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How to buy a Sim-free phone online: what to watch out for when shopping for deals

Buying a phone Sim-free phone in the sales can save you money, but not all online deals are as good as they seem

How to buy a Sim-free phone online: what to watch out for when shopping for deals

Buying a phone outright and shopping for a Sim deal separately can often save you money, but be careful where you shop – sites that offer big savings might have hidden costs to pay.

Shopping for a phone online can be a challenge – there’s no shortage of retailers vying for your business, and a wide range of prices and discounts can make some deals seem impossible to ignore. But things are not always as they seem, and going for the lowest price can often be the wrong decision.

Below, we look at your three main options – buying directly from the smartphone brand or major retailer, buying from an online marketplace, and using a lesser-known online electronics retailer.

Online shopping tips – invaluable advice on your consumer rights

Option 1: Buying from a brand or retailer

If you’re treating yourself to a new smartphone and don’t fancy hitting the high street, you’ll no doubt be heading online to sift through tempting deals.

Buying directly from the manufacturer obviously means you know exactly where the phone is coming from. There are no questions over the legitimacy of the company and you can guarantee you’ll be getting a UK model, and a proper warranty.

In some cases, you’ll be able to trade in your old phone to save money on its replacement. Buy an iPhone 11 from Apple directly, for example, and your old 64GB iPhone X could be worth up to £290 if it’s in ‘good’ condition.

Bigger savings can often, but not always, be found at big-name tech retailers such as Argos, Carphone Warehouse or Currys PC World. You’ll usually have the option of paying for your Sim-free smartphone on finance if you’re buying through an established technology retailer. If you’ve never considered the benefits of buying direct from brands, read our story on buying direct vs buying from retailers.

The good

  • It’s the safe option – You won’t have doubts over the origin of the Sim-free mobile you’re ordering.
  • Drop by in person – If you’re buying from a chain retailer and have some questions, you can visit in-store to chat with somebody in person, and see the device in action.
  • Trade-in deals – Most smartphone brands will give you money off a new phone if you’re trading in an old one.

The bad

  • It’s pricier – You may find a better deal online if you’re willing to shop around.

Tips for shopping at brands and retailers

You’re unlikely to have any issues with the device itself, but even if you’re buying from a well-known brand site or retailer, make sure you’re clued up on delivery costs and returns. This information will be tucked away somewhere on the brand’s website. On Currys PC World, for example, the information you’ll want to glance at lives under Our services Returns & cancellations.

Remember, returning an unwanted smartphone you purchased in a shop isn’t an automatic right. Each store will have its own terms and conditions that you’ll need to familiarise yourself with in case the product is faulty or you wish to return it.

For more details on returning goods and getting your money back, see our expert advice on returns and refunds.

Option 2: Buying from an online marketplace like Amazon or eBay

Shop wisely through an online marketplace and you could scoop up a juicy deal. There are plenty of savings to be made, but you’ll need to be careful about which sellers you’re trusting with your money.

There are risks related to ordering from a marketplace that could see you end up with a non-UK device. Even though sellers promise a shiny new gadget, some traders might actually send you a smartphone that’s refurbished or even slightly used.

If you’re shopping through Amazon, check the seller’s profile. Clicking the seller’s name will take you to a page of customer reviews. On the same page, you’ll see a full business address. If the seller is located outside of the UK, proceed with caution or track down an alternative seller.

Amazon and eBay buyer protection

It’s far safer to opt for a device that’s sold from Amazon itself, or tagged as ‘fulfilled by Amazon’. Fulfilled by Amazon products are sold by a third-party seller but sent from an Amazon Fulfilment Centre, and Amazon handles customer service and product returns for these listings.

Many of the same dangers apply when buying on eBay, but it’s worth noting that most purchases on the site are covered under the eBay Money Back Guarantee. This comes into force if you don’t receive an item, receive an item that doesn’t match its description or get sent a phone that arrives broken.

You’re free to contact eBay sellers directly if you have any problems, but an eBay support agent can step in if things get messy. Under eBay’s Money Back Guarantee, the seller has eight days to resolve your issue.

