If you’ve been following the tech industry over the past year, you no doubt know that Huawei is in a heap of trouble. Since May of 2019, the Chinese company has been under fire from the United States government, resulting in what is colloquially referred to as the “Huawei ban.” This ongoing battle has forced Huawei to drastically change its business practices.
If you are curious as to how the Huawei-US ban came to be, the details surrounding the ban, and what it means for Huawei going forward, this is the place to be.
Below, you’ll find all the integral info related to the ban. We’ve also got some helpful tips specifically related to Huawei’s smartphones and how the ban affects both current and future handsets.
Editor’s note: This Huawei ban summary is current as of February 2021. Since this is an ongoing situation, we will update it with new content regularly. However, for the most up-to-date info on Huawei, we advise you to check our latest Huawei news articles.
Why is Huawei banned? A (very) quick summary
Although this article is an in-depth examination of the Huawei ban, you might be happy with a shortened version of the story. The basic gist is as follows:
- Huawei is one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world. At the start of 2019, the company was expected to become the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer by the end of that year, stealing the crown from Samsung.
- Despite this success, Huawei has dealt with numerous accusations over the years of shady business practices. It also has been accused — although with no hard proof — of using its products to spy on other nations. This is a worrisome thought considering the company’s close ties to the Chinese government.
- In May 2019, United States President Donald Trump announced that Huawei — along with several other Chinese companies — was now on something called the Entity List. Companies on this list are unable to do business with any organization that operates in the United States.
- The Huawei ban thus begins, with Huawei suddenly unable to work with companies such as Google, Qualcomm, and Intel, among many others. In the case of Google, this means new Huawei smartphones are no longer able to ship with Google-owned applications pre-installed.
With the Huawei-US ban in effect, the company has had to completely revamp how it creates and releases smartphones. It also faces mounting scrutiny from other nations, many of which rely on Huawei for wireless networking equipment.
Since May 2019, Huawei has had some minor wins, but the bulk of the ban is still in place. It appears the Huawei ban will be in effect in perpetuity and the company will need to strategize around it until further notice.
Huawei history: The background info you need
In the grand scheme of things, Huawei is a relatively young company. Ren Zhengfei started Huawei in 1987 after he was discharged from the People’s Liberation Army in China. Zhengfei’s military history helped Huawei get some of its first big contracts. This is one of the main reasons Huawei is viewed as a de facto branch of the Chinese government.
Huawei has faced scrutiny from the beginning for allegedly stealing intellectual property. In brief, the company would be accused repeatedly over the decades of stealing technology from other companies and then passing it off as its own. There are a few times where this has been proven, such as with a 2003 case filed by Cisco, but there are many other times where accusations didn’t lead to confirmation.
In the late 2000s, Huawei was growing at an incredibly fast pace. The company started acquiring other companies to expand its operations. Several times, it attempted to buy non-Chinese companies and the sale would be blocked by regulatory bodies. This happened in the US and the UK, among other areas. Each time, the reasoning behind the block would be related to Huawei’s deep ties to China and the possible security threat that represents.
Eventually, Huawei started making smartphones. Its phones became popular immediately as they were well-designed devices with very reasonable price tags. In 2016, Huawei boasted it would be the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer within five years. By 2018, it had taken second place ahead of Apple and just behind Samsung. This is a remarkable feat considering Huawei was handicapped by not having any presence in the United States, now the world’s third-largest market.
Donald Trump, China, and the ongoing trade war
While Huawei was growing at an astounding rate in 2018, all was not well in regards to its home country. Donald Trump started to flex his power as POTUS to combat China and its “unfair trade practices,” as he called them. This began the still-ongoing US/China trade war.
Although the trade war has a lot to do with politics, tariffs, and international law, it also touches on intellectual property theft. Since Huawei has a reputation as a repeat offender when it comes to IP theft, this put the company in Trump’s crosshairs.
A major aspect of the US/China trade war is IP theft, something that has dogged Huawei's reputation for decades.
