The best camera phones are far from cheap any more, even if you pay via a monthly contract. The latest and greatest technology demands over a grand for the flagship models. Smartphones generally also have a much swifter release cycle than cameras, meaning that top-line models usually only stay current for around 12 months.

The good news is that if you’re prepared to wait and pick up last year’s phone (or even the year before that), then you’ll often get a much better deal, without too much of a compromise on hardware specifications and features.

The refurbished or second-hand route can save you even more money. On occasion, you’ll even find this year’s top-line options already available like this, saving a tidy sum for those prepared to shop around.

Buying second-hand  keeps tech in use, too, rather than lingering in a drawer, or worse, ending up in landfill. Statistics show that 1.43 billion smartphones were sold worldwide in 2021. Food for thought. Keeping older models in circulation can only be a good thing. And you won’t be alone – the UK re-commerce market (buying and selling used gear) is now worth £5.5 billion, with phones and other consumer electronics making up a big chunk of this.

To this end, you might have some old models at home that you can trade in for cash to put towards another model, or whatever else. Private sellers on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree etc. deal in used smartphones, as do manufacturers such as Samsung and Apple, directly. Then there are second-hand specialists like Mazuma or Envirofone, and the usual Amazon and other retailers that platform the lot.

Second-hand or refurbished: what’s the difference?

It’s important to note that second-hand and refurbished aren’t interchangeable terms. Second-hand generally means buying directly from the previous owner, via online auction websites like eBay. While you can sometimes find great deals doing this, the risk is greater as you won’t be covered by additional warranties, nor the same legal guarantees as when buying from a reputable firm.

Refurbished phones are still second-hand, but are bought from a manufacturer, retailer or official reseller. These phones will usually have been assessed by an expert before sale, given a condition rating (for example ‘like new’) and often come with an extended warranty. Some refurbished models are restored to the point that you’d never know it had a previous owner. You should also expect to have all the correct accessories supplied with a refurbished phone.

The trade-off for this is – usually – a higher price. But, as a rule, we’d suggest spending a little more for a high-quality product. Refurbished phones purchased from a retailer are covered (in the UK) by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. This allows 30 days to return the phone if it turns out to be of unsatisfactory quality. On top of that, if the phone develops a fault within six months, the retailer must prove it wasn’t there when it was bought. In the USA a range of federal and state law offer consumer protection.

Buying second-hand from private sellers (i.e. individuals on eBay) doesn’t carry the same protection. A listing can’t be misleading (for example claiming the phone will switch on when it doesn’t) – but you don’t have the six-month ‘fault’ window. In either case, the manufacturer warranty (usually 12-24 months) may still apply if the device you have bought is younger than that.

iPhone 12 Pro Max

Price at launch: $1,099 / £1,099
Typical used prices: $445

– $800 / £470-779

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, best used smartphones

Some hefty savings can be made on a refurbished iPhone. They tend to hold their value much better than Android equivalents, so going back two or more generations is where you’ll find the best savings.

The last model now selling like this is the iPhone 14 Pro Max, and while the previous model, the iPhone 13 Pro Max, is also a good option – it’s the iPhone 12 Pro we’d recommend for those on a strict budget.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a triple-lens set-up: an ultra-wide lens, a standard lens and a short telephoto. The smaller iPhone 12 Pro also has a triple-lens array, but the telephoto lens is slightly shorter, and the sensor behind the main lens a little smaller. It’s still a good option as a phone of more manageable size.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max sample image

The iPhone 12 Pro Max produces good results in a variety of conditions

The native camera app includes features such as Night mode and Portrait mode, but there’s not much in the way of manual control. Luckily there are dozens of apps you can download if that’s something you really want. The cheapest prices for the iPhone 12 Pro Max come from devices found in ‘fair’ condition, rising up to around $859 / £780 if you pick one up directly from Apple and get a full 12-month refurbished warranty. That’s still a whopper of a saving compared to the latest model, which will set you back $ 999 / £1,199.

Also consider

  • iPhone 13 Pro Max
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 12

Samsung S22 Ultra

  • Price at launch: $1,199 / £1,149
  • Typical used prices: $600-$900 / £500-800
Samsung S22 Ultra rear, best used smartphones

Samsung S22 Ultra rear.

The Samsung S22 Ultra was among the best smartphones released in 2022, if not the best. However, with prices starting at $1,199 / £1149, it was an expensive buy. But it has recently seen a price drop following the Samsung S23 Ultra and can be bought for prices starting at half its original price.

In our Samsung S23 Ultra vs Samsung S22 Ultra comparison article found that the S22 Ultra still holds its ground against the larger, newer phone, despite the S23 Ultra’s 200MP main sensor and 10x zoom. The S22 Ultra has an excellent quad camera setup that includes a 108MP main camera, an ultra wide camera and telephoto camera but despite a well-featured native camera app, doesn’t have a macro mode. Video-wise, this smartphone can shoot up to 8K video.

