Getting rid of an old phone or computer? Protect your data first.
Everything you need to do before selling or recycling your devices.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 8, 2017.
No matter how you choose to get rid of your old laptop, smartphone, tablet, or other gadget (there are great options for recycling or reusing it if you don’t want to throw it away), you need to protect your private data before parting with your unwanted device.
Are all your photos stored somewhere safe? Are you sure your laptop’s new owner can’t access your banking spreadsheets? Disposing of old hardware can be a privacy minefield, but staying safe isn’t difficult if you know what you’re doing.
Back up all your important data
Firstly and perhaps most obviously, you need to get your files off your old device and onto something else—preferably two separate places (like another computer and the web)—to make sure your data stays safe if one backup fails.
If you’re already using apps and services that are based on the web, like Gmail or Netflix, you can relax a little—all your content will be waiting for you on your new device the next time you sign in.
For those not using web-based services, there are several ways to save your data. Programs like Dropbox, Google Drive, CrashPlan, and Backblaze will all put your files in the cloud for you, but plans large enough to duplicate your entire computer will cost anywhere from $5 to $20 a month (most plans these days are billed monthly, but for budgeting purposes that’s $60 to $240 per year). Or, you can buy an external hard drive and simply copy your files over from your device—though it may be worth getting a second hard drive as a fail-safe in case one gets corrupted.
[Related: Rip out your computer’s guts and craft an external hard drive]
Windows and macOS have their own built-in solutions in the form of OneDrive and iCloud, respectively, and both of these work on mobile devices (as do Dropbox and Google Drive).
Both Android and iOS back up certain bits of information automatically, but they don’t necessarily snag everything, so verify your files are safely in place before starting your eBay auction or heading to the local recycling depot.
And while you’re transferring the contents of your smartphone, Google Photos is an excellent cross-platform service that’s free to use, and you can choose from several storage and upload options to conserve storage space or eliminate photo or video compression. However, there are plans you can pay for to keep your memories in full resolution. While we like this option for backing up photos to the cloud, there are others you may prefer.
Unregister all apps and software
A lot of applications—like Microsoft Office, Apple Music, Photoshop, and Spotify—keep a record of how many devices you’re logged onto at the same time. If you try to register a brand new computer without unregistering the old one first, you might get a nasty surprise.
To be fair to the likes of Microsoft and Adobe, these companies make it fairly easy to manage your active devices, but the best approach is to make sure you completely sign out of old phones, tablets, and computers.
In the case of Apple Music, for example, you need to open the Account menu, select Authorizations, and then Deauthorize This Computer. You should also sign out of your Apple ID as well from the same menu. What’s more, Apple suggests signing out of your Apple ID account and disconnecting iCloud if you’re getting rid of an iPhone or iPad—there are detailed instructions for how to do this on Apple’s support site.
Over on Android, you don’t have to sign out of your Google accounts before wiping your phone (we’ll get to that below), but you should make sure all your stuff is backed up and you might need to deauthorize certain apps. As a general rule of thumb, the services you’re paying for are the ones you need to look out for.
If rely on your phone for getting past two-step authorization protection on sites like Facebook and Twitter, you might need to temporarily disable this feature and set up on a new device before you get rid of your old one. Check the small print for the services you’re using (here’s how to move Google Authenticator to a new device, for example).
On mobile devices, you can simply download your apps again on your new device (Apple and Google will remember which ones you’ve paid for). However, it’s not quite as straightforward on both Windows and macOS desktop computers. Always double-check you can get your software back, which usually means re-downloading it from the web. Games are another set of programs you should check—here’s the process for moving a Steam library from one computer to another.
Securely wipe your old devices
With all your data safely stored elsewhere, and all your apps and services safely deauthorized where necessary, the last step is to completely wipe your devices and remove all trace of your activities so your files can’t be recovered. On phones and tablets, this is pretty straightforward. On iOS for example, open up the Settings app, then head to General, Transfer or Reset iPhone, and choose Erase All Content and Settings. This will wipe your phone and return it to the state it was in when you first got it (the opening setup screen for iOS, in other words).
On stock Android, the option you want is in the Settings app: choose System, Advanced, Reset options, and Delete all data (factory reset) to start the process. If you’re not using the pure version of Android straight from Google, the menu labels might not be exactly the same, but there should be a similar option somewhere in the settings.
On laptop and desktop computers, the reset process is a bit more involved.
In Windows 10, open the Settings panel from the Start menu, choose Update & Security, then Recovery, find the Reset this PC heading, and click Get started.
For the latest version of macOS on the newest Macs, click the Apple menu, select System Preferences, open the System Preferences menu in the menu bar, and choose Erase All Content and Settings. If you don’t see this, option, reboot your machine, hold down Cmd+R, and choose Disk Utility from the menu that appears. Select the main disk drive, click Erase, and pick Mac OS Extended from the Format menu. Click Erase again. Then quit Disk Utility, choose to Reinstall mcOS, and you should be back with a clean version of your operating system.
You can also just delete files and apps without reinstalling the Windows or macOS operating system, but this makes it easier for the computer’s next owner to get them back, especially if you’re using an older mechanical hard drive rather than a modern SSD. For the last few years, Macs have been moving towards SSDs, so you should be safe, but Windows users should enlist the help of a free tool like Eraser or Blank and Secure to make sure your data really is gone forever.