How to buy phones online and import them to the US & Canada
This is our no nonsense guide to importing a SIM free phone into the US or Canada.
We’re a UK based company selling UK smartphones, so the guide will relate to the pros and cons of importing UK stock, but for the most part it is also be applicable to importing other European stock.
You can view our range of smartphones here. If you're not completely sure on the definition of 'SIM free', read our 'what does SIM free mean?' post.
We have many great customers in the US and Canada that are taking advantage of the ‘SIM free’ model. However, we feel there are many more that could be missing out, perhaps because they are unaware of the opportunity, or because it can be difficult to determine all of the facts before buying.
Ultimately, buying a phone SIM free can save you money, and it can also give you early access to handsets that would be otherwise unavailable. However, there are a few considerations to take into account before you purchase, which we will detail below.
For first time buyers, importing a smartphone is a decision that requires a fair bit of research, so we would like to help by putting all relevant information in one place. If, for you, the pros outweigh the cons, then hopefully we can do business someday. If not and you think that the disadvantages are too great an obstacle, then thanks anyway for reading!
The guide is also relevant for tablets and other products with cellular capabilities we sell, such as MiFi modules.
Full disclosure: we are a ‘SIM free mobile retailer’ and would like to sell you stuff, but only if it is right for you. We’re not going to sugar coat the situation, nor dress it up as something it’s not. Below you can find both the advantages and disadvantages of importing a SIM free smartphone into North America.
What we'll cover in this post:
- What does SIM Free mean?
- What are the pros and cons of importing a phone?
- What happens with shipping, taxes and import duties
- What happens with warranty/faults with the device
- Compatibility with LTE networks
- Where to sell a used cell phone
- What happens with region locking
- Which service providers to use once you've purchased a SIM free handset
A quick run through of the pros and cons
For those of you that don't have time to read the entire post, here's a quick overview of the pros and cons of importing a UK SIM Free phone to North America. We cover these in more detail throughout the post below.
- It can be cheaper in the long run
- You have greater flexibility in choosing a handset, and you can import handsets that are not yet available in your country
- You have greater flexibility in choosing/changing your service provider
- Your handset is 'unlocked' which makes it easier to use with foreign SIM cards if you travel
- You can change your phone more frequently
- You can have a service deal that runs month to month, rather than year to year
- You can take advantage of foreign deals on SIM free handsets, such as the Z3 Compact at the moment
- There is no carrier bloatware installed on the device
- There's an upfront cost when buying a phone outright
- You need to determine whether the handset is compatible in your country (mainly for 4G LTE)
- You may need to return the phone to the UK if it needs to be repaired
- You need to calculate if there will be import duties
- You need to pay to have the phone shipped from the UK
We need your help!
We've compiled this from our own experiences shipping to the US/Canada, and we've also spoken to our customers and blog contacts that are based in North America. However, the more we can talk to people that have completed the process, the better this guide will be.
If you've got any more insight to add, please click here to email us.
Taking the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact as an example
Throughout this guide we'll use the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact as a point of reference. At the time of writing this was a bit of an atypical example because it had a large discount running - handsets aren't always this cheap to import from the UK - but it does demonstrate how you can take advantage of such deals should you be making use of the 'SIM Free system'.
It's also good to use a Sony handset as an example because they have greater international LTE 4G compatibility than some of the other handsets that we range, such as Samsung smartphones.
What exactly is SIM free?
When you buy a smartphone SIM free it comes completely unlocked and without a SIM card, which means it can be used by any GSM carrier. Until recently, this meant that you could use it with almost any SIM card worldwide.
This situation has now changed slightly because Samsung has started locking its SIM free handsets by region (Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia etc.), as was brought to light by the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. More info on this further down the page.
What are the cost advantages of buying/importing a SIM free handset?
We've got a more detailed guide here which compares the cost of the SIM free model to the subsidised model (in the UK), but in a nutshell buying a handset SIM free often works out cheaper in the long run.
Essentially you can buy a service contract (whereby you are provided with a SIM card only, not the cell phone as well) from your chosen carrier at a much lower rate as they are not subsidising a phone, so you can save money every month.
Another advantage of the SIM free model is that it gives you greater flexibility when choosing a handset. For instance, at the time of writing there are no US/Canadian carriers that range the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. It is due to be released in these regions in the coming weeks, but it's available in the UK SIM Free from this week onwards.
However, were you to import a UK SIM free version of the Z3 Compact, you could put a US/Canadian SIM card in it and start using it immediately. In a similar sense, you could get hold of a phone that may be exclusive to a carrier you don’t want to use.
Check your carrier’s deals for service-only prices. You should find that you can get the same or even better level of service than you receive now -- at a cheaper monthly rate -- by not including a phone. It's also worth mentioning that SIM free handsets will not come with carrier bloatware.
What are the cost disadvantages of buying a SIM free handset?
The main disadvantage is that you need to pay for the handset upfront, all in one go. This is compared to a subsidised phone which you receive without paying anything (or a heavily reduced price) on upgrade day, with an additional monthly rate to cover the cost.