S22 Ultra night mode, 1/10s, f/1.8, ISO2500, 6mm/23mm equivalent

S22 Ultra night mode, 1/10s, f/1.8, ISO2500, 6mm/23mm equivalent

Also consider

  • Samsung S22

Read our Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review.

Samsung S21 Ultra

  • Price at launch: $1,199 / £1,149
  • Typical used prices: $400 – $600 / £390-490

Samsung 21 Ultra, best used smartphonesThe S21 Ultra is now two generations old. The S23 Ultra is now available, which goes some way to explaining the bargain prices you can find this one-time flagship model for.

We are big fans of the Samsung S series range, and the S21 Ultra impressed us hugely when it first appeared on the market. It features a four-camera set-up, giving you a range of lenses from 13mm up to 240mm in equivalent focal length. It also boasts a 108-megapixel main sensor, and has a well-featured native camera app.

Samsung S21 Ultra sample image

The Samsung S21 Ultra was the smartphone to beat not so long ago

Being able to pick up a once class-leading smartphone such as this for under $600 / £500 is a fantastic deal, especially if you can find one which comes with a retailer warranty.

Also consider 

  • Samsung Note 20 Ultra

Read our original review of the Samsung S21 Ultra

Google Pixel 6 Pro

  • Price at launch: $899 / £849
  • Typical used prices: $300-400 / £350-500
Google Pixel 6 Pro, best used smartphones

Google’s Pixel phones always impress with high-quality imagery and a straightforward and easy-to-use app (although we’d like to see some kind of manual mode, please). You only have to go back one generation with the Pixel range to pick up something at an excellent price, with 2021’s Pixel 6 Pro available for as little as $300 / £350.

Google Pixel 6 Pro sample image

The low-light performance of the Pixel 6 Pro is impressive

For your money, you get a triple-lens set-up, which includes a 50-megapixel main camera, as well as super-wide and telephoto (4x zoom) options. The 6 Pro delivers excellent pictures in a range of situations, particularly excelling in low light. Although it’s now been surpassed by the Pixel 7 Pro, most average users are unlikely to be able to spot too much of a difference between the two, making the saving even more tempting. Look for the standard Pixel 6 if your budget is even tighter.

Also consider

  • Google Pixel 6
  • Google Pixel 5

Read our original review of the Google Pixel 6 Pro

Google Pixel 6a

  • Price at launch: $314/£299
  • Typical used prices: $250-300/£200-250
Google Pixel 6a, Grey, Photo: Joshua Waller

Google Pixel 6a, Grey, Photo: Joshua Waller

If you don’t need all the power of the Google Pro range, this is an excellent used budget choice – we named it one of our best budget smartphones after all.

Shop around and you can find it for around $250/$200 which makes the Pixel 6a something of a bargain. The phone has been superseded by the Google Pixel 7a, but Google is keeping it onsale (in which case you might just decide to pay the extra for the peace of mind of buying new).

Key specifications include a 12MP ultra-wide camera, f/2.2, 17mm equivalent, a 12MP wide camera, f/1.7, with optical image stabilisation, 27mm equivalent, and a 6.1inch OLED screen (2400×1080 pixels). So if you can live without the Pixel 6’s 48MP camera with larger sensor, and additional AI “motion” mode, the Pixel 6a is a very sound choice.

After all, most of the key photography features and image-processing algorithms remain the same for both models, with the Pixel 6a also coming with intelligent AI features including a ‘magic eraser’. This makes it a lot easier to remove unwanted objects from images, without having to faff about in Photoshop or a similar image-editing package.

Google Pixel 6a sample photo by JOshua Waller

A sample taken using the Google Pixel 6a’s ultra-wide lens. Photo credit: Joshua Waller

Picture quality is very good considering the price, and although low-light performance isn’t as good as the Pixel 6 owing to the smaller sensor, it should be perfectly acceptable for many situations unless you are a compulsive pixel peeper.

You can also record video up to 4K resolution, and up to 60fps, with effective image stabilisation and decent low-light performance. There are also time-lapse, and slow-motion video options, with up to 4x and 8x slow-motion available, albeit at a reduced resolution. All in all, a powerful package considering the price and ‘budget’ classification.

  • Google Pixel 5
  • Oppo Find X3 Pro

Read our original review of the Google Pixel 6a

OnePlus 9 Pro

  • Price at launch: $829 / £829
  • Typical used prices: $300 – $800 / £350-700
OnePlus 9 Pro, best used smartphones

OnePlus has been creating impressive, (relatively) affordable flagship models for a number of years now. The OnePlus 11 has recently been announced, but if you skip back a couple of generations you can get a great deal while still enjoying some great features.

