Around this time every year, dozens of smartphone manufacturers unveil their latest and greatest creations. They show them off at CES in Las Vegas, giving the tech press time to use demo units and write reviews of what’s in store for the new year. Within a month or two, they hit the shelves around the world, waiting to be snatched up in droves by consumers everywhere.
Here in the U.S., the wireless industry is a bit of a different game than it is in Europe, for example. Here, the wireless carriers control the market. You get your device, which is made specifically for your carrier, from your carrier. Depending on which one you use, you commit to a two year contract in exchange for a subsidy off the full retail price of the phone. That phone, then, is “locked” to that carrier. If you decide to leave them for whatever reason in the future, you’ll need to get a new phone, which typically means a new contract.
What’s worse? A lot of the new devices that get announced never make their way to the U.S. by way of an official carrier. China and Japan get them in Asia. The UK and France get them in Europe. Brazil and Argentina get them in South America. Yet here in the U.S., we’re left wishing we got the same selection. For whatever reason, be it a deal between the manufacturer and the carrier, or limited marketing budget, some devices just never make it to our shores.
At least not officially.
If you want one such device, you’re not completely out of luck. You should just expect to spend a little bit more and jump through a few hoops to make your dream come true.
There are two specific companies I recommend that import devices from overseas and resell them to the public here in the U.S. They aren’t subsidized by a contract, because they aren’t from your carrier. As a result, you end up paying full retail price. On some devices that are hard to come by, you’ll even pay more. However, they come fully unlocked for use on any compatible carrier around the world.
Based in Chicago, Illinois, you wouldn’t give a second thought to the company if you walked past their storefront on Devon Avenue. It’s a whole in the wall shop in a rough neighborhood on the north side of Chi town. Looking at the window display, you might assume they peddle knock off devices like fake iPhones.
I’m happy to say I’ve ordered from them twice now, and each time, I’ve been pleased. The first time was some six months ago when I ordered the Sony Xperia Z1, long before the Z1S came to T-Mobile. I paid $775 for it, shipped. Sony’s suggested retail price: $649. It arrived a few short days later, just as described. Brand new in the box, European AC adapter, US AC adapter converter, charger dock/stand, and all original paperwork.
The first time I turned it on, the Android operation system was set to a character-based language (Chinese?) that I didn’t know. After tinkering for a few minutes, I was able to get it set to English as the default language. Since then, it’s operated 100% as it would had it been made for the U.S.
I’ve used it on AT&T, T-Mobile, and AIO Wireless, all with no trouble.
Just today, I ordered the new Xperia Z1 Compact, the 4.3-inch version of the Z1 I already have, from Overseas Electronics. My total was $692, shipped to my door. Once again, my experience ordering with them over the phone was quick and painless. I was able to sell my original Z1 for $500 on Craigslist, so in all, I came out of pocket $192 for the new phone. Not bad.
Let that cycle continue repeatedly, and I’m paying about the same as a subsidized phone would cost from a carrier every time I upgrade, as often as I want. No contracts. No one specific carrier that I’m tied down to. When I travel globally later this year, my phone will work wherever I go. Because I use T-Mobile, my monthly plan is cheap ($30 bucks for 5 GB of 4G data, 100 minutes, unlimited texts), and I have free data in more than 100 countries around the globe. It’s an all around WIN for me. Later this year, or early next year, whenever Sony comes out with the next iteration of it’s flagship Xperia Z lineup, I’ll sell the one I have now and upgrade again.
Contact Info for Overseas Electronics:
While I’ve never used Negri Electronics personally, I know a few people who have, and each have spoken favorably about their experience. They’re based out of Las Vegas, and have been around for more than seven years. In that time, they’ve sold more devices to more than 35,000 customers around the world.
The company boasts a huge selection of devices, from laptops and tablets, to cameras and smartphones. Depending on the specific device you’re looking for, they almost always have every color option available from the manufacturer, and if there’s more than one international version, they carry them all.
Negri Electronics is also active on Twitter, and I’ve interacted with them on several occasions. While I wasn’t able to get in touch with them in time regarding the order I placed today, I plan to try again with them in the future. You’ll find that their prices are a bit higher than Overseas Electronics in most cases, but in several, I’ve seen them $40 – $70 lower. It’s worth checking with both of these companies before you order.
Now that you know how to get a smartphone that isn’t available for sale by U.S. carriers, the other question that remains is: how do you use it?
You’ll need to look closely at the unlocked model you order, whether from one of the two companies I listed here, or otherwise. Manufacturers typically make many versions of one specific phone, which each include different wireless radios that work in a select group of countries.
Here in the U.S., for example, T-Mobile and AT&T are the two major carriers that allow the use of unlocked devices on their network. For T-Mobile 4G LTE, you’ll need a device that is compatible with 1700 MHz frequency. For AT&T 4G LTE, you’ll need a device that is compatible with 700 MHz or 1700 MHz. Most devices that include the 1700 MHz frequency also include the 700 MHz frequency.
As for Sprint and Verizon: at present, neither of them allow you to bring an unlocked device to their network, even if it is technically compatible with their technology. I’ve tried my Xperia Z1 with a Verizon SIM card, just to get an error message when I turned it on.
You can also check here for a full list of all international carrier 4G LTE frequencies and bands.
As a third option, you can opt for one of the smaller MVNO carriers like AIO Wireless or Straight Talk, which operate mostly on AT&T’s network, but offer substantial savings over AT&T’s rates. I’ll cover prepaid MVNO carriers in another blog post.
Both Negri Electronics and Overseas Electronics stipulate that the devices they sell include whatever warranty is provided by the manufacturer of the device. So, if you buy a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and four months later, the screen stops working, you’ll need to contact Samsung directly to arrange a warranty claim. If device is carrier branded (i.e. has a carrier logo stamped on it or on the box), no warranty exists, since the carrier assumes warranty liability for devices they sell as part of the agreement with the manufacturer.
One saving grace in all of this: if you buy from Negri Electronics, you’re eligible to purchase the “NegriCare Proection Plan.” It covers manufacturer defects as well as accidental damage for your device. You can decide at the time of purchase if you want to buy one year or two years of coverage. With the devices I looked at, a one year plan was $59 and a two year plan was $79. Should you need to file a claim, you pay a deductible of $50.
You can check with your wireless carrier, but they most likely won’t offer insurance for your unlocked device (usually through a third-party company called Asurion). That option is usually only available for devices purchased from the carrier.
If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to give me a shout on Twitter: @mbchp.
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