The starter’s guide to selfie sticks—you know you want one!

South Korean tourists (L-R) Heemok Ann, Eunyi Ji, and Mijung Jung take their own picture in front of the U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington.
South Korean tourists (L-R) Heemok Ann, Eunyi Ji, and Mijung Jung take their own picture in front of the U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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If you’ve been near a tourist attraction lately, you may have seen someone posing—either solo or with a gaggle of friends—for a cameraphone attached to the end of a telescoping pole.

The so-called “selfie stick” was first used by extreme sports aficionados, but in the past year its use has exploded, primarily among populations in east and southeast Asia. But there are signs that selfie sticks are going global, thanks in part to inexpensive components—and an inexhaustible appetite for self-portraits from a slightly better vantage point than the length of the human arm allows.

If you are completely opposed to the concept of the selfie stick or the selfie in general, you can stop reading right here—not that it will help you avoid the coming onslaught. But if you’re curious to know more about the growing fad, or are even considering a purchase yourself, read on.

What are selfie sticks, exactly?

They’re inexpensive versions of what was once called a monopod (i.e. a tripod minus two legs), which experienced photographers use to steady their cameras. The difference with selfie sticks is that they’re specifically designed to be held at arm’s length to fit the photographer into the frame, and they usually—but don’t always—come with a mechanism to remotely trigger the shutter.

Who makes them?

Mostly brands you’ve never heard of, selling products that are made in China. Manufacturers include Minisuit, iPow, CamKix, Okeyn, Kootek, Mpow, and Looq. Retail prices range from about $14 to $40.

Who uses them?

The newest incarnation of the selfie stick, specifically designed to work with a cameraphone, first became popular with the smartphone-wielding youngsters of southeast Asia. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines were the early adopters, according to Google Trend data, followed by South Korea and Japan. The South Korean government threatened last week to jail retailers selling selfie sticks with uncertified Bluetooth transmitters.

They are now commonly seen across Asia, including in Thailand and China, and have spread to the US and Europe. Amazon UK has seen orders triple between September and November, and some British retailers are already sold out ahead of the holiday season.

There are nearly 130,000 photos on Instagram with the #selfiestick hashtag.

Can you just tell me which one I should buy?

There are three basic kinds:

  • The sticks that are Bluetooth-enabled, which pair with your iPhone or Android phone and let you press a button on the handle to take a photo.
  • The sticks that plug into your smartphone’s headphone jack, which also let you take a photo with the press of a button on the handle.
  • Sticks that come without any remote triggering function; some of these are sold as a package deal with a keychain-sized Bluetooth remote.

I would recommend forgetting about the triggerless selfie sticks. They require the use of the camera app’s timer—what year is this, 2013?—or a separate remote trigger, which is easy to lose and cumbersome to operate while holding the stick itself.

The Bluetooth-enabled sticks are a solid option, especially if you want to take a picture from far away, without even holding the stick itself, by propping it up against a wall for example. But the pairing of your phone with the Bluetooth device can be finicky—it’s a frequent complaint for Amazon reviewers—and you have to remember to keep the stick’s battery charged with a USB cable.

I prefer the selfie sticks that use a headphone cable. You don’t have to worry at pairing or charging; the button operates off the trickle of electricity from the headphone jack. It’s a fairly low-tech solution but it works—plus it won’t land you in jail in South Korea—and these selfie sticks tend to be a bit cheaper than the Bluetooth models.

The selfie stick I purchased at Bangkok’s MBK electronics mall for 300 baht ($9) is charmingly called “Cable take pole Model Z07-55,” from a manufacturer called Icanany. It works great with my iPhone 5, though Android users will need to install a separate camera app. You can buy a similar one on Amazon for $13.99.