Importing the latest hot smartphone can be cheaper, but there are some cautions to bear in mind.
When a new premium smartphone enters the market, it often does so at a premium price, which can easily push north of $1,000. That's a fair chunk of change to lay down, and you may have seen a number of online advertisements for Australian sellers offering what appears to be the same devices at a discount, sometimes hundreds of dollars cheaper.
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What they're doing is directly importing those phones from other countries where they're sold at a cheaper rate, adding a small margin of profit for their troubles and undercutting the "official" price along the way. It's referred to as direct importing, parallel importing or sometimes "grey market" importing.
Is it legal to import "grey market" phones?
For the most part it's entirely legal. Any device imported and sold by an Australian business has to comply with the relevant safety and packaging laws, but that's far more of a concern for, say, a food product than it is a mobile phone that's already being sold locally by the actual supplier anyway.
There are some restrictions in place for parallel importing of products, but mobile phones don't fall under them. Mobile phone manufacturers might not like it much, but it's perfectly legal.
How can I find a trustworthy supplier?
Do your research. If you're dealing with a business that purports to be Australia-based, check their bona fides in relation to the office they operate out of, contact details, and as many customer reports as you can dig up. A simple online search for the merchant name plus either "mobile phones" or "complaint" should dig up some online feedback that can give you a better overall picture of how a given supplier operates when things go wrong. If you genuinely can't find any feedback or mention, that could be a worrying sign, because established merchants should have a genuine online presence beyond their own store.
How can I be sure the phone will work in Australia?
One issue to be aware of with grey market phones is that they're not always identical to the models you can buy here. There's the more obvious stuff, like the preinstalled applications that carriers often wedge into the phone operating system and the splash screens that promote their brands every time you fire up the device. That's usually no great loss, and if you're really keen you can normally download those applications from the relevant app store anyway.
The bigger issue is ensuring that the phone you're buying will work optimally with the network that you're intending to use it on. Phone manufacturers build multiple models of each phone, typically to suit the frequencies and bands used in those countries. It varies a lot by manufacturer and brand, with some phone models, such as iPhones, only really having five or so distinct "models" to worry about. Conversely, some models of Samsung's Galaxy phone lines have had dozens of slightly different variable models. You can check the current frequencies used by Australian carriers here.
The most common issue you'll hit is that some imported phones won't work with the specific 4G frequencies used in Australia. If you're happy with 3G data speeds, the tradeoff in price may just be worth it.
What about the power connector?
International phones shipped into Australia frequently come from Hong Kong. Wherever they originate, they won't come packed by the provider in the country of origin with Australian power plugs, because there would be no reason to do so, and the Australian plug is only used in a handful of countries.
Some retailers will throw in an extra Australian plug, but this isn't always the case. A standard USB mobile adaptor will charge any given phone (other than an iPhone). Equally there is no worry with using either the microUSB cable (Android/Windows Phone) or Lightning Cable (iPhone) for any international phone. Those are just lengths of charging wire (at a simplified level) the same the world over.
The one downside you may hit here is that the "fast charger" sold with some phones might not be suitable for 240V Australian power at all. Check carefully before using just a plug adaptor in that case, as a step-down transformer may be required, in which case simply forgetting fast charging is probably easier.
What do I do about warranty and guarantee issues?
Phone manufacturers often point to vague "optimisations" for the local market, although they're yet to really provide compelling evidence for phones that match the bands and frequencies of Australian networks to this effect.
Where they can and do differentiate is in warranty support. Australian consumer law specifies that your contract of sale is with the original merchant, which in this case wouldn't be the phone brand, but the online retailer you purchased the phone from. Under Australian consumer law they are legally obliged to warrant goods for a "reasonable" length of time even if they're importing them, but they can require warranty claim devices to be shipped back to their country of origin for inspection and repair, which can mean that you're without a phone for a number of weeks in some cases. If you're buying a phone directly from an overseas supplier they're technically legally constrained in the same manner, but getting satisfaction from them when they're located offshore can be a tortuous matter.
The local brand isn't specifically obliged to deal with any warranty or repair issues. Some brands do offer "worldwide" warranties and may at least examine your device to see if it meets warranty guidelines, or at least can be repaired at cost. Other brands won't specifically honour warranties for phones sold outside Australia, although many state that they take these issues on a "case by case" basis, so it may be worth enquiring with them if you do hit a problem with your original phone retailer. The local brand representatives may opt to repair your device in some cases, but they're entitled to charge for doing so, even for devices which would otherwise qualify for warranty protection.
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