Reasons Not to Buy an Unlocked iPhone in the US for Use in the UK

by Dan Forster - , Last Updated on October 6, 2014, Buying Guides

Buying an iPhone is a bit of a large investment, and that means that some people are considering going abroad to get their hands on the latest cool bit of tech. However, heading to the States to buy yourself a new iPhone 6 or 6 Plus might not be to your advantage. Why’s that? Read on to find out.

Wait, Why Would I Want to Buy an iPhone in the US Anyway?

Before we tell you why you shouldn’t be buying your new iPhone in the States, we should first probably tell you why this is an option that people are considering. There are two reasons behind this.

The first is that traditionally electronics have been cheaper on the US market. This was especially true for the first iPhone models, though the price difference has become less over time. With so many Brits headed to the US for holidays and business anyway, some people think that picking up the new iPhone whilst they’re over there makes financial sense.

The second reason is availability. Again, traditionally American markets have had more iPhone devices, meaning that they’re easier to get hold of. With the first iPhones it was easier to walk into a US operator and walk out with a phone than it was with a UK operator, where there were generally waiting lists. This on the whole is no longer true at all, and you’ll probably have just as good a chance with your home operator as you would with a US operator.

It’s Not As Cheap as You Think It Is…

There’s a rumour going around that in the US the new iPhone 6 is being sold for just $199. This is completely untrue, though the phone is being offered on contract for a down payment of $199, which we’ll come back to in a moment. What about base prices though? If you do the simple math, yes, prices in the US are cheaper, but bare with us for a moment.

In the UK the iPhone 6 is being sold SIM free for between £539 and £699, and the iPhone 6 Plus is being sold SIM free for between £619 and £789, depending on how much memory you’re looking for. With the current exchange rate the iPhone 6 is being sold SIM free in the US for between £400 and £524, and the iPhone 6 Plus for between £462 and £586. Be aware that those US prices do not include US sales tax, which varies by state, so in reality prices will be several percent higher depending on which state you buy in.

But… and here’s the big but. Those US prices do not include UK VAT payments and import duties, which add another 20% onto the cost. Do you need to pay VAT on items purchased abroad? Legally, yes, you should. When coming back through customs into the UK you should be prepared to pay that tax. Will you be caught if you don’t? Maybe, maybe not, it’s a risk you’ll have to take. Add that VAT on and you’re not looking at any significant savings at all.

Those $199 dollar prices being quoted online are based on an iPhone that’s bought on contract through a US carrier. Similar to the way things work here in the UK you can pay a down payment on the phone (in this case $199) and then pay the balance of the cost in your monthly phone bills. This kind of makes those prices irrelevant to the UK market for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, most US carriers will not let you sign a US contract to get the phone anyway (they’ll require proof of residency in most cases). Secondly, what on earth would you do with the US phone plan that you’re paying for each month even if you did get to sign a contract? You’d need to come home and get a UK contract anyway, so you’d just end up paying for service twice every month.

We’re not denying that you can make some small savings on buying a SIM free iPhone in the US, especially if you don’t get caught bringing the phone into the country (should you mail it in the chances of being caught are far, far higher). But those savings just might not be worth your time. And the low, low US prices that you’re seeing rumoured aren’t going to benefit you in any way at all.

Does It Work?

The question of mobile frequencies is a very complicated one. It used to be that different countries used different frequencies for mobile signals, and buying a phone in a country that used frequency X meant that the phone would not work in a country that used frequency Y.

The situation has got a lot better recently though, with most manufacturers producing phones that support multiple bands (frequencies) and can therefore be sold in lots of different countries. There are two issues here: the frequency used for 3G and the frequency used for 4G.

So far, we have no information about which 3G bands are supported by the iPhone, so we can’t definitely say whether or not a US phone will work in the UK. Chances are that it will, since 3G is pretty old tech at this point and most mobiles are capable of supporting both US and UK frequencies.

When it comes to 4G, Apple have listed all three of the UK 4G frequencies as supported for both phones. But that’s not as conclusive as it sounds. Whilst companies list their frequencies as, say 1800 MHz that frequency isn’t exactly 1800 MHz, it may be 1798 MHz, for example. Whether or not the new iPhone is capable of supporting that exact frequency is unknown (at least until someone here tries it).

Will your US iPhone work? It probably will, but we can’t be totally sure.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that you’re taking a risk. If you buy a US iPhone and you DON’T get caught bringing it into the country and you DON’T have to pay VAT and import taxes and the phone DOES work with your current network provider, then yes, you’re getting somewhat of a bargain. But there are a lot of variables in that sentence. In the long run, you’re probably better off just paying a few pounds more and avoiding any potential hassle by buying your iPhone here in the UK.

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