Three places to buy a cell phone, other than from your carrier

Wireless carriers may seem to have cornered the market on cell phone sales, but shoppers actually have several alternatives. Big box stores, manufacturers and online marketplaces like eBay and Gazelle are all in the business of selling phones.

Orlin Wagner/AP/File
Holiday shoppers wait in the rain outside a Best Buy in Lawrence, Kan.

Wireless carriers may seem to have cornered the market on cell phone sales, but shoppers actually have several alternatives.

Big box stores, manufacturers and online marketplaces like eBay and Gazelle are all in the business of selling phones. Most carry cell phones calibrated for specific carriers, such as Sprint or Verizon, as well as unlocked phones, which can be activated on any compatible network.

Some retailers offer exclusive promotions but don’t offer trade-in credits available through most carriers. Others offer protection plans but no added promos. We run down the pros and cons of each option below.

1. A big box store

TargetWal-Mart and Best Buy all carry cell phones. In many cases, you can sign up or upgrade with your favorite carrier and enjoy many of the same perks you’d get at an AT&T, Verizon or Sprint store. There are a few notable exceptions, though.

At Best Buy, for example, you often can’t complete your purchase online. But you can get a sweet deal if you buy your phone at a store. As of this writing, you can get a $200 Best Buy e-gift card with a new Samsung Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge if you trade in your old phone and activate the new one on Sprint’s or Verizon’s network and agree to a lease or monthly installment plan.

Pros: Promotions you won’t find with your carrier.

Cons: Often you can’t complete your purchase online.

2. The manufacturer

You can buy new and certified pre-owned phones directly from companies like Apple, Motorola and Samsung. In most cases, you can order your phone online and have it shipped to your door.

Buying directly from the manufacturer can save you money, especially if you plan to purchase your phone at full retail price. One example: A Samsung Galaxy S7 is $694.99 on Sprint’s website. The same phone, for Sprint, is $649.99 on Samsung’s website.

The downside? You typically need to shell out the full price. Apple is one of the few manufacturers that offers installment payments.

Pros: You can save money on the retail cost of some phones.

Cons: Installment payments aren’t always available.

3. An online marketplace

Amazon and eBay are great places to shop for cell phones, as are lesser-known electronics sites such as Gazelle and Swappa.

These sites are best if you’re looking for a used phone, which can save you hundreds of dollars. But you can also find new devices, either unlocked or programmed for a carrier, on Amazon and eBay. Amazon even offers trade-in credits for old devices.

Buying through an online marketplace carries some risk, so only look to those that offer buyer protections. Gazelle, for example, has a 30-day return window that beats most carriers’ 14 days. Amazon includes a 90-day warranty for pre-owned devices. And eBay will issue a full refund if your phone isn’t exactly as the seller described.

Pros: Affordable pre-owned devices and generous return policies.

Cons: Risks of dealing with an unknown seller.

Kelsey Sheehy is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ksheehy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @KelseyLSheehy.

This story originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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