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How not to buy an iPhone overseas

It kind of seems like I can't catch a break when it comes to iPhone launches. The first iPhone debuted a little over a year before I left the US and moved to New Zealand. I knew the move was coming, so signing (then breaking) a two-year contract with AT&T didn't make sense. I also wasn't prepared to pay US$599 for a cell phone. "That's more than my PlayStation 3 cost!" I said at the time. (Guess which device I use more often now.)

The iPhone 3G launched in New Zealand eight days after I moved here, and the color drained from my face when I saw how much Vodafone was charging for it. Vodafone once again priced the iPhone 3GS well outside the bounds of sanity in 2009, so I had to pass on that model and hold onto the iPhone 3G I'd eventually purchased. A year later, the NZ iPhone 4 launch was an unmitigated disaster, and I had to go through three handsets before I finally got one that worked right.

None of that remotely compares to what's transpired as I've tried to get an iPhone 4S into my hands.

Caution: First World Problems Ahead. This is going to be a rather long, cranky post about one impatient man trying to buy a smartphone. If that's not your cup of tea, there's plenty of Internet out there beyond this page.

Still here? In that case, I hope that if you're reading this and considering a (cough) non-traditional route for your iPhone purchase, you'll think twice and avoid the same frustration I've endured over this long, irritating, and (spoiler) ultimately fruitless odyssey.

It came as little surprise to me that Apple delayed the iPhone 4S launch in New Zealand to the third tier of "whenever we get around to it" countries, but I was both surprised and annoyed that unlocked handsets wouldn't be available in the US until November. I'd initially been planning on having a colleague in the States get the handset down here, but I wasn't willing to wait a whole extra month (Warning: Contains Foreshadowing).

I ordered an iPhone 4S and Apple TV from Australia instead and had them shipped to a contact of mine in Melbourne; he was someone I'd met in person before, and I decided he was trustworthy enough to act as a go-between. Even though the iPhone 4S turned out to be far more expensive in the Down Under stores compared to its US price, I felt it was worth paying a little extra if it meant I didn't have to wait.

I should have known better.

Apple delayed shipping iPhone 4S pre-orders to Australia
until the day the handset launched. Pre-order customers in many other countries received their iPhones on the day of the 14th, but Australian pre-orders didn't actually leave the Foxconn factory floor until that same day. This meant the handset didn't actually arrive at my Aussie contact's home until early morning of October 18. I was annoyed, but not yet angry. Four days of extra waiting wasn't quite enough to get me turning green and throwing compact cars at unmarked helicopters. Not yet, anyway.

But the delays continued. Despite assuring me that he'd ship the handset to New Zealand within a day of receiving it, my Aussie intermediary didn't make his first attempt to ship the iPhone 4S to me until Thursday. His local post shop refused to mail the package because -- wait for it -- the iPhone has a battery in it. Sticking strictly to the absolute letter of mailing regulations means that any device with a non-removable lithium battery can't be shipped internationally via air mail in Australia -- even though that's precisely how it arrived in the country, in precisely the same packaging state.

I called Australia Post, and their representative said shipping it shouldn't have been a problem; "We ship iPhones out all the time," were her exact words, but she wasn't able to get the post shop employee to listen to reason.

Meanwhile, the last direct communication I'd received from my acquaintance in Australia came the day he received my iPhone. For whatever reason, all subsequent contact over the next four days took place between his wife and mine. I had to call him to find out that despite his wife's assurances she'd ship my iPhone to New Zealand the day after the first attempt, it didn't happen. He got annoyed with me when I told him the continual delays were costing me money -- I can't write up reviews or how-tos on a product I don't own -- and he breezily suggested that he'd mail it out "as soon as I can." His dismissive attitude toward my situation (and the financial peril he was putting me in) is what finally threw me into a Hulk-like rage. Let's just say the next morning I was looking up "drywall repair" on Google and leave it at that. Not one of my prouder moments.

By this point I began to suspect he was trying to sell the phone out from under me. The lack of communication from him and continued failures to ship it out only reinforced that fear, especially when I noticed that his wife who was "too busy" to mail my iPhone out had spent several hours a day posting in an online forum they both frequent.

