Ask LH: Are Grey Import Smartphones Safe To Buy?

Ask LH: Are Grey Import Smartphones Safe To Buy?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve been waiting for the LG G4 since the early teasers and have just seen that it won’t be in Australia until mid-July. Or I can order a grey import today for about $200 cheaper. Assuming I buy from a reputable vendor and do my research to get the model that supports Australian LTE bands, what are the disadvantages of a grey import phone? Or are they basically the same? Sincerely, Homophones

Dear Homophones,

There’s a couple of disadvantages to a properly researched grey import phone, although depending on your perspective they might not be particularly problematic.

You’ve already hit the most prominent nail on the head in terms of LTE bands, because different phone SKUs internationally do support different LTE bands. Our guide to the bands used by Australian carriers breaks down what you need to know.

Most smartphone manufacturers will talk endlessly about vague “optimisations” made for the Australian networks. It’s true that the mobile carriers do test handsets quite exhaustively — Gizmodo toured Telstra’s facility a few years back — but I’ve yet to see anyone do a head-to-head test to show whether the optimisations for local networks make a significant difference at the end-user point.

It’s feasible that they could be a little slower, or act to somewhat congest networks, but there’s a world of difference between feasibility and actual impact.

Then there’s the warranty aspect. If you’re buying from an Australian business you’re still more closely covered by Australian consumer law in terms of repairs or replacements within “reasonable” guidelines, but that doesn’t mean that LG would be obliged to provide you with repairs.

You’d have to go back to the the company you purchased it from, and this may involve shipping your phone back overseas for repair, which could be time consuming. This varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, however, with some being perfectly happy to provide repair services within Australia.

Finally, there’s the issue of pre-installed software. Just as Telstra, Optus and Vodafone love installing their own apps onto their specific handsets, along with specific splash screens, it’s possible that you’ll end up with apps specific to the carrier where your handset originated, and without root access, you may not be able to change or remove them.


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  • I decided to risk it, but would I be correct in thinking that Australian carriers reserve the right to bar connection from any device they take a dislike to?

      • *Puts on my Vodafone Hat*
        It doesn’t often happen, but it is an option for carriers.
        Most phones play nice within the GSM standards, but occasionally one or two handsets are released in other parts of the world that treat the GSM standards as optional guidelines.

        Carriers don’t like having to block an entire line of devices as it’s a poor experience for the eager importer to find their shiney will never work on our network, and means adding an additional filter to the network – but when it comes to the convenience of a few whose unapproved devices are causing trouble versus the performance of their most valuable asset, it’s a no brainer.

    • Please please please make sure you check the LTE bands and then call or chat with your telco and see if those LTE bands are broadcast in your area. Do not rely on their coverage map; it’s not that coverage maps are lies, it’s just not the whole story.

      edit: i meant to say – no, it won’t be barred.

  • About that pre-installed stuff and splash screens: when you buy a grey import that’s less likely. People are usually always selling international, unlocked versions of the devices.

  • I was in the same boat with the G3. Wanting to buy a phone outright, rather than on a plan, it just made a ton of financial sense to look for a good deal and when you are quite literally saving hundreds of dollars on the Australia RRP price (Not to mention getting an extra 16GB of built in storage as well as an extra GB of RAM!), it’s kind of a no brainer.

    For what it’s worth – there are plenty of online stores to use that are reasonably reputable and go so far as to try and indicate which networks the phones will work on inside Australia specifically. expansys, becextech and yatango all seem reasonably reliable and I’ve bought from both expansys and becextech in the past.

    I use a BYO Telstra plan currently and have never had any problems. I get reliable 4G access and speeds and calls are as reliable as any other phone I’ve had.

    I’m planning on ordering a G4 for my partner soon, probably from one of the aforementioned sites, and I’m not worried about encountering any problems.

    Honestly – Warranty is the most concerning issue, that I really can’t speak to as I’ve never had to deal with it.

  • Warranty may not be a rule out. There are some grey importers with an Australian presence, so would be bound under consumer law. And paying through PayPal for example provides a certain amount of refund protection (within a limited time period).

    Increasingly phones and tablets are supporting multi-band LTE. It’s only really phones for the US market that are very much carrier and frequency restricted. I’ve had no problems getting grey imports to work on Telstra for example. It’s just the usual matter of ensuring you know the correct APN as it won’t necessarily be preprogrammed.

    • The likes of Kogan will grey-import a handset from the likes of Hong Kong and will specify what bands they work on and tend to make sure that the phones are fine to work with networks here.

      I’ve had little to no issues buying a Galaxy from them and getting it to work on the likes of Vodafone. Seems to be a little less sluggish starting up as it doesn’t have all the extra carrier stuff on it.

  • I was burned by when the Galaxy Nexus I bought from them failed. Samsung were happy to look at it but couldn’t replace the motherboard, as was required, because it wasn’t the Australian model they had access to.
    Shoppingsquare took the phone back and, after a couple of months of increasingly strident requests, demands and threats of legal action, finally gave me back my money because they couldn’t seem to get _their_ supplier to send a replacement.
    Moral: if everything goes well technically, a grey market phone is cheaper and probably fine. If it goes wrong, it’s a complication that might become a real hassle.

  • Bought 2 Galaxy S5’s from Kogan last year. International unlocked models and no issues on either Telstra or Optus networks.

    No warranty issues so far (touch wood!). I figure that what I have saved is effectively self insurance if it all happens to go sideways and warranty becomes an issue.

  • I’ve bought a total of 5 high end phones from Kogan and not had any warranty issues, in fact totally satisfied. Sometimes it’s not about the cost savings, but access to a model not imported into Oz.

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