However, critics at the time noted that a long-term US/China trade war would hurt both countries significantly. Because of this, it was assumed that Trump would try to strongarm deals from China that would be advantageous to the US and then be done with it. This isn’t how things went, though.
Despite the fact that the trade war is associated very closely with Donald Trump, it is actually one of the few moves he made during his presidency with bipartisan support. Current US President Joe Biden has made no efforts to remove the Huawei ban or weaken the US/China trade war. Members of his staff and the people he appointed have also signaled support for continuing the ban.
In other words, Huawei isn’t out of the woods even with Trump out of the White House.
The Huawei ban begins on May 15, 2019
On May 15, 2019, President Trump issued an executive order that bans the use of telecommunications equipment from foreign firms deemed a national security risk. The order itself doesn’t mention Huawei (or even China) specifically. However, the US Department of Commerce created what it refers to as an “Entity List” related to the order that does contain Huawei’s name.
Since the order didn’t reference Huawei specifically, its effect on the company and its various lines of business wasn’t totally clear. It appeared the order was mostly directed towards Huawei’s telecom operations, which would mean its wireless networking equipment, especially those related to 5G.
Trump's executive order for the Huawei ban left out many crucial details.
The order also didn’t make it clear whether the US government would help carriers pay for the removal of Huawei equipment. It also didn’t clarify any punishments US companies would face if they didn’t comply with the order. In brief, the Huawei ban seemed serious but there were too many unknowns to understand where it would go.
Huawei, in a statement to Android Authority that day, said this: “Restricting Huawei from doing business in the US will not make the US more secure or stronger; instead, this will only serve to limit the US to inferior yet more expensive alternatives, leaving the US lagging behind in 5G deployment.” Even this statement made it seem like Trump’s order was only going to apply to Huawei’s networking gear and not its smartphones or other products.
That all changed a few days later.
Goodbye Google: The Huawei Google ban, explained
On Sunday, May 19, 2019, Google publicly declared that it would be complying with Trump’s Huawei ban. Interpreting the language of the order, Google determined that the proper course of action would be to cut Huawei off from Google’s suite of digital products.
This means that Huawei no longer would have access to the very fundamentals of Android smartphones. Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, and even the Google Play Store itself were now no longer available for Huawei to use on new products.
This news sent a shockwave through the tech world. Remember that at this point, Huawei is the second-largest smartphone manufacturer globally, and every single one of its phones runs on Android. Without access to Google apps, millions of Huawei smartphone owners were understandably concerned that their phones would suddenly stop working correctly.
When the dust settled, it became clear that Huawei phones certified by Google and launched prior to May 15, 2019, would continue to operate as normal. However, any uncertified phones, tablets, or other products released by Huawei after that date would be Google-less.
Not long after Google made its announcement, other US-based companies followed suit. This included Qualcomm, Intel, Arm, Microsoft, and many more.
Huawei tries to fight back
Huawei wasn’t about to take this lying down. Only a few days after the Huawei-US ban took effect, the company had issued several sternly worded statements declaring its intentions to fight the order. By the end of May, the company had filed a legal motion declaring the ban unconstitutional. Towards the end of June 2019, there was a lawsuit against the US Department of Commerce over the Entity List.
Unfortunately, these legal maneuvers didn’t bear much fruit. After all, an executive order from the US president himself isn’t an easy thing to fight.
Interestingly, US-based companies came out in support of Huawei while simultaneously cutting commercial ties. Even Google declared that — if given the opportunity — it would want to continue working with Huawei. Huawei’s biggest telecom rival Ericsson also criticized the ban. In addition, tech industry analysts noted that the Huawei ban hurts US-based companies too, because Huawei is such a massive business.
Huawei found out very quickly that it is not easy to overturn an executive order from the US president.
Eventually, China tried to turn the tables by threatening to create its own Entity List. Huawei then upped the ante by accusing the US of cyberattacks and employee harassment. However, the company supplied no evidence to support these accusations and they led nowhere.
