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Best used smartphones 2021

best used smartphones 2021
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

It pays not to forget about the best used smartphone - literally. While opening a shiny new flagship is immensely satisfying, buying used can save you a hefty amount of cash. You just need to make sure you're happy not being at the forefront of mobile technology.

The best phones also get some hefty price cuts whenever a successor launches. Considering some people also religiously upgrade their handset every year, and you've got a good chance of picking up a slightly-used handset for a very reasonable price. Whether you want an iPhone XS, a shiny Samsung Galaxy, or something else entirely, these are all the very best used smartphone you can buy right now. 

What are the best used smartphones (Updated July 7)

Generally speaking, it's great to look for a used smartphone model right after its successor launches. This both ensures that the value of the phone you're looking to buy is dropping, and that some who already own it are probably ready to sell.

Keeping that in mind, with the Samsung Galaxy S21 now here, it's been a great time to entertain older Galaxy handsets. The S9 still benefits from a sleek design and dazzling AMOLED display, while the performance and photography sacrifices aren't as drastic as you might think.

The same can be said for other high-end handsets, like the iPhone XS. The iPhone XS may be two years old, but its A12 Bionic processor is still strong enough to ensure a fluid experience, especially compared to most new phones in the $400-$500 price range. And no smartphone that cheap can pull off anything like the iPhone XS' Face ID recognition.

If you're picturing something larger — perhaps a phablet — the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 can be had for under $400 from some resellers, and deliver many of the same S Pen productivity-minded features offered by the Note 10 and new Galaxy Note 20, which will set you back two or three times more.

The iPhone 8 Plus also remains a good choice for users who like the classic design of the new second-generation iPhone SE, but need a larger display and longer battery life. Rounding out the list, the Pixel 3 XL is a solid choice who want Google's latest and greatest camera and software features at a sizable discount, while the LG G8 ThinQ is a killer value all-around that is so cheap new, you may not even have to buy used.

With new phones releasing all the time, older devices are being phased out — making this list of the best used smartphones one to watch going forward. Let's take a closer look.

Best used smartphones: iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

1. iPhone XS

Still fast and beautiful after all these years

Display: 5.8-inch OLED (2436x1125)
CPU: A12 Bionic
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 256GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.24 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:41
Reasons to buy
+Beautiful OLED display+Superfast A12 Bionic processor+Improved cameras with Smart HDR and better bokeh+Gigabit LTE
Reasons to avoid
-More storage should come standard

Now that the iPhone X is well past the three year age mark, we'd recommend grabbing the newer iPhone XS if you have your heart set on a used full-screen iPhone. Not only will you last it longer, these devices won't cost you more than the $639 Apple charges for an official refurbished unit. That said you may want to go with a third-party vendor like Swappa or Amazon. You can find unlocked versions of the phones as cheap as $329.

Of course, a unit from a reseller isn't guaranteed to be in perfect working order like Apple's certified refurbished devices are, but second-hand stores still ensure protections for buyers, like refunds if the item received is not as described. 

And that peace of mind is worth every penny, because the iPhone XS — with its powerful A12 Bionic processor, Face ID technology and immaculate design — holds its value better than any other smartphone out there. These prices have been dropping since the iPhone 11 series emerged last autumn, and now the iPhone 12 has been released it's cheaper than ever before

What you'll pay for a used iPhone XS

From $639 at Apple (Refurbished)
From $300 on Swappa
From $359 on Amazon (Refurbished)
From $334 on Gazelle

Best used smartphones: Samsung Galaxy S9

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

2. Samsung Galaxy S9

A compact flagship that can still do it all

Display: 5.8-inch AMOLED (2960x1440)
CPU: Snapdragon 845
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / Yes
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.5, ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/1.7)
Weight: 5.8 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:52
Reasons to buy
+Bright, colorful display+Solid low-light camera+Headphone jack
Reasons to avoid
-AR Emoji is dismal-Bixby isn't useful

The Samsung Galaxy S9 wasn't a particularly big change compared to the Galaxy S8, but it did come with a more powerful processor and a new dual-lens camera with adjustable aperture. It lacks the more futuristic features of newer Galaxy S phones, like the ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor, reverse wireless charging, and the holepunch camera, the S9 is still a powerfully-packed handset. Even if you buy it now, you'll be able to keep hold of it for a long time — making it one of our best used smartphones.

