Buying a phone in Korea is more difficult than you’d think


Again: This is all only from personal experience. There’s a decent chance I misinterpreted or missed a bunch of stuff or whatever.

I pushed my luck bringing my old and deteriorating phone with me to Korea for the semester instead of buying a new one at home. But money is tight, so I figured it would survive for another couple of months. And heck, even if it didn’t…I’m in Korea, home of electronics giants like LG and Samsung, so surely buying a new phone will be a breeze, right?

Well, not so much. Turns out buying a (new) phone is pretty damn difficult.

First off: It appears that most Koreans only buy new phones with contracts, so getting a new phone without one is apparently pretty difficult.

Secondly, phones in Korea are really expensive, and I’m not sure why. Sure, Seoul is definitely not the cheapest place in the world in general, but I figured I’m sitting right at the source here and should have great access to Korean electronics without additional tariffs, taxes, or whatever. However, even the Korean brand phones appear to be much more expensive than in Germany, which is pretty odd.

Third, buying used phones seems pretty big over here. There are a ton of places offering that, so it appears that this is the go-to option if you don’t want a contract. I’m pretty weary about buying used electronics, but had made peace with it after a while…before I saw the prices, that is. I’m no phone expert by any means, but they seem *really* expensive. I only compared a few models, but Korean used phones (from Korean vendors, mind you) seem to cost as much as their new counterparts in Germany, which seems pretty nuts to me. I was willing to buy a used one for a decent price even considering the added risks, but that was a bit much.

I tried going to Yongsan Electronics Market, which was definitely an experience in and of itself. It’s a giant retail area consisting of over 20 buildings and 5000(!) stores. It was an overwhelming experience. I’m sure you can find a bunch of bargains here (especially if you have somebody helping you out), but for me it was just completely overwhelming. It’s a sprawling area with all these different buildings that makes it hard to understand where the market begins and ends. All the individual stores are pretty damn small. All in all, it was just a really confusing experience and I didn’t really feel comfortable buying anything there. Hell, I’m not even sure I went to the right places, as I’ve always heard it being described as a super busy place with a bad reputation for pushy and aggressive salesmen. Apparently that reputation is so strong that Koreans have even coined a new word to describe these salesmen. You also often read that you really need to be careful and compare prices at multiple places to avoid being ripped off. I went there on an early afternoon during the week, so maybe that explains it, but the places I went to were almost deserted and nobody even tried to approach me. So that was a bit odd. Either way, I’ll pass.

Finally, I gave up and instead discovered a really cheap but quite powerful phone from a Chinese vendor that you could order on a popular Korean online shopping site. The site offers a full English version. Sounds easy enough, right? Well…not quite. After placing a late night order, I woke up to a email from Paypal informing me that I had received a full refund for said order. I was never notified by the site why my order had been cancelled. When checking, I discovered that the phone I bought was no longer listed on the site, so…I guess they took it down immediately after I purchased it? Weird. But oh well, the same phone could be bought for a couple of bucks more, so I just clicked purchase again, only to stare at a message informing me that my account had basically been blocked from making orders. At this point, a Korean friend helpfully chimed in and called their hotline. After first insisting that I did not have an account, they then proclaimed that there are no blocks on my account and I should be free to order…but of course I still wasn’t. They then told her that they needed to call me personally to verify my existence (I guess). They were informed that I do not speak Korean and said that this would not be a problem. I then received the following call:

  • Caller: “Uh…Korean?”
  • Me: “No…English?”
  • Caller: “I…uh…sorry” *hangs up*

And that was that. Alrighty. At that point, I just made another account and everything worked smoothly from that point on. So here’s the TLDR: Don’t even bother with customer support, I guess.

At least now I have a working phone again. But it was quite the journey.




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