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Is it safe to buy imported phones?

Buying a phone outright has undeniable advantages and online vendors that source global stock can be cheaper, but there are a number of things to take into consideration before parting with your hard-earned cash.

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.


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
(Amaysim, TPG, Woolworths, Telechoice, Virgin)
(Crazy John's, Red Bull, GoTalk)
Telstra 900MHz
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.