Given everyone tends to stare at their phones on public transport, you’ve probably noticed the same brands appearing time and time again: Apple, Samsung, Nokia and maybe the odd Sony.
But Chinese smartphones are growing in popularity in the UK. Brands like Huawei and OnePlus have almost become household names, but there are plenty of others to choose from: Xiaomi, Realme, ZTE, Vivo, Oppo, Meizu and more.
These brands shouldn’t be overlooked. Chinese smartphones tend to be cheaper, and you can certainly buy without compromising on quality. Below you’ll find the case for and against buying a Chinese handset, as well as the best Chinese smartphones you can buy today.
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How to buy the best Chinese phone for you
Why buy a Chinese smartphone?
The main selling point of Chinese phones remains the incredible value for money you can get by ditching the Apples, Samsungs and Sonys of this world. There are a whole host of reasons for this: low labour costs, local manufacturing and no brick-and-mortar stores mean that costs naturally come down. There’s also the total lack of marketing: when was the last time you saw an advert for a Xiaomi handset on TV?
Crucially, the reduction in cost doesn’t necessarily mean an inferior product. Chinese phones often use the latest and greatest tech, and sometimes debut new features too. The first under-screen fingerprint scanner was on a Vivo handset, and ZTE was the first company to include an in-screen selfie camera.
Finally, while you can’t move for Samsung and Apple handsets, getting a Chinese brand certainly makes you stand out in the UK.
Why avoid Chinese smartphones?
To be honest, the arguments against Chinese smartphones have become weaker each year, but here’s the case against buying anyway.
First up, while early Chinese smartphones could present a language barrier with poor translations at first, that’s really no longer an issue. You can select “English” when setting the phone up, and everything tends to go smoothly. You may find there are some unusual apps you have no interest in, but these can mostly be deleted or ignored, so it’s really a non issue.
A more pressing concern is insurance and repairability. Given many Chinese manufacturers have no physical presence in Europe, you’ll likely have a long wait for repairs should the worst happen, if they’ll repair them at all. Note also that if you can’t buy the phone you want in the UK, you may be looking at 20% import duty, wiping out any savings you made by buying a Chinese phone in the first place.
Another potential issue is long-term support. When you buy an Apple iPhone or a marquee Samsung handset, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good 3+ years of Android updates and security patches. That isn’t always the case with Chinese phones, although flagship models should enjoy the standard two-year lifespan you’d expect at the least.
Finally, the generally cheaper price does raise questions about the unethical sourcing of components and potentially iffy working conditions on the factory line. But, bluntly, unless you’re willing to pay over the odds for a Fairphone 3, then good luck dodging that particular ethical minefield.
Why are there no Huawei and Honor handsets on the list?
Huawei phones used to get high marks here at Expert Reviews, but external events have meant that we no longer recommend the company’s handsets, nor those by its subsidiary brand Honor.
In 2018, the Trump administration filed an executive order banning US companies working with Huawei. As that includes Google, Huawei and Honor phones are now reduced to using the open-source version of Android which not only means weaker security, but no first-party Google apps including Maps, Gmail or YouTube.
Crucially, the Google Play store also won’t work, and while some apps can be sideloaded, it’s still a hobbled Android experience that we simply can’t recommend, despite the consistent quality of the hardware.
If the situation changes, it’s a safe bet that a few Huawei and Honor handsets will reappear in the list below. But at the time of writing, the company’s handsets are best avoided no matter how tempting they appear on paper.
The best Chinese phones to buy right now
1. Xiaomi Poco F3: The best Chinese phone overall
Price: £329 | Buy now from Amazon
Our top pick isn’t strictly the best Chinese phone you can buy, but it does offer a hard-to-beat blend of power and value.
At £329, you get a phone that beats handsets £70-£100 more expensive in our tried-and-tested benchmarks, and it has one of the best screens we’ve seen at this price point too. Not only is it AMOLED, but it refreshes at a buttery smooth 120Hz. Add in great battery life and a solid if unspectacular camera, and we can’t think of a better handset you buy that costs this little.
