Should You Buy Prescription Eyeglasses Online?

Category: Reference

Online opticians claim they can save you “up to 70%” on prescription eyeglasses. Some even advertise free lenses. The savings sound tempting, but is it wise to buy online something that is so complex, subjective, and critical as eyeglasses? Read on...

Oh Say, Can You See?

A survey conducted by Consumer reports found that only half of respondents had vision care insurance, and the average claim benefit was only $140. Respondents with little or no insurance paid an average of $244 for glasses. Prescription eyeglasses can easily cost $500 or more for moderately complex bifocal lenses, the virtually essential anti-glare coating, and a decent-looking frame.

Clearly, there’s an insurance coverage gap. Online opticians try to fill it with the savings that arise from any mail-order operation. They don’t need storefronts in expensive locations. They don’t need as many staffers. They don’t even need ophthalmologists, the medical doctors who perform eye exams and write prescriptions. They just take your prescription and fill it in the frame you choose.

Choosing a frame online is not that easy. It may look great in a photo, but how will it look on your face? Warby Parker, an optical store that got started online in 2010, offers an app that lets you virtually try on frames (available on iPhone X and above). That’s a crude approximation, at best, and you still don’t know how the frames will feel. If that solution doesn’t appeal to you, WarbyParker will mail up to five frames to you, free of charge, so you can try them on and hopefully buy one. It helps that the majority of its frames cost just $95 or less.

Buying Eyeglasses Online

Zenni Optical got its online start in 2003, when it was known as Today, Zenni offers single-focus glasses starting at just $6.95; anti-reflective coating costs a bit more. If you have a webcam, you can do a virtual try on to see how the frames will look on you. I mentioned Zenni a few years back, and so many people raved about their service and prices. If you feel your glasses were not made correctly, you can return them within 30-days, and Zenni will remake them for you at no charge.

GlassesUSA is another popular company in the online eyewear business. As of this writing, they are offering 60% off frames or a "buy one get one free" option. Their website says they provide a 365 day manufacturer’s warranty, and if you are not completely satisfied with your glasses, you may return them (for any reason) within the first 14 days.

Let's handle some terminology. Carolyn, an AskBob reader, correctly says: "Optometrists are different from Opticians and Ophthalmologists. A doctor of optometry examines the patient's eyes and prescribes lenses or contacts if needed. The Optician fits the frames, adjusts them to fit the patient's face. The Optician may or may not grind the lenses. If the lenses are not ground in the office, they may be ordered from a laboratory that serves many individual Optometrists. An Ophthalmologist does not have to be consulted unless the Optometrist finds problems that need attention by a medical doctor for any of a number of reasons."

A Closer Look...

Back in 2011, the American Optometric Association conducted an experiment with online eyewear purchasing. Twenty-nine percent of the eyeglasses received had incorrect prescriptions, and twenty-three percent of all the glasses received failed industry-standard impact resistance testing, a major safety hazard. Until recently, I might not have thought this a very important factor. I was doing yard work, and stepped on the "business end" of a garden rake. The handle flew up and hit me directly on the lens of my glasses. Fortunately, it didn't shatter.

Granted, that survey is eight years old, and does not seem to reflect the current state of the art. I have friends who have ordered glasses online for years, and have nothing but positive comments about the process. In fact, I don't know anyone who has had a problem with glasses ordered online. But I would recommend that you order from a company with a good reputation and a strong return policy.

Consumer Reports recommends buying just the frames online to save money and getting the lenses locally. Walmart Vision Centers will fill customer-provided frames for $10 plus the cost of prescription lenses. Costco Optical will do the same for $18. Check with your vision care provider first before going this route.

If you’re going to buy prescription glasses online, at a minimum you’ll need a copy of your eye doctor’s prescription and the doctor’s measurement of the distance between your eyes’ pupils. (Pupillary distance is important when crafting a lens. If your eye doctor did not provide this measurement to you, Zenni offers to help you measure it yourself.) For bifocals, trifocals, and progressive lenses, other measurements of vertical points at which the prescription should change are critical.

I might try this approach to get a spare set of eyewear, if I already had a pair of glasses that were made locally, and fitted specifically for me. Then at least I could compare apples to apples. How about you? Does the idea of getting your next pair of glasses online sound good? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Should You Buy Prescription Eyeglasses Online?"

