Buying a phone from AliExpress – what you need to know

Featured image for AliExpress buying guide

Buying a phone from AliExpress is no different from buying any other item on your favorite online store. It’s the typical pick the item you want, pay and then wait for it to be shipped cycle, although with some added steps.

If you’ve developed cold feet because you’ve never shopped on AliEpxress, or because it’s an online store domiciled in another country, this guide is for you.

I will walk you through the entire AliExpress phone buying process. In the end, I’ll link you to an AliExpress online shopping community where you can get extra help if the need ever arises. Let’s get to it.

First, what is AliExpress

Maybe you just heard about it today but, AliExpress is actually a fully established e-commerce platform that has been in operation for over 11 years now. In principle, it is a platform that connects a variety of sellers to prospective customers. That’s in contrast to an Ecommerce store that stocks its own inventory – think of something like eBay or, if you’re in Nigeria, Jumia, but this time for only Chinese sellers.

The company basically links sellers to buyers and then works to ensure each party has a smooth and fair deal. Work in this sense encompasses creating rules and policies to guide sellers (vendors) and upholding a buyer protection program.

Which phones can you buy on AliExpress?

AliExpress is awash with sellers that stock a rather huge catalog of phones. From premium Samsung and Apple phones to those from budget manufacturers like Huawei, Xiaomi, Umidigi, Cubot, you’ll usually find whatever phone you’re looking for in stock.

Personally, I shop on AliExpress for the Chinese brands. I’m talking Umidigi, Cubot, Elephone, Ulephone and the likes. If you’re a budget smartphone shopper, these are the brands you should set your eyes on ideally. Their phones are certainly not the crème de la crème of smartphone engineering but what you get is absolute value for money.

Identifying a good product

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the context), AliExpress is rife with knockoffs of phones. But the good news is it’s very easy to spot these knockoffs from afar. To avoid knockoffs and counterfeit on AliExpress:

Check the spelling of the item name

Image showing fake name of an AliEpress product
This seller names his intentionally Samsung-like smartphone ‘S21U’

Some sellers intentionally name their products to mimic that of the original manufacturer. On AliExpress, you’ll see many Galax, Galaaxy, Galazy, and so forth smartphones that look a lot like a Samsung Galaxy phone. Quick tip they’re not.

Be wary of the item price.

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is not true.

Check buyer reviews

I’ll dive into this in the AliExpress review system section of this article. For now, just know that reviews on AliExpress are a way to get a feel of a phone before ever buying the phone.

Check the product description.

Is there a mention of ‘original item’, or can you find the Guaranteed Genuine badge under the product description? If the seller includes any of the two, especially the latter, in their product description, they’re bound by AliExpress policy to deliver only genuine products as described. If they don’t deliver an original item, you only need to file a dispute claim for a guaranteed refund with penalties for the seller in question.

Vetting the seller

Fully established brands like Umidigi and Cubot have official stores on AliExpress. When it’s an official store, you know you’re dealing with the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), so the item is more likely than not to be genuine. Most times, however, you’ll be buying phones from third-party sellers – again, just like eBay. In those cases, the item quality, shipping and delivery to your home address depends on the seller’s integrity and overall performance.

Luckily, identifying a reliable seller on AliExpress is a simple and straightforward process. I’ll list the tricks and tips that have so far helped me to find the best sellers of the bunch:

Average rating

A search for any item on AliEpxress will return a list of said items from a bevy of suppliers. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Image showing the listing results for an AliExpress item with ratings and number of units sold
A high positive rating percentage as well as number of units sold is a good indicator

Now, at the bottom of each listing, you can see the average rating for that item (as delivered by the seller) and the number of units the seller has managed to sell. Generally, with both numbers, the higher, the better. The rating system assesses three different criteria and sums it up over five, but more on that later. What you need to note right now is that on the results page, a higher number of sold units and a rating that’s closer to 5 are both positive indicators that a seller and the item they’re trying to sell is genuine.

