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Is it Safe to Buy a Chinese Cell Phone?

Skyline of Shenzhen China, a growing technology manufacturing center

Just to be clear, what I mean by a "Chinese cell phone" is a phone made in China, by a Chinese manufacturer that markets their products under their own name. I don't mean a phone manufactured in China, but sold under another company's name (for example, Apple's iPhone, which is largely made in China).

There are an increasing number of Chinese companies who are trying very hard to change that country's reputation as manufacturers of, well, cheap crap. Many of these companies are located in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in southern Guangdong province. As a rule, they are very proud of the products they make and take quality very seriously.

In fact, at the time of this writing (in early 2020), cell phones manufactured and marketed by Chinese companies represent some of the best values in the industry, often boasting hardware rivaling phones made in Japan or South Korea that sell for twice the price, or even more. Phones sold by companies like Xiaomi, Oppo, OnePlus, and Realme are especially popular among mobile phone enthusiasts for both their value and their overall quality.

Some prospective customers, however, are uneasy about buying Chinese tech products. For example, some people worry about things like privacy back doors that could lead to identity theft. Buyers in the United States may also worry about the possibility of a technology embargo affecting their ability to receive updates and download apps for their phones, as happened to people who owned phones made by Chinese manufacturer Huawei in 2019.

The overall value of Chinese phones in terms of hardware bang for the buck is undisputed. No one else even comes close. Whether or not it's safe to buy a Chinese phone, both in terms of data privacy and the ability to receive updates and download apps, is a harder question to answer.

Let me explain it to you.


Chinese Phones and Data Privacy

Personally, I don't think we have much to worry about when it comes to Chinese phone makers planting back doors or spyware into phones. The leading phone makers in China are strongly focused on improving the reputation of Chinese-made products. Intentionally introducing illegal spyware or back doors into their products would be inconsistent with that goal.

In addition, the Chinese government is eager for Chinese brands, operating under their own names, to build solid reputations for quality. Right now, most Chinese manufacturers make products that are sold under other, usually foreign companies' brands. Selling their products to consumers under their own brands is both a matter of pride and a path to higher profits for Chinese companies.

Data security experts spend a great deal of time running system traces on devices, looking for anomalies that might suggest data leaks or outright spying. If they were to find evidence that Chinese-manufactured phones contained back doors or spyware, it would be catastrophic to China's ambitions to become a more respected player on the world technology stage. I don't think it's a chance China is willing to take.

Can I say with certainty that a Chinese-made phone won't contain spyware? No, I can't. But I can't say that about phones made in any other country, either. But I'm confident enough that I use a Chinese-made OnePlus 7t as my own primary phone.


Chinese-Made Phones and Technology Embargoes

The Huawei embargo that took full effect in 2019 has led many people in the United States to be concerned about the possibility of a U.S. technology embargo against a Chinese phone manufacturer "making their phones useless."

The arbitrariness of trade policy being what it is, the possibility of an embargo against other Chinese phone manufacturers can't be denied. I don't think it's especially likely because powerful companies like Google and Apple also would have a lot at stake; but it's possible, and it's something that should be considered before deciding to buy a Chinese-made phone.

If an embargo were imposed against a manufacturer, phones made by the manufacturer in question wouldn't stop working. Neither would the embargo likely take effect immediately. Operating system upgrades would stop; and the phones would eventually lose access to the Google Play Store, making it difficult or impossible to install new apps until and unless the embargo were lifted. So even though the phone wouldn't just stop working, it would be somewhat crippled. It's something to consider when making your decision.


Should You Buy a Chinese-Made Phone?

That's for you to decide. But let me share my reasons for choosing to buy one.

I like powerful phones with fast processors and plenty of RAM. I also need dual-band GPS because I use the phone for navigation and also do a lot of mapping work.

When the time came for me to buy a new phone, I decided on the OnePlus 7t because it has dual-band GPS and packed more power for the money than any other phone I looked at. It has a faster processor, more RAM, and better battery life than the Google Pixel 4, but at about half the price. The phone has exceeded my expectations and does everything I need it to do without breaking a sweat. I think it was a great deal.

On the other hand, although I believe it extremely unlikely, there is a possibility that my government may impose an embargo against OnePlus; and if that happens, then I'll have to replace the phone sooner than I'd planned. That would be disappointing, to say the least. But I knew about the risk before I made my decision. In the unlikely event that it happens, I can't say I was blind-sided.

That's also the best advice I can give you about whether or not to buy a Chinese-made phone. Right now, phones from companies like Xiaomi, Oppo, OnePlus, and Realme represent incredible values in terms of hardware for the money. If you're looking for the best deal on raw power, chances are you'll find it in a Chinese phone.

Be sure to make that decision with both eyes open, however. There is a chance, small as it may be, that an embargo could force you to replace a Chinese phone sooner than you'd hoped.

Of course, just as when buying any other unlocked phone, make sure that the phone you choose supports the bands, frequencies, and protocols used in your country and by your carrier. You can learn more about that here. Also check whether the phone will have warranty coverage in your country, and what you'll have to do to get the phone repaired under warranty, if needed.

Finally, I advise you not purchase a phone by Huawei or any other company that is under a current embargo unless either you are happy with the manufacturer's substitute OS, can live without Android updates and the Google Play Store, or plan to root the phone and install a custom ROM. A phone that's currently under an embargo will rarely be a good value, not matter how inexpensive it is.