Is it safe to buy imported phones?

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CNET Editor

Joe capitalises on a life-long love of blinking lights and upbeat MIDI soundtracks covering the latest developments in smartphones and tablet computers. When not ruining his eyesight staring at small screens, Joe ruins his eyesight playing video games and watching movies. Twitter: @Joseph_Hanlon

Buying a phone outright has undeniable advantages. Though you'll need the money upfront, you won't be committed to any long term monthly payments to any of the telcos, and you are free to choose the best deal from a selection of plans, not just the deal that has been pre-chosen for the phone that you want.

Even though you can't buy the PureView 808 locally, you could always buy it online.
(Credit: Nokia)

Many Australians have taken to purchasing handsets outright from online vendors sourcing stock from overseas. This stock comes from all over the world, and though it is usually designed for use with an international telco, compatible stock will work in Australia. On top of owning a phone with no commitments, buying overseas stocks via a parallel importer often means you can choose phones which may not be available locally, at all or until later in the year. You earn the bragging rights of being the first in the country to own the latest and greatest new smartphone or tablet. But there are a number of things you need to consider before buying.

Warranty

As exciting as it is to shop for new tech, it is important you know what your rights are if something goes wrong. You might save a bunch of money buying through an auction site, like eBay, but you may also be without recourse if the phone turns out to be a lemon. If you're buying through an online store, be aware that international stock is nearly always sold without a manufacturer's warranty. Nokia, for example, has put together this information page for people considering a parallel import item, which clearly states "Any Nokia phone bought from retailers overseas or who are not authorised Nokia resellers will not be covered by Nokia's warranty".

Just because you will go without a manufacturer's warranty doesn't mean you'll be left out in the cold with a broken phone, though. The better online vendors offer local warranties, but these are not manufacturer's warranties. MobiCity is one such online phone store, which uses a third-party warranty service called Australian Warranty Services. We asked MobiCity about how it handles claims on faulty handsets and we were told that it will offer to replace stock that they can't repair quickly.

"We service about 20 to 30 claims and replace about five to 10 handsets with brand new ones, each day," said Alastair Eldred for MobiCity. He acknowledged that this is higher than the industry average for a company of MobiCity's size, but said that the company believes this is the best way to service its customers.

Finding a store that deals quickly and effectively with faulty products should be at the top of your list of priorities, but it can also be the trickiest part of buying a new phone.

Who ya gonna call?

The most difficult part of this equation is deciding who you are going to trust with your hard-earned money. Choosing a trustworthy online store for unlocked phones is no different to the problems you'll face with any online shopping. One with a decent warranty policy is a good start, but do your research carefully. Read user reviews on unbiased forums like Whirlpool, discover whether the store has an eBay alias and read any reviews you find there. We'd suggest you start by reading our feature on shopping safely online, as all the information listed will pertain to shopping online for phones, as well.

Online store-fronts are still a relatively new concept, but there are a couple of stores that have already garnered quite a following. MobiCity is one such store for smartphones and tablets. MobiCity's parent company is based in Hong Kong, but it has offices in Australia with about 40 local staff. The stock it sells is sourced from around the world, but it offers local support and a 12-month warranty. Electronics store Kogan offers a similar warranty and complements Kogan branded electronics with smartphones and tablets from companies like Apple and Samsung, with its stock sourced from overseas, as well. Expansys is a third online electronics store that has been doing business for several years and has a good reputation in this category.

There are dozens more, and we'd love to hear about your experiences with them. If you've bought a phone online, leave us a comment below and tell us about your experience.

Will your phone work in Australia?

Reputable online stores will only sell stock that is compatible with Australian networks, but there are important differences between the networks that you need to be aware of, before committing to a purchase. A phone that is compatible with the Optus network may not work well on the Telstra network, and vice versa.

Here is a table showing all the Aussie networks and corresponding radio frequencies that they operate on. Remember, 2G primarily relates to talking and text, while 3G and 4G refers to internet data. You'll notice that the same frequencies are used for 2G, 3G and 4G coverage. To differentiate, look for the type of network these frequencies operate on, too. GSM is 2G, UMTS or WCDMA is 3G and LTE is 4G.

Network 2G (GSM) frequencies 3G/4G (UMTS/WCDMA/LTE) frequencies
Optus
(Amaysim, TPG, Woolworths, Telechoice, Virgin)
900MHz
1800MHz
900MHz (UMTS/WCDMA)
2100MHz (UMTS/WCDMA)
Vodafone
(Crazy John's, Red Bull, GoTalk)
900MHz
1800MHz
850MHz (UMTS/WCDMA)
2100MHz (UMTS/WCDMA)
Telstra 900MHz
1800MHz
850MHz (UMTS/WCDMA)
1800MHz (4G/LTE)

This table isn't entirely complete; for example, Telstra has patches of 900MHz 3G coverage and Optus is building an 1800Mhz 4G network. But it does show the best frequencies for each network, as a guide for when you're buying a new phone.

