We've been shouting about the benefits of buying phones, tablets and laptops from China for several years now, with many Chinese manufacturers producing goods of comparable quality at significantly lower prices. (See: Best Chinese phones.)
But in buying such devices you take greater risks than you would in the UK or EU market, with your options usually limited to eBay, occasionally Amazon, and 'grey-market' sites such as GearBest and Geekbuying.
The Solution Shop is a UK-based company that has recently come to our attention, and though we have not personally dealt with it the site offers some peace of mind to UK buyers of Chinese tech. It pre-pays shipping costs and taxes, so there are no nasty surprises, offers a UK-based repair centre and a one-year warranty on all phones, 30-day free returns and a 15-hour per day customer support service. It's worth a look if you're not sure about buying from GearBest and Geekbuying even after reading the below advice.
Should you buy grey market tech? What is the grey market?
First, let's clear up an important issue: the grey market is not illegal. It is sometimes referred to as a parallel market, which is in fact a clearer representation of what it is. The grey market is a channel through which goods are imported by distributors not authorised by the manufacturer. It allows UK consumers to purchase products that are not intended to be sold in the UK market, and at the lower prices typically paid overseas.
The grey market differs from the black- or underground market in that these goods are not illegal to buy in the UK. They are merely not intended to be sold here. However, while you are not breaking the law by buying grey market goods, there are some points you may like to consider, as we'll outline below.
UK shipping and Customs charges
While grey market sites offer free shipping to the UK, they do not pay any import duty charged by UK Customs when sending products from their depots. They ship to a number of countries and each has different import rules.
"When you buy from GeekBuying, you are importing, and you are the importer who is responsible for the goods when the goods pass through Customs in your destination country," it states in Geekbuying's terms and conditions.
So, Customs charges are your problem. And if Customs gets in touch to say it has your package then you won't receive it until you have paid up. If you fail to do so your package may be destroyed; if it is returned to sender you will find yourself responsible for the return costs.
In our experience it's almost always DHL that issues the fee notices, typically after the product is delivered though this may simply be because IDG has an account with the delivery company. We'd expect customers would be asked to pay up before the goods are delivered.
Charges are calculated at 20% of the value on the shipping paperwork, plus an admin fee of around £11.
One way to get around higher customs fees is to put a lower value on this paperwork, which is not at all above board but may be offered by such sites as it's not their problem if it gets picked up.
Whether or not your parcel is picked up by Customs is very much a lucky dip, but legally the charges should be paid. Our best advice is to expect to pay import VAT, and include it in your calculation of the device's total price.
It's worth pointing out, however, that some grey market sites have EU- as well as Chinese warehouses. When buying products residing in these warehouses it says you won't have to pay Customs charges, so it is always a preferable option albeit sometimes a little more costly up front.
In our experience grey market products are incredibly well packaged. The chances of your product being damaged during delivery is minimal which, given the postage charges, is in everybody's best interests. Of course, that doesn't mean your item will always arrive in full working condition - this can happen from time to time even when it is dispatched from the UK.
Sending a faulty product back to China is going to be much more difficult for you than it is within the UK, and we have heard reports that it can be difficult to get through to customer service. (We've also heard very good reports, which should not be overlooked.)
Delivery times to the UK
Don't expect next-day delivery from these websites, although delivery is faster than you might expect if you opt for the express option. But if you opt for the free choice and your item is shipped by boat, you could be waiting several weeks.
Also keep in mind that if your parcel is intercepted by Customs you should expect a longer delay.
When looking at a product on a grey market site look for a toggle at the top of the page to switch the currency to UK Sterling. Prices will otherwise be listed in US dollars.
If there is no way to switch the currency you can calculate the approximate UK cost by using Google Search's built-in currency converter. Just type into the search bar 'convert $X to £' and hit Enter for an instant conversion.
You'll find prices are significantly cheaper than they are in the UK. Part of the reason for this is that products sold in the UK often have a significant markup in price. The grey market removes this markup, allowing UK consumers to buy goods at overseas prices. Even so, you'll likely still be buying goods at prices higher than their Chinese RRP.
