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Galaxy Note 3 region lock is an issue after all, Android 4.4 update may lock older Galaxy handsets

The Galaxy Note 3 SIM card region lock is apparently a serious issue for many buyers, with Samsung yet to offer a clear explanation for this new policy. Furthermore, it looks like future Android 4.4 KitKat updates will bring the same region lock to older Galaxy handsets.
October 2, 2013
Galaxy Note 3

It turns out that the Galaxy Note 3 region lock is posing serious problems to various Galaxy Note 3 buyers, and the scarce explanations Samsung gave in the past few days are still not clear enough.

Region lock – how we thought it works

In the past few days we found out that once a customer purchases an unlocked Galaxy Note 3 handset (that means paying full price for the device, not getting a subsidized on-contract deal), he or she has to activate it with a SIM card from the region the device was purchased in before being able to activate it with a SIM card from a different region.

For example, in order to use an unlocked Galaxy Note 3 from the UK (therefore Europe) in the USA (North America), a buyer should turn on the Galaxy Note 3 in the UK with a SIM card from a local mobile operator inside before going to the USA and using a SIM card from AT&T or T-Mobile.

If this activation is not performed in this order and instead a U.S. SIM card is used first, the phone gets locked, meaning it can only be used with a SIM card from its original region, in this case Europe. In such a case, the handset has to be unlocked either by Samsung and its partners, or by the user with help of unlocked codes purchased online in order for the U.S. SIM card to work – the UK SIM will work fine with the handset.

But it looks like that’s not happening…

An xda-developer forum thread with over 800 entries has been actively discussing the Galaxy Note 3 region lock, with plenty of disgruntled Galaxy Note 3 buyers detailing their experience. We’ll note that the phone only started selling on September 25 in Europe, so we’re just looking at about a week of sales for the region.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Region Locked 2013 -2

It looks like several models purchased in European countries and activated the right way, as mentioned above will not work when a non-EU SIM card is inserted. Phones purchased from Germany, Netherlands, Sweden or UK and activated in those countries have failed to work with a local SIM card in Africa or Asia (Egypt and Thailand are among the markets mentioned by buyers).

Furthermore, UK retailer Clove appears to still have trouble explaining to its buyers what’s happening, and missing out on potential Galaxy Note 3 sales in the process, as Samsung has apparently failed to properly instruct the retailer on how to deal with the matter.

Finally, a check on Amazon UK for the Galaxy Note 3 brings up quite a few negative reviews talking about the region lock problem.

Samsung customer support causes more confusion

In addition to posting on forums or writing reviews, many customers affected by the issue have been in contact with Samsung customer support centers to fix their issues, but it looks like the responses offered by the company are not always on the same page.

For example, an email from Samsung Customer Support posted on Clove’s blog reads the following – in short, reiterates the way region locking should work (what we explained above):

I am very sorry to hear that you may not purchase a Note 3 due to the regional lock. In this e-mail, I will explain to you the reason for this.
The reason for the regional lock is to ensure that devices aren’t being imported between regions illegally. However, this does not mean that you cannot use another SIM card in the phone while abroad.

For instance, if you purchase a Note 3 in the UK and put a foreign SIM card in it, then it will lock and will need to be sent to a service centre to get unlocked. However, if you put a UK SIM card into the Note 3 first, then it will recognise that it is a UK SIM card in a UK model and wont lock. Then, if you go abroad, you can still use a foreign SIM card in it.

We have seen a steady rise in complaints about people purchasing phones and tablets online and in local retail outlets that aren’t based to their specific region. What this means is that if we receive a call from someone who has a phone that originated in Asia, we have to send them to Samsung Asia as they have different parts for their models.

This then leads to the customer having to pay a lot of money to get their device repaired. With the regional lock, we hope to stop this from happening.

I hope this information has been of benefit to you and that you understand the regional lock a bit better now. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused and we value and appreciate our customers thought and comments on the matter.

As you can see – and assuming this email is genuine – Samsung also offers an explanation for its actions: it’s trying to put a stop to illegal imports. However, we’ll note that unless someone’s stealing trucks filled with Galaxy Note 3 units directly from Samsung in order to sell them in other markets, which would be illegal of course, the company is really in no position to stop a customer who’s willing to pay around $700 or more for an unlocked Galaxy Note 3 to buy it from where it’s cheapest for him or her. At the end of the day, Samsung would cash in on the sale for the price it’s willing to sell the device for in that particular region.

note 3 europe region lock

Then again, Samsung UK had a similar statement, as posted by Clove on its blog:

In order to provide customers with the optimal mobile experience in each region including customer care services, Samsung has incorporated the ‘regional SIM lock’ feature into Galaxy Note 3 devices. The product is only compatible with a SIM-card issued from a mobile operator within the region identified on the sticker of the product package. When the device is activated with a SIM card issued from the other region, the device may be automatically locked until it is released at the dedicated service centre.

