Wireless 101: The Deal With Used Phones on Verizon

People ask us all the time about activating old phones on Verizon.  It’s a relatively simple process, really, but there are a few things you should know before making any purchases or switches.  We will explain what constitutes and “old” phone, what to look out for, and how to get the device active.

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Unlocked Versus Old

The term “unlocked” or “jailbroken” is used quite often among Internet forums and techies.  Most people get the basic idea: an unlocked phone is one you can activate and use as you see fit.

The biggest misconception among Verizon customers is that an unlocked phone will work for them.  Technically, the term “unlocked” refers to a GSM phone, such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Vodafone, and more.  It actually has little to do with a CDMA phone, such as what is used by Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and others.  In most cases, if someone refers to a phone as “unlocked,” it’s not for use on Verizon or Sprint.

What most people refer to as an “old phone,” usually means either a phone used previously by oneself or someone else, or a refurbished phone purchased online or from a store.  In either case, the operative word here is USED.  If the phone was previously active on someone else’s line and calls, text, or anything else were made from the phone, the phone is technically used (regardless of it’s condition).

The reason that CDMA phones aren’t “unlocked” like GSM phones is simple - there’s little reason to disconnect the phone from it’s proprietory carrier.  Because the phone uses a technology that does not utilize SIM cards, you absolutely MUST go through the carrier to activate any phone.  And in order to keep non-carrier phones off the network (which has some technical advantages to it, but is mostly to keep control of the carrier’s phone market), the serial number sequences for non-carrier phones are not allowed on the network.  In other words, if a Sprint CDMA phone were taken into a Verizon store to activate, the part of the serial number that indicates the manufacturer and carrier of the phone are banned from being activated.

So, in the end, the solution is simple.  If the phone was originally for Verizon (or whatever carrier you’re paying money to), it should work on that network.  Look for the Verizon logo, or whatever carrier you’re using, and don’t buy something for a different company.

The Used Phone Pitfall

Buying or obtaining a used phone is a great way of avoiding contracts or paying full retail prices.  It’s also a good way for someone to rip you off.

One of the biggest reasons why this happens is because of the serial number we mentioned above.  Each phone is unique, and each phone is designed to connect to the network using a specific serial number (ESN or MEID are the technical terms here).  Now, because the serial number MUST be connected to each individual phone number, a history of that serial number is captured.  The carrier uses that history to create a database to track the phone.

Now, if someone on Verizon were to lose their phone, or have it stolen, and reported the problem, Verizon (and others) will put the serial number on a type of blacklist.  The general idea here is, if someone steals your phone and you report it, the serial number is locked to prevent it from being activated again on the original carrier.

What happens from time to time when people buy a used phone, they don’t know that the phone was reported lost or stolen.  If the seller knows it’s stolen, they won’t go out of their way to let you know, and chances are they’ll disappear once the sale is done, leaving you with a non-functional phone you just paid money for.  Some sellers have no idea if the serial number was reported to the blacklist, so many legitimate sellers will either check the ESN before selling the device (or allow you to check it yourself), and most will work with you if you buy a dud.  But it doesn’t take much to get burned on buying an old phone.

The solution is to check.  If the seller won’t give you the serial number, don’t buy it.  If they will, you can easily call or visit your carrier to have them ensure the serial number is clean.  Some carriers, such as Sprint, have web sites where you can check as well.

Other Problems

The most obvious problem with buying a used phone is that it’s used.  That means, there’s no warranty, insurance won’t cover it, the battery will likely be well-used, and the phone itself may be worn in (or worn out).  There’s nothing new about a used phone, even in the best of condition (though, oviously, a near-new used phone is better than a well-used phone).

Just keep in mind that activating a used phone is sometimes not a long-term solution.  If you’re activating an old phone because you broke or lost your last one, chances are you didn’t buy it because it was a model you just had to own.  But if your old phone was perfectly fine and you wanted what you feel is the best phone for you, chances are you’re not only going to look for the best quality, but also take good care of it yourself.

Be aware of what you’re getting into when you move to a used phone of any kind.

How To Activate

For Verizon, there are a few ways you can activate your phone.

You can make the most obvious choice of calling customer service (*611 or 800-922-0204 for Verizon), or visiting one of their corporate stores.  This process is usually the best, especially if you have (or didn’t have but will need) a data plan.  Sometimes, automated systems do things you don’t want them to do.  However, this is not the easiest way to do things, and if you’re not authorized on the account you will need to try again with someone who is.

You can also go online into your account and activate the phone using the serial number behind the battery (again, either called ESN or MEID in most cases).  The process is fairly quick and painless, and if you can log in, you already have the authorization needed.

The last (and easiest) way to activate a phone is simply by dailing *228 (like you’re dialing a phone number).  After you press Send to make the call, you’ll hear two options come up.  Option one (1) will allow you to activate the phone over the air.  All you will need is the phone number that needs to be on the device, as well as the account password or last four of the account owner’s social security number.  So if you don’t have this information, you will find that the over the phone version isn’t the best way to go.

What If?

The biggest “what if” with any activation concerns data plans.  Some phones required them, some did not.  Of the ones that did, the data plan that is automatically attached to the line may or may not be the one you want.  Of phones that didn’t require data, you run the risk of either losing a grandfathered data plan (such as unlimited), or continuing one when it’s not necessary.  In these cases, it’s best to call or visit the carrier rather than use the more automated system.

A relatively new quirk with Verizon customers concern SIM cards.

Now, if you have a phone with a red and black Vodafone or Verizon SIM card in it, most likely you won’t need the SIM unless you’re going overseas.  That phone is often a global-capable phone, but still has a traditional ESN or MEID, and doesn’t necessarily need to be activated by the SIM.

If you have a 4G LTE device, or purchase one used, you’ll definitely need to be aware of some big “what ifs.”

If you didn’t have a 4G phone before, and bought or obtained one, you WILL want to go to a Verizon store to activate the device.  This is because you would have not had a SIM card up to that point, and one would need to be activated for you.  Even if there were one in the 4G phone, you’ll want to get a new SIM from the carrier.  Calling works, too, but they’ll have to ship you a SIM card before anything can be activated.  It’s best practice to avoid using any old SIM with your number, and in most cases, Verizon won’t allow an old SIM to a different number anyway.

If you have a 4G LTE phone and buy another 4G LTE phone for Verizon, you should be able to take your existing SIM card and pop it into the new phone.  Note that not all LTE phones will be Verizon compatible, as the phone still uses CDMA to make voice calls.

If you have a 4G LTE phone and buy a 3G phone of any kind, you may find the automated systems can’t help you switch.  In most cases, a Verizon representative will have to make this change.  It’s a system limitation.

Lastly, if the phone has a SIM in it, the best thing to do is question it or get a different one.  Old 3G SIMS from Verizon will probably be fine, but 4G SIMS will have someone else’s account information on it.

What Does it Mean For Me?

Long story short, it’s actually a simple and valuable option to buy or use an old phone.  But as long as you know what to look for and what to avoid, getting the phone activated should be a breeze.  And if you’re ever in doubt, or running into a roadblock getting something activated, you can always call on your carrier for help.