If Santa treats you to a shiny new smart phone this year, you may find yourself looking for a quick (and prosperous) way to ditch your old device. The options for trading in a smart phone for cash or credit toward a new one are growing: Apple and Walmart recently launched in-store phone trade-in offers. And Best Buy, major wireless carriers, and online outfits such as Amazon and Gazelle have programs, too.
The payback varies by the type of phone, its condition and the wireless carrier that it's designed to work with. A high-end phone, such as the iPhone, will draw more than a basic device, and newer generations of phones are usually worth more than older ones. A phone that doesn't power on or that has a cracked screen or water damage will get the lowest return, if any. You'll fetch more for a device with a few scratches but working keys. Phones that appear to be unused earn top dollar. And devices that run on so-called GSM networks, such as those from AT&T and T-Mobile, can be worth more because they have better international compatibility.
Amazon and Gazelle both provide online estimates of the payback on your smart phone based on the type of phone, the carrier and your judgment of the phone's condition. Amazon doesn't accept nonfunctioning phones, but it recently offered $245 in store credit for a black Verizon Wireless 16 gigabyte iPhone 5 in acceptable condition (worn but functional), $284 for the same phone in good condition (flawless display, light scratches) and $294 for a phone that's like new. Gazelle paid less for the same phone in good condition ($240) or flawless condition ($250). But it would accept a broken phone (and offered $100 for it). Plus, Gazelle will pay in cash if you'd rather not deal in store credit. If you decide to pursue one of these offers, you'll have to mail the device to Amazon or Gazelle (both sites provide free shipping) for verification of its condition and a final offer.
Trekking to a brick-and-mortar store that has a trade-in program could be more lucrative -- and faster. Bryan Strawbridge of Indianapolis got an estimate of $190 for his AT&T 16GB iPhone 4s at Gazelle.com. But the Apple Store offered a $204 credit, which he put toward a 32GB iPhone 5s on the spot -- no shipping hassles necessary. "It was seamless and quick," he says.
Some programs, including Apple's, require that you sign up for or renew a two-year contract with a major wireless carrier when you trade in your old phone for a new one. Participating Walmart and Sam's Club stores will pay from $50 to $300 for "working, non-damaged" smart phones, and you can put the money toward a new phone with a two-year contract from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon Wireless. But Walmart's program has a notable exception: You can also apply the credit to a phone with the Straight Talk no-contract wireless service. Straight Talk's $45 monthly plan offers unlimited talking, text messaging and data usage.