Seller score

Clicking an item link from the results page takes you to the item page. And on there, you will see a summary of the seller’s profile. Three things you should note are the:

  • Seller’s positive feedback percentage
  • Number of followers
  • Seller badge
Image showing percentage positive ratings and seller badge on AliExpress
This seller has a 96.0% positive rating and a gold badge

The seller positive feedback percentage is a measure of the consumer feedback for items sold by a seller that fall in the positive range. A feedback that rates a seller between 2.5 and 5.0 overall is considered positive; anything below that is negative. Great sellers usually have a positive feedback percentage that’s above 90%.

Seller badges are issued to top-performing sellers by AliExpress after a review of their performance on the platform. There are three badge types, a gold medal, a diamond or a crown. Sellers with crown badges are considered highest performing with an excellent reputation. Those with diamond badges have a very good selling reputation, and those with medals have a good reputation. Generally, a seller with a badge, regardless of the class, is a reputable seller that can be trusted. 

Unlike most other review systems online (I’m looking at you, Amazon), the AliExpress review system is yet to be hit by the fake review plague. That means reviews are, for the most part, genuine. That said, you’ll still want to be careful with reviews and my personal strategy when shopping for phones on AliExpress is to ignore the positive five and four-star reviews but instead focus on the negative reviews.

Leveraging the AliEpress review system

Why? Five-star reviews are from satisfied customers. I want to see what unsatisfied customers sound like because they’re more likely to point out issues with the seller or the phone I’m attempting to buy. Take a look at this example, for instance:

AliExpress Samsung Evo listing
This seller lists what’s supposed to be a genuine Samsung Evo card

Here we have an SD card seller supposedly selling Samsung EVO micro-SD cards. This seller has a ton of positive five-star reviews, and rightly so – the card works, and it’s very cheap for a Samsung card (first red flag). What those five-star reviews won’t tell you, however, is that the SD card is not a genuine Samsung EVO card – it works fine and will probably last a decade, but it’s not an original Samsung EVO SD card. Those retail for over $20 for the 128GB version but luckily, a buyer cum reviewer points that out in his 1-star review of the product.

Image showing 1 star review on AliExpress
This 1 star review shows that the product is actually a well-executed clone

Get the gist now? Disgruntled customers are more likely to tell the hard truths.

Contacting the seller

If you’ve accessed the seller via the aforementioned metrics and still have doubts or any clarification to make AliExpress allows you the option to reach out directly to the seller via the contact now button. I frequently use this button to ask for specific details about the product I’m buying if it’s something that can be easily counterfeited (think SD cards, for example), but you can ask the seller practically any question as long as it’s related to the order.

Note that these are Chinese sellers who are not very good with English. The integrated Alibaba translation engine (both on the web and app versions of AliExpress) does an excellent job translating English to Chinese and vice versa. But, it would be best if you still spoke (typed) in clear, concise English to make the process easier for both you and the seller.

Making a purchase

If you’ve found the ideal product and a reliable seller, the next step would be to make the purchase. For that, you’ll need to first create an AliExpress account. No biggie, it’s a simple account creation process, and AliExpress even offers one-click account setup via Google.

When creating your account, you’ll need to supply your full name, contact phone number, mail and address. Automatically, this will be set as your default shipping details but don’t worry; you can change it later with ease.

Making a payment on AliExpress

Payments on AliEpxress can be processed through five routes: Alipay, Card (debit/credit), western union, WebMoney and bank(wire) transfers.

screenshot of payment methods available on AliExpress
You can pay by card, through WebMoney, Wire Transfer or through Western Union

Alipay

Alipay is China’s version of eBay, and it’s a pretty safe escrow based system for completing payments on AliExpress. You’ll need an Alipay account to use this method anyway, and if you don’t already own one, you’re better off using another payment option.

Card

The card option is what I use and what most people who shop on AliExpress use as well. If you’ve paid for something online with your card before, it’s the same process – simply supply your card details and then go on to confirm the payment using two-factor authentication. AliExpress accepts both credit and debit cards from Mastercard, Maestro and Visa.

Wire transfer

If you’re ordering a phone in bulk, maybe to start a retailing business or something, then a wire transfer is your best bet since most card issuers put a limit on how much you can use online from your card. However, wire transfers will attract extra processing charges by your bank, so except it’s a bulk other where these charges will be insignificant, you should use other payment options.