Read our full Xiaomi Poco F3 review for more details
Key specs – Processor: 3.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 870; Screen: 6.67in AMOLED 120Hz; Camera: 48MP, 8MP (wide), 5MP (macro); Storage: 128/256GB; Operating system: Android 11; 5G? Yes
2. Oppo Find X3 Pro: The best Chinese phone if money is no object
Price: £1,099 | Buy now from Amazon
Chinese phones tend to be cheaper, but what happens if you’re prepared to pay quadruple-figure amounts for a handset? Well, you get the Oppo Find X3 Pro: a smartphone that goes toe-to-toe with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and wins on both battery life and camera quality.
Would we recommend you spend £1,099 on it? Probably not when the alternatives on this page offer such a good experience for so much less. But if money is no object and you want something unusual but brilliant, then the Oppo Find X3 Pro is the one for you.
Read our full Oppo Find X3 Pro review for more details
Key specs – Processor: 2.84GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G; Screen: 6.7in, AMOLED, 120Hz; Camera: 50MP, 13MP (zoom), 50MP (wide), 3MP (micro); Storage: 256GB; Operating system: Android 11; 5G? Yes
3. Xiaomi Mi 11: The best flagship-beating Chinese phone
Price: £749 | Buy now from Amazon
If you want flagship quality without breaking into four figures, then the Xiaomi Mi 11 is your best bet. It features the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G processor as the best Android phones of 2021 and offers unmatched display colour accuracy.
Even at £749, our Mobile Technology Editor Nathan Spendelow said it offered “astonishing value”, which makes it a great alternative for those that want iPhone 12 Pro or Samsung Galaxy S21 quality without spending the world.
Read our full Xiaomi Mi 11 review for more details
Key specs – Processor: 2.84GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G; Screen: 6.81in, AMOLED, 120Hz; Camera: 108MP, 13MP (wide), 5MP (macro); Storage: 128/256GB; Operating system: Android 11; 5G? Yes
4. Xiaomi Poco X3 NFC: The best Chinese phone under £200
Price: £199 | Buy now from Amazon
The Poco X3 NFC is a pretty amazing product for the low, low cost of entry. In our benchmarks, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 732G which powers things made mincemeat of every other sub-£200 handset around, which is a great start.
But it’s also a great all-rounder, which not only includes a 120Hz screen, but a few things that budget phones tend to lack including IP53 watcher protection and NFC for contactless payments. It’s a steal for under £200, and it often goes even cheaper than that.
Read our full Xiaomi Poco X3 review for more details
Key specs – Processor: 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 732; Screen: 6.67in, IPS, 120Hz; Camera: 64MP, 13MP (wide), 2MP (macro), 2MP (depth); Storage: 64/128GB; Operating system: Android 10; 5G? No
5. Realme X50 5G: The best Chinese phone for 5G on a budget
Price: £299 | Buy now from Amazon
There was a time when 5G connectivity was something reserved for the most expensive flagships around, but thankfully that’s no longer the case, even if coverage is still a bit on the limited side.
The Realme X50 5G doesn’t just offer superfast download speeds for the £299 cost of entry, though. It’s a great all-rounder with a stylish look, decent camera and a fabulous 120Hz screen. There are cheaper 5G phones available now – including the Redmi Note 9T below – but few that offer such a generous all-round package for under £300.
Read our full Realme X50 5G review for more details
Key specs – Processor: 2.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G; Screen: 6.57in, IPS, 120Hz; Camera: 48MP, 8MP (wide), 2MP (macro), 2MP (depth); Storage: 128GB; Operating system: Android 10; 5G? Yes
6. Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T: The best cheap Chinese phone
Price: £229 (but often cheaper) | Buy now from Amazon
The Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T has an RRP of £229, but you can often find it for under £170 if you shop around, and that makes it an absolute steal – especially when the MediaTek chipset features 5G connectivity.
The use of MediaTek might make you worry about performance, but you can relax. In our benchmarks, the Redmi Note 9T was only narrowly behind the OnePlus Nord N10 – a handset that sells for £329. Decent cameras and battery life round out a near-complete package, only let down slightly by its so-so screen. If you can get it for under £170, you’ve bagged yourself an absolute bargain.
Read our full Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T review for more details
Key specs – Processor: 2.4GHz MediaTek MT8653 Dimensity 800U 5G; Screen: 6.53in, IPS, 60Hz; Camera: 48MP, 2MP (macro), 2MP (depth); Storage: 64/128GB; Operating system: Android 10; 5G? Yes