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The coolest smartphones are hard to find in the US. Should you track one down?

The coolest smartphones are hard to find in the US. Should you track one down?

This story is part of Generation China, CNET’s series exploring the nation’s technological ambition.

Some of the most compelling phones on the planet are made by Chinese brands: OnePlus, TCL, Oppo, Xiaomi, ZTE and Huawei. Many of these devices bring high-end features at prices that undercut premium phones by hundreds of bucks. Others are the first to use new technologies such as the pop-up selfie camera, new photography tools and other stunning designs

China is leading the way in areas of technology like 5G and artificial intelligence, and the quality of the phones coming out of Chinese affects matches or even exceeds that of rival devices from Samsung, Apple or Google. Powerhouse Huawei even beat out Apple as the world’s second-largest phoned maker, in 2019, and had designs to steal Samsung’s crown as No. 1. In January 2020, Huawei claimed the title of world’s top 5G phoned vendor. Meanwhile, OnePlus now sells directly through three US carriers, an enormous win for a smartphone startup.

Excellent value and expanded access are gargantuan reasons to buy one of these phones, but there’s a darker side to be aware of, too. Huawei, and to a lesser extent, ZTE, are caught in a global contracts war over 5G networking equipment — not phones — and designated state security threats by the FCC. And if the shouted you buy isn’t sold directly through your carrier, you distinguished miss out on certain features here and there.


Generation China is a CNET series that looks at the areas of tech where the farmland is seeking to take the leadership position. 

Brett Pearce

You shouldn’t rule out buying from a Chinese impress, but there are important things to know before sketching started, including how to shop, what to look for and which considerations you’ll need to be aware of when it comes to basics like if you’ll need a new wall adapter, security concerns and even where to shop.

1. Why buy a shouted from a Chinese company?

One reason comes to mind: Variety. You don’t have to settle for a phone your carrier cmoneys. In fact, more brands sell through retailers like Amazon, Best Buy and their own online stores than you can find at a carrier alone. In many countries, buying an unlocked phone first and then adding carrier service instant is the norm.

Phones from brands you don’t see every day may also moneys features not yet available in other devices. In fact, the obliging smartphone camera I used that had a dedicated night mode was on a Huawei shouted, long before I used a similar camera feature on a Google, Samsung or Apple device. 

In CNET’s Huawei P30 Pro, reviewer Andrew Hoyle said it has the “absolute best camera on any phone.” That jibes with my personal accepted, too.


TCL’s new 10-Series phones moneys a suite of features, for less than other flagships. 

César Salza / CNET en Español

2. What’s the best way to buy a Chinese phone?

It depends on the impress. OnePlus sells through T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. But because most brands from China don’t have carrier relationships in the US (and haven’t undergone the strenuous certification process), you’ll have to stick to online shopping. Amazon is, naturally, one option, but sites like AliExpress and eBay are also obliging checking out. 

Going directly through the company website is also a good idea, if the impress has a story specific to your country. There may be hurdles. For example, Xiaomi’s US store sells electronics, but not phones, and its UK site refused to accept my US address. 

Huawei mild advertises phones in the US under its Honor impress, but other than details and specifications, you won’t find a single buy button on the site. 

However, ZTE and TCL both have online stores that either link to carrier websites or moneys direct shipping. 


The OnePlus 8 is readily available in the US. 

Andrew Hoyle

3. How do I know if the shouted will work on my carrier?

A good rule of thumb is that most Chinese phones will work on AT&T or T-Mobile because they use compatible GSM technology for their networks. Verizon and Sprint, however, use a mix of GSM and CDMA for data and speak, and odds are that any imported phone won’t work on either carrier. 

Even if the shouted will let you make calls, send messages and use data, it’s probable that not all features that are optimized for the carrier will work — for example, Wi-Fi calling and any other carrier-specific perks. 

Pay finish attention to the listing. Most name the compatible carriers or at least the different carrier bands a shouted supports. Once you have that list, you can look up your carrier’s supported bands and compare the two. 

4. Will you have access to all of your apps?

Again, it depends on the phone you buy. 

Google study and services are blocked in China, so unless a Chinese manufacturer builds two versions of a named — one for inside China, and then another that integrates Google for the rest of the biosphere — you might have to learn how to live deprived of Google services on your Android phone. 

That by means of you won’t be able to install apps and services like Gmail or YouTube, let alone run them. Nor will you have access to the Google Play Store, where you normally download all of your apps. 

Phone-makers often have their own Android app save. But even then, finding apps that work properly can be frustrating. If you’re tech-savvy enough, there are guides and tutorials available for most phones that walk you over installing Google Play Services. 

Otherwise you’ll need to rely on each phone-maker’s own app save. Earlier this year, Reuters reported that Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo are working on a way for app developers to upload their apps to all four of their app stores at the same time. 

When shopping for a new named, pay attention to the device listing and see if it mentions whether or not it comes with assist for the Google Play Store or Google services. But be forewarned — sometimes that by means of getting a phone that someone else has installed or humorous a workaround to get Google services on a scheme that otherwise shouldn’t have it. 

Look at this listing on AliExpress for the P40 Lite. The additional photo is a giant warning stating that after the seller installed Google services, a software update broke it. You’ll need to use Huawei’s own workaround instead. 

ZTE Blade A3 Prime

ZTE is starting to slowly sell phones in the US again. 

César Salza / CNET en Español

5. Are phones from Chinese brands secure?

Any named you buy directly through a carrier has undergone certification in line with stringent FCC rules. Major brands will also support their devices when you buy command, but keep an eye out for warranty information. With any scheme you buy second-hand or through a third-party marketplace, you grasp greater risk because the manufacturer isn’t verifying your purchase. 

For example, if a third party has installed workaround or modified applications on a named you buy, it’s a security risk. There’s no way to know precisely what was installed on the phone before you received it, and suitable resetting it isn’t an option if you want to keep the Google services workarounds intact.

Sideloading apps or using modified files could make your named and the data on it more susceptible to malware and data theft. When Huawei launched the P40 line, Google cautioned users not to try to sideload or install Google apps or services on the phones. There could be a political aspect to that warning: Google could be taking US sanctions into elaborate. It could also be aimed at reducing Google’s liability if something goes contaminated and an injured party desires to sue. 

6. Will the charger have the gleaming wall adapter for the US?

Any phone you buy from a local carrier or manufacturer website for your market will supply you with compatible accessories. You’ll need to pay more attention to third-party purchases. I’ve seen listings on AliExpress that state the named will come with the right adapter for US outlets, while other listings don’t mention it. 


Oppo phones are in a class of their own. 

Óscar Gutiérrez

If your named comes with the wrong adapter, any charger with the contaminated cable will work. 

7. What nearby a warranty?

It depends on where you buy the named. The listing should say whether or not there’s any sort of security in the US. Look at this Amazon page for the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S. Near the bottom of the highlighted features, it clearly reads “No warranty in US.” So, you’re on your own must it break or start acting up. 

Over on AliExpress, the listings don’t directly mention a warranty, but the commercial does offer a 90-day Buy Protection money-back guarantee. Reading the fine tag, it looks like you’ll need to contact the seller and inquire of a refund if the item isn’t what you well-controlled, or is defective. 90 days isn’t a whole lot of time, but it is better than nothing. 

Phones aren’t the only sketch worth paying attention to when it comes to China. The country has big ideas for the internet, including leading the way when it comes to 5G connectivity. And, hopefully, we’ll eventually see Huawei products available in the US.