By mid-2020, Huawei had apparently accepted its fate. It stopped filing new lawsuits and stopped making any public declarations that it’s still trying to overturn the Huawei ban.
In 2021, though, with Trump’s exit from the White House, Huawei started making new attempts. Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei stated that he would welcome a chat with President Biden. Elsewhere, the company filed a new lawsuit against the FCC related to the Huawei ban. However, so far, these efforts have proved fruitless.
Full Huawei ban gets delays, license system established
Not even a week after Trump issued the executive order that kickstarted the Huawei ban, the US issued a 90-day reprieve of the ban’s full effects. This gave Huawei and its clients until August 19, 2019, to make arrangements for the weight of the ban.
As luck would have it, this 90-day reprieve would be extended three consecutive times. By February 2020, Huawei had had nearly a year of living without the full ramifications of the ban. That same month, the US government issued a final 45-day reprieve, allowing the Huawei ban to take full and permanent effect by April 1, 2020. Before that date arrived, Donald Trump signed a law banning rural US carriers from using Huawei equipment.
The US government gave Huawei nearly a year before the ban took full effect. Now, though, all bets are off.
While that was all happening, the US government rolled out a licensing system for US firms that wished to work with Huawei. The government allegedly received 130 applications for licenses but granted none of them. The government stated that licenses would go to companies whose work with Huawei would not pose a security threat. Google — which applied for one of these licenses — apparently didn’t fall into this category.
Towards the end of 2020, companies started to receive approval for partial deals with Huawei. Qualcomm, Sony, and Samsung can sell particular pieces of smartphone manufacturing parts to Huawei. However, these small wins still won’t help the company go back to business as usual.
Harmony OS: The alternative to Android
While Huawei is unable to use Google-owned services and products in its phones, that doesn’t mean it can’t use Android itself. Android is an open-source operating system, which means that any person or company can use it for whatever they like without cost. However, many of the integral features of Android that users rely on aren’t included with “pure” Android and are actually owned by Google.
Theoretically, Huawei could use Google-less Android to power its smartphones and tablets indefinitely. In the background, though, Huawei claimed to have been working on a so-called “Plan B” operating system that would act as a fallback should a situation such as this Huawei ban ever come to pass. On August 9, 2019, the company launched “Plan B” as Harmony OS.
According to Huawei, Harmony OS is based on Linux, which is the same open-source platform on which Android is based. This means that Harmony and Android can share compatibilities with one another. Theoretically, if a developer wished to do the work to make it compatible, any Android app can work within Harmony OS.
Originally, Huawei declared it would only use Harmony OS on Internet of Things (IoT) products. This means it would stick with Android for smartphones, which it’s done so far. However, it’s fairly obvious that — at some point in the future — Harmony OS will become a “Huawei OS” that will power pretty much everything it makes. This would free it from ever needing to be concerned about a Huawei-US ban again.
If any company can create a true rival to Android and iOS, it's Huawei.
Most would think that a new OS going up against Android and iOS is a fool’s errand. However, Huawei is so huge and has so much influence in China that it’s actually totally capable of pulling that off. Keep in mind that, since Harmony OS is allegedly based on Linux, it would also be an open-source operating system. This means other companies could use Harmony OS instead of Android. It’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that other Chinese smartphone companies would adopt Harmony OS on at least some of their devices.
In early 2021, though, Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica gained beta access to an early version of Harmony OS. He discovered that, so far, Harmony OS is pretty much just Android 10 with a few cosmetic alterations. Huawei has stated that it plans to launch a phone in 2021 with Harmony OS as its platform. If it ends up launching something close to what Amadeo discovered, it would be a very strange move, since the company could have just stuck with stock Android and had the same outcome.
Huawei Mate 30 series launches, first flagships without Google
If you’ll remember, the Huawei ban only affects products released after May 15, 2019. That means Huawei’s most recent flagship launch before that date — the Huawei P30 and P30 Pro, which launched on March 26, 2019 — continued to run the full suite of Google apps.
