It’s true that we here in the UK have access to plenty of cool smartphones, tablets, and gadgets. Sometimes, though, US companies make the odd decision to release new products but withhold them from our shores. Frankly, that just isn’t cricket. Thankfully it isn’t too hard, in this global digital world in which we live, to have the items shipped directly to you. The question is how do you do it? Or more importantly, should you? In this feature, we’ll examine the pros and cons of shopping across the Atlantic, and the hidden costs that can be involved. See also: Should you buy grey market tech?

Why buy from the US?

With many of the biggest tech-related companies being based in America, it’s not uncommon for certain devices to only be released in that territory, or at least appear there months before they do in the UK. If, say, you want the new Samsung Note 5, Amazon Echo, or the high-end 1TB version of the new Microsoft Surface Pro 4, then you won’t see them in UK stores any time soon. Then, of course, there is the exchange rate, which can make prices seem a lot more tempting thanks to the strong value of Sterling against the Dollar.

However, there are a few things to bear in mind.

Tax

Those prices might seem tempting at first glance, but you’ll need to factor in the local sales tax which will be added at the checkout. These vary from state to state, so research is needed before you click on the Buy button. And that isn’t the only tax you need to consider. Any tech item with a value of over £15 that comes into the UK from non-EU countries is liable for VAT, which will be applied when the device reaches Customs.

That adds a rather significant 20 percent to the total cost, which for an expensive item will be a hefty chunk. For example, we sourced a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 in the US, which looked tempting at £515, but when we entered the details into the Duty Calculator website it showed a final figure to be £618. There can also be additional delivery costs from Customs, as well as Duty charges dependent on the type of product you buy. 

Buy tech from the US

You may have heard people tell you that all you have to do is get the sender to mark the goods as a gift, and you’ll get away with it. However, any reputable company will refuse to do that as it’s a form of fraud, and second this only applies to items worth less than £36. VAT will once again be charged when your item reaches Customs, and you’ll also still be expected to pay a Duty of 2.5 percent on a gift item if its value is between £135 and £630, with other rates applied if it’s worth more than that.

Warranties

Warranties can also be problematic. Often the responsibility falls on the retailer rather than the manufacturer if there are any problems. This is fine if you can walk back into the store in which you bought the item, but if you live in a different country then obviously this is very difficult. Again close attention should be paid to the terms and conditions of the warranty before you buy.

Compatibility

If you’re thinking of buying a smartphone from the US, then you’ll need to first ensure that it will be compatible with the mobile operators in the UK. While you might think that a Samsung Note 5 or Sony Xperia Z5 will work anywhere in the world, you can’t always take this for granted. Manufacturers tend to make range models for various regions, with the differences mainly boiling down to which 4G LTE and GSM frequency bands they use. In the UK, it will need to work with GSM 900, 1800 (1.8MHz), or 2100 (2.1GHz), and LTE bands 3 (1.8MHz), 7 (2.6GHz), and 20 (800MHz). To ensure your intended device is compatible look for the Technical Specifications section of the product listing.

For more see How to tell if a phone will be supported by a UK network

How to buy products from the US

eBay

Perhaps the easiest way to shop in the US is to use eBay. As the site is a global marketplace, you’ll often find sellers willing to ship overseas. Again the caveat of Customs charges needs to be considered, plus insurance would be a good idea. Whether you get a good deal or not depends on how much you want the product.

For example, on Amazon's US site the Echo is currently listed for sale at $179.99, which roughly translates to £118. Local sales taxes will be applied in the US, but on the UK eBay site, the common cost for the Echo is a more substantial £230. It’s worth noting that you can find listings for the same products on the UK and US eBay sites (ebay.co.uk and ebay.com), with some physically located in the states and others already on UK shores. Listings found on eBay UK will already have VAT factored into the price, of course.

ebay listing

Ask a friend

If you have friends travelling to the US, then you can always ask them if they mind picking up the item for you. Again, the idea isn’t quite that simple, as legally they would have to declare the item at Customs, where the same rules apply as listed above.

Use a reshipping service

One clever way to get around the problem of US sites not posting to UK addresses is to use something called a reshipping service. We recently stumbled upon MyUS, one such company that offers the ability to buy US-only products. The idea is pretty simple - you sign up to one of its three plans (the Basic plan costs only $10, no monthly fee) and you'll be given a US-based address to use. Simply enter the address on any US-based website and your delivery will be sent to MyUS, where it'll be repackaged and sent on to you. The company offers a discount on international shipping too, and a mobile app keeps you up-to-date every step of the way.

Reship is a good example, with clear instructions and charges listed on its site, although this one seems a tad more expensive than MyUS. Of course, with both options, the dreaded Customs rules still apply. 

Using a Personal Shopper service

If you don’t want to go through the rigmarole of setting up US accounts and delivery addresses then a more civilised approach is to use a Personal Shopper service. With these you simply contact the company, tell it which item you want, and it will go and source the best deal, buy it for you, then send the device to your UK address. Extra costs are involved, but when we tested out Big Apple Buddy, the final bill for a £500 smartphone was only increased by a £26 service charge, which seemed very reasonable for taking the hassle out of the process. 

Big Apple Buddy