Your buying guide for the best Chinese phones in 2017
You've probably heard of brands such as Huawei/Honor, ZTE and Lenovo, although you might not be aware that the latter makes phones as well as laptops. Xiaomi, too, is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, and is known as China's Apple.
Also see: Best Phone Deals
But the problem with many Chinese phones is that they can be difficult to get hold of in the UK. To buy a Chinese phone in the UK you'll either need to look on a site such as eBay or Amazon, or go through a grey-market importer such as Geekbuying, GearBest or Coolicool. Be sure to read up on our grey-market tech buying advice before you do so.
Should you buy a Chinese phone in the UK?
• Excellent value for money
• Competitive specification
• Usually dual-SIM
• None of your friends will have the same phone
• Without an official channel through which to purchase you may unintentionally buy a counterfeit product
• Faulty devices may be difficult to return
• You may incur import duty (charged at 20 percent of the value on the shipping paperwork plus an admin fee)
• The phone may not work with your network (be sure to check before you buy)
• Google Play may not be preinstalled (as is the case with some Xiaomi and Meizu phones)
Features and specifications to expect from a Chinese phone
The majority of Chinese phones we've reviewed have been dual-SIM dual-standby. We've found this to be a standard feature of Chinese phones at any price point.
However, in the case of some phones including Huawei/Honor models, which are among those that are officially sold in the UK, the UK variant is often not dual-SIM. You should also check whether the second SIM slot is in addition to or replacing the phone's microSD slot. Also see: Best dual-SIM phones 2017 and dual-SIM buying advice.
4G is a common feature even at the lower price points. An increasing number of phones will support 4G on both SIM slots, but dual-standby phones will ask you to select one or the other for data.
And while we're used to seeing phones that standardise on nano- or Micro-SIM, Chinese phones can occasionally still feature full-size SIM slots (though this is now becoming much less common). Of course, you can pick up an adaptor from somewhere like Amazon for as little as a pound. Also see: What is 4G? Complete guide to 4G.
The fact that a Chinese phone supports 4G doesn't necessarily mean it will work on your UK network, mind. Always check a phone's frequency bands before purchase, because Chinese phones are often missing the 800MHz band (band 20).
In the UK we use LTE bands 3, 7 and 20, or look for 800-, 1800- and 2600MHz. EE operates on all three, Three on 800- and 1800MHz, O2 on 800MHz, and Vodafone on 800- and 2600MHz. Also see: How to tell if a phone is supported by your mobile network.
MediaTek processors are a common feature within Chinese phones, and we're now beginning to see the deca-core Helio X25 and X27 in some Chinese phones. More often, though, the MediaTek processors inside Chinese phones are marketed as octa-core and 64-bit.
Whereas many UK-sold octa-core flagships are sold with four cores tuned for performance and four for efficiency, here you'll usually find all eight cores running at the same speed; increasingly UK flagships now run quad-core chips from the Qualcomm Snapdragon family.
Two- or even 3GB of RAM is not uncommon, and 4GB is often available as a top-end option, and expect to find 32GB or 64GB of storage, with microSD support (often only to 32- or 64GB, rather than 128GB). Also see: What's the fastest smartphone 2017.
Rather than NFC, phones with MediaTek processors often come with a feature called HotKnot. This works in a similar way, allowing you to do such things as share files and play multiplayer games with other HotKnot-capable phones.
You will almost certainly also find a fingerprint scanner, and thankfully most are now touch- rather than swipe-style scanners.
In the photography department a 13Mp Sony sensor with f/2.2 aperture is often found at the rear, while you'll usually get a 5Mp selfie camera at the front. The camera functionality is very similar to that of any other Android phone, but you may find the Face Beauty mode whitens your skin tone - the painting of a face white is a cultural tradition. There will be a slider somewhere that lets you turn off this effect. Also see: Best sounding phone 2017.
A full-HD screen is common, with Quad-HD very rare but HD screens still found in the cheapest models, and we've reviewed many a 5.5in-screen Chinese phablet.