WebMoney, Western Union and others

AliExpress also allows you to complete payment using a bevy of third-party payment processors, including Western Union, American Express, WebMoney, and Yandex. Unless you’re already very familiar with these payment gateways, there’s really no advantage in using them over your traditional credit or debit card.

Is your money protected when you pay on AliExpress?

Yes! Like most online shopping platforms, AliExpress runs a rather reputable Buyer Protection Program. Once you place an order and your payment is processed, your order is automatically covered from any eventualities, as would be a seller failing to ship the product or outright cancelling the order. In both cases, you will be refunded your full monies worth.

Note, however, that this protection only applies to orders whose payments were processed on AliExpress, i.e. orders you pay for on the AliEpxress site or app. This caveat emphasizes one point, except you’ve formed a deeply personal accord with a seller, something that takes years to do, you should never pay for an item off AliExpress.

Shipping and logistics

Before you make the final payment for your order, you’ll be asked to provide a shipping address. You can use the default address specified in your sign up process, or you can create and use another address on the spot. Few things to note:

AliExpress sellers decide which shipping options are available for phones they put on sale. Usually, it’s a mix of fast but expensive and slow but cost-effective options. Fast shipping is usually handled by DHL or FedEx. If you go slow, you’ll be dealing with AliExpress Standard Shipping (AESS) or one of the other third party shipping options like Singapore Post or 4PX. Some sellers even provide free shipping, but from experience, those usually take longer to arrive your address and come with limited tracking.

The exact shipping options available for you to choose depends on the seller. If he/she uses all the aforementioned, they’ll be available to choose from in the shipping tab on the Aliexpress site or app. I prefer the AESS option for the cost-effectiveness and somewhat acceptable delivery time table.

Make sure the phone number specified on your address page is correct and functional. AliExpress will use this to contact if there are any updates on your order.

If you live in Nigeria, home delivery to your specified address might not be possible. In which case you’ll have to head over to your nearest post office to pick up your phone. Usually, you get a call, but sometimes you don’t. Keep an eye on your order tracking information. If it indicates that your phone package is already in your state or locality, you should check up with the post office.

How long will it take for your item to arrive?

That’s a subjective question, and the answer is down to a number of factors:

Order processing

AliExpress allows sellers a specific period of time to process an order after payment is confirmed. Usually, the time is one day, but this can extend further if there’s an outstanding issue, say, the seller no longer has the item in stock.

Ship out time

After an order is successfully processed, the seller has another time allocation to ship the phone out. I once bought a phone with a ship out period of 30 days (it was a presale), and it only shipped on the 28th day of the countdown. Most times, sellers fix a ship out time of 7 days and proceed to ship the phone out mid countdown at day three or so. You can always see how much time the seller has specified by clicking the shipping tab on the item page. If it’s too long, consider another seller.

Shipping method

If you select a fast shipping method on AliEpxress – DHL or FedEx – your item should arrive your home country in under two weeks max. Sometimes you might get it after a few days, but two weeks is the upper threshold. Slower shipping options, on the other hand, can take anywhere from one to three months. I’ve heard cases of shipping taking well over four months (China to Nigeria) to get to their destination.

Anyway, the good thing is you can apply for a refund once shipping is not completed within the set delivery window.  

Custom clearance

Depending on your country, customs clearance could be a quick process or an extended issue. Usually, it’s the former rather than the latter, but I’ll delve more into this in the customs clearance section below.

Tracking your package on AliExpress

AliExpress provides a native tracking suite on the app and website to track your order once it’s shipped. You can access this by directly clicking the ‘Tracking’ tab on the ‘Shipped’ page or clicking the delivery information tab on the order page.

There’s another more accurate way to track your phone on AliExpress that I prefer. And that’s by using the website postal.ninja. Compared to the default AliExpress tracking tool, postal.ninja provides detailed real-time info as to the whereabouts of your AliExpress item. You’ll need your tracking number obtainable from the order page to track the item on postal.ninja.

Note that for some unregistered packages shipped using free shipping, tracking typically ends when the item is confirmed to be in your home country. After that, you’ll stop receiving updates on the whereabouts of your AliExpress item. Regardless the phone will still be delivered to you.

