Most savvy Nikon shooters know there's an official Nikon USA import sales channel, and an enticing lower-priced "grey market." The catch: Nikon USA will simply refuse service on any products not imported by them. It's then up to the buyer to find service, and that can be very difficult, as Nikon doesn't provide most repair shops with parts. Retailers might offer their own warranty, but how to obtain service?
Here's some important tips, and a recent experience that shows how tricky this can be.
If you're in search of only the lowest price and willing to take your chance with ever needing repair, ignore the rest of this post. But know that increasingly complex cameras and lenses are more vulnerable, with sophisticated electronics, motors and plastic components.
First: how to tell which is "grey market" and legitimate US import when you buy: There's price of course. If the price is noticeably lower than most others, it's probably "grey market." And most retailers will disclose "USA Warranty" vs. "Import" in their online listings. Read the fine print carefully.
Second: Once you've got your product: Verify! Any USA import will have a 2-part Nikon USA Warranty form in the box. There's often (but not always!) a serial number beginning with the letters USxxxxx. With "grey market," sometimes the "manual" is an obviously photocopied version.
Don't forget to register with Nikon, or you'll only have the 1-year standard warranty!
Here's where it gets tricky: Want to verify a serial number from either an official or other seller (like eBay): good luck! According to Nikon, the only way to tell is to take the product in for repair. At that point, it's too late of course.
Now a tale of just how difficult this can be. I just purchased a Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 lens from a major national New York retailer, to take advantage of Nikon USA's current instant rebate promotions. (If you haven't yourself, get shopping! The rebates last through March 2015) The seller's site listed both "USA" and "import" options. When the lens arrived, the invoice clearly stated "USA" but there was no USA warranty card in the box.
I called the retailer, and was cheerily informed that, according to their serial number database, indeed I had a USA import. "Not to worry about that warranty card," the rep stated, "because Nikon often relies on the sales invoice as proof of purchase."
That's when I called Nikon, and was told they can't verify the serial number. I emailed a contact I have at Nikon, and got a quick reply requesting a scan of the invoice. A day later, I got a very apologetic call from the retailer, acknowledging a "mixup in our warehouse" and an overnight shipment of a genuine USA import.
The moral: be very careful about your import purchases. Even a normally reputable retailer may end up leaving you stranded when you need warranty coverage. And hopefully Nikon USA will make it easier for customers to verify their purchases.