Buying Online From China

Is buying online from China a good idea?

At AliExpress you can get an iPhone case for 86p or a smartwatch for £10 But beware the pitfalls when shopping overseas

The bluetooth smartwatch from Senbono has a remarkable resemblance to an Apple Watch but costs as little as £10. A gaming mouse is £25 but will take between 20 and 40 days to get to you from China. Meanwhile, bluetooth headphones are half price at less than £15, but the buyer will have to pay the shipping fee to return them if anything is wrong.

These products are a snapshot of the vast array of goods available on AliExpress, the English language version of Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant. An ever increasing number of British people are buying from the site and similar ones in Asia, snapping up cheap goods from consumer electronics to beauty products and clothes.

But what lies behind such low prices? Concerns have been raised among consumer groups that buyers should be fully aware of what they are getting into and how they should go into any deal with their eyes open.

Where and how to buy

Much as Amazon is synonymous with online shopping in Europe and the US, in China the dominant player is Alibaba. The giant, set up by former English teacher Jack Ma in 1998, accounted for 80% of online retailing in China by the time it floated on the New York stock market three years ago.

Under the Alibaba umbrella is AliExpress, launched in 2010 and aimed at an international audience. It is a marketplace where Chinese retailers operate, with brands – unfamiliar to many in Britain – such as Aun, Mi, Gimi and Teclast selling electronics alongside Merry’s sunglasses and OneMix trainers. Other Chinese sites include LightintheBox, DHGate and Everbuying.

There are undoubtedly bargains – one of the main reasons why buying from the east is so popular. But with bargains come warnings about hidden charges. “It’s possible to grab everything from sandals to watches at a fraction of the usual cost. We’ve found an iPhone case for 86p or a woman’s belt for an astonishing 18p – both including delivery,” said Steve Nowottny from “But you’ll need to keep your wits about you – there are unexpected charges to watch out for, safety concerns about some categories of goods, and your consumer rights are limited.”

What are your rights?

Consumers in the UK enjoy healthy rights when buying goods online from the EU. However, the same rights do not apply when buying from a seller in China. While some sites might offer protections, they are not the law. For instance, AliExpress promises a full refund if a buyer does not receive an order, or a full or partial refund if the item is not as described.Which? says that buying goods which turn out to be fake from a website outside the UK can result in difficulties in getting a refund as “that country may have different rules”.

Nowottny says that the limited rights doesn’t mean people should not buy from China, but that they should be aware of the risks and only spend what they are prepared to lose.

“To be blunt, you have few of the consumer rights you enjoy when purchasing from a seller in the UK. You’ve often no legal right to return an item, even if faulty, and while many of the sites you can buy from offer their own protection policies, it’s not the law. What is more, even if you can return an item, the cost of postage may make doing so prohibitively expensive,” he explains.

Jan Carton from Citizens Advice says there are some rights which come with credit cards and debit cards regardless of whether goods are being bought under UK law. “If you buy something that isn’t as expected, or doesn’t arrive at all, you can contact your credit card company to ask for your money back if you’ve paid more than £100 but less than £30,000. For credit card purchases less than £100, or if you’ve paid by debit card, you may be able to get a refund via the ‘chargeback’ scheme if you request it within 120 days – check with your card provider,” she says.

Costs mount up

While the price of some goods – such as the iPhone cover for 86p – might suggest that a purchase is a no-brainer, there is the potential for problems. Delivery charges are included on many items but not on others, so prices can quickly go from bargain to overpriced.

For example, a silicone lid to stop a saucepan spilling over costs £3.69 on AliExpress, but the shipping is £1.31 – more than a third of the price; a leather backpack which costs £97 costs £76 to send to the UK, bringing the final bill to £173; and an outdoor BBQ meat smoker at just over £100 comes with a bill of £115 for shipping.

Key, too, is the amount of time it can take for your order to arrive. In the case of delivery from China that can be weeks, so patience is required. Allow between 20 and 40 days for an AliExpress item, although this can be reduced by paying for a courier service.

Where costs can really add up are in VAT and customs charges. VAT is charged at 20% on goods sent from non-EU countries if they are worth more than £15. Customs duty at 2.5% is charged on items with a value between £135 and £630. Those over £630 have a different rate depending on what they are and where they are coming from.

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