Want to buy tech from online Chinese retailers? Read this first

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Most of the non-food items we buy in the UK and the US come from China and it is particularly true for tech, mobile and electronics.

The advent of online marketplaces like eBay, Amazon and Aliexpress has made it far easier for Chinese companies to find a voice in the global bazaar and with it the potential for a worldwide stream of customers.

Aliexpress was the fourth most visited online retailer in the UK in May 2016, according to market intelligence company Similarweb, outpacing the likes of Debenhams, John Lewis and Marks and Spencer.

Buying direct from China, either through these marketplaces or through more specialised retailers (there are more than 130 of them) is alluring. Prices are often lower, you get a much wider variety of products to choose from and delivery is almost always free.

But there are pitfalls and risks associated, some of which may not be obvious for whoever hasn't remotely purchased any items from abroad, let alone the far east.

Note: Although this feature has been written for a UK audience, most of its content will also apply to the rest of the world.

1. Import duties

Unbeknown to many is the fact that importing items from outside the EU can carry a levy. If they are declared as gifts, the threshold value is £34. Otherwise, it's £15. The VAT rate is charged on the total value which includes the cost of shipping, any duty owed and insurance. In addition, custom duty can be levied on anything above £135 but is usually a low single digit percentage. On top of that the handling company (Royal Mail, UPS, DHL and the likes) can charge you another fee so that the actual premium on an item can rise to 25%.

The reality is that the overwhelming number of purchases abroad won't be charged anything, either because they fall below the threshold or simply because the seller "adjusted" the real price. Given the very large number of items that are imported every day in the UK, it is logistically impossible for HMRC officers to check and price products being imported. How big of a difference does that make? On a £100 smartphone, that's a sizeable £25.

2. Pre-purchase support

Researching for tech products you plan to purchase directly from China can often prove problematic. Usually for flagship products, review websites get products ahead of launch so that users have an independent, impartial, professional perspective, and most importantly, an opinion. That often doesn't happen for tech products sourced directly from China; reviewers are in the same line as customers on pre-orders, a sales and marketing technique inherited from Apple and tweaked by OnePlus for the launch of its first smartphone. That means that users can only find out whether something is worth it or not only after having purchased and used them.

3. Post-purchase support

Perhaps the most important aspect of buying abroad is after sales. The problem is particularly acute for Chinese retailers. Put it simply, don't expect the same level of after sales support, either from the retailer or from the manufacturer. There are exceptions as always but generally once you buy something, you can't return it. The only time when you can return it is when it is broken or damaged. And even then, most vendors stipulate that it will be at your own cost (one exception is Gearbest who will pay for the return shipping costs).

A £100 smartphone sent back, weighing 300g packed, will cost you £15 via Royal Mail. The level of support from manufacturers is often equally lacking. Many won't have an English website, let alone a website and if they have one, it will almost certainly be a poorly translated one with product pages being one single long marketing brochure. The other issue has to do with support; many will just not offer drivers or firmware updates for their products with some retailers having a no-update policy, which is simply unenforceable for some operating systems.

4. Not always cheaper

Buying direct from China doesn't guarantee cheaper prices or even good value for money. For example, feature phones and entry level smartphones are far cheaper in the UK due to network subsidies. The same goes for expensive electronics and the gap is likely to shrink as unfavourable exchange rates makes it less attractive to buy from China. In other words, compare Chinese prices with what's available in the UK before making a final decision.

It's worth noting that a lot of products sold by vendors based in China are also available from a range of retailers here (Laptopsdirect, eBay and Amazon). Because they are governed by UK laws, aftersales support, at least from a retailer's point of view, will be better. Buying from the UK means that you can expect a full 30-day money back guarantee and a minimum of 12-month warranty on new products.

5. Tech differences and security

There is an abundance of reports online (like this one) about dubious third party applications loaded on tech products (mostly smartphones) coming from China. Some are adware, others are malware or spyware but in all cases, they point to lack of stringent security processes and in worst cases, to a deliberate attempt to turn a customer into an unwilling cash cow.

Another seldom-considered aspect of any purchase from China is that the product is often designed for a Chinese audience. So the manual, the plug, the default language of the operating system and the specifications are geared towards that market. It means for example, that a smartphone you yearned for might not cover the LTE bands of your current mobile network or that it doesn't ship with Google's default mobile services.

So, is it worth it to buy tech products directly from China? Tens of millions have already done so and only a tiny fraction have ever had issues but then again, if you're unlucky, be prepared to dig deep and be patient. For those cautious, the better option is buying Chinese products from UK retailers and being ruthless when it comes to sending them back if things turn sour.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.