The good

  • A safety net – Both Amazon and eBay have buyer protection schemes. Amazon uses its Fulfilled by Amazon system, while eBay has its Money-Back Guarantee.
  • Cheaper than a brand website – You’ll get a better deal shopping through an online marketplace than you would by buying directly through the phone maker.

The bad

  • The waiting game – If you end up buying a smartphone from an online marketplace, you could be waiting weeks to get your hands on your new smartphone. It all depends on which third- party company is fulfilling your order.
  • Scam risk – Pick the wrong marketplace seller and you could receive a faulty product or an entirely different phone to the one you ordered. Buyer reviews can help you here.
  • The small print – you may find phones sold through these marketplaces that are not UK models, or used and refurbished phones, and this isn’t always immediately clear from the listing.

Tips for shopping at online marketplaces

If you’re shopping for a Sim-free phone from an online marketplace, make sure the device you’re buying is brand new. The product listing will usually specify the condition, but if you’re unsure ask the seller directly.

Another thing to consider is the origin of the smartphone you’re buying. Make sure it’s a UK mobile – if it’s imported from another country, pre-installed apps and services could vary, as could support under warranty. You’ll also want to check delivery and return costs.

Do some research into the company you’re buying from: search for the store outside the marketplace to see if they have their own website, read reviews from other buyers, and check for customer service and contact details.

As always, read through the returns conditions before parting with your money and confirm full manufacturer warranty before adding the phone to your basket.

Our experts offer guidance and top tips for online marketplace shopping. See our online marketplace guide for more details.

Option 3: Buying from an online electronics retailer

You might also come across online retailers you haven’t heard of when shopping around online. These are often found on price comparison listings, like Google Shopping, and you may well find that prices are cheaper than you’d expect.

This is the option to be most wary of when buying a smartphone, or any form of technology – the old adage of ‘too good to be true’ can certainly apply here.

In a recent investigation, we uncovered a series of retailers, including eGlobalCentral, TobyDeals and Techinthebasket, who were based in Hong Kong, but for all intents and purposes appeared to be a UK business. Each had returns policies that breached English consumer law, including processing fees for cancellations, restocking fees for returns, and a lack of sufficient contact information.

These retailers were prominently displayed on Google Shopping results for popular tech products, including the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and Dyson V11. Prices undercut what you’d typically expect to pay at larger retailers, but this may not always be a wise saving to make – especially if something goes wrong and you have trouble resolving issues with returns or faulty goods.

Read the full story of our investigation into Google Shopping and electronic retailers.

The good

  • Cheap – you’ll often find the cheapest prices at these websites

The bad

  • What are you buying? – the mobile phone you’re buying may be registered to a foreign country, which among other things, could mean you don’t receive full UK warranty support from the manufacturer.
  • Hidden charges – if something goes wrong with a product, you may be asked to pay additional fees, not receive a full refund, or have to pay for return shipping, which if the company is based abroad, could be costly and take time.
  • Hassle – if there are issues with a product purchase, you may find they take longer to resolve, especially if this involves a product return to another country.

Tips when shopping at smaller electronics retailers

Long before you start entering your card details, you should do thorough research on the product and the retailer. Make sure your smartphone is brand new, originates from the UK and is covered by a full manufacturer warranty. Carefully check the company customer service page – including delivery and returns, and try to find an email address for the company or a support contact number. Call or email the company in advance – perhaps ask a question about the product or delivery, to see if they are responsive to customer queries.

Check where the company is based using its ‘About us’ page, along with the delivery and returns policies. Contacting the company over the phone or via email can also give you a good indication of how efficient it is.

Search for reviews of the company online to see if other customers have posted comments about their experiences – these can often be quite revealing.

Mobile phone reviews you can trust

To see which smartphones are the best for every budget, we run the latest releases through our rigorous tests. For every smartphone that we score, we run tests on the features that matter – durability, battery life, speed, display and camera.

Which? Best Buy smartphones are a joy to use, combining speedy processors and impressive cameras with a battery life that will save you from constantly looking for a charger.

Our overall score is generated solely from ratings and results from our independent test lab, where these phones are tested under identical conditions so they’re directly comparable.

Discover which smartphone soared through our tests – see our full selection of Which? Best Buy smartphones.

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