However, Huawei traditionally releases its Mate series — its other family of flagship phones — in the last half of the year. At first, rumors swirled that Huawei simply would skip the Huawei Mate 30 Pro launch. Ultimately, though, it went forward with the launch of a flagship phone without any Google apps whatsoever.
The Huawei Mate 30 Pro was the first bonafide flagship from the company to launch without any Google apps.
For the first few months, the phone was only available in China and several other smaller countries. Eventually, it made its way to the West. The phones received stellar reviews (even here at Android Authority), but few publications would recommend consumers buy the device due to its software shortcomings.
Unbelievably, the Mate 30 series still sold exceptionally well. Never underestimate the enormous population of China supporting one of their own. However, outside of China the phone only made it into the hands of die-hard Huawei followers.
A workaround: Huawei repackages older devices
Huawei quickly found a loophole related to the Huawei ban and Google’s adherence to Trump’s executive order. The company realized that Google approves Android phones not based on their name or design but only on a few core components — most specifically the processor. This means that Huawei could rebrand and repackage a phone that Google approved prior to the ban and resell it without violating the order.
Obviously, this wasn’t a long-term solution to the company’s woes. Huawei couldn’t perpetually re-release the P30 Pro over and over again, for example. However, that didn’t stop it from doing just that — twice. First, it issued two new colorways for the P30 Pro series, which it announced in September 2019. Then in early May 2020, it announced its intention to launch what it called the Huawei P30 Pro New Edition, which added yet another new colorway and lowered the price.
Huawei’s then-subsidiary Honor also got into the re-release game by rebranding a few of its phones. Ultimately, this was a last-ditch effort to milk every dollar out of the most recently approved phones. Google and the US government made no publicized efforts to stop Huawei from doing this.
Huawei in 2020: A very different environment
Throughout 2019 Huawei probably hoped that the US government would either weaken the ban or remove it entirely. However, by the time 2020 came around, there were no indications that the Huawei ban was going to let up any time soon.
This put the company’s standing in the smartphone market in serious doubt. If you’ll remember, Huawei originally boasted in 2016 that it would be the world’s number one smartphone manufacturer by the end of 2020. In early 2019, it was nearly a certainty that it would achieve that goal a full year ahead of schedule. Now, with the Huawei ban, the company’s long-running string of success was poised to come to a screeching halt.
Without Google apps on its phones, Huawei can't compete outside of China. In 2020, the company needed to start developing a way to fix that problem.
Although the Mate 30 series had sold well in Huawei’s native China and made comfortable sales throughout the rest of the world, it was no runaway success. Consumers outside of China simply aren’t ready for a premium smartphone that can’t access the Google Play Store or even popular third-party apps such as Uber.
Huawei’s answer to this was App Gallery — its proprietary Android apps store. Like the Play Store, App Gallery hosts a bunch of Android apps you can install on your phone. Huawei is spending millions on enticing developers to port their apps to App Gallery with varying degrees of success. While App Gallery has certainly come a long way in a short period of time, it’s by no means at all a solid replacement for the Play Store.
These efforts, though, paved the way for Huawei’s next flagship phone.
Huawei P40 and Mate 40 series: Still no Google
On March 26, 2020, Huawei unveiled the Huawei P40, P40 Pro, and P40 Pro Plus. The three phones feature all the flagship hardware one would expect from a P series device, including an absolutely incredible rear camera system.
On October 22, 2020, Huawei unveiled the Mate 40, Mate 40 Pro, and Mate 40 Pro Plus. These phones also were marvels when it comes to hardware and design.
Of course, none of the phones had Google apps. All the hardware in the world can’t make up for that.
As with the Mate 30 series, the P40 and Mate 40 series received great reviews. Once again, though, most publications — including Android Authority — advised against buying the phones due to the lack of Google services.
Somehow, Huawei continues being successful
You might think that throughout 2020 Huawei would have been struggling to stay afloat. However, Huawei actually made good on its promise and passed Samsung as the number one smartphone manufacturer as assessed by units shipped.
