Time was, the only people who imported smartphones were, well, obsessive smartphone freaks like us. For the hoi polloi, the added expense and hassle of purchasing a phone from overseas and having it shipped internationally just didn’t even register on the spectrum of things worth consideration. I’m not so sure that’s going to be the case much longer, though and there are some rumblings of change in the smartphone market that could make importing your next phone a whole lot more likely possibility than it might have been in years past.
I want to start by looking at the US, because the obsession with subsidized smartphones has had an especially severe impact on the attractiveness of imports. Because, if there’s one thing importing means, it’s that you’re going to pay full price. Comparing a $700 (plus customs duties, plus shipping) phone to a $50-on-contract model can just be a non-starter for most people.
I’m really hoping that T-Mobile’s move away from straight-up subsidies is going to help change people’s perception of smartphone pricing. I may be getting ahead of myself here, as we still have to see how the carrier ends up promoting handset sales on its value plans, and it could easily keep hiding the true costs of phones through advertising them with assumptions that you’ll be paying through its installment plan already factored in. If that at least gets people thinking about actual prices, it could still have the desired effect.
Getting comfortable with the expense is just part of what’s been keeping smartphone importation from being more popular; we’ve also got frequency support to consider. Again, I’m looking at this from a US-centric position, and the lack of the AWS band on many phones sold abroad has been a big stumbling point. Sure, most will still work without a hitch on AT&T, but that’s not always the most attractive carrier choice. The good news for imports has been T-Mobile’s work at refarming its spectrum to offer HSPA connectivity on the 1900MHz band. Work towards delivering that option is still in its infancy, but it’s only getting better, and by mid-next-year coverage might be substantial enough to make an impact on the decision to import.
Switching gears for a moment, better frequency support works both ways, and smartphone fans abroad might soon be giving more thought to the idea of importing a phone FROM the US. Verizon’s adoption of LTE, the SIM cards that came with it, and its recent penchant for selling handsets SIM-unlocked could make a big difference for how the international community sees its offerings. Especially with attractive models like the HTC Droid DNA, otherwise not available in Europe, a Verizon phone might make sense to import. Expansys has the Droid DNA for $650, unlocked, and with 2100MHz HSPA support, it could be a great fit across the pond.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t even have to consider imports at all, and phones that were capable of functioning on the available networks in any given area would already be for sale there. Unfortunately, we have to deal with the realities of carrier exclusivity and strategically staggered releases.
The next time a phone like the Samsung ATIV S launches, surrounded by so much confusion over just where it will be available, when, the decision to import could be a quick and easy way to cut through all the nonesense and get the smartphone in your hands as quickly as possible.