With the 9 Pro you get a triple-lens set-up, with an additional sensor/camera for capturing monochrome images. Interestingly, the cameras have been developed in collaboration with Hasselblad. The phone is capable of producing excellent results in a variety of situations, and although it doesn’t quite match up to the even better standard of more recent models, the price saving more than makes up for that. It also has a comprehensive native camera app that is intuitive to use and includes a Pro mode for settings control and raw shooting.

OnePlus 9 Pro sample image

The OnePlus 9 Pro’s cameras are made in collaboration with Hasselblad

While the OnePlus 9 Pro is not quite as good as the iPhone or Samsung listed here, it’s also available at a better price, making it well suited to those on a stricter budget. Look for the 10 Pro if you want something newer.

Also consider

Oppo Find X3 Pro

  • Price at launch: $1,374 / £1,099
  • Typical used prices: $400-700 / £360 -500

Oppo Find X3 Pro, best used smartphonesAnother manufacturer that has been making waves lately is Oppo. The Find X3 Pro had a very high price-tag at launch, but it can now be picked up a couple of years later for as little as a third of the price, making it a bit of a bargain for the quality it provides.

The rear of the camera sees a triple-lens set-up, with one being a ‘standard’ lens, another being ultra-wide and finally a telephoto option. There’s a macro/close-up lens for picking out details in the admittedly slightly strange ‘microscope’ mode – you can place the phone on top of your subject to record it.

Oppo Find X3 Pro sample image

The Find X3 Pro offers a good variety of shooting options

Overall, image quality is very good, with Night mode putting in a great performance. The native app has a range of functions, including an ‘Expert’ mode, which allows you to record in raw format and alter settings.

Also consider

  • Oppo Reno 7 Pro
  • Oppo Find X2 Pro

Huawei P30 Pro

  • Price at launch: $899 / £899
  • Typical used prices: $200-500 / £185-450
Huawei P30 Pro, best used smartphones

At one time, Huawei was the manufacturer to beat when it came to excellent cameras on smartphones. Its demise at the hands of a ban on newer devices accessing the Google Play store means that you’ll need to go older if you want to pick up something that’ll work in the way you expect it to.

The P30 Pro was the last of Huawei’s models to be able to access the Play store, and equally as importantly, it was capable of producing excellent photos and videos, meaning it still stands up very well today. It has a triple-lens array on the back, including a standard, ultrawide and a telephoto lens.

Huawei P30 Pro sample image

The Huawei P30 Pro is an absolute bargain second-hand

Night mode is excellent, while the native camera app is very well-featured. Considering you can pick one up for around $200 / £200 if you shop around, it’s an absolute bargain and it still gives the latest models a run for their money.

Also consider

Tips for buying used smartphones

  • Supported: make sure the model you’re buying is still supported by the manufacturer. Older smartphones stop being supported eventually, which can leave you prone to security problems – an issue if you want to use your phone as, well, a phone, and not just a camera. The manufacturer’s website should give a list of all currently supported models.
  • Unlocked: look for ‘unlocked’ models that aren’t tied to a particular network provider. This will mean you can use it with your existing phone contract/SIM. You can sometimes find cheaper options which are locked to a particular network – fine if it’s the same one you’re on (or you’re prepared to switch).
  • Battery: older models which have been heavily used are likely to have batteries which don’t last well. Try to find out if the battery has been replaced, or if it’s possible to replace it yourself should you find that it doesn’t hold charge well. From online marketplaces:
  • Payment method: avoid handing over large sums of cash for a second-hand device, especially to strangers. Use PayPal or your credit card for added protection from potentially dubious sellers online.
  • Private seller: if buying from a private seller – be vigilant. Check the seller rating, examine the listing thoroughly for details about condition, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re not sure about something.
  • Images: sheck a listing’s pictures. If the seller is using ‘generic’ press shots of a device, then this is something to be wary of, as it could indicate a problem with the device on sale (if it exists at all). Look for listings which seem to use genuine pictures of a used product, and which show it working (the screen switched on).
  • Information: Ask the seller for clear information about cosmetic damage, particularly if it’s something that could be detrimental to usage, such as a scratch on a camera lens.
  • Compare the price with other similar-condition smartphones. If a listing is significantly cheaper than other listings, but it’s not obvious why (such as damage of some kind), then be cautious.
  • Check to see if the original warranty is still in date. Ask the seller if any repairs or replacements have been carried out to the device while in their possession.Best used smartphones

Buying from retailers

Pay attention to the condition rating of a device – go for the best you can afford, but consider something with cosmetic damage if it has no impact on camera quality. Consider those with defective batteries if they can be easily/cheaply replaced. Also, check to see if the retailer offers an additional guarantee or warranty. Check to see if the original manufacturer’s warranty is still in date.

More reading:

The best smartphone apps for photography

iPhone vs Android: Which is better for photography?

How to take amazing portraits on a smartphone

Using smartphones for street photography

Opinion: Cameras will always be better than smartphones

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