How to buy cheap tech products and equipment from China

Chinese e-commerce websites are perfectly happy to sell individual items, like electronics parts, to U.S. consumers. You don't need agents to take advantage of cheap Chinese imports.

shipping containers
Credit: Flickr/Steve Gibson

If you've been wondering how to take advantage of Chinese wholesale-like prices on single items like electronics, and thus beat-out the exorbitant mark-up from the western retail industry, I've found it's actually pretty easy, with a few caveats.

China-based e-commerce websites like BangGood ship to individuals in the U.S.; they have more varied and specialist stock than U.S. retail venues, and their prices are significantly lower.

Here are some of the things I've learned about the process:

Websites

Multiple-language websites, geared towards the sale of individual items, include free-shippers BangGood, with a hugely varied stock, and buyer protection-promoting AliExpress.

B2B site Pandawill has deals for multiple items, and HobbyKing specializes in radio-controlled toys, but has weight-based shipping charges, which can add up. Personally, I've used BangGood and HobbyKing.

Products

Those websites carry copious amounts of toys, smartphones, tablets, parts and networking gear.

Plus, those sites tend to be a lot more imaginative in their inventory than your neighborhood suburban mall—BangGood, for example, has pages of 3D printer supplies.

Price

Chinese electronics, sourced from China, are cheaper than the same items purchased in the U.S. and Europe.

For example, 10 pairs of 3.5mm banana connectors are available for $2.60 with free shipping from BangGood. My local brick-and-mortar outfit's e-commerce site will sell me three pairs for $2.99 plus shipping.

Patience is a virtue

If you're in a hurry, don't bother. Use a more expensive American e-commerce outfit.

Reason: the China-ordered gear takes forever to ship, and you should leave at least a month, or more, from placing the order to receiving the product.

It can be faster than that, but you need to get into a zen-like state of sublime patience—this is not like one-click ordering from an Amazon warehouse in Arizona.

Don't get disappointed when the package hasn't arrived. That's partly where your savings are coming from; many sites offer free shipping from China to the U.S.

Expect trouble

The upcoming Chinese new year on February 19th promises to slow things down further, though, as do quirks like port stoppages and sometimes-escalated airport screenings on batteries.

The Port of Los Angeles is currently experiencing slowdowns, and there are shipping containers, maybe holding my long-ago-ordered Chinese parts, bobbing-around the Pacific right now—going nowhere.

Tracking

I've found that to really grab savings, do use the free shipping and no-tracking options. The packages tend to show up anyway.

In one case, an item of value—one over $100—somehow gained a somewhat useless complimentary tracking number, even though I had chosen the cheapest shipping method.

Using it, I found out that the package took 10 days to get from the warehouse to the post office, and then another four days to get processed there. Big deal, because there's no estimated delivery day supplied. It's still in transit.

Descriptions

Watch out for product compatibility issues between China and a ship-to country. Make sure you're buying electronics that are compatible. Look for 110V rather than 240V if you're in the U.S. Check a radio's frequencies.

On the whole, the product descriptions are clear, with multiple images and a crucial bullet list of exactly what you will get in the package.

Customs duty

Be aware that, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, you are the importer, and therefore you are the party responsible for making sure imports comply with the rules, including paying duty, if any. It's not the shipper.

A UK model maker I saw recently on YouTube reported that he was contacted by a customs brokerage to arrange for duty payments to be made via bank card a few days before he was supposed to receive a moderate-value shipment from HobbyKing in China.

Sounds fair, but it could mess up a budget for the unwary.

Local warehouses

HobbyKing and others have local warehouses in the UK and U.S. The stock is not as quirky and prices are more expensive—any import duty payments are taken care of.

Look for warehouse location options on the ordering website if you're not price-sensitive.

Food for thought

With the price of real estate in a major city like New York, for example at $1,435 per square foot right now, there's a theoretical argument that storing unused consumer electronics or even nuts-and bolts at home does not make economic sense when comparing real estate prices to the cost of buying things new from China.

Chuck the unused stuff out and buy it again if you need it.

And if you subscribe to that intriguing, admittedly non-ecologically friendly argument, then BangGood and its brethren may be an answer.

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