And "now" just so happens to be the right time, because it's cheaper than ever to score a used unit, and Samsung's 2018 flagship is now running the same One UI software you'll find in newer models, like the Galaxy S20 FE

What you'll pay for a Samsung Galaxy S9
From $157 on Amazon (Refurbished)
From $140 on Swappa
From $134 on Decluttr
From $269 on Gazelle

Best used smartphones: Samsung Galaxy Note 9

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

3. Samsung Galaxy Note 9

One of the most premium phones at an unbeatable price

Display: 6.4-inch AMOLED (2960x1440)
CPU: Snapdragon 845
Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 512GB / Yes
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.5, ƒ/2.4); 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/1.7)
Weight: 7.1 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:26
Reasons to buy
+Gorgeous 6.4-inch display+Useful S Pen Bluetooth features+Lots of onboard storage+Stunning design
Reasons to avoid
-Bixby isn't helpful

The Galaxy Note 9 may not have the fancy quad-lens camera and design of the Galaxy Note 20, but it's still a very capable phablet. That comes from the useful inclusion of the S-Pen, the bright and bold display, and all the power packed into the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor.

It may have cost $1,000 when it was new, but today you can grab the phone for less than half that. That's an incredible price for a powerhouse like this, despite the fact other phones have better cameras and a longer battery life. The Note 9 does it all, and that makes it a more complete package than some newer flagships out there. 

The only problem with tracking down a Note 9 now is that unlocked models are becoming harder and harder to come by — meaning you may have to pick up a phone customized to work with your particular carrier.

What you'll pay for a used Galaxy Note 9

From $250 on Amazon (Refurbished)
From $219 on Swappa
From $199 on Decluttr (Refurbished)
From $279 on Gazelle

Best used smartphones: iPhone 8 Plus

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

4. iPhone 8 Plus

The iPhone SE's beloved design, only larger

Display: 5.5-inch LCD (1920x1080)
CPU: A11 Bionic
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.8)
Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 7.13 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:16
Reasons to buy
+Solid A11 Bionic performance+Supports wireless charging+Compact design
Reasons to avoid
-Large bezels-Limited storage

The iPhone 8 Plus was one of the last phones to offer the classic iPhone design, complete with the Touch ID-equipped home button and a 16:9 LCD display. The 2020 iPhone SE may have come along, but that doesn't detract from how impressive the iPhone 8 Plus can be.

Not only is it a design that people love — as evidenced by Apple's new budget model — the lack of a large screen SE model means you can opt for the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus to fill that gap.  While the savings might not be as remarkable as with other devices on this list, this is still an excellent handset that will certainly last you a couple of years, especially given the Plus model's perks, like its extra RAM and dual-lens cameras. You'll also get other luxuries, such as wireless charging and IP67 water resistance.

What you'll pay for a used iPhone 8 Plus

From $279 on Amazon (Refurbished)
From $225 on Swappa
From $284 on Decluttr
From $244 on Gazelle

Best used smartphones: Google Pixel 3 XL

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

5. Google Pixel 3 XL

Still one of the best camera phones

Display: 6.3-inch OLED (2960x1440)
CPU: Snapdragon 845
Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB / No
Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8)
Front camera: 8MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 8MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2)
Weight: 6.49 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:30
Reasons to buy
+Best-in-class camera+Clever Call Screen and Recorder features+Dazzling OLED screen
Reasons to avoid
-Display dimmer than other flagships-Battery life could be better

The beautiful thing about Google's flagship phones is that they tend to use similar camera components year in and year out, but continuously upgrade the post-processing algorithms to churn out better and better results. That's why you can still pick up a device like the Pixel 3 XL, which released in the fall of 2018, and capture absolutely jaw-dropping shots that are just as good as those from the newer Pixel 4 or iPhone 11 Pro.

The Pixel 3 XL isn't perfect, of course: It doesn't last the longest on a charge, it has a questionable notch, the lack of a secondary camera for ultrawide shots is a bit inconvenient and the measly 4GB of RAM onboard means that this Google flagship isn't ideal for multitasking compared to, say, the Galaxy S20 or OnePlus 8

That said, if you want the best of Android and Google's clever software perks — like its innovative Recorder and Call Screen features — as well as that aforementioned marvel of a camera, the Pixel 3 XL stands a compelling value. Alternatively, you could entertain the recently-released Pixel 4a, which is priced at an equally-compelling $349, or the just-announced $499 Pixel 4a 5G which should be a bit more future proof, as it's built to connect to next-generation networks.

