Buying an iPhone in Shanghai

The first time I went to Xujiahui looking for iPhones, I didn’t have much luck. All the shops told me they didn’t carry 水货 (smuggled goods). Later, Brad tipped me off about exactly where to go in the computer market, and when I actually bought the iPhone about a week ago, the iPhone seemed to be for sale everywhere.

iPhone Mania in Xujiahui

The place to buy the iPhone in the Xujiahui computer market is B1 (don’t waste your time upstairs). There are actually two computer markets in Xujiahui (both accessible from the subway); both are selling the iPhone in B1. I recommend the one connected to the big glass globe; there’s more selection/competition. The iPhone 3G can be found, but it’s quite expensive. I didn’t pay much attention to its selling price because the iPhone’s new 3G capabilities are useless in China. Instead, I sought out the original iPhone. The 8 GB version can be bought for around 4000 RMB, and the 16 GB version for 5000+ RMB. I opted for the former.

It can be confusing shopping for the iPhone because of the disparity in vendor prices, and when you try to find out why, you get all kinds of stories. I didn’t see anything that looked like a knock-off, but you definitely have to make sure that the iPhone is undamaged and comes with everything it’s supposed to.

My employer, Praxis Language, is a leader in the field of mobile language learning, so it strongly encourages key employees (in the form of a nice subsidy) to get iPhones. I bought mine with some co-workers on a “company field trip,” and we tried to get a 团购 (“group shopping”) discount. I was quoted a price as low as 3500 per iPhone by one vendor, but we ended up paying 3900 per and going with a vendor that seemed more trustworthy. A telling exchange:

> Me: Your iPhones are all opened.

> Him: Yeah, we have to open them.

> Me: But that shop over there sells them unopened.

> Him: They just re-shrink-wrap them. If you want me to, I can re-shrink-wrap one for you too.

This kind of candor sold us on the vendor. He was also happy to provide all the following services:

– Upgrade iPhone firmware from 1.4 to 2.0

– Unlock/jailbreak the iPhone (so we can use it with China Mobile, and run third party apps)

– Install latest version of Cydia (installer service for third party apps)

– Put on a free screen protector (and also throw in a free case)

Altogether we bought six iPhones. I was the only one that found a defect; I got a phone with a scratched screen. The vendor tried to downplay the defect at first, but gave into my demand to replace the phone even after I had paid.

Overall, a pretty good consumer experience. The iPhones you buy in China obviously don’t come with Apple support or hardware warranties, but if you find a good vendor you can go back to them for help dealing with firmware issues.

Let me know if you have any questions about the experience. I was initially somewhat wary of buying 水货, but the company subsidy was just the push I needed. After learning a lot about the iPhone in the past week, I’m quite pleased with the purchase and with the iPhone’s functionality in China, even despite a recent iTunes Stores block.

Related: Practicing characters with your iPhone


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. The guy we ended up buying from was pretty cool — the honesty was certainly refreshing. Definitely one of the better computer/electronics buying experiences, both in terms of service and the product I actually got, I’ve had.

  2. One thing, though — you should do your research and make sure they upgrade to the latest jailbroken version of the firmware available. I ended up upgrading to 2.01 after buying it — not that hard, but you might as well get it done before you hand over your cash.

  3. I’m reluctant to get one… heard stories about phones being ‘bricked’!

    I’m now working on a pitch fort an iphone subsidy to head office at innovative languages. 😉

  4. I’m running 2.02 at the moment; I upgraded the firmware without bothering to wait for Pwnage to update since I don’t actually have all that much use for Cydia — I’m waiting until they get some apps that don’t stink so much of Linux.

    2.02 definitely shows some big performance improvements, but to be honest Chinese input through Apple’s official IME is still way slower than it had been under, say, WeFIT or Costa under a jailbroken 1.1.4. There’s also a super-sweet new IME for 1.1.x series phones out of Hong Kong called ‘iAcces’ [sic] — all the input methods you could ever hope for, including really impressive handwriting recognition. Supposedly they’ll be releasing a 2.0-enabled version soon.

  5. When I bought an iPhone in Beijing recently (also an 8gb 1st gen), one of the vendors I was talking to was quite frank and said that since the 3G models started arriving, essentially all 1st gen phones currently on the market are now just refurbished second-hand models. He then pointed out various different things to look out for, and said that any vendor claiming they had brand-new 1st gen phones was lying. Not sure if the situation is similar in Shanghai, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s where the scratched screen came from.

  6. Any word on the prices of the newest 3G iPhones? i know that the 1st-gen iPhones can also use the latest 2.0 software, but the 1st-gen iPhone has a weird recessed headphone jack that makes it awkward to use 3rd-party headphones (requires an adapter).

    So… did those same shops have the 3G iPhone?


  7. In Beijing, the same shops were selling 8GB 3G iPhones for between RMB 5,300 and RMB 5,700.

  8. Congrats on the iPhone purchase… These are fun little devices.

    If you have to re-unlock/jailbreak/upgrade your phone, DO NOT use Ziphone. Ziphone is notorious for causing problems. The “iPhone Dev Team” ( seems to know what they are doing, so use their “PwnageTool” or whatever equivalent for Windows. If the place you bought it from already used that, you’re set and you don’t have to unlock again, for upgrades just build your custom firmware with PwnageTool and load it through iTunes.

    I’m on an official carrier, but still jailbreak my phone to get that functionality that Apple currently won’t allow. I’m patiently waiting for the author of Nemusync to update it for 2.x so that I can have over-the-air syncing with Google calendar again.

    I’m on 2.0.1 and skipping the 2.0.2 release because I’ve heard about a lot of problems with it.