However, the same logic applies here as with any kind of financial loan: if you buy a car outright, it is cheaper overall than taking out a loan, paying back monthly instalments and paying interest on the money borrowed. When you enter into a subsidised phone deal that is essentially what you are doing - taking out a loan for the phone on top of the service contract.
Buying SIM free will mean spending more on day one, however with a good deal from your carrier you should be looking at much lower monthly payments (for service only), as they will not be subsidising the handset.
What are the logistics of importing a phone?
There are a few things to consider when importing a phone. These include shipping, customs, network compatibility and warranty.
We offer shipping by either courier or registered mail. We advise courier shipping as it is quicker and can be tracked more thoroughly, plus it's usually only a little bit more expensive than registered mail.
Courier shipping (DHL) to the US is currently around 31 USD and takes only 1 to 3 working days to arrive. At the moment we do not offer FedEx shipping to the US because we find that customers are more likely to experience problems with customs. Courier shipping (FedEx) to Canada is currently around 36 CAD and takes 1 to 3 working days to arrive. We also offer DHL shipping to Canada, although it takes longer (1 to 6 working days) and is more expensive (roughly 50 CAD).
Registered mail shipping is slightly cheaper for both and may take 3 to 7 working days to arrive. When your order is dispatched, we email you a tracking number so that you can track it online.
Courier websites give regular updates and you can even have these sent to you automatically using services like Boxoh IFTTT. Updates about the package location during transit are less frequent when sent by registered mail.
What happens with taxes and import duties?
The total that we charge you does not include UK VAT (Value Added Tax). VAT shown on our website only applies to countries within the EU. Therefore the total that we charge you in N. America is the price including shipping but never with VAT.
For example, let’s say a phone costs £300 (for the handset) £19 (courier shipping) = £319, which is roughly 523 USD or 575 CAD at the time of writing. These prices do of course fluctuate depending on the exchange rate; the stronger the dollar is against the pound, the cheaper it will be for you. So the total that Clove charge you is the cost of the handset (without VAT) shipping.
There are no additional charges from us after that. You may however be charged import / release duties when the package reaches your country. If your state or province charges sales tax on online orders, then you may also need to pay this at the local rate on the value of the goods. Couriers will usually contact you directly to pay any outstanding monies before delivery, USPS or Canada Post will expect you to pay them if we are shipping by registered mail. In some cases the courier may pay the charge for you and then invoice you upon delivering the item, but this is not usually the case.
From what we understand there is no national tax for importing electronic goods into Canada; you only need to pay tax at a local level, which varies by province. There is a duty calculator available here, although we cannot say for certain how accurate it is.
Generally you should expect to pay between 20% and 30% when importing a phone. Please be aware that this is an approximation, though. It could be a bit more or it could be a bit less - it varies depending on state and province.
If you have experience importing goods to North America, it would be great if you could provide more detailed information for us to add to this guide. Please click here to email us or leave a comment below.
Another eventuality to consider is the return of the handset should it need repairing. Some manufacturers will allow you to return the handset to your nearest local repair centre, so we recommend trying to contact them first. Others insist that it is sent to a service centre in the region from which it was purchased.
If you do need to send the handset back to the UK for repair, we will assist you with this. You may ship the handset to us, and we can forward it to the service centre on your behalf. This means that you only need to deal with us, not the manufacturer’s service centre. In this situation, you are responsible for the cost of shipping to and from us, but we will cover any internal shipping arrangements and costs within the UK.
It is quite rare that a handset needs to be returned due to a manufacturing fault, but when it does happen we strive to resolve the situation for you as quickly as possible.
What happens if the phone is faulty when it arrives?
You should contact us within 48 hours of receiving the phone so we can act straight away and provide you with a returns form and reference number. We can usually organise a collection from an address of your choosing at our cost using our own DHL account. Should you want a replacement device we will also cover the cost of this as a gesture of goodwill.
Replacements can be tested for faults before shipping should you request this. After contacting us for a returns number you may send the phone back at your own cost, however we will not be able to reimburse this. After 48 hours of receipt (excluding weekends), the handset will be considered received in good condition and faults will be dealt with via Clove’s standard international returns policy.
If you are buying the phone as a gift for someone else, we recommend opening and testing before presenting it.
Is an imported phone compatible on all North American networks?
Network compatibility is an important consideration for North America with the different available carriers. All of Clove’s phones are GSM, so right from the start they will not be compatible with any CDMA networks.
- All of our phones will provide global 2G connectivity for voice and SMS.
- 3G connectivity should be available on all N. American carriers, however some phones (particularly those from lesser known manufacturers or in the lower price tiers), may have limited compatibility outside Europe.
- For 4G LTE, some of our phones may not have the correct frequency support for all carriers. For instance most new Sony phones will work on every carrier; however the equivalent handset from Samsung may only work on one or even no major carriers, instead falling back to 3G.
The reason for the differences is because Clove’s phones are designed to work in Europe where the frequencies are standardised across all carriers. Some N. American carriers use frequencies not used in Europe for their 3G & 4G service. These also happen to be different to other N. American carriers they compete with.
