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How to safely get rid of your old smartphone

How to safely get rid of your old smartphone
© Oleksandr Tkachenko | Dreamstime.com

Nothing today is built to last forever. This is especially so with smartphones. And even though people are holding onto their smartphones longer, they're upgraded so rapidly by their manufacturers that today's new model is obsolete after a few short years. When the time eventually comes to upgrade, most people approach the issue the way they would with anything outdated: out with the old and in with the new.

But smartphones aren't so simple. Unlike an old refrigerator or microwave, a discarded smartphone contains troves of valuable personal data like names, phone numbers, addresses and social media accounts. With enough know-how, an ambitious garbage-picker could easily crack open the device and with readily available software, gain access to the contents of your life.

When it's time to get rid of your smartphone, whether that means disposing of it, trading it in or selling it, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your personal data is as secure as possible. Here's our guide on how to lock down your phone before ditching it — so it doesn't come back to haunt you later down the line.

Make sure to wipe your data from your old phone

It bears repeating because of how critical this issue is, but you should never, under any circumstances, throw away or trade-in an un-wiped phone. Doing so is tantamount to handing someone the keys to your house (or throwing the keys to your house in the garbage, at least).

Erasing your phone is, thankfully, a mainstream option for trade-ins and recycling at this point in time. Many stores like the Apple Retail Store will only accept a used device if it's been completely erased, and will walk you through the process in order to help you. You will, however, want to make sure your device is completely backed up to either your computer or the cloud before proceeding.

But it's easy to do on your own, regardless of whether you're using iOS or Android. On iOS, simply open the Settings app, navigate to General, and scroll all the way down to the bottom until you see Reset. Tap this, and on the next screen, you'll see several options to erase or reset your phone. Since you're getting rid of your current device, you'll want to select Erase All Content and Settings. You may be asked to enter your Apple ID and password at this point if you have an activation lock enabled. This option totally reformats your device, and gets rid of all data on it.

Since Android devices vary by manufacturer, the steps are a little different for each. Here's our summary of the most popular models:

On a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, go to Settings and then General Management. Then, select Reset. Select Factory data reset and then tap Reset device.

On a Google Pixel, open Settings followed by System. Then, select Advanced, then Reset options followed by Erase all data (factory reset). Then tap Reset phone.

On a Huawei phone, go to Settings followed by System and tap Reset. Then, select Factory data reset and tap Reset Phone.

Just as with iOS, if you have an activation lock enabled (called Factory Reset Protection on Android), you'll need to remove this before you can fully erase the phone. We'll be going over this process in the next section.

Disable iCloud, activation lock, and any device trackers you may be signed into

Activation locks are designed to attach a specific account profile with a device. This prevents a thief from simply erasing a phone and loading it up with new software so it's untraceable. With an activation lock, only your username and password can get the phone in working order — making it totally useless to thieves. Of course, if you're selling or disposing of your phone, you'll need to disable this so you can truly erase all the data. Here's how:

On iOS, you'll automatically be prompted to enter your Apple ID and password if you try to erase the phone. However, you can also remove "Find my iPhone," as it's called, by visiting the Account area (where your profile image is) and tapping iCloud, and then turning Find My iPhone option to off.

On Android, as with above, the process differs between different makes and models. For each one though, you'll be asked for your Google Account and password, so make sure you have that information handy. Here's the process for the manufacturer examples we used above:

On a Samsung Galaxy phone, go to Settings and then Lock screen. Then, select Screen lock type. Then tap None. Next, go to Settings, then Accounts and backup followed by Accounts and tap on Google. Then, tap Remove account. You should also remove your Samsung Account as well, which can be accessed in Settings, then Biometrics and security followed by Find my mobile. Enter your password, then tap on your account at the top and select More, followed by Remove account.

On a Google Pixel, phone, go to Settings and then Security. Then, select Screen lock and tap None. Next, go to Settings, then Accounts followed by Google. Then, tap Remove account.

On a Huawei phone, go to Settings and then Security and privacy. Then, select Screen lock and passwords. Then tap Disable screen lock password. Next, go to Settings, then Users & accounts  followed by Google and tap on Remove.

Remove your SD cards and SIM cards for privacy

This is an oft forgotten but equally important part of disposing any smartphone. Many people aren't aware that your phone's SIM card, which allows the phone to connect to your carrier, contains some personal data that would be better off in your hands. In fact, some phones even save contacts to your SIM card by default, and we don't want anybody else's private phone numbers falling into the wrong hands either.

As for SD cards, these devices are used to expand a phone's memory. Most frequently, they're the place where your photos are saved by default, although not every device comes with a MicroSD card reader these days.

Depending on the device you have, the methods to remove the SIM and SD will vary. Usually, you'll need to remove any case that's on your phone and inspect the frame for any ports or small holes. Sometimes, SD and SIM card ports are labeled. Other times, like on iPhones, they're hidden behind a small panel that's flush with the enclosure — requiring a small peg like a paperclip to open.

So you don't ruin any potential resale value of your device, we highly recommend visiting your carrier and asking them with assistance on removing your SIM and SD cards. They take in used phones frequently, and will likely have the proper tools to open any and all ports on your device. They may even be able to help you upgrade to a new phone, if that's the reason you're getting rid of your current device.

Bonus: Don't forget to sign out and unlink from all of your accounts

This should go without saying, but as we've covered previously, just deleting data isn't enough these days. In many cases, you may need to delete your accounts in order to truly remove your information from a device. Click or tap here for our guide on removing your accounts from applications.

Biggest mistake people make when getting rid of old computers, gear and printers

If you have ever given away an old device to a friend, donated one to charity, or sold one to someone else, you might have put your personal information in jeopardy. If you don't 100% wipe that device, no matter how sure you are or safe you feel, there may still be recoverable data on there. Here are the best ways to make sure you don't give out the information on your device.

Click or tap to make sure your device is fully wiped.

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