How is this possible? As mentioned before, you should never underestimate the power of 1.4 billion Chinese citizens all backing up their beloved homegrown brand. Also, don’t forget that Huawei doesn’t just make smartphones. It also still supplies networking systems to multiple countries all around the world.
However, Huawei couldn’t sustain that momentum forever. By the end of 2020, the company saw its market share dwindle. Samsung once again became the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer. Meanwhile, trade analysts expect 2021 to be a dismal year for Huawei’s smartphone division.
Besides, even if you ignore sales data, the Huawei ban has far-reaching effects with which the company still needs to contend.
Huawei ban brings the end of Kirin chipsets
Unlike a lot of smartphone manufacturers, Huawei almost exclusively uses its own chipsets in its smartphones and tablets. Its line of Kirin processors are designed by Huawei and then produced by a company called TSMC.
At first, TSMC assured Huawei — and the tech industry in general — that it would continue to produce Huawei’s Kirin chipsets. However, it recently rolled back on that declaration, likely because the Huawei ban is now in full effect (i.e. all the extensions are over).
Without TSMC, Huawei is essentially unable to create Kirin chipsets. At first, we assumed the Mate 40 would be the final phone launched with a Kirin chipset. However, rumors abound that the 2021 Huawei P50 could have the same Kirin processor as the Mate 40.
There aren’t many other companies out there that could create processors for Huawei that don’t involve US-based companies or equipment. The only real option is MediaTek, a Taiwanese firm. As such, it’s very likely we’ll see Huawei flagships with MediaTek chips in the future, even if it doesn’t end up happening for the P50 series.
Huawei sells off Honor sub-brand
Although Huawei’s sub-brand Honor operated semi-independently, it was still officially part of the Huawei family. This meant that the effects of the Huawei ban carried over to it. In November 2020, Huawei sold off Honor to a Chinese company called Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology Co.
In an official statement on the matter, Huawei attributed the quick sale to the “tremendous pressure” it’s under from the US government.
With the completion of this sale, Honor will have no direct connection to Huawei. This will free it up to act as its own brand without any of the limitations related to the US sanctions.
Honor is a very successful global smartphone brand that moves around 70 million units annually. This separation will allow that brand to continue to grow and thrive. However, it is unclear how Honor will move forward without the assistance offered by Huawei. For example, Honor phones run on Huawei’s EMUI Android skin — will it adopt its own skin? Will its R&D now run completely independent of Huawei? There are a lot of questions.
In late January 2021, Honor launched its first phone since leaving Huawei: the Honor V40. However, it is a China-exclusive for now.
2020, 2021, and beyond: Can Huawei survive?
Huawei has had a rocky time since May 15, 2019, to put it mildly. So far, it’s weathered the storm pretty well. However, how long can it keep the ship afloat with so much stacked against it?
Huawei knows that no matter what the Huawei-US ban can’t touch its Chinese business. The company is so beloved in China that it could become a China-only brand and survive handily for decades. Huawei isn’t the kind of company that would roll over that easily, though.
As far as we can tell, Huawei plans to move forward with its usual plans of releasing two major flagship phones each year as well as other smaller launches whenever it’s appropriate. It can’t use Google apps, but it can still use Android. The Play Store is off-limits, but App Gallery is getting stronger. It can’t make its own processors, but there are other companies from which it can buy chips.
The question then becomes whether or not the company can do all this quickly enough to prevent it from losing too much market share. Also, can it prevent the ban from tarnishing its brand? Then, can it win over consumers who simply can’t imagine a phone without Gmail? Time will tell. But don’t write Huawei off — it’s already proven it can survive things that many other companies couldn’t.
Do you currently own a Huawei phone?
If you currently own a Huawei or Honor phone, you might have some questions about how the Huawei ban affects you. Below are some frequently asked questions.
Q: Is Huawei spying on me through my phone?