(See all 26 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Art F
26 Jul 2019

I've had excellent luck with, having ordered from them around 4 times. Last time cost me $30 for 2 identical pairs, taking advantage of one of their frequent bargain offers.
Look for new user discounts and online coupons.

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

Dear Bob,
Thanks for an interesting email. I have worn eye glasses for 50 years and have always purchased the frames and the lenses at privately-owned optical shops. Expensive? Yes. Problems? Never.

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

I've bought 2 pairs of eyeglasses online. The first pair (GlassesUSA)was a little more expensive than the second, but that's because the frame is better made (titanium with spring hinges) and I got Transitions brand lenses. Even so, I saved over $100 as compared to just buying new lenses locally to be put into my old frames. The second pair, (EyeBuyDirect) cost a good deal less. However, the frames are very cheaply made (very poor, misleading description online) and I got a generic photochromic lens. Also, instead of providing a case, they sent a cloth pouch. After expressing my disappointment, they offered to exchange them, but I'd have to pay for a better frame. Since I thought I had picked out a good frame originally, I didn't want to take a chance on another one. These glasses became my TV watching glasses. ;)

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

First a couple of corrections: Online sellers of eyeglasses are opticians, not optometrists. And although ophthalmologists can (and some do) perform refractions (eyeglass exams), they are MDs who specialize in disease of the eye. Optometrists perform the majority of refractions.
My own experience: I have worn eyeglasses for about 69 years. I have been purchasing prescription eyeware online for several years0--from Zenni Optical (my favorite and least expensive),, and Each has great prices, try-on ability, and guarantees. I would never buy from an optician at the inflated prices that are asked today.

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

My local Walmart charged me $20--not $10 to use a frame I bought somewhere else---she said it was to create a template for the lenses.

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

I have purchased seven or eight pairs of progressive bi-focal glasses from Zenni over the past 10-ish years. I've been happy with every single pair. In fact, it's time for a new prescription and a new set of glasses. I'll get my prescription from the optometrist contracted at my local Walmart; I'll shop frames in Walmart's Vision center; I'll take pictures and measurements of whatever pair I like and then buy something similar from Zenni. :-)

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

Walmart glasses bad.

I took a prescription to local Walmart and ordered trifocal progressives. When I got them they gave me a headache and everything was bleary. Walmart said I had to go back to my optometrist to have them checked.

Lesson learned: if it is too cheap to be true, then it is.

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

I bought prescription trifocals from glassesUSA because I couldn’t find a frame I liked in stores. They also have the virtual try it on thing. My glasses fit perfectly. The prescription is perfect. Very satisfied. I didn’t realize you could get current frames filled at Costco and Walmart. That’s a good solution for people who are worried about the prescription. However, glassesUSA will replace the prescription if it’s incorrect.

Posted by:

Kenneth Mitchell
26 Jul 2019

My wife has had glasses from Zenni Optical for about 20 years; new ones every other year. In that time, she's received TWO bad pair of glasses, where the lenses were notably mis-ground. Zenni re-made the glasses at no charge, and the replacements were fine.

I get my glasses at J.C. Penney, because I need a fairly hefty prism correction (following a 2003 stroke) and Zenni can't do the prism correction.

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

Linda 4 posts up (as I start) appears to have a handle on the situation. Now 84, my experience includes everything from grinding lenses to dispensing and fitting and operating my own dispensary. I am an expert except on one thing. Having used Zenni for something like 6 years or more, it is obvious that very accurate and well finished progressive (no line) bifocals can be produced at a far lower price than is normally charged. My expertise fades here and should be investigated.

Today's process is drastically computerized and the saving has not been passed to the professions and, hence, the customers. Obviously the culprits are Essilor and Zeiss etc. As for frames, designer is simply a marketing ploy and inflates price and often impedes function.

This is getting long winded and I could go on with much advice including how to measure accurately your own interpupiliary distance with a flash camera (my idea), something some optometrists withhold to tie you in. This is a very complicated subject begging to be addressed.

Posted by:

Dennis Small
26 Jul 2019

Bob: Just an overall comment about the recent design of you your email newsletter.

- Perhaps I have not dug too deep into the lower sections or did not have a need, however, I really like the new layout and easy functionality!

-Click on the left and more articles on the right! Good idea and very east to navigate and very easy to locate information required for an answer or just to satisfy that persistent wonderment about why something is?

- That's all for now, and I always have enjoyed be a reader of your (and support staff) continued quality work!