One thing you should note, though, is that prices can go up and down on a daily basis. You'll drive yourself mad wondering what's the best price, so instead look at the current price and decide whether it's a price you're willing to pay for the goods on offer, then just buy the thing.
Will these products work in the UK?
Given that these products usually aren't intended to be sold in the UK, it's understandable that some may not work as expected over here. However, given the correct mains adaptor, the majority of tech products will work in any country - it's no different to taking your tech abroad when you go on holiday. In our experience most grey market sites will also supply a three-pin adaptor if you let them know you need one.
One type of device with which it's particularly important to check the specs is smartphones. UK networks operate on different frequency bands to overseas operators, so it's crucial that you check which bands a phone supports and on which bands your network operates. If a phone claims to support the fastest 4G it will be useless to you if your own network doesn't support the frequency, for example.
In the UK the big four operate on the following frequencies: EE operates on 1800MHz 2G, 2100MHz 3G, and 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2600MHz 4G; Three operates on 900MHz and 1800MHz 2G, 2100MHz 3G, and 1800MHz and 2600MHz 4G; Vodafone operates on 900MHz and 1800MHz 2G, 900MHz and 2100MHz 3G, and 800MHz and 2600MHz 4G; O2 operates on 900MHz and 1800MHz 2G, 900MHz and 2100MHz 3G, and 800MHz 4G. Read more about how to tell whether a phone is supported by your network here.
Another key consideration is not whether a product will work in the UK but whether it is allowed to work in the UK. It's your responsibility to check the legalities surrounding the shipping of a specific device to the UK - if it's legal to buy in China but illegal to ship to the UK then that's your problem. The supplier takes no responsibility.
Are these products fake?
Not according to the sites, but the reality is would you know if they weren't? Probably not. (We've written a separate article about how to spot fake tech.)
This is perhaps the biggest risk of buying from the grey market: what if your device is faulty? When buying products from overseas you are not covered by EU regulations. Bear in mind that when dealing with customer services the language barrier may also become an issue, depending on the site in question.
Receiving faulty goods is actually something we've experienced first hand, having received a faulty drone from GearBest. We've attempted to return the product three times and each time it has been redelivered to the office.
On the whole devices will not be faulty. As we've mentioned they are incredibly well packaged, and each product is checked before it is sent out to avoid the dramas surrounding returns. Even so, it's important that you check the returns policy of the site in question before you buy.
Using Geekbuying as an example, it offers a one-year warranty on all consumer electronics, meaning you can return the products for repair up to one year after its delivery date. If products have been mis-used, taken apart or water-damaged the warranty will be void, and it won't cover motherboard- or screen replacement. If a product is scratched or its appearance damaged Geekbuying will deduct 20 percent of the value when providing a refund, too.
Geekbuying pays the return costs for products that are dead-on-arrival, but you will be liable for some of the cost when returning items under warranty. Within the first month Geekbuying will pay the shipping costs, but you'll be refunded for them partly in Geekbuying coupons and partly in cash to your PayPal account. Between one- and six months you will have to pay to return the item, but Geekbuying will ship you the repaired item for free. Between six- and 12 months you pay the cost of returning the item and having it redelivered following the repair.
If an item is faulty on arrival you have two days to get in touch with customer service, providing them with photographic evidence. If the packaging is faulty you will also need to file a complaint with the courier. If an item is of high value you may be asked to send it back to Geekbuying before they are able to issue a refund or replacement (and there is always a chance it could go missing on its return journey).
If you've been sent the wrong item and can provide photographic evidence, Geekbuying will offer to refund you 10 percent of the item value because it's a cheaper solution than you returning the item and it shipping you the correct item. If you're not happy with this it will of course send you the correct item at its cost.
If you're returning an item simply because you don't like it (you have up to seven days to decide), you will be responsible for the round-trip shipping. That will be expensive, so make sure you really want a product before you click to buy it.
Should you buy grey market tech?
Buying grey market tech is not for everyone, and it's clear there is some risk involved. You might get a great deal on a cheap phone, or you might get a headache that won't disappear for several weeks. Many people have great experiences in buying grey market tech (us included), but there are also some horror stories to be told. Now armed with the facts you can make an informed decision about whether buying grey market tech or cheap goods from China is an attractive solution for you.