Your buying guide for the best Chinese phones in 2020
You’ve probably heard of Chinese phone brands such as Huawei and Honor. Xiaomi, too, is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, and officially launched in the UK in November 2018. In January 2019, Oppo also made its way to British soil. (Also see our round-up of the best budget Chinese phones.)
Then there’s Meizu, Letv, Homtom, Vernee, UMIDIGI, Ulefone, Elephone, Doogee, Leagoo, Maze, Bluboo, Oukitel and others that won’t sound familiar to a UK audience but offer fantastic value and are well worth your attention.
The problem with many Chinese phones is that they can be difficult to get hold of in the UK, and should something go wrong it is more difficult to get it sorted. To buy a Chinese phone in the UK you’ll either need to look on a site such as eBay or Amazon, or go through a grey-market importer such as Geekbuying, GearBest or Coolicool. Be sure to read up on our grey-market tech buying advice before you do so.
Should you buy a Chinese phone in the UK?
• Excellent value for money
• Good design
• Competitive specification
• None of your friends will have the same phone
• Faulty devices may be difficult to return
• You may incur import duty (charged at 20 percent of the value on the shipping paperwork plus an admin fee)
• The phone may not work with your network (be sure to check before you buy)
• Google Play may not be preinstalled (as is the case with some Xiaomi phones, but it can be rectified)
Features and specifications
The majority of Chinese phones we’ve reviewed have been dual-SIM dual-standby. Sometimes, though, this second SIM comes at the expense of the microSD slot – it’s often one or the other.
An increasing number of phones will support 4G on both SIM slots, but dual-standby phones will ask you to select one or the other for data.
The fact that a Chinese phone supports 4G doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on your UK network, mind. Always check a phone’s frequency bands before purchase, because Chinese phones are often missing the 800MHz band (band 20).
Whereas Qualcomm-made processors are popular in UK phones, many Chinese phones come with cheaper MediaTek chips. Typically speaking they’re not quite as fast as their Qualcomm cousins, though they are more than capable of your daily tasks. A key difference is their support for HotKnot rather than NFC.
Six gigs of RAM is not uncommon, with some even specifying 8GB, while storage is usually 64GB as standard, with 128GB or 256GB available as an option.
You will almost certainly find a fingerprint scanner, plus an often dual-lens camera at the rear and single-lens at the front. The camera functionality is very similar to that of any other Android phone, but you may find the Face Beauty mode whitens your skin tone.
A full-HD screen is common, with Quad-HD very rare but HD screens are still found in the cheapest models. Most have large screens 5.5in in diameter or more.
The screen is usually a good-quality IPS panel, and may often be marketed as having 2.5D Arc glass or 3D glass. This does not mean the screen is curved, but rather that the edges of the screen are slightly curved.
Gorilla Glass is another common feature, which is fortunate because getting hold of a case for a Chinese phone can be as involved as buying the phone itself.
Customisable gestures are not built into Android, but they are very common in Chinese phones. This means you are likely to be able to double-tap to wake the screen, and by drawing a letter onscreen in standby mode you will be able to launch an app of your choice. Many Chinese phones will also allow you to use gestures to trigger the camera shutter.
We won’t recommend any Chinese phone we haven’t physically tested. Thus we offer this chart not as a definitive guide to buying Chinese phones, but as a guide to what you can expect for your money when you buy from China.
1. OnePlus 8 Pro
The OnePlus 8 Pro is arguably the company’s first full flagship, finally incorporating long-requested features like wireless charging and an IP68 waterproof rating to make it a genuine contender with Samsung’s finest.
Understandably the price has gone up accordingly, but at £799/$899 for the base model – no slouch at 8GB RAM and 128GB storage – it still represents serious value by flagship standards, meaning you will save at least some money by opting for OnePlus over most other manufacturers. You can save even more with the £599/$699 OnePlus 8, though you’ll have to give up a few features and downgrade the display and cameras.
