Buying from China: Top tips and rules to follow

Chinese shop

Online shopping from East Asia has admittedly hit a few snags over the last few years — Coronavirus (COVID), the recent VAT debacle, and rising costs of shipping containers to name a few — but you can still grab some real bargains. This guide aims to help you avoid any problems and help you abide by the new rules when buying from China and others.

Everyone knows you can get cheaper mobile phones, smartwatches, clothing, home security devices, accessories — basically consumer electronics galore when shopping from China! You can shop for almost anything for less than you would in Europe or the U.S. from one-stop shopping sites like AliExpress, Banggood, DHGate, Gearbest, Geekbuying, JoyBuy, LightInTheBox, and SHEIN

Plus a lot of products sold on Amazon or eBay will be from China, but in some cases fulfilled by an Amazon warehouse in the UK or Europe. You can also find Chinese sellers via eBay, but expect to wait a bit longer for delivery than going via Amazon as it will still probably be coming direct.

chinese market
Source: Paulo Evangelista / Unsplash.

Buying direct

The cheapest way is to buy direct from China, as that is where a lot of the products are manufactured and can often be bought direct from distributors via websites like AliExpress and Gearbest. Best of all is that they often offer free shipping.  

These sites are much like eBay, in that they don’t actually sell anything themselves, but act as a middleman to third party sellers. They just handle the customer and payment side of things. 

AliExpress (part of the AliBaba group) is the largest of the Chinese shopping sites and has thousands of sellers with millions of items on sale, it is very easy to become lost down the rabbit hole. If you don’t have a specific item in mind, you will end up buying some crazy stuff you never knew you needed or wanted. 

You should also look out for Chinese marketplace sellers on Amazon. It will say “Fulfilled by Amazon” on the page, which just means that the products are held in Amazon-owned warehouses and any customer service issues that arise will be taken care of by Amazon rather than the seller. 

What should you avoid buying?

There are some great offers to be had shopping from China but you must be aware of certain products and brands that might not meet the standards expected. Imported goods may well have been made in China, but to be brought to market must be tested to UK standards. 

For instance, toys might not be tested to UK or European standards, therefore you will not find the UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed) or CE (Conformite Europeenne) mark on them. Without this mark, they could possibly contain toxic chemicals or materials, have small parts without disclosure, or be flammable. 

You should also avoid buying makeup and beauty products for similar reasons — as the UK tests beauty products to a very high standard. China does not have the same standards in place, and manufacturers could potentially use harmful and toxic substances in their products. Sunglasses too must be tested to a certain level of UV protection. 

Look out for fakes

Unfortunately, one thing you must be aware of when buying direct from China is that counterfeits and knock-offs can easily slip through the net. Whilst AliExpress and DHGate have stringent rules against fakes, it is best to steer clear of luxury or high-end items, or at least realise that you probably aren’t going to get a £600 pair of Gucci shoes for £35. 

Therefore it is probably wise to stick to unbranded products, unless they are well-known Chinese brands such as Xiaomi or Huawei, or from an “Official” or “Flagship” store. Even then you might find they are counterfeit but that is the risk you take. You can always get your money back if the item you received is fake, at least with AliExpress. 

AliExpress does have authorised resellers, but you will often find that these are at similar prices to the UK so you might as well buy here and avoid the long postage timescales. 

Not so hidden costs

A lot of the time, shipping and delivery is free from Chinese sites but be aware that this means it will be on the slowest possible route. Sometimes, there will be a delivery fee, which will put most people off but if you want the item quickly — less than six weeks — then you might be willing to pay that bit extra. 

Heavy items will sometimes come with a hefty shipping fee, which often makes the savings disappear, and becomes cheaper to buy from the UK. 

But what really makes the price skyrocket is added VAT, and customs and handling fees. Before January 2021, goods from China with a value less than £15 were exempt from VAT, which often meant that small items slipped through without any charges. Not any more.  

Now you need to pay 20% on all items, regardless of price or where it is coming from. Obviously, what tax you pay depends on the price of the item, but you still shouldn’t pay customs duty unless the item or items together are worth more than £135. Thankfully, the site should add the VAT on to the final price before or at checkout. However if they don’t, I would suggest buying from a site that does, as it is now illegal for them not to add VAT at point of sale. 

Handling fees are add ons that come about when the VAT or customs duty hasn’t been paid and the shipping courier holds on to the item until it is paid. Then, you need to add on a fee too, which is around £6-10 depending on the courier. The Royal Mail handling fee is £8, for example. 

Consumer rights

In the UK we have consumer rights when you shop online or in store, which means you have 14 days to cancel and/or return the order. The Consumer Contracts Regulations mean you have the right to cancel, unless the item is perishable or personalised (which makes a lot of sense). Check out our guide on consumer rights for more info.

But you simply don’t have this luxury when using Chinese online shopping websites. Sure, some of the bigger sites have their own consumer or buyer protection, but it doesn’t give you any rights by law. You can often settle disputes and get your money back via AliExpress, if your item doesn’t turn up or is very late, but faulty items need to be sent back (at your own expense) and this can be more hassle than it is worth. 

Chinese New Year

The largest festival of the year, Lunar New Year starts around February and will last for the whole month. It isn’t a good idea to buy anything from China at this time, as everything is closed and will take much longer to be shipped and arrive with you. Some items last year were taking up to 12 weeks to arrive, which doesn’t really seem worth the savings.

How to buy from China

  • Choose the seller wisely

    As a rule on hotukdeals we only post sellers with 95%+ positive reviews, who have been in operation for more than a year, and have 300+ sales within that year. This way you are less likely to have any issues with them, and if you do just get in touch and they will try to sort it out for you as they will want to keep their hard-earned reviews positive. 

  • Size matters

    When buying clothes from China, remember that the sizing is very different to the UK and Europe. If you are a medium here, then you are likely an XL or more in China. You hear hilarious stories of people receiving what look like children’s clothes because they didn’t take the above into consideration.

  • Avoid buying expensive items

    If only to save yourself some hassle, you should only spend what you can afford to lose. Sometimes the products will be faulty, other times they might not be delivered at all. Also, VAT and customs fees can make a cheap smartphone become average quickly.

  • Beware of fakes

    As mentioned above, if something looks too good to be true then it probably is. Use common sense and your shopping instincts when buying from China, as there are some really decent fakes out there which would fool most people. Don’t buy something that is massively below the RRP, because it is more than likely counterfeit.

  • Be patient

    Shipping from East Asia is going to take a while, unless sent via expedited methods it can take up to 6 weeks on average and sometimes more. On marketplaces like AliExpress, certain sellers might have free 10-day shipping, which is great. On the flip side, a lot of Amazon’s sellers will be available via Prime delivery so you can expect it the next day. 

  • Use PayPal or a credit card to pay

    If in doubt, use PayPal to pay as you can claim back lost money much more easily. Or if you are making a higher purchase, over £100. Check out our PayPal guide for more info.

Buying from China FAQs

How do I buy online from China?

Use one of the online shopping sites specifically catering to Chinese sellers. Such as AliExpress, Banggood, DHGate, Gearbest, Geekbuying, JoyBuy, or LightInTheBox. Or if you would rather buy Chinese brands from a 'western' company, then Amazon or eBay have Chinese sellers under their marketplaces.

Is buying from China safe?

Do I need to pay customs fees or import duty?

Can I return unwanted items?