Some tips for the mobile phone buyer traveling abroad

I just returned from a short business trip to Singapore and knew before I went out there that it might be trouble for my credit card because Singapore is known for their electronics stores and malls dedicated to electronics. After a couple days of work, it turned out my trip was shortened so I tried to find the first flight out. All flights were full until Sunday so I had a couple of days to see some sights. I also discovered that the COMEX 2008 event was being held this weekend and it was free to attend. In addition to the shopping I did (and devices I bought) I learned quite a bit about shopping for mobile phones and wanted to share some experiences and tips in case you end up traveling to Singapore.

I just returned from a short business trip to Singapore and knew before I went out there that it might be trouble for my credit card because Singapore is known for their electronics stores and malls dedicated to electronics. After a couple days of work, it turned out my trip was shortened so I tried to find the first flight out. All flights were full until Sunday so I had a couple of days to see some sights. I also discovered that the COMEX 2008 event was being held this weekend and it was free to attend. In addition to the shopping I did (and devices I bought) I learned quite a bit about shopping for mobile phones and wanted to share some experiences and tips in case you end up traveling to Singapore.

If you have listened to any of our latest MobileTechRoundup podcasts you may have heard me talking about how my two oldest daughters are saving up their money for some kind of laptop/netbook device. My initial plan was to look for these at discounted prices in Singapore. I also was chatting with my Mobius buddy Shane from PPCSG.com (who ended up taking me to an excellent Singaporan dinner) and found out that the Samsung OMNIA (aka SGH-i900) was actually released first in Singapore about a month ago. Thus, I had a couple of things to keep a look out for in Singapore.

Some tips for the mobile phone buyer traveling abroad

The first shopping trip out took place in the area of Ngee Ann City and I found a device that I enjoyed discovering at MWC 08 earlier this year. I was at the Sony Store and found that they had the black and red SE G900 UIQ-powered device. The G900 is a candy bar form factor phone with a 5 megapixel camera, Bluetooth, WiFi, and touch screen display. You would never guess the device has a touch screen and it is pretty impressive. It does have 3G, but only for Europe and not for the U.S. I figured that was OK since the phone was available for just under US$400 in a SIM-unlocked configuration. After a few more questions and trying out the device I ended up purchasing it since I have always wanted a UIQ device to test out and write about. Unfortunately, after I went back to the hotel and did some more searching (I had no internet access in the store) I discoverd the device doesn't even support EDGE in the U.S. (only GPRS) so I am now strongly considering putting it up on ebay after a short review where I should be able to only lose about US$50. We'll see how it performs after a bit more testing.

First OMNIA retailer: Before leaving this area, I did find one guy who had the OMNIA and would sell it to me for S$850 with only the 3% sales tax added. However, he said he did not have them at the store and it would take 1 hour to get it. It was after 9 pm by this time so he gave me his card and number to call the next day if I wanted it.

I next went to the Comex event at the convention center. The place was packed and reminded me a bit of CES with all of the same players having huge booths (HP, Samsung, Toshiba, Acer, etc.). However, the booths were setup to show off products and then have attendees purchase individual products rather than the purpose of CES to show off products to company buyers. I found that the netbooks and laptops were priced the same or more than what they are available at in the US so there were no deals there. I had to remember that the US dollar is worth just over 1.4 times the Singapore dollar too.

I wasn't ready to give up yet on the OMNIA so I went to the famous Sim Lim Square electronics mall. This place is 6 floors of electronics, primarily notebooks, cameras, and phones with lots of other computer related products. I had quite an education at this place in dealing with several different retailers. There were a ton of iPhone-like devices from China and also many other mobile phones. I started off by wandering around and finding out what stores were asking for the OMNIA. Prices ranged from S$870 to S$990. Check out my stories from a few retailers below since my experiences may help you in the future or you may just enjoy the stories.