The 8 Pro camera is OnePlus’s best yet, and while it still lags behind rivals slightly in some software the hardware is among the best around, which has helped to close the gap considerably. Throw in 5G, a great design, and the best Android skin around and the OnePlus 8 Pro is easy to recommend to anyone who can afford it.
Read our full OnePlus 8 Pro review
2. Xiaomi Mi 9
Devilishly fast, insanely beautiful and offering the best value for money you’ll find in any smartphone, anywhere. Mi 9 is a cracking deal at £305.99, well worth the upgrade from the Mi 8, and still worth a second look even with the (for now China only) announcement of Mi 10.
New is an in-display fingerprint sensor as standard, Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 855 processor, 20W wireless charging, a larger screen and a triple-lens camera that includes a massive 48Mp lens.
Read our full Xiaomi Mi 9 review
3. OnePlus 7 Pro
There’s really very little to fault in the OnePlus 7 Pro. The display, camera, and core specs are essentially all best-in-class – or close enough to count – while the few shortcuts (wireless charging, an IP rating) are easily explained away by a price point – starting from £649/$669 – that still undercuts the closest comparable rivals by some way.
Yes, this costs a bit more than you’re probably used to from OnePlus, but it delivers on enough of its promises to justify that price hike – and if you’re not convinced, the regular OnePlus 7 is always there (outside the US at least), at the same ol’ £499 price OnePlus has been hitting for the last year or two.
In a year that’s already seen both Samsung and Huawei drop pretty phenomenal flagships, OnePlus has still managed to drop a device that might just be the phone to beat in 2019.
Read our full OnePlus 7 Pro review
4. Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro
Beaten by the more recent Mi 9 (and soon Mi 10) but not out of the running yet, Mi 8 Pro offers phenomenal value at £249.97 from Laptops Direct. And now that Xiaomi phones are easily available in the UK, there’s no reason not to consider it.
With powerful performance, decent cameras, some genuinely useful software, a fancy in-display fingerprint sensor and a cool transparent back cover, this is a great all-rounder at a fantastic price.
Read our full Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro review
5. Vivo Nex 3
With specs to rival anything else out there, some of the best battery life we’ve seen, and a beautiful curved screen, the Vivo Nex 3 is the epitome of a 2019 flagship phone – right down to the circular camera cutout on the back.
The curved ‘waterfall’ display covers the entire front of the phone, with no notch, cut-out, or anything – helped by a pop-up selfie camera at the top of the phone. There aren’t even any buttons to get in the way of the curved edges, with pressure-sensitive spots combined with haptic feedback to create the ‘feel’ of the volume and power buttons you’d normally expect.
You can’t buy it in the west – and importers are probably better off ditching the 5G and sticking to the regular 4G model – but if you’re willing to jump through some extra hoops to get hold of the Nex 3 there really isn’t much to disappoint. The only real letdowns are the lack of waterproofing, an occasionally clunky operating system, and a camera that’s good but can’t quite keep up with the best out there – but the combo of a 64Mp main sensor, 2x optical zoom, and wide angle will keep all but the most ardent camera connoisseurs happy regardless.
Read our full Vivo Nex 3 review
6. OnePlus 7
The OnePlus 7 is a fairly cautious upgrade from the 6T: the same design and the same display with beefed up specs, a new camera, and a few small software tweaks. It’s not a game-changer by any means, but it’s a confident, competitive mid-range phone with high-end specs that should appeal to anyone who’s been tempted by a OnePlus device before.
If you stand it up against the 7 Pro it probably won’t seem all that exciting, but with a £150 price difference between the two that’s probably not unreasonable – and there’s still plenty in the 7 to tempt anyone who can’t quite afford the 7 Pro’s full-on flagship price point..
Read our full OnePlus 7 review
7. Huawei P30 Pro
We love the P30 Pro. The design is top-drawer stuff, the display is outstanding and the cameras are truly some of the best ever seen on a phone, even one year on.
Prices have dropped since it launched early in 2019 and it’s great value compared to many rival flagships.
If you want to spend less (and get a little less), there’s the Huawei P30 to consider too.
