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What is a bad ESN cell phone and should I buy it?

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Anyone who has gone to eBay to purchase a cell phone may have seen the words "bad ESN" in a listing title or description.  You may have also noticed that these phones are usually priced significantly lower than most others of the same make and model.  So, what is a cell phone with a "bad ESN", and is it something that you should buy?

To start with, let's briefly go over what an ESN is.  An ESN is an Electronic Serial Number which is used to identify a specific CDMA cell phone.  Without going into too much detail, a CDMA cell phone generally does not use a SIM card to to identify and authenticate subscribers to the network (like a GSM carrier does).  Examples of CDMA carriers in the USA are Sprint, Verizon and U.S. Cellular.  AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers.

Q:  What does "bad ESN" mean? 
A:  A cell phone with a "bad ESN" is a phone which cannot be activated on the carrier it was manufactured for due to various reasons.  This can be due to the fact that the original owner was dissatisfied with their current carrier and switched carriers, or had a billing dispute with their carrier and canceled service without paying the early termination fee, or they got behind on their bill.  The ESN can also be bad due to the cell phone being reported lost or stolen.

Q:  If I buy a cell phone with a bad ESN, can't I just use it with another carrier?
A:  Most major CDMA carriers will not activate a cell phone from another carrier.  There are some smaller carriers that will, but the cell phone will usually need to have new software installed ("flashed"), and this is usually not done for free.

Q:  A friend of mine bought an AT&T cell phone and now they're using it with T-Mobile.  Can't I just buy a Verizon cell phone with a bad ESN and use it with Sprint?
A:  No.  AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers which use a SIM card.  Your friend's phone was "unlocked" by way of a special code to allow it to accept a SIM card from another carrier.  A "locked" vs. "unlocked" cell phone is a topic which I discuss in  this guide.

Q:  How do I know if the cell phone was just lost or if it was reported stolen?
A:  Most cell phone companies will not tell you whether the phone is reported "lost" or reported "stolen"; they will only tell you if it has been reported "lost or stolen".  Because of this, I do not intentionally sell a phone which has been reported "lost or stolen", since I can't tell which one it is.

Q:  Will I be able to use apps or browse the internet with a cell phone which has a bad ESN?
A:  Apps and internet browsing will work on most phones with a bad ESN, provided the phone has wifi capability and you have wifi access.

Q:  I dropped my phone and the screen cracked.  If I sell it, will it have a bad ESN?
A:  Hardware damage does not have anything to do with whether an ESN is clear or not.   The only thing that affects whether an ESN is clear for activation is it's status in the carrier's records.  If you received a replacement phone through insurance, you were probably requested to send the broken phone back, so in that case the ESN would be bad.

Q:  Why would I want to buy a "bad ESN" cell phone if it can't be used to make phone calls?
A:  There are several reasons why one would buy a cell phone with a bad ESN.  You may want a device that you can use to play games, music, and connect to wifi hotspots.  If you are a software developer, you may want a device to test your mobile OS apps on.  If you dropped your cell phone and damaged it without insurance, it may be cheaper to buy a cell phone with a bad ESN and use it for parts than to buy a new one. Please note that you won't be able to use the logic board from a cell phone with a bad ESN, because that is where the ESN is stored.

Q:  I want to sell my cell phone.  How do I make sure that the ESN is clear before I sell it?
A:  There are several steps that you will need to take, depending on the carrier.  First of all, if your contract is not over with the carrier, you will usually need to pay the last bill and the early termination fee before selling the phone.  If your contract is over with the carrier and you are paying month-to-month, you will need to let your carrier know that you are canceling your service and pay the final bill.  Alternatively, you may be able to put another cell phone on the line in place of the one which you are selling.  Procedures vary by carrier, so it is best to contact the carrier if in doubt.

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