The coolest smartphones are hard to find in the US. Should you track one down?
Some of the best phones in the world come from Chinese brands like Huawei, OnePlus or Oppo. Here's what you need to know to decide if one is right for you.
Jason CiprianiContributing Writer, ZDNet
Jason Cipriani is based out of beautiful Colorado and has been covering mobile technology news and reviewing the latest gadgets for the last six years. His work can also be found on sister site CNET in the How To section, as well as across several more online publications.
China is leading the way in areas of technology like 5G and artificial intelligence, and the quality of the phones coming out of Chinese companies matches or even exceeds that of rival devices from
. Powerhouse Huawei even beat out Apple as the world's second-largest phone maker, in 2019, and had designs to steal Samsung's crown as No. 1. In January 2020, Huawei claimed the title of world's top 5G phone vendor. Meanwhile, OnePlus now sells directly through three US carriers, an enormous win for a smartphone startup.
Excellent value and expanded access are great reasons to buy one of these phones, but there's a darker side to be aware of, too. Huawei, and to a lesser extent, ZTE, are caught in a global trade war over 5G networking equipment -- not phones -- and designated national security threats by the FCC. And if the phone you buy isn't sold directly through your carrier, you might miss out on certain features here and there.
You shouldn't rule out buying from a Chinese brand, but there are important things to know before getting started, including how to shop, what to look for and which considerations you'll need to be aware of when it comes to basics like if you'll need a new wall adapter, security concerns and even where to shop.
1. Why buy a phone from a Chinese company?
One reason comes to mind: Variety. You don't have to settle for a phone your carrier offers. In fact, more brands sell through retailers like
, Best Buy and their own online stores than you can find at a carrier alone. In many countries, buying an unlocked phone first and then adding carrier service second is the norm.
Phones from brands you don't see every day may also offer features not yet available in other devices. In fact, the first smartphone camera I used that had a dedicated night mode was on a Huawei phone, long before I used a similar camera feature on a Google, Samsung or Apple device.
In CNET's Huawei P30 Pro, reviewer Andrew Hoyle said it has the "absolute best camera on any phone." That jibes with my personal experience, too.
2. What's the best way to buy a Chinese phone?
It depends on the brand. OnePlus sells through T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. But because most brands from China don't have carrier relationships in the US (and haven't undergone the strenuous certification process), you'll have to stick to online shopping. Amazon is, naturally, one option, but sites like AliExpress and eBay are also worth checking out.
Going directly through the company website is also a good idea, if the brand has a story specific to your country. There may be hurdles. For example, Xiaomi's US store sells electronics, but not phones, and its UK site refused to accept my US address.
Huawei still advertises phones in the US under its Honor brand, but other than details and specifications, you won't find a single buy button on the site.
However, ZTE and TCL both have online stores that either link to carrier websites or offer direct shipping.
3. How do I know if the phone will work on my carrier?
A good rule of thumb is that most Chinese phones will work on AT&T or
because they use compatible GSM technology for their networks.
and Sprint, however, use a mix of GSM and CDMA for data and voice, and odds are that any imported phone won't work on either carrier.
Even if the phone will let you make calls, send messages and use data, it's likely that not all features that are optimized for the carrier will work -- for example, Wi-Fi calling and any other carrier-specific perks.
Pay close attention to the listing. Most name the compatible carriers or at least the different carrier bands a phone supports. Once you have that list, you can look up your carrier's supported bands and compare the two.
4. Will you have access to all of your apps?
Again, it depends on the phone you buy.
Google search and services are blocked in China, so unless a Chinese manufacturer builds two versions of a phone -- one for inside China, and then another that integrates Google for the rest of the world -- you might have to learn how to live without Google services on your Android phone.
That means you won't be able to install apps and services like Gmail or YouTube, let alone run them. Nor will you have access to the Google Play Store, where you normally download all of your apps.
Phone-makers often have their own Android app store. But even then, finding apps that work properly can be frustrating. If you're tech-savvy enough, there are guides and tutorials available for most phones that walk you through installing Google Play Services.
Otherwise you'll need to rely on each phone-maker's own app store. Earlier this year, Reuters reported that Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo are working on a way for app developers to upload their apps to all four of their app stores at the same time.
When shopping for a new phone, pay attention to the device listing and see if it mentions whether or not it comes with support for the Google Play Store or Google services. But be forewarned -- sometimes that means getting a phone that someone else has installed or using a workaround to get Google services on a device that otherwise shouldn't have it.
Look at this listing on AliExpress for the P40 Lite. The second photo is a giant warning stating that after the seller installed Google services, a software update broke it. You'll need to use Huawei's own workaround instead.
5. Are phones from Chinese brands secure?
Any phone you buy directly through a carrier has undergone certification in line with stringent FCC regulations. Major brands will also support their devices when you buy direct, but keep an eye out for warranty information. With any device you buy second-hand or through a third-party marketplace, you assume greater risk because the manufacturer isn't verifying your purchase.
For example, if a third party has installed workaround or modified applications on a phone you buy, it's a security risk. There's no way to know exactly what was installed on the phone before you received it, and factory resetting it isn't an option if you want to keep the Google services workarounds intact.
Sideloading apps or using modified files could make your phone and the data on it more susceptible to malware and data theft. When Huawei launched the
line, Google cautioned users not to try to sideload or install Google apps or services on the phones. There could be a political aspect to that warning: Google could be taking US sanctions into account. It could also be aimed at reducing Google's liability if something goes wrong and an injured party desires to sue.
6. Will the charger have the right wall adapter for the US?
Any phone you buy from a local carrier or manufacturer website for your market will supply you with compatible accessories. You'll need to pay more attention to third-party purchases. I've seen listings on AliExpress that state the phone will come with the right adapter for US outlets, while other listings don't mention it.
If your phone comes with the wrong adapter, any charger with the appropriate cable will work.
7. What about a warranty?
It depends on where you buy the phone. The listing should say whether or not there's any sort of guarantee in the US. Look at this Amazon page for the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S. Near the bottom of the highlighted features, it clearly reads "No warranty in US." So, you're on your own should it break or start acting up.
Over on AliExpress, the listings don't directly mention a warranty, but the company does offer a 90-day Buy Protection money-back guarantee. Reading the fine print, it looks like you'll need to contact the seller and request a refund if the item isn't what you ordered, or is defective. 90 days isn't a whole lot of time, but it is better than nothing.