Don’t buy a grey market smartphone (updated guide)

With the low prices for 5G phones, it is vital to know that if you buy a grey market phone, it will likely not work on the Australian 5G network. It may not even work on the 4G network. The same applies to overseas purchases as well.

Here is a summary of the main issues relating to grey market smartphones and these are explained in-depth further on.

  • It will generally not work on Australian 5G networks (it may connect to 4G). Australian Telcos require specific commands and metadata to make or receive phone 5G calls.
  • It may not hand off to other towers, causing signal loss when moving.
  • There is no manufacturer’s Australian warranty—you rely on the online vendor, and most require you to ship it back to China at your cost.
  • Have different modem specifications, especially for Wi-Fi 6, 6E and 7 phones. Some frequencies used in other countries are illegal to use here (ACMA only allocates portions of the spectrum).
  • No over-the-air (firmware) updates. These are country-specific and are often tied to the IMEI number.
  • Won’t make a 000 emergency call (set for 911 or other emergency network)
  • Won’t receive SMS, MMS, etc. (They may receive the newer RCS text and multimedia).
  • Chargers may not be RCM C-Tick approved, voiding fire insurance.
  • And the big issue – a huge upswing in fake phones that are hard to tell from a real one.

Samsung’s take

Samsung sells more phones than any other manufacturer. It sees numerous issues of grey market and fake phones (read later) and has published an official position on this – Samsung Made for Australia.

Note that its approved retailers include Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, JB Hi-Fi, Harvey Norman, The Good Guys, Amazon (Samsung Official Store only), Officeworks, Bing Lee, Woolworths, David Jones, Myer, Costco, BIG W, Target, Radio Rentals, RT Edwards, Retravision, Betta, and Australia Post.

You will note that this excludes all grey-market sellers below who will swear on their mother’s grave that they sell fully guaranteed Australian stock. Total bovine excrement!

Other brands – (not all models are sold at all approved resellers).

Motorola-approved resellers include Harvey Norman (and its sub-brands), JB Hi-Fi, Good Guys, Officeworks, Big W, and usually the three telcos. It also sells online via Lenovo’s e-commerce site.

OPPO sells online and via JB Hi-Fi, Good Guys, Woolworths, Big W, Coles, Officeworks, Bunnings, and its Amazon official store (not via the Marketplace), all major telcos and Konec Mobile (OPPO affiliated).

Apple has a website locator for genuine products.

Google PIxel has Harvey Norman (and its sub-brands), JB Hi-Fi, Good Guys, Officeworks, Qantas Marketplace, and the three telcos.

Some manufacturers use MyDeal and for runout stock. There may be some business/enterprise solutions suppliers.

What is the grey market?

It is anything other than approved retailers. Grey market is almost any merchant marketplace from Kogan (includes Dick Smith, Matt Blatt, Mighty Ape), Amazon, eBay, as well as lots of smaller stores like:

All PC Supplies
Australian Warehouse
BecexTech Australia
Best Mobile Phone Australia
Buy Mobile Australia
Cash Converters
Cooper Connect
Design Info
Green Gadgets
“H” Deal
JC Browns Market

MobileCity/ MobileCiti/Mobiciti
My Mobile
“N”Onestop digital
OZ Mobiles
Privacy Portal
“Q”Rebello (and its marketplace)
Spectronic Australia
3 Brothers Mobiles
Tech Cart
TobyDeals AU
“U”“V”Wise Market Australia
100’s more (many are a guise for the same companies)

Readers have asked specifically about Mobileciti (and all variations). Let’s just say that it may have some Australian stock, but it also has a huge grey market range. Samsung, Apple, and Motorola have all tried to have it remove their grey market products from its website.

That does not mean that some of the above may have some genuine Australian brands/models, but how do you know until you buy and try to get a refund? Good luck there!

If you find a grey marketer, please let us know, and we will add it to the list. If your company is listed as grey market and it is not, please get your manufacturer to email [email protected] with verification, and we will immediately remove the listing.

Problems with grey market phones

Telco bands

In the old 3G days grey market was not an issue as this was a global network. But as 3G is phasing out soon, you won’t be able to fall back from 4/5G to that to make a voice call.

4G is an issue as some bands are uniquely Australian and not supported by grey market phones. In particular, lower bands 28 (700Mhz), 5 (850Mhz), and 8 (900Mhz) are best for in-building and distance coverage. Grey market typically only get bands 3 (1800Mhz), 1 (2100Mhz), 7 (2600Mhz) and 40 (2300Mhz). These are only good for the city and suburbs – short distance line-of-sight to the tower. If you use Optus, its Band 42 (3500Mhz) becomes more important as a 4G+ data band.

5G is critical as the IMEI of all genuine Australian phones is registered with the Telcos. Simply put, you can only activate Australian 5G handsets in Australia first, and then they can roam overseas. That means grey market 5G may turn out to be nothing more than an expensive 4G phone.

Some brands, like Samsung, also region-lock genuine Australian phones. They are trying to protect your interests from unscrupulous grey market importers as phones from other countries are often stolen, refurbs, second-hand, demos, seconds, or even counterfeit.

Mandatory Australian Telco bands (Whirlpool list)

  • 3G Telstra (5), Optus (1, 8) and Vodafone (8)
  • 4G Telstra (1, 3, 7, 8, 28), Optus (1, 3, 7, 28, 40, 42) and Vodafone (1, 3, 5, 7)
  • 5G Sub-6Ghz n78
  • 5G Low band, n5 (Telstra), n28 (Vodafone), n40 (Optus)
  • mmWave (not in wide use) n257, n258 and possibly n261

OS upgrades and security patches – none

You may not get operating system upgrades or regular security patches. That means they are more vulnerable to malware and other issues.

Warranty – none

Grey market phones do not have an Australian Consumer Law warranty, where the retailer and the manufacturer must provide the warranty.

The majority make it very hard to claim a warranty saying that it is a user error or physical damage is not covered. You often have to post the item back to the company, usually at an international address. That can take weeks, and forget any hope of a refund – all sales are final.

How to identify a grey market phone

The majority of these

  • have a non-genuine international round/flat pin charger or a non-genuine generic Australia charger or adapter
  • are shrink-wrapped – no box (so you cannot check the original carton for the region or LTE bands printed on it)
  • do not support all 4G (or 5G) bands used here
  • do not support Telstra/Optus or Vodafone VoLTE (Voice-over-LTE)
  • won’t make a 000-emergency call without a SIM
  • may not hand off properly from one tower to another (billing issues and dropouts)
  • won’t accept over-the-air firmware updates – ever!
  • Do not have RCM C-Tick under settings and regulatory lables.

So, you end up with 4G for most use.

Fake phones

Benchmarking platform AnTuTu has revealed that from March 2020 to February 2021, about 5% of 3.15 million phones tested were fake. Samsung led the way with 34%, Apple 13%, OPPO 5% and vivo 3%.

Since then, it has become an epidemic. OzBargain reported that 9 out of 10 Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultras sold on marketplaces were fake! Read more at XDA.

And the big one – RCM C-Tick

If you go to Settings, About Phone, Regulatory Information (or similar), you must see the RCM C-Tick mark. It must also be on the charger and the box.

Cybershack’s view – don’t do it

We all love a bargain, and we have been guilty of eyeing off these apparent grey market bargains without knowing the downsides. This guide is not to scare you but to help you spot a grey market or even a counterfeit phone.

Cybershack Grey Market news