Over the decades, we've made countless visits to the United States and bought electronics, luggage, clothes, perfumes, and more. Often we're doing so for the cheaper prices, but sometimes it's also to snag gadgets or brands only available in the United States. And we're not the only ones; shopping is the top activity for international visitors to the USA, beating out sightseeing and other American silliness and adventure.

Photo by Hamzabutt

Unfortunately, many people who visit the States fail to harness Americans' very favorite tool for convenience and the lowest prices: online shopping. Americans are obsessed with online shopping — in fact, as of last year online shoppers take care of more than half of their purchases over the internet, rather than schlepping around to stores.

We think that visitors to the United States should enjoy this advantage as well. We'll outline why American online shopping is safe,  cheap, and convenient for visitors, and then go through the steps to help you get the best deals with the least hassle, so that you get exactly what you want and have it waiting for you when you arrive at your hotel or rented apartment.

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Originally published: September 5, 2017.

Advantages (and Disadvantages) of Online Shopping for Foreigners Visiting the United States

Here's a quick look at the special challenges and benefits for those visiting the States and shopping online.

The Disadvantages of Doing Your American Shopping Trip Online

  • Touching/trying out/trying on: It's impossible to do this in the store. That said, many online American stores do allow you to check out items in the comfort of your home and then return them in the same box (for instance, Zappos famously pays for your return shipping if you change your mind within a year after the purchase).
  • Planning the purchases: You'll need to plan a bit in advance, usually by at least a couple of days. American shipping is fast and reliable, and Amazon in particular has pioneered getting orders to customers in just a day or two. If the rare case that your order should nevertheless arrive after you have already left the United States, you can have your host or hotel refuse delivery and it will be returned to the sender, who is then obligated to refund your purchase.
  • The shopping experience: Making one's way to the classic American shopping cities can be a goal or experience in itself. But those aren't the only places to get the deals — nearly all great American stores now also have integrated websites (see below), so that even if you are going to physically visit the store , you can get a better deal and have a smoother experience by reserving your purchases online first. This ensures that the exact items you want are there are waiting for you. If you arrive at the store and change your mind you can generally return them on the spot; you can also enjoy some additional shopping/browsing once you're in the store.

The Advantages of Shopping Online Before and During Your American Visit

  • Better prices. Prices at Amazon and other vast online sites are usually better than at malls and other brick-and-mortar stores — and it's easier to comparison shop.
  • Safety: Yes, in 2017 it's safe to shop online — most would argue it's now even safer than using credit cards in a store. While lists of credit cards have been, rarely, stolen from online sites, the exact same thing has happened to huge chain stores. And likewise, in smaller shops you run a certain risk of the shopkeeper spoofing your card.
    These are very small risks, however, and credit cards offer protection, so the card issuer is generally liable unauthorized purchases. This makes credit cards in some ways safer than cash, which of course cannot be replaced if lost or stolen while shopping. (The exchange rate for credit cards also tends to be better than what you can get when using cash, and yes, you can almost always use a foreign credit card on American websites without problems.)
  • Convenience: You won't waste time driving around and parking (or worse, attempting to navigate America's dreadful public transport), plus finding what you want and waiting in lines — all this with the risk that a desired item might be out of stock when you arrive. Having all of your shopping waiting for you at your hotel in the States gives you more time to get out and enjoy some American sights, practice your American English, catch a Broadway show, etc.
  • Better selection: Amazon is famous for its enormous selection; it's possible to find just about anything there and at other online stores. And other online stores detailed below also tend to offer more than their offline counterparts.

The Best Ways to Shop Online When Visiting the United States

The following tips are for those visiting the States who want to get the best deals by shopping online (generally before the trip) and have their purchases waiting for them on arrival.