What you'll pay for a used Pixel 3 XL
From $159 on Amazon (Renewed)
From $130 on Swappa
From $84 on Decluttr
From $219 on Gazelle

Best used smartphones: LG G8 ThinQ

(Image credit: Future)

6. LG G8 ThinQ

A year-old flagship for an unbeatable price

Display: 6.1-inch OLED (3120x1440)
CPU: Snapdragon 855
Storage / Expandable: 128GB / Yes
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.5); 16MP ultrawide (ƒ/1.9)
Front camera: 8MP wide (ƒ/1.7); time-of-flight VGA
Weight: 5.89 ounces
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:29
Reasons to buy
+Excellent nighttime photos+Crystal Sound OLED is great for calls+Beautiful display
Reasons to avoid
-Air Motion isn't that useful-Selfie camera effects are hit-or-miss

LG's smartphones don't tend to sell. That's really a shame, because they're not half bad, and typically offer solid performance and cameras for respectable prices. If there's a silver lining to that, though, it's that those shopping for an LG handset like 2019's G8 ThinQ can get an extremely compelling deal if they opt for a secondhand or refurbished unit.

Put aside the G8's gimmicks, like its weird Hand ID authentication system and inconsistent air gesture shortcuts, and this is a pretty complete phone, with an attractive display, solid dual-camera system and strong power from a Snapdragon 855 chipset. 

You even get a headphone jack in the G8, which is a rarity these days, as well as a microSD card slot that allows you to expand available storage space for pictures, videos, games and apps by up to another 2TB. In fact, the G8 can sometimes be found so cheap new nowadays, that you may not even have to hunt down a used one in your price range. 

What you'll pay for a used LG G8 ThinQ

From $198 on Amazon (Renewed)
From $226 on Swappa

How to pick the best used smartphone for you

Deciding which used smartphone to buy is a bit harder than choosing a new phone, for obvious reasons. Aside from the fact you want to ensure the particular device you're looking at is in acceptable condition, you also have to consider whether or not the model you're interested in will be up to the task to handle what you expect to throw at it.

Flagship smartphones are more powerful than many of us realize, and so even if you buy a device that's two years old, you're still likely to get a phone that's more than powerful enough to handle everyday tasks, from browsing social media apps and the websites to GPS navigation, video and music streaming and snapping photos.

Where you might begin to see an older phone sweat pertains to those really taxing use cases, like playing the most strenuous, graphically rich mobile games and 4K video recording. Additionally, if the battery in an old phone has never been replaced with a fresh unit, it's likely deteriorated to the point where it won't last very long on a charge — another factor to consider.

You also have to be mindful of the status of software and security updates on the device. This is a particular area in which it pays to buy an older iPhone, because Apple supports its handsets for far longer than the standard 2-year policy most Android phone makers commit to. In fact, the iPhone 6S — a device that released in 2015 — can still get iOS 14, the newest version of Apple's mobile operating system. The best case scenario on Android is the three years of updates Google reserves for its own Pixel devices.

How we test smartphones

Every smartphone Tom’s Guide evaluates is tested for several days in real-world use cases and benchmarked with a gamut of performance-measuring apps. In terms of performance, we used Geekbench 5 to measure overall speed and GFXBench to measure graphics performance.

We also use our own video editing test in the Adobe Premiere Rush app to see how long it takes to transcode a clip, which we run on both Android phones and iPhone to compare performance.

We use a light meter to ascertain display quality data, like brightness and color accuracy, and our proprietary battery test determines longevity on a charge by continuously loading live webpages over a 4G or 5G network. We set each phone to 150 nits of screen brightness and try to use T-Mobile's network each time in order to achieve comparable results across phones.

Lastly, we explore the software, test gaming performance and conduct live camera comparisons with rival handsets — and each of these factors play a part in our comprehensive verdict.

Adam Ismail is a staff writer at Jalopnik and previously worked on Tom's Guide covering smartphones, car tech and gaming. His love for all things mobile began with the original Motorola Droid; since then he’s owned a variety of Android and iOS-powered handsets, refusing to stay loyal to one platform. His work has also appeared on Digital Trends and GTPlanet. When he’s not fiddling with the latest devices, he’s at an indie pop show, recording a podcast or playing Sega Dreamcast.