Now that Apple has unveiled the iPhone 5, all its previous iPhones are obsolete — right? Maybe, maybe not: The answer varies from person to person and what they expect (and need) from their smartphones. One thing’s for sure: An awful lot of people who will be rushing out to buy the iPhone 5 will have an older iPhone — like an iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, or iPhone 4S — suddenly sitting idle.
But an old iPhone doesn’t have to be a techno-albatross hanging over your shoulders. There are plenty of great ways to put an older iPhone to use even if it’s not your carry-everywhere device anymore. And if you truly don’t need or want it around, there are solid options for putting it in good hands — or getting some cold hard cash for the device.
Keeping your old iPhone
For lots of people, keeping an old iPhone around makes plenty of sense. After all, every iPhone back to the 2009’s iPhone 3GS can run Apple’s latest and greatest iOS 6 (even if some whizbang features like Siri are limited to newer hardware), so the devices aren’t exactly useless lumps.
Use as a backup phone — Keeping an old iPhone as a backup phone can be incredibly helpful if you’re the sort of person who tends to leave their smartphone at work, in the car, or on that table next to the door where there’s no way you could possibly miss it on the way out the door in the morning. This option is particularly helpful for frequent travelers. Often, it makes sense to use an entirely different phone when you’re overseas to avoid ghastly international roaming charges.
Once an iPhone is off contact, the most common approach is to unlock the device and purchase a new SIM card that works with another carrier.
Of course, you can also keep an iPhone on contract with shared voice and data plans with many carriers, and just keep using it as you always have. Unlocking is best accomplished via the iPhone Dev Team — beware, there are lots of charlatans who will be happy to sell you the capability to unlock your iPhone, but the iPhone Dev Team’s ever-evolving PwnageTool is free. Be aware that unlocking an iPhone breaks your license agreement with Apple and your carrier: Kiss any AppleCare, warranty support, or assistance from your previous carrier goodbye.
Where to take an unlocked iPhone? In the U.S., that’s pretty much T-Mobile. T-Mobile is the only nationwide carrier that doesn’t offer the iPhone — but it absolutely wants people to bring their unlocked iPhones on board. Starting today, T-Mobile stores will have iPhone 4S demo units and staff will be set up to help folks mover their iPhones over to unlimited data and pre-paid plans. T-Mobile’s network doesn’t offer speedy mobile data in most markets — the company is upgrading, but most areas are still limited to old-school 2G EDGE speeds. But some data is better than no data at all, and a few markets can offer iPhones T-Mobiles “4G” HSPA+ service — although devices like the iPhone 3GS will be limited to theoretical top speeds of 14.4 Mbps rather than T-Mobile amped-up 42 Mpbs network.
Outside, the U.S., the process is similar, only more common: GSM networks are the standard, and most operators will be happy to sell folks a SIM card to use their network. When you come back to the U.S., there’s no need to keep paying for service — just reactivate it when (and if) you return to that country.
Use like an iPod touch — An iPhone without phone service is essentially a spiffy iPod touch — and plenty of people find an iPod touch is all the iOS experience they need. That old iPhone can get good use as a standalone camera — and when you’re near Wi-Fi you can publish images to your iCloud Camera Roll and have them automatically synced across all your iOS devices and Macs. Another option: Pop the old iPhone into a speaker dock (or an audio system with an iPod option) and turn it into a home stereo. With iTunes Sharing, you can stream a home computer’s iTunes library wirelessly to your stereo; similarly, services like Spotify, Pandora, SoundCloud, or TunedIn will constantly bring you new music.
Getting rid of your old iPhone
Maybe you just don’t to keep an old phone around on principle — or maybe you truly have no use, space, or time for an older iOS device hanging around like stale leftovers. There are plenty of ways to make an old iPhone go away.
Before considering any of them, however: wipe your iPhone. This removes all your apps from the device, but also removes all your email, text messages, documents, photos, media library, and more. When you say goodbye to an iPhone, you don’t want to give your life away with it.
