AliExpress: What is it, how does it work, and is it safe?

Deal editor57
Posted 17th Oct 2019
Update 2
Please note that delivery and lead times may well be longer from China and the EU due to COVID-19.
Please note: This is our first attempt at pulling together the key info on shopping on a Chinese retailer like AliExpress — as such we really want all your feedback on anything extra you'd like to know, your experiences with AliExpress, and (hopefully not) any mistakes we’ve made...

Buying items from a new site you've not heard of before can be daunting — but increasingly some of the hottest deals we're seeing are from Chinese retailers such as AliExpress.

So we've pulled together this guide to help you decide whether to click the mouse on that checkout basket. It covers whether it is safe to use, how delivery and customs costs work, and how to get the best bargains.

So, what exactly is AliExpress?

AliExpress is an online retailer based in China, owned by the Alibaba Group (which is sort of like the Chinese eBay). Launched in 2010, it sells products from small and medium businesses in China and other locations, such as Singapore, to international online buyers.

AliExpress is different to Amazon, because it only acts as a platform for third-party sellers to use, and does not sell its own stock directly to customers.

Interestingly, customers in China can’t buy from AliExpress themselves. Instead, different platforms operate in China such as Taobao (also owned by AliBaba Group) which is the world’s biggest e-commerce website.


Is AliExpress safe?

This question is probably best split into two halves — will your payment be secure, and are the products that are sold safe?

On the first, provided you pay via credit card then all should be good. The AliExpress website itself is secure, and there were any serious problems like fraud then your card provider should step in to help out. Paypal provides some similar protections, but many sellers don’t accept it as a payment method, or they do but charge you a percentage to use it.

AliExpress also has its own buyer protection in place. This isn’t legally binding protection, so factor that in, but it says that if an item doesn’t turn up within the ‘expected delivery time’ (which is fairly long due to products shipping from China), or arrives but is not as described then you should be able to get a no-questions-asked refund. Let us know in the comments if you’ve ever had any problems getting AliExpress to honour this guarantee.

In terms of the products themselves, the key thing to know is that they may not meet EU regulations, which can be pretty stringent in categories such as toys, electronics, beauty products. This is simply because they are not being sold within the EU itself. The regulations differ hugely by different type of product, but often set a minimum safety level — so here there is no guarantee they are met.


How long does delivery take?

A very general and rough rule would be… this isn’t the place to buy last minute gifts for a loved one! These items are coming all the way from China, and often from small-ish retailers, so there can be quite a wait. But if you’re not in a rush, many people will find that the rock bottom prices make this a minor annoyance.

However, there is some degree of certainty. Each item on the site states an estimated delivery time, often stated as a (pretty wide) range such as ‘delivered within 20-40 days’, or a latest date it will arrive by. The AliExpress buyer protection states that if your product isn’t received within the guaranteed delivery time.

If the order doesn't arrive within the seller's guaranteed delivery time, you can submit a refund request up to 15 days after the order was supposed to arrive. So make a note and set a reminder for the date the item is supposed to be delivered by, and if the item hasn’t turned up you can open a dispute in the order details page (annoyingly, you can only open one dispute per order).


Will I pay taxes and import duty?


If you buy an item and it is less than £15, it is unlikely to incur VAT or import duty. That is why AliExpress is good for small cheap items, if you are happy to wait for them a bit longer than other sellers.

If the order comes to more than £15, then you may have to pay 20% extra in VAT. However, VAT is 20% of the whole package value, not just those items over £15, and will be charged on any products from outside of the EU. So if you buy 10 charger cables for £1, and a power bank for £20, for example, then you will pay VAT on all of the items in the package — so 20% of £30 (or £6).

Then, if the item has a value of more than £135, you’ll need to pay custom charges — and unhelpfully, the amount you pay depends on LOADS of factors, including what the item is, where it comes from and its value. On average, this should be around 7-9%, but we would suggest that for a rough rule of thumb, you should budget for this to cost up to 20% of the item’s cost.

Royal Mail will charge you an additional £8 for a customs charge-handling fee, and other couriers have varying fees. This will only need to be paid if there is a customs charge.


What’s the best way to pay?

As mentioned above, for safety it is best to pay using a credit card. Certainly, just like if you were buying from a website you weren’t sure about in the UK, never use bank transfer or other payment systems you are not familiar with.

The other thing to consider is whether to pay in US Dollars (which is the default) or Pounds. Provided you use one of the best fee-free cards for spending overseas, then the dollar option should work out cheapest as AliExpress does the currency conversion itself, and doesn’t always use the best rate.

You can select the currency you pay in (as well as which country you are in) by toggling the option at the very top right corner of the website (next to Language)


Can I get a refund for items bought from AliExpress?

When shopping online, the right to return an item is pretty crucial — whether because the wrong item has been sent, it is damaged or not as described, or just because you have changed your mind (eg, an unwanted gift).

Even though here items are coming from - and need to be returned to - China, AliExpress’s policy under its Buyer Protection policy is that you can return any item provided it is either faulty, unopened, counterfeit or if it doesn’t arrive at all. There may be some retailers who don’t stick to this though - please let us know in the comments if you have had any problems.