A: Huawei is almost certainly tracking how you use your device — but every smartphone company does this. Smartphone OEMs want to know how often you unlock your phone, how often you charge it, how often you open certain apps, etc., so it can use that info to make better products. However, do not be scared that Huawei is actively monitoring you specifically for nefarious purposes. There has never been any evidence to support this claim.
Q: Is it illegal to own a Huawei device outside of China?
A: It’s not illegal to own a Huawei device anywhere in the world. The Huawei ban prevents Huawei from working with US-based companies in the creation of its products. It doesn’t apply to consumers who currently own a Huawei product and doesn’t prevent them from buying new ones, either.
Q: Can I legally sell my Huawei device?
A: As long as there are no laws in your location preventing it, you’re free to sell your Huawei device. Trump’s executive order says nothing about reselling used Huawei products.
Q: Will my phone eventually stop working altogether?
A: You don’t need to worry about this. Although your phone obviously won’t last forever, Huawei will not “brick” your device. You can continue using it for as long as it’s physically capable.
Q: Will my phone continue to receive Android upgrades and security patches?
A: This is a tricky question. If you own a Google-less Huawei device launched after June 2019, you’ll continue to see Android upgrades and security patches as usual. In fact, Huawei has a roadmap for the rollout of EMUI 11 (based on Android 10). However, if you own a Huawei phone with Google services onboard launched before May 2019, the Huawei ban prevents the company from issuing Google-sanctioned updates going forward. Huawei has iterated its commitment to delivering patches and upgrades moving forward in spite of this, but there are no long-term guarantees.
Q: Can I transfer my apps and data from a Huawei phone to another brand?
A: Yes. Many companies offer apps and services that do this for you, including Samsung and OnePlus, for example. Keep in mind that some forms of data and some apps won’t be available across different devices, but almost all of your data will transfer successfully.
Q: I don’t want to use my Huawei phone anymore and I don’t want to sell it. What should I do?
A: Please recycle your smartphone using the proper methods. This is a great resource for ethically disposing of your used electronics.
Should you avoid buying Huawei phones or other products?
Huawei has already released multiple high-profile smartphones since the Huawei-US ban took effect. We fully expect there to be more phones on the way, too. As such, you might want to buy a Huawei phone even though the ban would prevent it from being a “normal” experience.
Here are the answers to some questions you might have about buying a new Huawei device.
Q: Is it even legal to buy a new Huawei phone?
A: Yes, it is perfectly legal to buy new Huawei products of all kinds. The Huawei ban only prevents Huawei from working with US-based companies. This might affect the hows and wheres of buying a Huawei phone, but it has no effect on your purchase or ownership of the device.
Q: Can I still receive texts, make phone calls, take photos, and browse the web on new Huawei phones?
A: Yes, you can do all those things and more. The only difference will be the apps you use to perform those functions will probably be different than the ones you currently use. For example, Google Chrome will not be available on new Huawei phones, so you’ll need to use a different app for browsing the web. Huawei’s app store (called App Gallery) will have many of the apps you need.
Q: Why can’t I just sideload Google apps?
A: You can sideload Android apps onto Huawei phones and a lot of them will work correctly. However, many prominent apps use something called Google Play Services to function. This Google product won’t be on new Huawei phones. There are several methods that have been used to successfully sideload Google Play Services on Huawei phones, but these are extremely unofficial, could potentially damage your phone, have no guarantee of working long-term, and potentially leave your device open to security risks. We do not recommend using this as a viable solution.
Q: Does Huawei’s App Gallery have (insert your favorite app here)?
A: Huawei is spending millions of dollars on convincing app developers to port their products to App Gallery. As such, there are a lot of Android apps already available through App Gallery. Huawei adds more every day. You can install App Gallery on your current Android phone and search for the apps you depend on the most, which should help you decide if it can fully replace the Play Store.
Q: Will my Bluetooth headphones, gaming controller, or other accessories work with a Huawei phone?
A: Yes, in almost all cases. Huawei devices still run on Android and Bluetooth is a cross-platform service, so everything should function as you would expect. Obviously, there’s no way to say every single device will work perfectly, but most everything should work.