Should I import an iPhone 12 from the USA?

Posted: 21 October 2020 3:07 pm
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When Apple formally announced the iPhone 12 series of smartphones, it was effusive about how 5G was about to "get real", hyping up some impressive real-world speeds achieved on its new shiny handsets.

There was a catch, however, and it was a big one. What Apple was talking about was 5G speeds on a 5G network located in the USA. That's fair enough, you might think, because the whole event was taking place in California after all.

The catch that became apparent only after the event was that the speeds that Apple could claim were also only specific to the new 5G iPhones being sold in the USA and nowhere else on the planet.

Australian iPhone 12 vs US iPhone 12: What's the difference?

The external packaging will look the same, but there's a big specifications difference relating to 5G networks lurking beneath its shiny shell.

Globally, 5G networks currently work across two types of 5G. There's the 3.5Ghz 5G, also known as "sub-6", which is what we have currently available in Australia from Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. Sub-6 speeds can exceed those of existing 4G LTE networks in a technical sense, but the real-world experience of them can be quite mixed. My own tests with 4G LTE versus existing 5G have tended towards slightly better speeds, but not always, and sometimes I've seen 4G LTE devices outpace 5G ones on the same network in the same location.

Then there's the faster 5G variant, starting at 26GHz and known more commonly as mmWave 5G. That's where the future of 5G and the really tasty speeds lie, but right now, we don't have mmWave 5G in Australia because the spectrum needed to run it on hasn't yet been auctioned off by the federal government.

That process is expected to take place early in 2021, and telcos have been trialling implementations ahead of that auction. Still, even in an optimistic sense, we're not likely to see actual mmWave 5G in Australia before at least mid-2021 and probably more likely late 2021 or 2022.

Now, why this matters in the context of the iPhone 12 is because Apple isn't making a global 5G iPhone. It's long produced at least two different variants of its iPhone family for a given year, with a China-specific model only sold in that country, but this year, it's got a lot more variance in play around 5G band support and support for mmWave networks specifically.

The models sold in the US will support both mmWave 5G and sub-6 5G because there are operators in that country running both types of networks. The models sold in Australia will only support sub-6 5G.

How many 5G iPhone 12 models are there?

You might be tempted to say four, because there's the iPhone 12 Mini, the iPhone 12, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

However, you'd be wrong because of that 5G band difference.

There are actually a whopping 16 different 5G variants because Apple isn't just making a US-only model and a rest-of-world variant.

No, instead, there are four US iPhone 12 models, four China-only iPhone 12 models, four Japan and Canada models and four for the rest of the world, including Australia.

So there are 16 variants, taking 5G into account. If you want to take that to its absolute conclusion and take storage variants into account, there are 3 different types for each model, so in reality, Apple's juggling 48 different iPhones that they might throw into a particular box.

Again, all of this matters because of the bands that the different models support, with the model sold in the USA having the widest band support of any iPhone 12 device.

That's led more than a few people to ask me if they should simply import an iPhone 12 from the USA into Australia. That should be technically feasible, but there are some challenges to take into consideration.

Will a US iPhone 12 work in Australia?

Yes, there's really no reason why it technically shouldn't work because the 5G band support on the US models encompasses every band that's supported on Australian iPhone 12 models. Using the iPhone 12 Pro Max as the example, and reading from Apple's publically available band support specification sheet, we can see exactly what those bands are:

iPhone 12 Pro Max Model A2342 (USA)iPhone 12 Pro Max Model A2407 (Australia)
n1 (2100 MHz)n1 (2100 MHz)
n2 (1900 MHz)n2 (1900 MHz)
n3 (1800 MHz)n3 (1800 MHz)
n5 (850 MHz)n5 (850 MHz)
n7 (2600 MHz)n7 (2600 MHz)
n8 (900 MHz)n8 (900 MHz)
n12 (700 MHz)n12 (700 MHz)
n20 (800 DD)n20 (800 DD)
n25 (1900 MHz)n25 (1900 MHz)
n28 (700 APT)n28 (700 APT)
n38 (TD 2600)n38 (TD 2600)
n40 (TD 2300)n40 (TD 2300)
n41 (TD 2500)n41 (TD 2500)
n66 (AWS-3)n66 (AWS-3)
n71 (600 MHz)
n77 (TD 3700)n77 (TD 3700)
n78 (TD 3500)n78 (TD 3500)
n79 (TD 4700)n79 (TD 4700)
n260 (39 GHz)
n261 (28 GHz)

If you're looking at that and thinking "I don't understand what any of those numbers mean, help…", then all you really need to consider is that every band in the right-hand column for the Australian model is present in the left-hand US column.

At a technical level, there's no reason why it shouldn't work, and Apple was unlikely to make a model that wouldn't at least operate for international travellers at some point in the future once international travellers are actually a reality again.

Do Australian iPhone 12 buyers get a worse phone?

Yep, that's pretty much the case. Now, to be fair to Apple, there aren't any mmWave networks available in Australia just yet, but that hasn't stopped competitors from offering dual-band 5G devices. Telstra's own Wi-Fi 5G Pro is dual-band compatible, and so is the new (and substantially less expensive) Google Pixel 5. Apple makes a better iPhone 12 for the US market, but it's not selling it here.