The screen is usually a good-quality IPS panel, and may often be marketed as having 2.5D Arc glass or 3D glass. This does not mean the screen is curved, but rather that the edges of the screen are slightly curved (like on the iPhone 7).
Gorilla Glass is another common feature, which is fortunate because getting hold of a case for a Chinese phone is just as involved as buying the phone itself (we advise getting one at the time of purchase, although you often find one is supplied in the box).
Customisable gestures are not built into Android, but they are very common in Chinese phones. This means you are likely to be able to double-tap to wake the screen, and by drawing a letter onscreen in standby mode you will be able to launch an app of your choice. Many Chinese phones will also allow you to use gestures to trigger the camera shutter.
While we're on the subject of software, be aware that some Chinese phones are sold rooted. For many people that's a bonus.
What about the other brands?
We've been reviewing Chinese phones supplied to us by Geekbuying, Coolicool and GearBest for a good couple of years now, but the honest truth is there are still many Chinese phones out there we have yet to review, and many, many Chinese phone manufacturers we've never even heard of.
Some of those phones may deserve to join our list, but we won't recommend any Chinese phone we haven't physically held and tested.
Over time we will build up our collection of Chinese phone reviews, and in the meantime we offer this chart not as a definitive guide to buying Chinese phones but as a guide to what you can expect for your money when you buy from China.
If you've found a Chinese phone not listed in our chart then check its spec and compare it to the phones we've reviewed here.
Read next: Best new phones coming in 2017.
1. OnePlus 3T
- Reviewed on: 28 March 17
- RRP: From £399, From US$439
The OnePlus 3T will be unfairly compared, for now at least, to the phone that came before it. So let’s ignore it. On its own, the OnePlus 3T is everything a modern smartphone should be; slim, fast, and responsive, with above average battery life and cameras that produce stunning images. And then there’s the price. OnePlus may not like being known for it, but £399 remains an absolutely amazing price point for the phone on offer.
As long as you don’t want an iPhone, this Android handset stands side by side with the Samsung Galaxy S7 as the best example of a smartphone on the market today – once we’ve all got over that it came a little sooner than we had expected.
Read our OnePlus 3T review.
2. Xiaomi Mi5s
- Reviewed on: 29 November 16
- RRP: £282.75, US$352.69
We cannot recommend the Xiaomi Mi5s enough. This is the smartphone every 2016 flagship wanted to be, and it comes with a price tag half that of theirs. Fantastic build quality, fantastic performance, fantastic storage, battery and connectivity options - the Xiaomi Mi5s gets a big thumbs-up from us.
Read our Xiaomi Mi5s review.
- Reviewed on: 13 March 17
- RRP: £497.04, US$619.99
The Mi Note 2 was wrongly overshadowed at its launch. This is a gorgeous big-screen Android phone with very decent performance, a great camera and plenty of storage. We'd like to see a Quad-HD screen on Xiaomi's flagship phone, but this one should prove plenty sharp and clear. Google apps are not preinstalled, but there is a workaround if you are happy to do some tweaking.
Read our Xiaomi Mi Note 2 review.
- Reviewed on: 23 February 17
- RRP: £799.91, US$997.78
It might sound expensive, but the £799 Xiaomi Mi Mix actually offers very good value when you consider its meaty core hardware and generous 256GB of storage - it's certainly less than you'd pay for an iPhone 7 Plus. This isn't a phone you buy with budget in mind, however: the Mi Mix is the phone you buy when you want onlookers to say "Oh my gosh, what is that? It's amazing - I want one of those!" The Mi Mix is a revolutionary phone that we hope is a sign of things to come, with that gorgeous bezel-less display, beautiful ceramic body, fantastic performance, long, long battery life and all the other fancy tech we can't even pronounce, let alone understand. No matter - it works. Highly recommended.
Read our Xiaomi Mi Mix review.