- Back up your device to your computer using iTunes. That way you can restore it later if things go wrong.
- On your iOS device, go to Settings > General > Reset
- Choose “Erase All Content and Settings.”
For devices running iOS 5 or newer, the process is quick: The process doesn’t erase your data, it just nukes the encryption key that makes it accessible. Without that key, the information is effectively unrecoverable, probably even by massive government agencies with phalanxes of supercomputers. For the original iPhone, iPhone 3G, and the first two iPod touches, however, the processes actually rolls through all memory, repeatedly erasing it: Depending on the device’s capacity, that could take several hours.
Pass it along — There are probably plenty of people in your life who could use an iPhone — or just an iPhone-turned-iPod touch. Many parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents will all happily receive an old iPhone. In the case of seniors, it can be a particularly useful gift because even off-service iPhones can still dial 911. Folks who already have mobile phones may be able to transfer their service to the old iPhone, or they can set up new service with the iPhone’s original carrier. Most U.S. carriers will support a device sold with their service, but won’t activate devices from another carrier. The exception, of course, is T-Mobile, which welcomes compatible iPhones with open arms.
If there’s no one in your life who can make good use of an old iPhone, odds are there’s someone nearby who can. Many local charities will be happy to accept donations of old iPhones (and other devices) for senior citizens, victims of domestic abuse, the homeless and other disadvantaged people — you could make a big difference in someone’s life. Similarly, plenty of nationwide charities will happily accept older iPhones as donation. Check out Cell Phones for Soldiers, Secure the Call, Phones 4 Charity. Another great option is the United Nations-mandated University for Peace.
Sell it — Your old iPhone is worth cold cash to many people. eBay and Craigslist are great places to find a willing buyer for your old iOS device. Of course, things like eBay, Craiglist, and online classifieds come with caveats: If you don’t already use them for other things, we can’t really recommend starting just to sell your old iPhone. But if you’re already an experienced hand at eBay (or used to doing local deals on Craigslist) they’re is probably the avenue to get the most money for your old device. Newer devices command the highest prices, but don’t disregard the value of your accessories like cases, headsets, and chargers. Other options are services like Gazelle and NextWorth — Gazelle will even make offers even on dead and broken iPhones and pay via check, Amazon, or Paypal once they receive it; NextWorth pays by check, PayPal, or Target gift card. Sellers can generally get higher offers via eBay or Craigslist — but for most people getting those offers entails a fair bit of work and hassle, where Gazelle is almost painless.
Trade it in — If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of selling your phone, plenty of places will take your old iPhone as a trade-in. A great example is Amazon.com: They’re currently accepting trade-ins of old iPhones from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint — although payment is in the form of an Amazon gift card, which may or may not be what you want. Verizon Wireless is also offering a trade-in program for the Verizon iPhone 4 and 4S, and plenty of other retailers (including Best Buy, Radioshack, and Gamestop) are offering iPhone trade-in programs, usually good for credit towards a new phone or other things they sell.
Even Apple is getting in on the trade-in action. It has recently partnered with PowerON and launched its own re-use and recycling program for almost everything it sells — including iPhones. Depending on a device’s age and condition, Apple the devices may be recycled instead of reused, but Apple is offering reasonably competitive values for its old devices — albeit in the form of an Apple gift card rather than cash. You’ll still do better on eBay or Craigslist, but — again — this is less hassle.
Recycle — If your iPhone is so old it has little or no value (or so beat up it barely works or doesn’t work at all), recycling may be your best option. Services like Gazelle and Apple’s recycling program can handle that for you, but you can probably save the cost (and carbon footprint) of shipping a device off to be recycled by taking advantage of e-waste recycling in your area. Many cities and states offer free electronics recycling programs, and most others have electronics recycling services available for a small fee. It’s a better (and more eco-friendly) option than just tossing your unwanted devices in the trash.