More details about the Samsung’s newly discovered region locking “feature” of the Galaxy Note 3 (and other Galaxy handsets) are available, and the picture – while still puzzling – is not as bleak as we have initially thought.
For some reason, Samsung is enforcing a new SIM-locking policy for new handset purchases including the fresh Galaxy Note 3 that’s now available in many markets. In what follows we’ll try to explain what it is, based on what’s officially known about it, how it works and how to unlock such devices.
Region locking vs carrier locking
We’ll start things off with a comparison between region locking and carrier locking because that’s the first confusion one could make when reading those stickers.
Carrier locking is the procedure through which mobile operators lock mobile devices that are sold for a subsidized price on their network. The owner of the device can unlock the device to use on other carriers at the end of their contract, for a fee, or according to the unlock policy of the carrier in question. Carrier locking is not related to region locking and it’s a practice that’s common in the mobile universe where most devices are sold with new contracts (from one to three years depending of the carrier that sells the device). That’s how carriers make sure that one way or another their customers pay in full (and then some) for that shiny new device they have purchased for a much lower price than what the factory-unlocked version of the handset costs.
Region locking is Samsung’s new practice of having a device manufactured after July 2013 lock if not activated in the region the device was intended to be sold – the list includes the Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 mini, Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2. It’s not clear why Samsung resorted to this particular practice, but the whole SIM card locking is not related to mobile operators in this case. In fact, this kind of locking will most likely apply to Galaxy devices that are sold for full price, which are therefore SIM unlocked (or factory unlocked), meaning that they’re not locked with a carrier, and we’ll explain below how it works.
Finally, this kind of region locking would apply only to brand new devices, meaning that if you have purchased a used unlocked Galaxy handset from the list above, you should not worry about region locking, as the device has been activated before either in the right region from the start, or unlocked for a different region after its initial purchase.
Region locking – How it works
From the get-go, we’ll note that this clearly is a complete PR mess for Samsung. Instead of clearly explaining its intentions with this SIM card region locking thing, the company decided to go the quiet route by letting users discover the notices on the boxes of freshly shipped Galaxy Note 3 units.
Messages like the one below created plenty of confusion, as it was implied that Galaxy Note 3 units purchased in certain parts of the world will not work with SIM cards from other regions of the world, thus making it impossible for frequent travellers to swap their local SIM cards with international SIM cards when they’re abroad:
This product is only compatible with a SIM–card issued from a mobile operator within UK/Europe (as defined EU/EEA, Switzerland and the following Non-EEA countries Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M), Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino, Serbia and Vatican City.)
After reading the note you’d think that Samsung, for some reason, would be willing to force users into relying on their home carrier for their mobile services while abroad via roaming – including voice, text and data – which is certainly not something frequent travelers would appreciate, as roaming charges can easily be avoided by using a local SIM card.
Realizing its mistake – but did it really? – Samsung then explained that SIM region locking only applies to devices intended to be sold in a region and activated in a different one for the first time.
UK Mobile Review has tested out the SIM region locking “feature” on Galaxy Note 3 units purchased in the UK (see video below that was recorded before Samsung explained how things are supposed to work):
When using a UK SIM card first with the handset, the publication was able to use any other SIM card thereafter, non-EU regions included – in this case a UAE SIM card was used.
When using the UAE SIM card first with the handset, the Galaxy Note 3 was locked, meaning it needs an unlock code before working with a non-EU SIM card. However, in this case any SIM card from the EU region (or the region the phone was intended for purchase) will still work with the handset, even if it’s used after the non-EU SIM card was unsuccessfully tried.
How to unlock and other unanswered questions
Why does this happen? That’s not clear, as the company is yet to really explain why it resorted to such means.
GigaOM speculates that Samsung is interested in stopping certain buyers from purchasing their desired unlocked handsets from a different region of the world for a better price. That certainly makes sense, although we wouldn’t be able to confirm it yet, exactly because Samsung is not revealing more details.
We could further speculate that Samsung may be trying to prevent the theft and/or massive imports of Galaxy devices that would then be sold in various regions, but would such a practice really work?
In case you’ll end up buying one of these supposedly-unlocked-but-region-locked Galaxy devices – meaning that they haven’t been activated with a local SIM in the region they were supposed to be sold before being imported into your region – you’ll have to go to Samsung or one of its local partners and ask for an unlock code for your device.
From the looks of it, the unlock code will be offered free of charge by Samsung, at least according to what the company said to a German publication, but the language of that press material is not clear either. In this case, why is Samsung even bothering with this procedure? If there’s not going to be a fee to be paid by the consumer, why try to region lock handsets in the first place? Just to give your employees and/or partners more work? After all this is Samsung, which means we’re looking at a huge number of handset sales per quarter, which in turn means that plenty of those Samsung devices that sell for full price (or unlocked) could be affected by region locks.
Alternatively, you can always look for online unlock services that will offer unlock codes for you, but a fee is usually involved in such cases.
Then again, let’s not forget that users likely to be affected by this new Samsung policy already pay the full price for the device they choose, so paying extra to have it unlocked is far from fair.
Samsung certainly has to offer more details on how handset unlocking will work in this scenario and how exactly it will be done.
Like we said before, this practice may only affect buyers that purchase unlocked handsets. On-contract devices will work with a SIM card from the carrier the device was purchased from for a subsidized price and will not work with other SIM cards from that country or other regions of the world anyway.
But unfortunately, unsuspecting buyers willing to pay a lot of cash for an unlocked Galaxy Note 3 (or any other Galaxy device from the ones mentioned above) may find themselves unable to use it for a while especially if they purchase it while travelling in a different region.
While Samsung does have a note on the package of the Galaxy Note 3 advising users of the region locking procedure – as we have told you the note is hardly explaining the whole thing in a clear fashion – such a practice is not exactly acceptable, and it’s certainly surprising to see Samsung quietly push it.
Will other handset makers use similar practices? After all, as long as their handsets are purchased and used, why does it matter so much where they were bought from? If certain users are willing to buy a Galaxy Note 3 from a different region hoping for a better deal, why would Samsung try to prevent such a move? After all, if Samsung is willing to sell the device for less money in one region, why does it matter who buys it, especially if there won’t be an unlock fee thereafter? Is Samsung phone importing such a booming business that it’s putting a squeeze on Samsung’s bottom line?
One way of “getting away with it” would be to also get a prepaid SIM card from that region and activate the handset before using it in another region. Of course “getting away with it” is the wrong way of putting it in the first place – as we said before, you would be paying full premium price for an unlocked device.
And let’s not forget that such region locking procedures come with some added hassles of their own. Apparently not all devices that are properly activated in their right region can then be used with a non-region SIM card – check out the xda-developers Source link below.
Finally, Samsung should also explain how it’s region locking its handsets, at least for those tech enthusiasts that care about such details.
That said, while the whole region locking thing should be a lot clearer now, we still wait for the South Korean company to shed more light on this rather shady new practice.
We’ll keep you updated with more news about Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 region locking in the coming days.
See Now: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review