    2.0.x was a step forwards and backwards at the same time compared to 1.1.4. Lots of sluggishness that wasn’t there in 1.1.4, but some of the official apps make it worth it. I’ve been meaning to blog about my latest experiences…

    The original iPhone is definitely the one to buy if you’re unlocking. You can unlock a 3G using a hardware device, but supposedly the methods they use could possibly be illegal (according to this:

  9. My wife will be leaving next month for Beijing and we have a good friend there who wants us to bring him an iPhone. If iPhones are available in Beijing, what would be the advantage of bringing one from the States? It seems to me it would be more risky. Any advice on buying one over here in the States so that our friend doesn’t have any problems over there unlocking it? Should I get an older version or is the 3G phone just fine? Any help would be much appreciated. Thanks.

  10. once you buy 水货 you won’t go back. The prices are considerably cheaper and the phones are often much better. The key is finding a trusted vendor to shop at, which may take some time and asking around, especially Chinese friends.

  11. […] a great example of what you get if you speak Chinese.  This is a great site, by the way.  I don’t always agree with some of Jon’s politics, […]

  12. Ham Sandwich Says: August 26, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    many of the phones sold in non-iPod countries are used, hence the ‘we have to open them’ and shrink wrapping thing (and I agree – I’d definitely buy from the guy who admitted it). this will only increase now as the 2G has been discontinued and the 3G isn’t fully unlocked yet. joints like this are buying 2G’s from users in USA and then shipping them abroad for this reason…

    that is likely the source for many of the ones you see in the market

  13. imron,

    That’s actually what most of the vendors will tell you: the ones I sell are new, but the cheaper ones other vendors sell are refurbished (翻新的). According to them, the surest sign it’s a refurbished iPhone is the scuffed back.

  14. Steven,

    The shops had the 3G iPhones, but I didn’t get the prices… sorry!

    See Imron’s comment, though.

  15. I would strongly advise against buying a 水货 iPhone. One of the problems is that many of the phones are unable to get Apple updates. They work fine at first, but eventually you will get all sorts of little problems because you cannot update the software. I have several Chinese friends who have purchased legit, albeit 水货 iPhones, and it has severely limited their functionality.

  16. Brian,

    iPhones should be cheaper in the States, except when they come with a mandatory service agreement with AT&T. If you are able to buy a phone without the expensive service agreement, then you’re still going to have to deal with getting it unlocked (and possibly jailbroken). Not sure if you want that hassle.

  17. Ben,

    I suspect those problems stem largely from ignorance about what you can update and how after your iPhone has been jailbroken. It was confusing for me, at first, and I have a ton of English-language resources available online. I bet the support for this kind of thing is not as good in Chinese.

    It’s kind of like Linux… it works great, but if you’re not committed to learning a lot and dealing with the hassle, you might end up with nearly unusable hardware.

  18. I am researching an alternate iTunes store that is accessible anywhere and at a reduced price per song.

    A colleague fo mine was telling me about it. I will find it and post it on my website and let you know when it is available.

    More later

    Greg Pasden – World Traveler

  19. Only with 3G the iPhone becomes really fun. It totally reshaped my life – being able to access Google maps (in combination with GPS!), Wikipedia, news, mail, Youtube streaming video (!) etc. etc. whereever I am is like a permanent brain extension. The MDAPro I carried around before also claime to have those abilities, but it was more an instable and unusable prototype. I generate more webtraffic on the iPhone in a day than with the MDA in 3 months!

    By the way: I would have never bought that phone without CPod and their iPhone site.

  20. Sorry if that sounded like an Apple ad!

  21. What is the situation with China Mobile plans?

    I’m heading over to beijing in a couple weeks for a semester abroad, and am planning to bring my unlocked iPhone. Last time I was in China there were prepaid sim cards all over the place, but is there a decent data plan available in china that isn’t too expensive?

  22. John Says:
    The shops … sorry!


  23. Alvin Loo Says: August 29, 2008 at 9:21 am

    I was there also with my parents and got myself the iphone really cheap compared to singtel and then i was roped for the testing of bak2u anti-theft software when back. Damn lucky as I lost the phone the next day at the bus when falling asleep on way to school. Got it back but a bit scratches think it got it when dropped.

  24. One other thing about the 3G phones. There are two grey-import models available, one from America and one from Hong Kong. Apparently, to get the US ones working on the Chinese network, some trickery that involves cutting up parts of your SIM card is required, whereas with the Hong Kong ones, you can just pop a Chinese SIM card straight in. The HK versions sell for a higher premium than the US ones for this reason. So, if you bring a 3G version from the states, I expect you might run into similar problems.

  25. Hi, i’m very interested in buying iphones too, can you tell me the location of where to buy the iphone?

    Thank you!

  26. have you tried proxy program to get around the firewall in china to be able to access itunes, personally I use itunes to get album art. I’ve never been to China but Kuwait has a firewall as well, so I just start up my proxy program do enjoy the net as it should be unblocked!

  27. Greetings,

    I didn’t see this in the original post or comments.

    What booth exactly did ya go too?

    I live right near there and am in need of a “real” iphone.

  28. […] phone up until this past week was a first generation 8 GB iPhone, purchased about a year ago, also in Shanghai. While I’ve enjoyed my iPhone for the most part, I’ve experienced firsthand the […]

  29. Hi. I need help in buying a 水货 iphone. I’ve only just arrived in Shanghai and would appreciate if someone would point to me which iphone I should be looking for. I heard that it is now 500+ RMB really? Or is this really the bad ones? I am looking for a good 水火。 Thank you and appreciated.

  30. Me too. I’d like to know where I can buy genuine apple n computer parts n software in Shanghai. Going there soon. Prices in euros or dollars wld do. Thnx

Leave a Reply