What To Do When You Can't Activate a Used iPhone

used iphone asks for Apple ID
image copyright Apple Inc.

Getting a used iPhone is exciting—after all, you've got an iPhone and saved a bunch of money—but some people encounter a problem as soon as they try to activate their new device: The iPhone asks them for someone else's Apple ID and won't work without it. 

If you're seeing this problem, it can be frustrating and you may be worried that you got ripped off, but it's possible to fix the problem by following these steps.

Related: What To Do Before Selling Your iPhone

What's Happening: Activation Lock

If you're in this situation, you're encountering a relatively new feature of Apple's Find My iPhone service called Activation Lock. Activation Lock is a security measure that Apple added to Find My iPhone to deal with the rash of iPhone thefts. Previously, if someone managed to steal an iPhone and not get caught, they could simply erase it, resell it, and get away with the crime. Activation Lock changed that.

Assuming that the phone's user has set up Find My iPhone on their device, the Apple ID they used to set up the phone is now required to erase the phone or turn off Find My iPhone. If you don't have that username and password, you won't be able to use the iPhone at all—making it not very valuable to steal.

So, when the used iPhone you bought asks for an Apple ID, it's frustrating, but it's also a sign that Apple's security is working (and it's not necessarily a sign that the phone you bought is stolen; it may just be that the previous owner forget to turn off Find My iPhone or erase their device properly.

That said, it could be a sign that you've got a stolen device, so be cautious).

Removing Activation Lock/the Previous Owner's Apple ID  

In order to use your new iPhone, you'll need to remove Activation Lock by entering the previous owner's Apple ID. This is actually the most complicated step, especially since many people who buy used iPhones do so from people they don't necessarily know.

Begin the process by contacting the previous owner and explaining the situation and then follow these steps:

  1. If the owner lives or works near enough to you that you can bring the phone back to them, do so. That way, they can enter their Apple ID to unlock the phone. Once they've done that, you can continue with the standard activation process, or:
  2. If you're not close enough to the previous owner to hand them the device, they can remove the device from their account over the web by going to Find My iPhone and logging into their account.
  3. In their Find My iPhone account, they should find and click on this device (it should show up as Offline).
  4. Once they've done that, they should click ​Remove from Account. This will remove Activation Lock and let you proceed with activating your phone.

If Home screen or Passcode Screen Are Present

There's another scenario you may encounter in which your phone is still locked to the previous owner's account. If you turn on your new phone and see either the iPhone's home screen or the passcode lock screen, this means the phone wasn't properly erased before it was sold to you and may still be locked to the seller's Apple ID.

Solving this problem is again easiest if the seller is with you.

In that case, ask them to do the following:

  1. Erase all settings and content from the phone by going to Settings -> General -> Reset -> Erase All Content and Settings.
  2. Entering their Apple ID when prompted. 

When the erase process is complete, the phone will be ready for you to activate.

If they're not physically present, they can achieve the same thing over the Internet by:

  1. Logging into their Find My iPhone account.
  2. Selecting this device.
  3. Clicking Erase and continue to click Next until the phone is erased
  4. Clicking Remove from Account after the erasing process is complete.