Computer hardware and electronic devices aren’t perfect. They may stop working on you at some point, which is why manufacturers offer warranties. Taking advantage of this warranty generally requires you perform an “RMA,” in geek shorthand.

RMAs generally take two to three weeks and involve shipping your product back to its manufacturer’s service center. They’ll try to do the minimum amount of work possible to get you a working product.

RMAs Explained

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Laptops, desktops, and components like motherboards and graphics cards generally come with a one to two year warranty. After the first thirty days or so, you can’t simply take it back to the store where you got it — you’ll have to send it to the manufacturer for repair or replacment.

You can’t just mail your faulty hardware to the manufacturer unannounced. They won’t just accept it and fix it without knowing what’s wrong with it or who you are. They’ll also want you to ensure the hardware is actually faulty before you send it back.

RMA simply stands for “Return Merchandise Authorization.” You’ll need an RMA number before you send your defective product back and have it fixed or replaced. Geeks generally refer to this as “RMA’ing” a piece of hardware.

Get an RMA Number

The first step of the process is getting an RMA number. You can’t send the product back without an RMA number — well, you could, but it would either be marked “return to sender” or it would be misplaced and you’d never see it again.

First, you’ll have to contact the hardware manufacturer’s RMA department to get an RMA number. There may be information about this in the warranty information that came with your hardware. You’ll also generally be able to visit the manufacturer’s website, locate the support section, and find something about warranty repair/replacements. Performing a web search for the name of the manufacturer and “RMA” will often get you to the right place.

You’ll need to either fill out an RMA form on the manufacturer’s website or call the phone number for the warranty repair/replacement/RMA department. Which is better? Well, it depends. We’ve had both good and bad luck with both methods. The phone can be a faster method, as you can exchange information back and forth faster. If you’re more comfortable typing than talking on the phone, that can also work.

Clearly explain your problem to the support department with a short, simple message. They’ll likely try to fix your problem via the web form or over the phone, so being clear that you’ve tried various solutions can help. If you say “My product doesn’t work,” they’ll likely try to walk you through troubleshooting steps. If you say “My product doesn’t work, and I’ve tried all these things, so I need to RMA it.” and list all the things you’ve tried, you’ll probably get an RMA number more quickly.

Pack Your Product

Once you’re done fighting with the warranty service department — and it can often be a fight with many PC hardware manufacturers, in our experience — you’ll need to mail the product to them. They’ll likely provide you with instructions for mailing your product. You should follow the specific instructions, but these are the basics:

  • Place vulnerable components like motherboards, graphics cards, hard drives, and RAM in anti-static bags like the ones they came with. Static electricity can damage hardware.
  • Pack the product securely in a box that won’t be damaged during shipping. If you have the original box the product came in, that’s probably the best box to use.
  • Send back as little as possible. If you’re sending a laptop back and it has a removable battery, don’t send the battery. You also shouldn’t send back things like the laptop’s charger cable. Of course, you should follow the manufacturer’s instructions — if you’re asked to send back such peripherals, then send them back.
  • Write the RMA number on the outside of the box. You’ll want to write it at least twice on different sides of the box, just to be sure they see the RMA number when they receive the product and properly enter it into their system.

Ship the Product

Address the product to the address the manufacturer gives you and ship it. Be sure to get a tracking number when you ship it — if the manufacturer misplaces the product you sent, you’ll need this tracking number as evidence. We once shipped a product back to a manufacturer who insisted that they never received it — someone likely misplaced it. When we provided the tracking number showing that it arrived at their address, they sent a replacement right back.

You may have to pay to ship the product back to them. Some manufacturers may give you a prepaid shipping label to print, if you’re lucky, but you can’t rely on this. Yes, you shouldn’t have to pay considering it’s the manufacturer’s fault, but you might often have to.

What to Expect

You’ll hopefully receive a working product back within two to three weeks. Don’t expect a quicker turnaround time than that — hopefully you have a backup computer you can use while you wait.

Don’t expect a new product. If possible, the manufacturer will try to repair your existing product and send it back to you. If they have to replace the entire product, they’ll try to give you a refurbished product, not a new one. If you’re really lucky, they may ship you back a new replacement product or maybe even a replacement that’s effectively an upgrade. This has happened to us with old graphics cards under warranty that were replaced by newer, more powerful graphics cards. But you shouldn’t expect this to happen.

RMAs are no fun, especially the part where you have to wait weeks before you can use the product you paid for again. But there isn’t much else you can do if your hardware is broken, as this is how most hardware manufacturers deal with warranty claims.

Image Credit: Larry Tomlinson on Flickr, Inga Munsinger Cotton on Flickr, lisaclarke on Flickr

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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