even earns you a few dollars or pounds into the bargain.

Editor's note: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the services on this list won't be available at this time. Some may continue to be running, especially those that run predominantly online.

Using Apple to trade or recycle your iPhone

Apple is one of the better smartphone manufacturers when it comes to recycling initiatives. The company always points out the green credentials of its products during their announcements, and it runs an extensive free recycling scheme across the world.

Head to the Apple Recycling Programs page for a rundown of how to recycle your old iPhone in your country.

In a number of territories you’ll find that the program extends to a full trade-in scheme. In the US, the UK, and Australia, sending Apple your old phone can give you credit towards your next Apple purchase, or an Apple Store Gift Card for use anytime.

One note of caution: while dealing directly with Apple is the easiest way to trade in your iPhone, you’ll often find that there’s better value to be found using a local third party retailer.

Using network operators to sell or recycle your phone

Android users and iPhone users who don’t wish to use Apple have a number of options when it comes to selling or trading in their phones. Your network operator will almost certainly run a trade-in and recycle scheme. 

Here are some links for the major US operators:

Verizon - Trade in your phone for an account credit or Verizon Wireless Gift Card, or donate it for recycling.

AT&T - Trade in an eligible device and get an AT&T Promotion Card that’s good toward the purchase of AT&T products and services, or recycle.

T-Mobile - Swap an eligible phone for credit toward a new one, or have it recycled for free.

Sprint - Sprint runs a buyback program that lets you credit the value of your phone against a new purchase either online or at a Sprint retail location.

It’s a similar situation in the UK, where each of the four major operators runs their own free trade-in and responsible recycling program. It might be worth getting a free quote from each if your phone is unlocked, as they’re not particularly fussy where it comes from.

EE - Trade in any device that’s on EE’s database, online or in-store. You can put the credit towards a new phone or have it in cash.

Vodafone - In-store or online trade-in, or pop into a shop for free recycling.

O2 - O2 Recycle will give you up to £400 in cash for your old phone, even if it’s damaged.

Three - Three promises same day payment for your old phone.

Australia’s three major mobile networks all offer their own trade-in and recycle schemes.

Telstra - Trade in any mobile phone, as long as it’s on the Telstra database.

Optus - New and existing customers can trade-in their mobile phone or tablet online, either by calling up or going into an Optus store.

Vodafone - Trade your phone in store for credit towards your bill.

Other ways to sell your phone

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

The Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus (Image credit: TechRadar)

Aside from the major operators, there are numerous reliable third parties that provide a trade-in and recycle service. In the US, trade-in sites tend to predominantly focus on Apple and Samsung phones, but it is usually possible to trade other Android brands if you dig a little deeper.

One particularly well-established resource is ItsWorthMore, which is good for selling your Apple, Samsung, Google, HTC, LG or OnePlus phone through a slick website. You get assured payment within two days of receiving your phone, as well as free shipping.

Flipsy is a website that’s dedicated to helping you sell your phone in the right place, scanning the web for the best prices from trusted sources. Shipping is also free for this service.

In the UK, several established physical stores offer up-front pricing and the peace of mind that comes with a physical transaction, but you’ll typically find better prices online. 

Trusted smartphone retailer Carphone Warehouse offers a competitive trade-in scheme online and in-store. On the high street, CeX is a good bricks-and-mortar solution that places its pricing up front its website. You’ll get better value against in-store credit.

In terms of purely online services, Mazuma is a strong outlet with free postage, and it also operates in Australia. MusicMagpie and FoneBank are two more established online UK phone traders.

Amazon also runs a trade-in scheme in the US and UK (via BrightStar). In the US you’ll receive payment via an Gift Card, while in the UK you can receive a full bank transfer.

Other recycling options

Aside from your network operator or the aforementioned online trade-in services, there are a number of organisations specifically dedicated to recycling your smartphone.

In the US, Call2Recycle has been going for more than 25 years, and offers free recycling via thousands of drop-off points dotted around the country.

In the UK, you can drop your phone into one of the many Oxfam charity shops around the country. They will then turn your device into cash for vital kit in developing countries. Oxfam has also teamed up with the aforementioned FoneBank website if you want to sell your phone whilst also making a donation to the charity.

Australian readers can recycle their phones at any one of 3500 MobileMuster public drop off points around the country. You can also pick up a free MobileMuster satchel from AusPost if you want to mail your phone to them.

How to prepare your phone for selling or recycling

Whether you’re selling or recycling your old phone, it’s imperative that you prepare it for retirement. Not only is it the decent thing to do for the next person or institution that handles your phone, it’s also essential to protecting your data.

The primary way to do this with both iOS and Android is to completely wipe your phone and restore it to factory condition. When it comes to Android, the exact method varies according to phone manufacturer, but we’ve supplied some guidelines based on a standard strand of Google’s OS. Your phone shouldn’t be too dissimilar.

With both iOS and Android, it’s a good idea to back up your phone to the cloud prior to wiping using Apple’s or Google’s built-in provision. Having done that, follow these pointers:

On iOS

Sign out of iCloud and the iTunes & App Store by going to Settings > Apple ID and tap Sign Out, then input your Apple ID password and Turn Off.

Moving to an Android phone? Make sure that iMessage is deactivated in Settings > Messages. This could save you a lot of lost message headaches.

Now go to Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings. Enter your password, if asked, and tap Erase.

On Android

Go into Settings > System > Advanced > Reset options > Erase all data/Factory reset.

You should now be shown a list of all the accounts that you’re signed into. Tap Delete all data, enter your PIN or password, and confirm the deletion process if necessary.

Once you’ve wiped your phone, power it down and ensure that you’ve removed any microSD cards (for certain Android models) and SIM cards that might be left over in the relevant tray. Out of sight often means out of mind, so it’s easy to forget this vital step.

Finally, do the decent thing and give your smartphone a wipe over with a dry, clean microfibre cloth. Then, pack it up in its original packaging (ideally), and with all the original wires and components (if possible). You’re now ready to recycle, sell or trade in your phone.