Not all manufacturers include support for every possibility in their localised European versions. You can check the specification tab for any of our phones and look for the frequencies it supports on 3G & 4G LTE. Compare these with your carrier for compatibility.
If in doubt email the Clove team and we can investigate for you.
If we look at the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact as an example again, it works on the following LTE bands: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 20. This means that it works on the following frequencies: 700 / 750 / 800 / 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1800 / 1900 / 2100 / 2600 MHz.
If you were purchasing the handset, you would first need to check the LTE bands/frequencies that your service provider operates on. Usually a quick Google search or Wikipedia article will provide the answer.
Using AT&T as an example: if you google "AT&T LTE Bands" it returns the Wikipedia entry for AT&T. Within the article it states that AT&T operates on the frequencies 700, 1700, 1900 and 2300MHz.
The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is compatible with three out of four of these (700, 1700 & 1900), meaning it is compatible on AT&T for LTE.
Are 'Unlocked' and 'SIM free' the same thing?
You will often hear SIM free handsets being referred to as 'unlocked', i.e. they are not locked to a particular carrier. Another phrase is 'never-locked' or 'open-market', which distinguishes our phones that are designed to be used on any network from day one, from those which were previously locked.
When you buy a SIM free phone it could also be said that you are 'buying the phone outright', i.e. you pay for it all in one go, not on a month by month basis.
Which services can you use to sell a phone in the US?
Buying a SIM free smartphone gives you the option to change your handset frequently; you can sell your existing handset to subsidise the purchase of a newer model without having to wait for an upgrade cycle.
To get cash for your handset online you can either sell it on a marketplace website such as Swappa, Ebay or Craigslist, or you could recycle it, although the latter is unlikely to give you as good a return as the former.
There are many websites that offer recycling services, and the website http://www.compareandrecycle.com/ will aggregate many of them for you.
What happens when a handset is locked by region?
Currently this only applies to Samsung handsets. When a handset is region locked it has the hardware capability to work outside of its intended region (Europe in Clove’s case), however there is a software lock that means the phone must be correctly activated first, otherwise SIM cards from outside of this region will not work.
We monitor all new releases to check for region locks. If they have this then a warning is added to the checkout of the Clove website. You will need to check a box and agree to extra terms before you can place an order for a phone with a region lock. These terms state that we will open the box (breaking any seals) and activate the phone by installing a UK SIM card.
We will reset the phone and remove the SIM card before shipping; however the box will clearly be opened. Once complete, this process means the phone can work properly with SIM cards from other regions.
As we detail in this post, a region lock may be removed unofficially using a code. Otherwise it can be removed officially by sending the phone to a Samsung service centre.
Once I have a SIM free handset, what are my options with service providers?
Buying a SIM free phone may be the perfect time for you to start service with a new carrier or provider. Inform your current carrier that you intend to end your service at the end of your contract to move elsewhere and that you will be buying a new phone outright.
In this situation they may offer you a deal at a better rate than they publicly advertise in order to keep your custom. If you are still locked into several months of a contract, it may be better to wait until the cost of cancellation, release or waiting out to the end is not so high.
Ultimately this choice is yours to make based on your finances.
Service only contracts
Otherwise you can look at the prices for a service only (sometimes called SIM-only) contract.
Without including the cost of a phone to confuse matters, it should be easier to compare the service levels (included voice minutes, data limits etc.) and prices from all the available carriers. Depending on the carrier, some of these contracts may be offered on a monthly basis which can be cancelled with 30 day’s notice, rather than locking you into a 2 year cycle.
This service model is relatively new in N. America, although is becoming very popular across Europe as the prices of SIM free phones are falling and service levels are very similar between providers.
If you can get a month to month ‘rolling’ contract as described above then you are completely free to switch carriers as you please if someone comes out with a better deal. This is one of the best things about having a SIM free phone; you don’t get locked to a carrier and can take your phone to wherever the best deal for you is.
Getting a SIM free phone can also open up the market for using a smaller, lesser known provider. Known as MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators), these companies lease service from the major networks and then sell it on to customers.
There are many reasons for choosing an MVNO. They may offer service at a rate below the standard for the market or have much better, personalised customer service. Perhaps they have values as a smaller business that you believe in such as donating some profits to charity.
A list of MVNOs in the USA can be found on Wikipedia here. If you are committed to buying a SIM free phone, now is the perfect time to look at your usage and discover what really is best for you.
Often the popular 2 year contracts from major networks include services that you don’t need or perhaps skimp on what you do actually use. Once you are SIM free, you can shop around and really get what you want.
As we mentioned earlier, we only want to send you a smartphone or similar product if it is right for both you and us. Shipping a phone that is unsuitable or incompatible wastes time for both parties, and we know from 20 years of experience that it’s better to get it right from the start.
If you are thinking of placing an order but have a few questions first, email us at sales [at] clove.co.uk, or call us on 44 1202 552936. You can also get in touch with us on social media: Google , Twitter, Facebook. If you would like to read a bit more about Clove as a company, you can find our about page here.