Do note that the P30 was announced before Huawei was put on the US trade blocklist and Google announced its decision to pull support; therefore, it continues to have full access to Google apps, services and security updates.
Read our full Huawei P30 Pro review
8. Oppo A9 2020
The Oppo A9 2020 is a budget handset the manages to excel in multiple areas – with an attractive design, a 48MP quad-camera and a massive 5000mAh battery that outshines even some of the most expensive phones on the market.
It’s not without faults, of course. Though the battery life is excellent, there’s no fast charging. Though the night mode on the camera is stellar, the user-experience of taking photos really needs refining to be simpler and cleaner.
For the price point, however, you’re getting a very good camera smartphone that feels high-end and a device that won’t die on you quickly. For these reasons we’d definitely say that the Oppo A9 2020 is a budget contender.
Read our full Oppo A9 2020 review
9. Oppo Reno 10x Zoom
The Reno 10x Zoom feels a lot like the OnePlus 7 Pro, but trades that phone’s phenomenal screen for a better camera instead – a trade-off that’s likely to make sense for a lot of people. It’s got top specs, decent battery, and a slick design – as long as you don’t mind the shark fin.
Getting a Snapdragon 855 and a full-screen, notchless display for £699 is a good deal no matter which way you look at it, but the real sell is the triple camera array. With a 48Mp main lens and a 5x optical zoom that can simulate 10x thanks to software tricks, this is one of the few cameras on the market that can rival the Huawei P30 Pro.
The few downsides are that the AMOLED panel is only 1080p, the speakers are a bit wimpy, and ColorOS still feels like a bit of a work in progress – but for most people these will hardly matter at all.
Read our full Oppo Reno 10x Zoom review
10. Xiaomi Mi Mix 3
Swapping out the awkwardly placed selfie camera with a new dual-lens model that is tucked away behind the screen, the Mi Mix 3 is one of several new slider phones that shows how the concept should work. Not only allowing a proper full-screen display, but adding new quick-access functionality to the phone.
In other respects Mi Mix 3 is not a huge upgrade over the 2S, and actually loses some of its bling over its predecessor with the absence of its 18K gold camera surround. But it’s still a great phone, available at an incredible price (check out eBuyer for the best deals), and it’s astonishing to see just how far the original full-display phone has come.
Read our full Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 review
11. Oppo Reno Z
The Oppo Reno Z might not boast the impressive 10x zoom of the premium variant, but it does offer a gorgeous design, impressive performance and great camera setup for less than £300 in the UK. The plastic body of the Reno Z houses a 6.4in AMOLED display with a built-in fingerprint scanner, alongside a 48Mp + 5Mp rear camera setup and a whopping 32Mp selfie camera to capture those memorable moments.
And despite the mid-range internals on offer, the Reno Z offers a smooth, lag-free experience both when scrolling through social media and playing graphic-intense games like PUBG Mobile. The 4035mAh battery is more than enough to get you through the day with average use, and the 20W Fast Charging support means you won’t be tethered to the wall for too long either.
Read our full Oppo Reno Z review
12. Xiaomi Mi 8
It’s now been updated with the Mi 9 and Mi 10, which add wireless charging, a faster processor, an in-display fingerprint sensor, larger displays, better cameras and so forth. Regardless, the Mi 8 continues to offer astonishing value, insane performance and awesome photography. Check out Amazon and Laptops Outlet for pricing below £250.
Read our full Xiaomi Mi 8 review
13. Huawei Mate 20 Pro
The Mate 20 Pro is a very good phone, and it’s even better at the current discounted prices. The cameras will be the highlight for many people, but it really is a fantastic all-rounder with a top-quality screen, super-fast charging, wireless charging and excellent battery life.
The P30 Pro has even better (and more versatile) cameras but does cost a fair bit more.
Read our full Huawei Mate 20 Pro review
14. Huawei P30
Huawei’s pitch for the P30 is all about its camera, and it’s fair to say that the company has delivered. The Pro model may be one step ahead, but this version is still a match for plenty of high-end phones out there.