However, exactly how this works, and whether there is a cost to you, depends on what policy each retailer uses.

First, check if you can return for free

Some retailers are taking part in AliExpress’s Free Returns trial scheme in the UK - it’ll say this under the red Buy Now button:


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If so, you have 15 days after receiving the goods to decide whether you want to return them. To do so, simply print off and fill out the returns form and take the item to a post office. The goods must be in perfect condition and in the packaging they came in, and the free returns scheme excludes anything over £1,000 as well as products such as mobile phones, underwear, food and customised merchandise.


No free returns? You can return but you’ll need to pay

With other merchants not using the free returns scheme, the old rules apply. Which means you’ll need to contact the seller to find out how they can help you further and if they will accept your return. You have 15 days after delivery to decide if you want the goods under the Buyer Protection policy, and a two-year manufacturing warranty should your item be faulty.

If the seller accepts your return, then package it securely with the returns address on, take it to the post office and pay for return delivery costs (unfortunately there is no way around this if the seller is not part of the Free Returns scheme) to receive a shipping number. Then, add this number to the dispute and when AliExpress receive the return, you will get a refund.

If you are unhappy with the seller’s answer, you’ll need to raise a dispute with them via AliExpress. To do this, sign in to My Orders, and select Open Dispute. Note that you must do this before your Buyer Protection time has run out. If the seller agrees to the refund request, or does not respond within 5 days, the refund will be processed by AliExpress.

If for any reason, you are unsatisfied with the result of your dispute or the Case Management Team have closed the dispute, you can raise an Appeal within 7 days of receiving your answer, or the case closing.


Are products sold on AliExpress real or genuine?

Be aware that fakes and counterfeit products are produced in vast quantities in China and so some can and will slip through the net, so it may be worth buying only unbranded products. Use your common sense when buying something. If an item is marked down to only a fraction of the normal retail cost (fashion labels, for example) then it is probably fake.

However, AliExpress says it has a ‘Guaranteed Genuine’ policy, and says you’ll get a full refund (including shipping costs) if you receive a counterfeit product.




How to shop smart on AliExpress

AliExpress feels overwhelming at first, because they sell EVERYTHING. You can buy electronics, kitchenware, fashion, home appliances, and so on. You can even buy unusual niche products like fishing accessories and paintball gun parts. The only thing it doesn’t sell are perishables like food.

The best way to get to grips with it is by knowing what sort of thing you want, otherwise you risk getting lost in the seemingly infinite options online. Plus, you might spend a fortune on stuff you neither want or need — a bit like Amazon but cheaper and with hilarious grammatically-suspect descriptions.

One really appealing feature is the wide availability of either free or very cheap shipping to international buyers.

In terms of what you can buy, some of the best known Chinese brands are for sale on AliExpress. For example, you can find lots of products from Huawei, OneTen, Xiaomi, Asus, and IceBear. They have a dedicated page for big Chinese brands — The Brand Zone — most of which will have features similar to famous western brands.

All of the best AliExpress deals found by our users can be found on the dedicated AliExpress on hotukdeals page.


Using AliExpress coupon codes - there are loads of them!

The coupon system is both relatively straightforward and absolutely prolific. A huge number of items allow you to save further by applying coupon discounts.

And these discounts are easy to spot. On a product page they look like this...

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This is where you see which coupon is being applied at the checkout screen

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There are also various places on the site you can go to check the different offers that are available at any given time - such as the New User Zone or the Coupon Center for existing users - where they display like this:.


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Extra features in the AliExpress app

The AliExpress app, much like any other shopping app, is phone- and tablet-friendly with all the features found on the website. Search, Flash Deals and Freebies are all there, plus a few cool extras.

  • Use your camera to take an image of a desired item and the app searches through literally millions of products to find a similar match.
  • The feed, which recommends products similar to those you have bought previously, or searched for, or even liked.
  • The message feature is akin to Facebook’s Messenger but with customer service in mind rather than a chat with friends. You can find out about orders, promos you might be interested in, and trends among the community.
  • Amusing gamification features, like the app-exclusive coins you can use to either play basic ‘games’ — Lucky Forest, Bubble Challenge and Flip ‘n’ Win — for coupons, discounts and more coins, or alternatively you can convert the coins directly into coupons to get discounts on purchases.

    You can get free coins by clicking on the Coins & Coupons tab, which increases the free coins daily (one on day 1, two on day 2, and so on until day 8 when you get 16). But you can also gain coins by completing daily tasks, such as liking a feed post or using the image search, for example.
You can download AliExpress on iOS or Android.




So, there we have it! Hopefully this thread has served as a useful resource, and you can venture out into ALiExpress with a renewed confidence, and maybe pick up some cracking bargains along the way.

Got any tips or suggestions? We'd love to hear them. Drop us a comment below

See: All AliExpress Deals
Community Updates
Update 1
Please be aware that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shipping delays may be encountered when ordering.
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