Simultaneously impatient and paranoid, I sought assistance on Twitter from any TUAW readers who lived close to the guy. My wife wasn't particularly pleased with this plan, and I knew on an intellectual level that it was a huge and foolhardy risk -- one more inadvisable link in an already rusty chain -- but I was starting to get desperate.

At first no one's schedule was open enough to get to his place on the outskirts of Melbourne. The longer my iPhone sat uselessly in his house with neither word from him nor any attempts to ship it out, the more I suspected that I was going to have to consider it stolen and get the police involved.

At last, a Melbourne-based reader contacted me on Twitter, and we were able to make some very cloak-and-dagger arrangements to retrieve my gear and finally get it sent out to me. My wife thought I was a harebrained idiot for trusting a stranger with this mission (and she was probably right). But the guy seemed trustworthy enough to me, and at any rate I didn't feel like I had much left to lose.

He agreed to send one of his coworkers to pick up my iPhone, and I alerted the guy who'd held my property in his home (by now, for a solid week) that someone was coming to pick it up. Twelve hours went by before I received this response from the man who'd held over a thousand dollars in my property in his home without communicating with me for over a week:

You didn't consider asking before giving my address to someone?
And no thank you for doing what we have?

Very few moments have filled me with rage as palpable as that I felt upon reading that email. I could hear my heart not just beating, but slamming in my ears. It took an almost physical act of will to restrain myself from firing off a volcanic response right away; I wisely held off, because my ad hoc courier hadn't retrieved my items yet.

I sat down and blasted Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from my stereo while I tried to cool down and find a calm center. It didn't work, but at least I got to listen to some good tunes while I waited to see how my own dopey version of Mission: Impossible played out.

Just as John Lennon started singing about a lucky man who made the grade, I got a coded message on Twitter: "The bird is in the cage. Repeat. The bird is in the cage." I felt an instant wave of relief, but it didn't last long. I still had to get my iPhone out of the country, and I was depending on a complete stranger to do it.

Thankfully my trust in this guy was justified. He told me the iPhone's box was still sealed, and he left it that way. He promised to ship it out on his lunch break the next day. It seemed the ordeal was finally about to come to an end.

Except it wasn't.

Meanwhile, since my iPhone was finally out of his hands (and I'd had a chance to cool down), I sent my response to the guy who let my iPhone rot in his house for a full week. An excerpt:

Here's the bottom line. My items made it from the factory floor in China to your front door in less than four days. That's 4600 kilometres -- over a tenth of the way around the entire planet -- and the shipping was free. You've had five days since your first try at shipping my items to get them to the post shop 2.3 kilometres from your house, and I was happy to pay you $50 for your time and effort. But since you stopped communicating with me and gave neither me nor my wife any specific estimates for when you would ship my items, I finally acted to recover $1,200 in my property that had sat in your home for over a week.

Not wanting to waste any more of my altruistic courier's time than I already had, I called ahead to Australia Post to make sure that the post shop he was going to wasn't going to refuse shipping the iPhone the way another one had six days before. The representative I spoke to told me that whoever I'd talked to the preceding Thursday had been blowing smoke -- under no circumstances would Australia Post ship an iPhone, period.

Australia's regulations on shipping devices with integrated lithium batteries make it impossible for individual shippers to send such devices internationally. It's ostensibly a rule designed to protect aircraft from fires and explosions resulting from faulty lithium batteries. It's also an idiotic, reactionary rule drafted by complete morons who apparently have no idea how modern technology works. My iPhone was in exactly the same state it had been in when shipped from Hong Kong to Australia -- brand new, never activated, sealed in the box -- so Australia Post's assertion that it was "too dangerous" to ship was ludicrous.

I explained to the representative I spoke with that I wasn't trying to get on her case, since she didn't draft the rule, "but make sure it goes up the chain: this is a stupid rule, and the people who came up with it are idiots. It's complete nonsense."

I passed that message along on Twitter as well, when the official Australian Post account said the same thing: "We cannot accept lithium batteries for international carriage." My response was less than kind (I'm blaming it on having recently immersed myself in Steve Jobs's biography).