Thank you very much and continue to enjoy the remainder of this Summer and wonderful Fall ahead!

Dennis Wm. Small
Burnsville, MN 55306-7996

Please just read and do not post -thank you

Posted by:

26 Jul 2019

I have worn glasses for over 40 years and now need progressive lenses with a moderately strong prescription (around -3.5 to -4.25). I prefer rimless frames and high-index lenses (pricey) and until recently had no vision insurance.

I last shopped full-service stores about two years ago, and received quotes as high as $1,500 for something I liked, ended up purchasing at about $400 at Walmart optician. I then got a pair of prescription sunglasses from Zenni for less than half of that. The frames are super lightweight and just gorgeous, I have really liked these sunglasses.

My prescription recently changed so I went straight to Zenni and now have ordered three separate pairs in May-June 2019, and I could not see clearly out of any of them. I went back to my local optometrist to see if my eyes had changed and learned that they had not, that none of the Zenni lenses matched my prescription properly. Meanwhile Zenni insisted that they checked the lenses in the lab and they are good. I got my money back by disputing the charge with my credit card company, but Zenni's policy is to not give you a 100% refund even if the lenses are made improperly.

As much as I like the prices at Zenni I won't buy lenses from them again. I like the suggestion of buying frames from them and then getting lenses made locally, will try that.

Posted by:

Jim W.
27 Jul 2019

Not purchased online, yet, but next pair will be online. Glasses on the open market are a ripoff. Current pair are from Costco. Ok, but still too costly.

Posted by:

Steve Morehead
27 Jul 2019

So glad you brought this up. I have a very,very old pair or Ray Ban leather wrapped glasses I haven't been able to wear since the 90s. Now I'm on a mission to get lenses for the no longer available frame. Leather wrapped Ray Bans are all that.

Posted by:

27 Jul 2019

I bought online for the first time two years ago. The glasses fit perfectly and the lens was correct. No issues at all. I would buy online again. Just a word of caution, measure your frames carefully. You have to provide a lot of details about them. I was ordering frames similar to what I had so I took my measurements from the old ones. The savings was worth it.

Posted by:

27 Jul 2019

I tried on-line purchasing of single-vision reading glasses twice recently. I had to wait several weeks each time to discover that I could not wear what I received either time. Took my bifocal and single-vision prescriptions to Costco and was very pleased. All other purchases of glasses and contacts over the past 50 years have been through a local optometrist and without a single problem. After cataract surgery, my eye surgeon gave me a new prescription and mentioned that I should not use online retailers to fill it because they did not have the ability to properly measure the center of vision within the frame and adjust for my astigmatism -- which explains why the glasses I ordered online were so much worse than 99 cent store non-prescription readers.

Posted by:

29 Jul 2019

One think to be aware of is that the major chains who provide eye-wear are almost all owned by only a few companies, who naturally can charge what they like.

Posted by:

29 Jul 2019

Not long ago my wife bought glasses from a UK high street store (Specsavers) after their optometrist did the prescription. They were so wrong that for a time she thought she was losing her sight. Only a visit to another optometrist discovered the error in the first prescription. Moral - all types of opticians can make mistakes, so why not take the budget option?

Posted by:

Beverly Shellabarger
29 Jul 2019

I have only tried purchasing online glasses 1 time and it didn't go well. I used Goggles4U because my daughter used them and was really happy with what she got. The first pair we got back was a bad prescription and the frames were totally flimsy. I bought the most expensive frame they had.They were good to replace the glasses and try again. The 2nd pair, the prescription was also bad. I went back to my optometrist to have them verify the lenses were in fact what their prescription said it should be. Well -- they had given us the prescription from before cataracts! Their bad! We resent the right prescription and it was right this time. Was very happy with their customer support - they really worked with us and didn't charge us for our mistake but the frames are still VERY cheap. Maybe next time I'll try one of the other ones recommended here.

Posted by:

29 Jul 2019

I've tried several of the online vendors, and have been happy with all. For progressive lenses, the savings is HUGE. The last pair of glasses I bought IRL cost me $600 (AFTER insurance!). My first on-line pair, with upgraded lenses and polarization and all the bells and whistles ended up being about $250. I screwed up entering a prescription the first time I ever ordered, and the called me on the phone to question it. Great customer service. I do have an odd prescription, and others have emailed me to confirm what I have entered. So they're not just banging them out, but have humans double-checking things.

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