How to Buy a Chinese Smartphone

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There are excellent smartphones coming out of China. And they’re cheap! While some, like Huawei handsets, have a small foothold in the US, most only ship to other overseas markets. So how do you get one Stateside? Read on to find out.

Why Buy Chinese?

The Honor 5X has an all-metal back panel.

Honor 5X

Low cost is the most compelling argument for anyone considering buying a Chinese-manufactured smartphone. Xiaomi is widely considered the best price to performance. Its designs brazenly rip off Apple and Samsung (which might explain why they’ve avoided the US market), but the company offers its wares at a fraction of the cost of US flagships. In addition, the Xiaomi smartphone specs are top-notch and compete well in a “Pepsi Challenge” test among casual users seeking functionality over brand recognition. For example, the Xiaomi Mi5 launched in March has a 1080p display and comes equipped with a Snapdragon 820 processor, up to 4GB of RAM, and internal storage options ranging from 32 to 128GB. The fully tricked-out version goes for less than $400. The Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge have higher-resolution displays, but the same internals. And those can cost up to and above $700.

But it’s not just about cosmetic ripoffs. Some, like Huawei’s Honor 5X, are uniquely inspired devices that rank high in performance and can be had for about $200.

Extended delivery wait times can be an issue if you need your phone yesterday, but if you’re shopping in advance that isn’t much of an issue. Pricey costs for overseas delivery is a potential issue with some retailers, but considering the amount of money you may save by buying Chinese, you’ll still end up significantly well ahead.

Where Can You Buy a Chinese Smartphone?

ZTE Grand X3

ZTE Grand X3

The availability of Chinese smartphones through traditional channels is one of the greatest barriers to ownership. Don’t expect to be able to pick one up from any of the big four carriers – and before you buy one from a third party, make sure the smartphone you’ve got your eyes on will work with your existing plan. This goes for smartphones manufactured by Huawei and Xiaomi, but also includes Meizu, Lenovo, Oppo, Vivo, and ZTE.

NewEgg, GearBest, Chinavasion, and GeekBuying are your best bets for getting your hands on a Chinese smartphone in the U.S., as are Amazon and eBay. Some of these sites offer free shipping, but they aren’t the only sources out there. Many manufacturers make their mobile devices available to U.S. buyers directly from their websites. This may provide a little more peace of mind than going third-party, but you may have to pay heavy shipping.

Stuff to Consider

Issues of network compatibility with stateside carriers are your chief concern when buying a Chinese smartphone. For example, the aforementioned Mi5 from Xiaomi was originally advertised to support US LTE bands, but that has since been proven not to be the case. Hence, the serious need to do your homework before you spend money on a Chinese-made smartphone.

One excellent resource that you can leverage to perform this pre-purchase resource can be found at Will My Phone Work. A quick look here reveals that the previously mentioned Honor 5X – although a good, cheap smartphone – has only a handful of sub-models that are compatible in the States for 3G and 4G connectivity. The vast majority can only be used running 2G, which will likely be a deal-killer for most tech-conscious users.

Taxes and customs can also add to your overall cost. You may be charged a duty fee on top of the device and shipping.

Finally, CYA when it comes to payment, and avoid paying direct with a credit card, debit card, or bank transfer. A PayPal account is likely your best bet. You can always channel any disputes through PayPal should things not work out.

Words of Warning

Huawei Mate 8

Huawei Mate 8

Without doubt, one of the most compelling reasons to stick with an American-made or U.S. carrier-warrantied smartphone is your easy access to service. If something goes wrong with your iPhone, getting someone to look at it is as easy as walking into the nearest Apple store. And if your Samsung takes the plunge, there are plenty of places where you can bring or send your smartphone in for repairs or—if it’s covered—replacement.

Getting quick customer service on a Chinese smartphone, on the other hand, can be a lot like negotiating a maze without the benefit of a map—and with a potential language barrier thrown in. Also, shipping costs to send your smartphone overseas for repair can be exorbitant. There’s always the option of taking your smartphone to a local repair shop if something goes wonky, but the vast majority of stateside experts specialize in readily-available brands, and you may have trouble finding someone local with the know-how to crack open and fix a Chinese-made smartphone. You’ll have even more trouble finding a resource that has access to individual replacement parts.

Security issues can also rear their ugly heads. It was reported recently that Taiwanese-manufactured MT6582 chips, which are in wide use on low-end smartphones from Huawei and Lenovo, can give root access to malicious software and hacker attacks. That said, no smartphone in the world is immune from attack, but it’s something worth considering.

Lastly, there’s the far less frightening—but equally important—issue of receiving timely operating system updates, which many adopters of Chinese-manufactured smartphones complain aren’t frequent enough.

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