A guide to buying a phone during a pandemic

5G may be on the box, but you won't use it for a while
5G may be on the box, but you won't use it for a while (Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

When there are massive global events impacting all aspects of daily life, you would be forgiven for thinking buying a new phone won't be top-of-mind for most of us. But technology like smartphones is incredibly important for staying connected and informed, especially in times when human-to-human contact is dramatically minimized and so many of us are working from home.

Here are some things you should keep in mind when looking to buy a smartphone during troubling times, such as what we're experiencing right now.

Look for deals and discounts

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

In a pandemic or health crisis situation, money can get tight — and even if it isn't right now, the uncertainty of the times is probably making you consider your budget a bit more than usual. That means when you're looking for a smartphone, you should start by looking for deals and discounts on leading devices.

Deal spotters like Thrifter are incredibly helpful to finding the biggest discounts, typically tied to short-run coupons. You can also follow sites like Woot that run quick sales of limited-stock older phones. If you can spare the time to research and watch for limited-time deals (Thrifter's newsletter is great for this), you'll be rewarded.

Elsewhere, there are great places to get discounts and deals all the time:

  • Amazon Warehouse sells open-box products, most of which have never even been touched. Most Warehouse devices are there because they were purchased as gifts, or purchased and returned for a reason unrelated to the products. So you can get brand-new phones for a discount.
  • Best Buy open box deals are much the same. Best Buy gets a lot of device returns, and they can't sell them as new again — and they pass the savings on to you. Stock of a specific model or variant may be minimal, though, so you have to be flexible.

If the latest discounts and sales don't get prices low enough for you, you can of course just move your search to phones that start at a lower price. We maintain a list of the best inexpensive Android phones, with picks starting around $400 but dipping all the way under $100 as well.

Consider older phones

Samsung Galaxy S10, S10+, and S10e

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

One of the best ways to get a deal on a smartphone is to look back to the previous-generation models from last year. In many cases, the phones will perform nearly identically to the current models, and have been updated to the latest software with all of the same features as their predecessors. And if you find the sweet spot on age, you can get a really good price on phones without dipping too deep into the history books.

You can save a lot of money and still get a modern phone by going last-gen.

If you're already okay picking up an older phone for a discount, you can also look at refurbished phones as well. These are older devices that have been used and then sold — or in most cases, traded in for a new phone. They still have lot of life left, and unlike open-market used phones, refurbishes phones typically go through a certification and testing process to make sure they're fully operational. Usually, refurbished phones will just have some cosmetic damage.

We recommend looking for the one-generation old phones only (i.e. buy the Galaxy S10 when the S20 is new), and not dipping much further than that. While they may seem enticing considering you could buy a $1000 phone for something like $300, there's definitely a point in the curve where old phones are no longer worth it. Once a phone is a few years old, there are likely new mid-range phones that have the same or better capabilities. And those old phones are unlikely to be supported with any software updates going forward.

Look for no-interest financing

Source: Amazon (Image credit: Source: Amazon)

Just about every major retailer and phone manufacturer offers a financing plan for new phones, which may make the most sense for you when cash is tight. Depending on the cost of the phone, you may qualify for 6, 12, 18 or even 24-month no-interest financing. There's usually a minimum purchase amount required to qualify, as well as a credit check, but the requirements vary by site.

The carriers led this charge with phones purchased directly through them, but you can now get financing through Amazon, Best Buy, Samsung, OnePlus and many others. In some cases it's as simple as signing up for an installment plan through the retailer, but in other cases you may have to sign up for a store-branded credit card or open an account with a specific financing company. Just be sure to read the fine print before you sign up, and realize that in every case the "no interest" financing will charge you interest if you miss a payment.

Double check stock and shipping times

Amazon Prime box

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Some online retailers are prioritizing inventory and shipping for essential products, and every store is experiencing an inventory crunch that's sometimes delaying shipments of all goods. That makes it more important than usual to make sure you check the stock and shipping times before committing to buy a phone online.

Most retailers will give you an estimated ship time, and will be upfront with you about something being explicitly backordered or delayed in shipping. But even when you get a shipping estimate, understand that it's still an estimate and in uncertain times delays can still happen. Amazon's Prime shipping often comes with a guaranteed delivery date for items it knows it has right on-hand to ship out immediately, and that can be your best shot at getting a phone right away.

Turn to the dedicated electronics stores

When a store is only selling electronics, it is less likely to get bogged down shipping.

Because of those shipping restrictions, it may be best to turn to stores that only sell electronics or smartphones. Buying a phone from Amazon or Walmart may be tough when the store is swamped with orders of other non-electronics products, but buying from Best Buy or B&H may be a breeze as they're only selling electronics.

This isn't necessarily a guarantee, but if you go to your preferred general retailer first and see issues with stock or shipping, give a dedicated retailer a try. When in doubt, you can always go to the carriers as well. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile sometimes have specific models tied to their network that are different from the open-market unlocked models you can get elsewhere, so we recommend this as a last hope, but sometimes there are enticing deals that can really make it worth it. Carriers often offer buy-one-get-one or deep discounts when financing a phone.

Look at store pickup

Best Buy Curbside

Source: Best Buy (Image credit: Source: Best Buy)

When shipping becomes an issue, you can fall back to in-store pickup options. This is obviously highly localized, but there may be a chance that the phone you're looking for is available at a local store (if not the closest one, then another relatively close one) even when it's not available at a central shipping area for direct shipment to customers.

When there's a health scare ongoing it isn't ideal to have to go to a store for pickup, but most retailers that offer in-store pickup have some sort of curbside or touchless hand-off pickup option. And even if you have to go into a store, buying online and knowing you only have to go into the store momentarily for pickup, rather than browsing and buying normally, is much better.

Best Buy, Walmart, Target and others let you order online and pick up in a store — or in some cases, just drive up to a parking lot outside and have the item brought out to you. Anytime you can do online ordering for pickup, you should.

Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.