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Xiaomi didn't authorize phone sales in US

Xiaomi Corp. Mi 4i smartphones are displayed on a screen during a news conference in Hong Kong, China.
Lam Yik Fei | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Xiaomi Corp. Mi 4i smartphones are displayed on a screen during a news conference in Hong Kong, China.

Long-standing rumors that China's biggest smartphone maker would sell its well-regarded phones in the the U.S. market were answered earlier this week ... and then not.

Smartphones from Xiaomi — China's largest start-up — were sold briefly on Monday, via the website of Connecticut-based virtual carrier US Mobile, and then swiftly taken down.

"We decided that it would be best to get the phone rigorously certified by carriers before it's allowed back on our marketplace," US Mobile CEO Ahmed Khattak said in an email.

The mobile virtual network operator is an independent business that leases services from T-Mobile's network to customers on a pre-paid, no-contract basis. Rates run as low as $7 a month for unlimited texting and $25 a month for 2.5 GB of data, according to US Mobile's website. ABI Research estimates US Mobile has less than 0.25 percent market share in the United States.

A T-Mobile spokesperson said in a statement that in order for devices to be certified on its network, they "must be fully compatible (with) our network technologies and meet minimum quality standards."

A spokesperson for Xiaomi confirmed that the sales were unauthorized. "Recent reports have indicated that Xiaomi products will be available in the US. ... There are no plans to sell smartphones through any authorized distributors in the U.S. US Mobile is not authorized to sell Xiaomi products in the U.S.," the company said in a statement.

ABI Research's consumer devices research director, David McQueen, noted the current Xiaomi devices do not support LTE in the United States and are not fully optimized for Android. A key selling point for Xiaomi in China, besides its low price, is its customized user interface that does not provide the same support as U.S. devices for Google Play services.

Xiaomi had top market share in China for all of 2015, and 5 percent globally, according to Strategy Analytics. The tech firm is China's most valuable start-up at $45 billion, according to Reuters, but missed targets for Internet service revenue and handset sales in 2015.

The Chinese smartphones are not directly available in the U.S. market, although third parties sell the devices on Amazon.com and eBay. Select Xiaomi products such as headphones and a fitness band are available through the firm's U.S. online store that launched last year.

When the devices were listed on its site, US Mobile was working with third-party distributors such as Omni Electronics HK to offer Xiaomi smartphones — for as low as $119 — to U.S. customers.

Khattak said no Xiaomi devices were sold through US Mobile's website.

US Mobile's blog post response to the removal of the Xiaomi phone listings said if the certification process with "our enabling carriers" was successful, "we promise to enable our distributors to offer these phones on our marketplace again."

A Xiaomi U.S. customer service representative named Linsey who responded to CNBC's press inquiry said via email that there are currently no assigned retailers or authorized distributors for official sale of the smartphones in Europe or the United States.

"We can not promise the exact authenticity of the items which [were] not purchased directly with us through the official channel," the representative said.

Xiaomi executives such as President Bin Lin and Hugo Barra, the international head who used to work for Android product management, have both said in the last year they are considering offering their flagship smartphones in the U.S. market.