Can I upgrade my Australian iPhone 12 for mmWave support?

Almost certainly not, but we'll have to wait for a proper tear down of its internal components to be 100% certain.

Given Apple isn't listing the critical band support for non-US iPhone 12 models and the physical design is ever so slightly different thanks to a cut-out on the side to allow the mmWave antenna to work, it's pretty much assured that the sub-6 iPhone 12 models will never even see mmWave networks, even if they're in locations where they exist.

What if I buy an iPhone 12 through a US carrier?

That's not a good idea, even if it appears to be a cheaper route. The big catch here for a US model iPhone 12 is that you would want to make extremely certain that you were getting a fully unlocked model.

The iPhone 12 as sold in the USA is available through Apple directly or via a number of carriers, and it can often be difficult to ascertain which of them lock phones to their own network if purchased through them.

Carrier locking for outright premium phones really isn't a big deal in Australia anymore and hasn't been for years, but the USA market is different, right down to carriers locking down specific features such as hotspot data sharing on specific phones or SIMs.

Is it cheaper to buy an iPhone 12 from the US?

On paper, it looks like it might be, but the practical reality, especially in 2020, is that it almost certainly wouldn't.

I'll use the iPhone 12 Pro Max as the example here because I figure if you're keen enough to explore the possibility and want the best possible 5G, you probably also want the best possible device. Also, the price differences appear to be the largest there, so the savings might be quite big.

The Australian outright price for the iPhone 12 Pro Max 512GB is $2,369. The list price as per Apple USA and not going through a carrier is US$1,399. At Internet exchange rates at the time of writing that equates to $1,984 in Australian dollars.

That's a slam dunk on value, right?

Maybe not because there's yet more to consider. For a start, you might not get that exact rate when you choose to buy, and your financial institution may apply its own fee for working in foreign currencies too.

The Australian price includes GST because Australian retailers are absolutely obliged to include that on pricing lists, but in the USA, sales tax varies widely between locations, so it's generally never listed. Apple won't ship you a USA iPhone from its American store straight to Australia no matter how nicely you ask, so you're going to have to use a shipping agent.

Now, you could dodge the US sales tax issue by using a forwarding address in a state without sales tax – Delaware is often cited as a good choice – if your shipping agent supports that. However, shipping agents aren't in business simply to expedite packages for nothing, and they'll charge their own on-top fees for buying, collecting and shipping your shiny new iPhone 12 Pro Max to you.

That's further complicated by the realities of 2020 because the significant downturn in international flights means that the vast majority of the most affordable quick shipping options just aren't available any more. You can use dedicated international fast courier services but they attract a price premium of their own. You could opt for slower sea-based shipping, but then you'd be waiting quite a long while to actually get your new iPhone 12.

Also, when it lands in Australia, you could (and legally should, although this doesn't always seem to happen) get slugged by GST on incoming goods anyway.

The margins for getting a "bargain" iPhone 12 evaporate pretty quickly under most scenarios.

Using the figures above and a little back-of-the-envelope maths, you've got a maximum saving of $384 on that model of iPhone in pure retail terms, assuming absolutely no sales tax. But if your shipping agent adds, say, 5% on top of that for fees, you're up to around $2,083, and it could be worse than that. Then you've got to get it shipped, which could easily boost above $100 in the current climate, and you're up to $2,183. Get stung for GST, even off the USA price, and you're up to $2,381, which is more than the actual Australian retail price.

Now, you might be able to do better than this pricing – but it could also quickly be a whole lot worse if the exchange rate isn't as friendly or your shipping agent charges a higher percentage or fee rate.

Will I be able to get a US iPhone 12 repaired in Australia?

This is the other tricky area to consider when importing a US model iPhone 12, again because of that different internal hardware configuration. I've reached out to Apple to clarify how this might work because it's actually a situation we really haven't seen since the original, 2G-only model of the iPhone. That iPhone never officially launched in Australia, but some folks did import it as the hot new thing. Apple didn't sell or support it here – or indeed even have Apple stores at that time – so you were very much taking a risk there.

Apple's warranty for iPhones has typically been a global one, but it's not at all clear if local Apple Stores and authorised resellers will have the parts – or even access to the parts in case of the third-party repairers – for the mmWave compatible iPhone 12 models. That could mean US iPhone 12 models might have to be shipped back to the US to be repaired, or Apple may simply repair and replace with the parts they have on hand.

For iPhone repairs in warranty, Apple historically has often offered customers replacement iPhones rather than their exact iPhone back because it's a lot faster to give you a refurbished (or sometimes new) iPhone than for you to wait on a repair. However, rather obviously, if they did that with a US mmWave compatible model, what you'd almost certainly end up with would be the lesser sub-6 model because that's the stock Apple Stores would have on hand.

iPhone 12 plans

Naturally, the other cost-effective option is to gradually pay the phone off on a plan. While this works out more expensive in the long run, your wallet will avoid taking a big hit upfront. The downside is that you'll need to make do with the Aussie model.

Here are all the iPhone 12 plans currently available from Australia's major telcos.

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