Retailer 2: I first went to the retailers who told me the lowest prices. After making an offer lower than the asking price and working out a price with one retailer I told them I would buy it. I then asked what the full total would be and he pulled out a calculator to add 7% for sales tax, then 3% for a credit card fee, and then another 6% for some other tax they wanted to try to charge me. The total still came out lower than a couple other places so I continued on, but I was very suspicious about this last undefined tax. The guy left and then came back after about 5 minutes and said they had no more with the silver back, but I could have the one in the showcase. He said they had white ones, but they would cost more. He then spent several minutes trying to get me to buy a screen protector, case, and expensive microSD memory card. I was ready to purchase it still when he finally told me it was SIM locked and it would cost another S$60 to unlock it. This fact, along with the mysterious tax, thankfully prompted me to leave the store.

Retailer 2 (and more): I then went to a retailer that had new, sealed boxes and looked legitimate. They would not budge from their base S$930 price (taxes took it to over S$1100) so I quickly moved on to a couple others that would not budge either and after taxes their totals were over S$1100 (about US$775).

Retailer 2: I went back down to the first floor and found another OMNIA seller who stated a base price of S$875 (along with the 7% sales tax and 3% credit card fee) that worked out to a decent price. The guy went behind the counter and spent WAY too much time looking through the cabinet (I couldn't see him) before coming out with an opened box device. I verified everything, including that it was SIM unlocked, and popped my MaxROAM SIM in and started it up. It turns out the device touch screen did not work at all. I said no thanks and then he said, "That's OK, it was my friends." WOW, he was trying to sell me a used, non-working device. He then went to grab a white model and I said no thanks. He said that he had another silver one and went behind the counter again. I walked around to the side and saw him doing something with the white one and decided then and there to leave before another used device showed up.

I was quite frustrated with the horrible experiences here and was thankful to walk out with my money in hand. I then called the guy from the night before and he verified I could buy it for S$850 plus the 3% credit card fee with no other taxes. I was asked to call back in 5 minutes while he checked on stock. Unfortunately, he than told me he couldn't get one until Monday and I was flying out on Sunday morning so that deal didn't work out. I decided to give up my hunt and forget about the device.

As my coworker and I were checking out some other stores in the surrounding area I found another retailer that had a nice electronics store and popped in for one last attempt. They did have the OMNIA and didn't charge that mysterious 6% fee. It was SIM unlocked and unopened. They only had white, but everything else was legit and the price was still a bit lower than the lowest on ebay or online so I went for it and will be writing up a review here and in the final issue of Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine so keep your eye out for my first impressions coming soon.

Here are a few lessons learned and tips you may want to remember when buying devices abroad:

  • Make sure the device is SIM-unlocked.
  • Ask about credit card transaction fees. BTW, most every credit card also charges you fees on anything you buy with your card so find out what that is (1% to 3% for my cards) before using it too much
  • Ask about local taxes.
  • Make sure the device is new and works with your SIM before leaving the store.
  • Ask for a Tax Refund form. In Singapore I was able to get back 5.5% of my purchase price for goods priced more than S$100. The refund was given to me at the airport after filling out the proper forms that you need to get from each merchant.
  • Don't be afraid to walk away from the deal if you feel uncomfortable with anything.
  • Do your research before traveling. (I missed the lack of EDGE on the SE G900) and have a price range in mind.)
  • Remember you can bring in up to US$800 worth of purchased goods without tax and then up to US$1000 over that you pay 3% and then above that even more. I claimed everything at the actual prices because I am an honest fellow and U.S. Customs decided not to charge me any additional taxes so that saved me a couple bucks too.

I just landed back in Seattle and after playing with the G900 I think it will be up on eBay very soon. It is a bit slow, has a UI that I am not comfortable with and don't want to learn since I think it is on the way out with S60 touch coming, and doesn't even support EDGE. The OMNIA is very slick and worked quite well so I am excited about that device and will post my first impressions in a couple of days.

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