Ask LH: Should I Buy A Refurbished iPhone From The US?

Hi Lifehacker, After finally exhausting the useful life of my iPhone 4S, it’s time to upgrade. I’d like to buy a refurbished iPhone 5S from the US, where they are between half and two-thirds the price in Australia. As long as the phone is (carrier/ factory) unlocked, are there any compatibility issues I should be aware of? And is this a good idea to start with? Thanks, Phone Upgrader

Photo by Janitors

Dear PU,

I’m not certain that it is, but that will somewhat depend on the exact exchange rate and however much shipping will cost you, along with the additional factors of both warranty and compatibility to contend with.

Refurbished prices will vary, although it’s worth noting that Apple itself doesn’t sell refurbished iPhones anywhere on the planet, so there’s no “standard” price to speak of. To use Apple US prices for an outright 16GB iPhone 5s, however, you’d pay $US549 right now for a handset, which is roughly $690 at current conversion rates. That is undeniably cheaper than the $829 than Apple Australia charges for the same handset, but there are catches. You’d have to factor in shipping for a start, and for a device like an iPhone 5s, I’d suggest it would be unwise to skimp on shipping costs. The problem there is that once you do that, your savings start to be eroded.

In order for maximum Australian network compatibility, the device you want to buy is the A1530 variant, because that’s what Apple Australia sells here as the iPhone 5s. Other iPhone 5s variants will operate as phones in Australia, but will lack full LTE compatibility here, depending on the model you end up being sold. If you want a quick refresher on mobile frequencies in use in Australia in 2015, you can check out Lifehacker’s guide here.

Given the general US attitude of where the centre of the universe actually lies, I suspect many refurbishment outlets wouldn’t even consider details like that, because the majority of their customers would be US citizens looking to use them on local US networks. You’d want to ensure that a refurbisher was actually selling you that model, because if you ended up with one of the other models, return shipping could well eat into that potential cost savings.

You’d also be forgoing some significant consumer guarantees buying from overseas that way. Overseas merchants are still technically obliged to follow Australian consumer law if they’re shipping here, but getting them to actually comply with that law can be a frustrating experience. Apple may at its discretion opt to give you service and support, but almost certainly not a warranty on a refurbished iPhone, bearing in mind again that they don’t sell them outright at all.

Personally, once I’m spending that kind of cash I’d rather be covered by warranty than end up with a silicon brick, but your tolerance for those kinds of risks may be different to mine. What do the readers think? Any success or horror stories to share of overseas budget iPhone buys?


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