A note on custom clearance with AliExpress shipments

Depending on your country’s policy on importing phones and other digital technologies, you might be required to pay an additional fee in the form of customs duties. Some countries require it; others don’t. In Nigeria, for instance, I’ve seen that phones and other tech items shipped with DHL or FedEx paradoxically attract a custom fee while those shipped through AliExpress Standard Shipping (AESS) or any of the other ‘slow’ shipping methods don’t.

Check with your local customs authority to clarify if you’ll need to pay extra duty for tech items bought on AliExpress.

Receiving your order

If your local post office offers home deliveries, your phone should reach you in your place of residence. Otherwise, you’ll have to pick it up from the post office.

IMPORTANT

For delicate items like phones, it’s important that you do a package opening video. That is a video that shows you opening the phone packaging as it was shipped by your seller. This will serve as a piece of important evidence in the case where the item was damaged in transit. AliExpress, from experience, won’t honor a damage claim if there’s no video showing the item damaged as the package was opened. Before and after pictures won’t cut it.

Opening a dispute for your phone on AliExpress

Screenshot showing dispute button on AliExpress Dispute page
The dispute button is highlighted with the red marker

If your phone arrives defective or not as was described in the order description, AliExpress allows you to file for a dispute under the Buyer Protection Program. Simply head on to the order page and click the ‘Open Dispute’ button.

This will redirect you to a dispute page where you’ll be asked to fill in a questionnaire with relevant details (including pictures and videos) of your complaint. Once you submit the form, the dispute can take any of the following trajectories.

Seller immediately refunds

The seller can on viewing your dispute, accept your claims and authorize a refund. Once the refund is authorized, it takes a couple of days (sometimes weeks) for the money to land back in your account. Don’t worry if it seems too long, you’re in a safe zone now, and it’ll drop eventually.

Seller negotiates a compromise.

Here, the seller typically arranges for another deal so you both can reach a mutually beneficial agreement. For instance, the seller might be at too much of a loss and, instead of a full refund, negotiates to foot some part of the bill. Or he/she might arrange for another item to be shipped. If you accept his terms, the dispute will be closed, and the new arrangement becomes the de facto contract. So make sure you fully understand what’s on the table.

You escalate to AliExpress support

You’re not under any obligations to accept a negotiated offer, and if the seller refuses to bulge, allow the dispute to escalate to AliExpress’s Dispute Resolution Team. This usually happens a few days after a dispute is filled with no agreed resolution. The team will look at your claim and the evidence that supports it to make a judgement. Their judgement is final and binding, which is why you need to take steps to make sure your evidence(s) is strong.

Refund or Refund and Return

Refund or Refund and Return; There’s a difference. When you file for a dispute, there’s an option to state what you want in the case you’re successful – either refund singly or refund and then return the item to the seller. Whichever you choose will be what is applied if you eventually win the dispute. If you choose to refund and return, you’ll have to bear the often expensive shipping costs of returning the item to the supplier in China.

Finally, leaving a review

Assuming your item arrives as advertised and in perfect condition, then you don’t need to tow the dispute opening process. Rather, it’s time to thank your seller for providing an excellent service. Reviews are important for sellers, so as much as you can, do endeavour to leave one. Here’s how to leave a review on AliExpress:

  • Once you’ve received your order (not before), click the confirm order received button on the order page, either in-app or via the AliExpress website.
  • Clicking that should reveal the review panel.
  • You can score the seller on three different metrics:

The condition of the item, whether it was as described or not

The time it took the seller to process the order

The communication of the seller

If your seller did well in all three and you proceed to rate them five stars, they get a cumulative five-star review.

There’s also an option to add your thoughts of the overall performance as a text review. So if you’ve got any other thing to say, feel free to let loose.

Conclusion

If the whole process of ordering a phone on AliExpress as I’ve outlined it seems daunting, don’t worry, it’s not. When you get on the official AliExpress site, everything is condensed into a few steps that take anything between 3-5 minutes to complete.

If you ever run into any issues, this guide should serve as reference material and if you need more help check out the AliExpress shipping thread on Nairaland here.

Happy shopping!