Broadly speaking, if a phone uses compatible network radios to the frequencies listed above, then it will work on that network in Australia; though there is a chance you may not get the same performance on that network, that you would with a phone purchased through the network. A representative for HTC in Australia told us that "HTC encourages Australian and New Zealand customers to purchase HTC devices that have been tested and approved for use on Australian and New Zealand mobile networks", warning that phones bought overseas will not be optimised for use on local networks and may not have the same features as local stock. These optimisations may include fine network tuning in the phone's firmware, to best respond to the specific frequencies of the network infrastructure.

Also, make doubly sure that the phone is network unlocked. If a phone is locked to a specific carrier network, only the original owner can request it to be unlocked. If you buy a phone second-hand through eBay or similar, and discover the phone is locked when you receive it, you are going to have a very hard time unlocking it before you can use it.



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ebd059 posted a comment   
Australia

Ordered phone from Kogan. Onlne store said stock available. A week after paying, I get message saying they have no stock. Now they are using delay tactics when I asked for a refund. In the meantime they are earning interest on my money. Think twice before u buy from Kogan

 

Dmitry2013 posted a comment   
Australia

To say that Kogan's customer service is CRAP it's like give them 5 star review. They are really troublemakers. I bought unlocked mobile phone from them. They sent me locked one. It took them two weeks to get a unlocking code which did not work anyway. I sent the phone back and they told me that a new phone would be delivered soon. After 3 weeks telling me some fairy tales I finally learned that they have not even organised for new phone to be sent from China. Therefore, I need to wait for more 4 weeks. I requested a refund. It's been for 7 days since then and, as you might guess, no refund. Avoid this dodgy company unless you like having headache.

 

HoneyR posted a comment   

So can you tell us what online stores we should buy from?

 

meoncnet posted a comment   
Australia

I bought a mobile phone from Kogan a few weeks ago and still don't have a functioning phone. It's not in English.

The opening screen is only in Asian characters. The instruction manual is in Italian.

It was a week before Kogan customer service acknowledge receipt of my email with concerns. They said they'd forward it to the appropriate group. It's been a week since then and I still don't have a working phone or know what to do about this.

 

gp2 posted a comment   

this might be irrevelant to the above however you also need to be aware if the company you buy from is also reputable.
it works 50/50 both ways I guess :s

 

Im Batman posted a comment   
Australia

Been pondering this a bit, wrt getting the G Nexus from Kogan, super great price and just continueing to use my current Telstra plan (as the price and size work for me).
the G Nexus is available on Telstra, but on a higher plan etc.

I thought "buy the phone outright, run on a cheaper plan, save in the long run". But after i crunched the numbers for a comparison over the 24 months, i was only 80 bucks ahead by buying it outright.

The Telco subsidy is signficant. Yes i would be locked in... but i have pre invested, which is the same as locked in.
Okay, I haven't factored in any resale of the device, but the way things move these days... who knows?

So my questions now, is the $80 saved, worth an extra years warranty from Telstra (kogan gives 1 year)... hmm

For phones that you can not buy from a telco, this works, and after hearing of the prices of US plans, if you can find a cheap plan with a BYO phone, then you will save the monies in a few months.

 

Will1505 posted a reply   

Well look at it this way, you can root the phone and actually play around with it and it doesn't effect the warranty with Kogan. And you can buy a 3 year warranty for $69.

 

Will1505 posted a reply   

Also all telstra phones on plans are not locked (except for the iphone). Vodafone is the only carrier that locks all of their phones.

 

fusion posted a comment   
Australia

Hi Joseph, nice detailed post which should help cut out some of the confusion for many when buying a phone. I would just like to point out a few things though:

1) It is UMTS not UTMS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System)

2) "for example, Telstra has patches of 900MHz 3G coverage" - Telstra do not have ANY 3G 900 coverage at all. 3G 850 is ALL you need when buying - yes all this talk about 3G 2100 on Telstra but it is all infill and not an actual network rollout. So for Telstra, as long as you have 3G 'UMTS' 850 support, you're good to go

3) To add further confusion, Vodafone use 3G 850, 3G 900 AND 3G 2100. Their coverage checker at www.vodafone.com.au/coveragechecker highlights what frequencies are used where. A phone that supports all of those bands is best, but if you cannot get one, a general rule of thumb is to buy a 3G 850/2100 handset if you primarily use a Vodafone service in metro, or a 3G 900/2100 handset if you primarily use it elsewhere

4) 99% positive Telstra have ripped out GSM1800 in place for LTE1800. GSM1800 is only used here as extra capacity which as time passes and people move onto 3G/LTE, it won't be needed (obviously)

And for everyone else playing at home: It's always best to buy a 3G compatible phone ESPECIALLY if you're on Telstra. Telstra's 2G/GSM network is actually smaller than Optus' GSM network, and has only about 1/4th of the coverage NextG provides. Optus' 3G network when using a 3G 900/2100 handset also covers more than their GSM, since nobody has been expanding GSM for a long time.

Networks are changing all the time - hell now with Optus' Vividwireless acquisition they will eventually have LTE on 2300. Fun, err, confusing times ahead :/


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