I'm aware of the rule. I'm also aware that it's completely moronic, and I will shortly be saying so in a very public forum. TNT had no problem moving an iPhone from Hong Kong to Melbourne. So don't push that 'dangerous goods' BS on me. Millions of travelers fly with iPhones every year. NONE of them explode. Your restrictions are arbitrary and idiotic. I shipped an iPad from the USA with NO issues. Its battery is BIGGER THAN THE ENTIRE IPHONE. Wake up!

I turned to an alternative carrier, the one that had brought my iPhone into Australia in the first place. TNT handles virtually all of Apple's international shipping in this part of the world, so it was reasonable to assume TNT had no qualms about shipping such "hazardous materials" as an iPhone battery identical to the ones in carry-ons and passenger pockets worldwide.

I was right -- TNT had no problems sending an iPhone internationally -- but they would only ship to a business, not to an individual.

It was at this point that I reassessed my options rationally, possibly for the first time since ordering the iPhone in the first place. Fellow iPhone fanatics from New Zealand had been telling me horror stories of week-long delays in NZ Customs, tax and import duties so high they made my teeth chatter, and shipping expenses that seemed astronomically high for an item smaller than a deck of cards.

I finally asked myself a question I should have asked weeks earlier: "Is this stupid phone, this product, this thing really worth all of this trouble?" I decided it was not. As the philosopher Rogers once said, "You got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."

After telling my erstwhile courier my intentions, I called Apple and told them to process a return. After I explained the situation (and affirmed the product was still sealed in its box), Apple processed the return without charging any fees whatsoever. Apple agreed to send a TNT rep to my courier's business to pick up the iPhone, and my courier guaranteed to turn it over.

On November 1, 18 days after this cavalcade of stupidity began, Apple confirmed that it had received my items and was preparing to process my refund. The end.

Though this story doesn't have the happy ending I was looking forward to, and at times tried to wring from it with all the effort I could muster from the other side of the Tasman, it could have been much worse. Putting that much faith in near-strangers when so much is at stake is not something I'm ever likely to do again when the stakes are this high, and I don't recommend anyone else do it, either. If any single link in this chain had broken, I'd have lost not just the iPhone itself but the considerable amount of money (after honest reflection, an insane and downright excessive amount of money) invested in it. In the end I lost almost nothing, except time, worry, and a pile of frustration.

Who do I blame for this debacle? Do I blame Apple, for delaying the availability of unlocked iPhones in the States and thereby locking out a much more reliable (and cheaper) source for the handset? Do I blame Apple again for delaying Australian pre-order shipments? Do I blame the guy who held my iPhone in his house for a week, completely failed to communicate with me, and had me three days away from calling the cops to seize my property? Do I blame Australia Post for its Byzantine restrictions and complete failure to service me as a customer in the simplest task in the universe, moving a small item from point A to point B?

I could blame any one or all of those entities for this utterly crap situation, which led me to groan "All for nothing, all for nothing" for several minutes immediately after processing the return request with Apple. Ultimately, though, I have no one to blame for this spectacle but myself. I didn't need the iPhone 4S before November. I wanted it before then. I let that frothy desire blind me to the stupidity of my actions virtually every step along the way. I paid several hundred dollars more for the thing than it would have cost if I'd simply waited for the US model instead. I put extraordinarily expensive and highly-in-demand property in the hands of several complete strangers, any one of whom could easily have betrayed me for a very quick and lucrative payout. I made myself and everyone around me suffer for weeks while I bitched and moaned about the stupid iPhone being stuck in limbo.

All things considered, I was lucky. Of all possible outcomes, getting a full refund is the best thing I could have hoped for aside from actually having the iPhone arrive safely. Of course, knowing my luck, the iPhone would have been a dud unit anyway, so things probably worked out for the best.

If you learn nothing else from my odyssey of idiocy, at least learn this: Don't be as stupid as I was. Try not to get so worked up about some metal/glass widget that you let your reason fly out the window and spend two weeks careening between Hulk-rage and anxiety that makes the characters in a Woody Allen film seem well-adjusted by comparison.

The iPhone may be a great tool, the electronic equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife on steroids, but it's not even close to being worth what I put myself (and everyone around me) through to get it. I learned that the hard way. I hope you don't have to.

Update: It's just been announced that the iPhone 4S will be available in New Zealand on November 11, which makes everything that happened in October seem that much more pointless.

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