  • Book your flights: It's important to do this first, so that you know with certainty the window of dates for receipt of your orders. Skyscanner is a good way to research an array of options at once.
  • Arrange a receipt address for your shopping: You can search a range of hotel or apartment rental options on Booking.com; check that wherever you are staying is willing to receive packages and hold them for your arrival. We've never had a problem, but it's wise to confirm ahead, and to verify exactly how the shipping address should be written, including the zip code (five- or nine-digit code that is placed after the city and state). If you're being hosted by a local friend or renting a room in a shared apartment, your host may actually prefer to receive packages for you at their work — it's common for Americans to receive their online shopping at their offices if that's where they are during the daytime.
  • Choose your shipping speed: If you're shopping at Amazon, consider their Amazon Prime membership in order to get free two-day shipping. You pay nothing for the the 30-day trial of the service, so you can cancel it once you have placed your order and you'll have paid nothing.
  • Use in-store pickup options: Many American stores allow you to choose your products ahead of your visit via their website, and have them boxed up and waiting for you when you arrive at the store.
  • Also use your credit card address: Generally you will be able to enter a shipping address that is different from the billing address; ideally the billing address should match where you receive the bills for your bank or credit card in your home country.

How to Shop On American Websites from Other Countries (without Visiting)

International shipping costs and customs fees can often make shopping on American websites from abroad not worth the experience; if you have an option for purchasing what you want directly in your home country that's likely the better option, even if prices are much cheaper in the USA.

But if you're looking for something specific that absolutely must be purchased in the USA, we heartily recommend MyUS, which provides you with an American address that you can use for your online shopping. They then re-ship your purchases to you in your country. There is a free 30-day trial for their service with no commitment. You are still responsible for customs duties in your country, but you do avoid paying American sales tax through MyUS's shipping address.

Top American Shopping Websites

  • Amazon.com: The world's largest online retailer is often the first stop for Americans thanks to its low prices and wide selection in just about everything: electronics, tools, books, clothes, baby products, athletic gear, food, etc., etc., etc. Even if Amazon doesn't sell a particular item itself, chances are you can purchase it on the site anyway through "Amazon marketplace", its term for third-party sellers who offer goods through the site. Reliability and handling of any returns are excellent.
  • Ebay.com: This is a source for any kind of new and also used products (clearly labelled as such) offered through third-party sellers. There are online auctions in which you can bid on items; otherwise you can purchase directly those items marked "Buy it now".
  • Zappos.com: Originally this was an online home for all top shoes, including top brands and hard-to-find sizes; it has since expanded beyond footwear and has all kinds of clothing and accessories. It is famous for extraordinary, over-the-top customer service; you can call and talk to a real human who takes any concerns seriously. It offers free returns within 365 days of purchase, and pays for your return shipping — meaning that essentially you can do clothes shopping and try-ons in the comfort of your home.
  • Warby Parker: Fashionable eyeglasses available at greatly discounted prices. You select five pairs of frames online to try out and they are shipped to you, you have five days to try them out before dropping them in the mail back. This is totally free. If you like a frame, you order it for your prescription (you must have a valid dated prescription, but it can be a prescription from a doctor in any country). Personal stylists are also available for free consultations on choice of frames.

Major American Brick-and-Mortar Stores that You Can Also Shop Online

You can generally get the same deals or better by shopping at the online versions of your favorite American stores. There are also online outlet stores or discount versions, as noted below.

All of these sites can be visited from outside the United States but it's important to select (via the flags in a corner of the screen, or the first screen you land on) to browse the American version and shop in dollars if you want to get the full savings and have the products delivered to an address you will be visiting in the States.

  • Nordstrom: Features luxury brands in clothing, shoes, accessories and beauty products. Discounts are at NordstromRack.
  • Barneys New York: Extraordinarily luxurious clothing, shoes, jewelry and household decoration.
  • Urban Outfitters: Informal street and urban wear.
  • Lands' End: Comforting and relaxed clothing, as in the original famous catalog.
  • H&M: Discount versions of latest fashions, like the stores in many parts of the world, but with American prices.
  • BestBuy: Electronics superstore.

 

We've used these shopping strategies to save quite a bit of money when visiting the States over the years. What are yours? Share more, if you wish, in the comments.