- Reviewed on: 5 May 17
- RRP: £399.05, US$512.99
Running Flyme OS 5 out of the box, the well-built Meizu Pro 6 Plus is a fantastic Android phone with some seriously good performance, a vibrant and high-resolution screen and a decent camera. Unfortunately, though cheaper than UK flagships, at £399 (before import duty) it’s still too pricey to properly compete with the Galaxy S7 and OnePlus 3T. Neither are we in love with Flyme OS.
Read our Meizu Pro 6 Plus review.
- Reviewed on: 12 January 17
- RRP: £599.99, US$599.99
Huawei’s Mate 9 is, in our opinion, the best in the Huawei line-up, boasting an impressively large battery alongside powerful internals, an improved dual-camera setup and a sleek, gorgeous design. The benchmark results were some of the best we've seen, bringing excellent value for money. EMUI 5 makes a huge difference to the overall experience too, and we can’t wait to see whether Huawei’s new technology will actually improve the performance of the smartphone over time.
Read our Huawei Mate 9 review.
- Reviewed on: 21 April 17
- RRP: £204.35, US$247.99
The UMIDIGI Z Pro offers fantastic value at just over £200. It has a large battery, a decent screen and powerful performance. The dual-camera doesn't offer quite the relief we were hoping for following poor performance from the UMI Z, but this is still a great phone.
Read our UMIDIGI Z Pro review.
8. UMI Z
- Reviewed on: 31 January 17
- RRP: £239.99, US$239.99
The UMI Z is an excellent-value Android phone with a large battery, a decent screen, the most powerful MediaTek processor you can get and a very good selfie camera. Unfortunately the primary camera doesn't quite live up, but it's otherwise difficult to fault. With full UK 4G connectivity it's a great buy.
Read our UMI Z review.
9. Honor 8
- Reviewed on: 5 September 16
- RRP: £369.99, US$399
The Honor 8 is a fantastic smartphone, but the price has gone up from the Honor 7. In return for the additional expense you get a fantastic dual-camera, a sleek and stylish design, a faster fingerprint sensor and a beautiful display, which combined make the Honor 8 a worthy competitor to the OnePlus 3.
Read our Honor 8 review.
10. Elephone S7
- Reviewed on: 12 January 17
- RRP: £177.11, US$219.99
The Elephone S7 is a very good-looking phone at an affordable price, with decent performance and a generous helping of storage. On the down side the cameras are disappointing and the rear panel is plastic. Even at this price you don't need to compromise so heavily.
Read our Elephone S7 review.
11. Elephone P9000
- Reviewed on: 11 March 16
- RRP: £193.98, US$176.47
We’re very impressed with the Elephone P9000, which is a great all-round Android phone at an unbelievable sub-£200 price. It’s fast, battery life is good, it’s feature-packed and it even runs Marshmallow. Wireless- and quick-charging-, NFC-, USB-C-, dual-SIM- and microSD support are the icing on the cake. Recommended.
Read our Elephone P9000 review.
- Reviewed on: 8 May 17
- RRP: £164.76, US$202
It isn’t a huge upgrade over the Redmi Note 3 or Note 4, but the Note 4X Global edition is a fine budget phone for UK users.
Read our Xiaomi Redmi Note 4X review.
13. Ulefone Future
- Reviewed on: 14 July 16
- RRP: £188.57, US$244.46
Ulefone has attempted to build a futuristic phone with the Future’s edge-to-edge display and USB-C port. For a mid-range Android phone performance is good, and the design is good, even if the phone is on the heavy side. We can’t turn a blind eye to the camera quality, although a software update should be able to fix the issues we saw.
Read our Ulefone Future review.
14. Xiaomi Mi Max
- Reviewed on: 29 June 16
- RRP: £212.04, US$274.89
If you want a huge phone and you don’t want to pay as large a wedge of cash, the Xiaomi Mi Max is a fantastic phablet with good looks, decent performance, strong runtime and, most importantly of all, a gigantic screen. Not ideal for novice users, but otherwise the Mi Max is a highly recommended smartphone.
Read our Xiaomi Mi Max review.