Once a device is activated normally, the regional SIM lock is automatically released. Users can enjoy the roaming service as usual and can use other region’s SIM card when travelling. The regional SIM lock has been applied to the Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S4 devices through a software update in selective markets. The regional SIM lock does NOT affect the device’s features and performance. Users can continue to enjoy all the advanced features of our products.

That said, we’ll move to a different response from Samsung given to an UK customer via telephone that basically says that Galaxy Note 3 devices sold in a region are meant to work with carriers from that region alone. Therefore, activating the phone in the region it was purchased and then using it with a SIM card from a different region would not be possible. Interestingly, Samsung did not confirm the following details in writing to the customer that posted it on xda-developers:

I spoke yet again to the Samsung UK customer service team (+44 330 726 7864) this afternoon (at 5:40pm GMT) as I had not received the email I had been promised this morning with a statement on the region lock. A different rep spoke to me and had the following news to report to me:

– the Samsung UK telephone staff have had problems sending out emails today and therefore have not sent out the statement to me – which was fine by me as these things happen.

– the SIM limitation sticker really is meant to mean what it says – the N9005 is not meant to be compatible with SIMs issued by operators outside the European region – I believe at least some owners are using the Note 3 with SIMs issued by operators outside the EU but the rep was adamant that the Note 3 was not intended by Samsung to be used with SIMs issued by operators outside of the European region, even following first activation.

– the European region Note 3s are only meant to be compatible with SIMs issued by operators from the European region, and this applies equally after activation – I asked repeatedly her to confirm this which she did each time. I tried practical examples too and it got worse: So if I go to Australia I must use a European region SIM in my Note 3 even if I buy the Note 3 SIM-free for £620? Yes according to the rep. So I asked if I go to Florida on vacation, I have no choice but to use a European region SIM in my Note 3? Yes again according to rep.

– it makes no difference if here in the UK I buy the Note 3 from Carphone Warehouse, Phones 4U, EE or Clove.

– I could buy another phone if I wanted to use a SIM from an operator outside the EU in my mobile – the rep volunteered this to me as it never occurred to me that they might seriously suggest such a policy.

No matter which Samsung rep is right, it’s clear from what buyers are saying that Samsung’s region lock doesn’t work as intended. If it’s supposed to block SIMs from a second region after a right activation, that this doesn’t always happen. If it’s supposed to block SIMs from a second region after a wrong activation, well, this doesn’t always happen either, at least according to existing reports.

Android 4.4 to extend region lock to other handsets

As we heard before, the region lock will not be a Galaxy Note 3-only thing. Other Galaxy devices, especially flagship models, will get a similar treatment.

From the looks of it, that won’t be restricted to new units that were manufactured after July 2013, but also to existing unlocked Galaxy handsets – including old Galaxy Note 2 and Galaxy S3 models for example – once they’re updated to Android 4.4.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 vs Galaxy S4 viewing angles AA

The same UK customer rep that told a customer that European Galaxy Note 3 models are meant to be used in Europe alone said that once the KitKat update arrives, it will region lock a bunch of devices:

[…] the rollout of Kitkat is to extend the regional lock to existing SGS3s and Note 2s – I asked if my existing unlocked SGS3 bought unlocked over a year ago is to be subject to the same regional lock if I upgrade. Yes according to rep. So I would not be able to use a SIM from outside the European region in it when travelling? Yes according to the rep.

However, it’ll be a while until the Android 4.4 update will be available to Galaxy devices, so there’s plenty of time for Samsung to clarify this mess.

Meanwhile, other Galaxy devices have been spotted the same sticker seen above according to more xda-developers forum members, including Galaxy S4 models sold in Latin America and Europe – and yes, the region lock issue is affecting those buyers as well.

Wrap up

Samsung is yet to come out with crystal clear explanations for this new region lock gimmick. Whether it’s meant to work one way or another, it obviously doesn’t do so, otherwise there wouldn’t already be so many complaints from customers, especially on a site like xda-developers, where there are plenty of Android-savvy users to be found.

And while this particular issue will only affect those people that buy unlocked devices and travel frequently to other regions, where they prefer to rely on local SIM cards to avoid costly roaming charges, it’s still a serious issue, it’s not Samsung’s place to decide how and where its devices should be purchased and used. After all, buyers choose unlocked devices for a reason, and discovering that they’re not truly unlocked is certainly not something they expect after paying a lot of money for such top devices.

Finally, this could be more than just your run of the mill PR issue for Samsung, as the whole matter may have some serious legal implications as well.

We’ll keep tabs on this particular Galaxy Note 3 problem and report back once we have more details about it. Meanwhile, let us know whether you’ve been affected by it or not, and whether you have been helped by Samsung in case you were affected by the region lock.