Low light and long-distance shots are where Huawei has really thrown down the gauntlet, with a combination of three great lenses and some software tricks that even Google’s Pixel phones struggle to match.
The P30 also looks stunning, with a big display (and small notch), some lovely colourful finishes, and a seriously slim body. Plus, there’s even a headphone jack.
If you want a phone with a phenomenal camera but can’t justify dropping close to a grand in one go, the Huawei P30 is seriously worth a look.
Do note that the P30 was announced before Huawei was put on the US trade blocklist and Google announced its decision to pull support, and as such, continues to have full access to Google apps, services and security updates.
Read our full Huawei P30 review
15. Nubia Z20
A dual-screen phone won’t be for everyone, but the Z20 is the closest you’re likely to get to a second display with mass-market appeal. A variety of settings and options mean you can use the second display as little or often as you like (for multi-tasking, always-on display, the camera, and more), while still enjoying all the benefits of the main camera for selfies, but it still feels a little awkward even at the best of times.
It’s just a shame that camera itself isn’t better, with strong triple lens hardware let down by software that’s only OK, resulting in heavily over-saturated colours in every shot. Then again, factor in the price – and super specs – and the Z20 delivers plenty of bang for its buck, competing surprisingly comfortably with phenomenal mid-range offerings from Xiaomi, Asus, Honor, and more.
If you want a second screen, the Z20 is almost certainly the best dual-display phone on the market right now – but it’s probably not quite enough to win over any new converts.
Read our full Nubia Z20 review
16. Xiaomi Pocophone F1
There’s no doubt that the Pocophone F1 when new was one of the best Chinese phones we had ever tested.
Xiaomi has done an outstanding job of creating an impressively high-spec phone for a mind-blowingly cheap price (still available at Amazon). It’s might not be the thinnest and lightest phone around but the design is still attractive and desirable.
Read our full Xiaomi Pocophone F1 review
17. Huawei P20 Pro
Although two generations old at this point, the P20 Pro is still a stunning phone. There are some niggles, such as a lack of stabilisation when shooting 4K video, no headphone jack and no wireless charging but if your priority is photography then the P20 Pro does not disappoint.
Add in the long battery life, dual SIM slots and great screen and you’ve got the complete package: this was one of the best phones of 2018 and is still a smart discount buy today.
Read our full Huawei P20 Pro review
18. Honor 9X
The Honor 9X manages to mimic some elements of flagships but for a fraction of the price. With a geometric, shimmery exterior and a notch-free display thanks to a pop-up camera, you’d find it hard to believe that this is a phone below £250 – especially when you take into consideration the camera that comes with it.
Of course it’s not without its flaws. The triple lens camera isn’t quite as good as the specs suggest, and night mode in particular doesn’t hold up, while performance across the board gives away that this isn’t as high-end as it looks. But still, you get a lot for the price, and a phone that looks like a lot more.
Read our full Honor 9X review
19. Meizu 16s
With a slim, well thought out design, no notch, top level performance and a great price the Meizu 16s should be a winner – and no doubt it will be for people in the east.
But for the western market the software is a little abrasive and Android 9 Pie has a skin that makes it barely recognisable. If you can look past that then the 16s is a really solid choice to import at around £350 for a Snapdragon 855.
Read our full Meizu 16s review
20. Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S
The original full-display smartphone has evolved into something really special, though it’s now been superceded with Mi Mix 3. That does mean you can find it online for less than £200 (here and here), of course.
Now with wireless charging, faster performance and a dual-camera that builds in AI, the Mi Mix 2S is a closer rival to western flagships than ever – and at a fraction of the price.
The Mi Mix 2S majors on performance and design. With its ceramic, mirror-finish case and 18:9 display it looks and feels incredible in the hand.
With full Google services the Xiaomi is easy to recommend, although it’s not ideal for selfie and audio fanatics with a poorly positioned front camera and a mono speaker that doesn’t make up for the lack of a headphone jack.
Battery life could also be better, and we’d like to see the company finally take the plunge with a Quad-HD display and waterproofing.
Read our full Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S review
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