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Summary:

Roamers can relax — Samsung says buyers of its top-selling handsets can freely use SIM cards from foreign regions, as long as they activate the device using a SIM from their home region or with the assistance of a service partner.

Galaxy Note3 FlipCover_004_Open Pen_Plum Magenta

Samsung shed further light on its region-locking policies on Friday, explaining that the locks only affect users the first time they activate the handset. The manufacturer also said the locks apply not only to the new Galaxy Note 3, as we reported on Thursday, but also to units of the Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 mini, Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S III that were produced after July.

In a nutshell, this means that — apart from the first time they put a SIM card in the phone — buyers of these devices are able to use cards from other parts of the world without restriction. They are not forced to pay their domestic carrier’s usurious roaming fees.

Samsung said this in a German-language statement emailed to me by its German press relations agency. At the time of writing, I haven’t seen any English-language statement on the matter.

No roaming lock-in

Samsung’s explanation should certainly ease the minds of those worried about buying a new Samsung Android smartphone and taking it with them as they travel to another part of the world. That said, I’ve seen a report today on XDA-Developers.com of someone in Sweden properly activating their Galaxy Note 3, only to find it still won’t work with a Thai SIM card. So stay tuned, because this may not be over yet.

Anyhow, here’s how the system is supposed to work, according to Samsung’s German reps: let’s say you buy the device in Germany and want to take it with you on a trip to the U.S. If you activate it for the first time using a German SIM card, you’re good to go. If you want to activate it for the first time with a U.S. SIM card while abroad, you will need to find a local Samsung service partner to unlock it for you.

Once that initial activation has been accomplished, you can use the phone with whatever SIM card you want.

Outstanding questions

What Samsung’s German spokespeople weren’t able to clarify, however, were these points:

  • Why did Samsung do this?
  • Why do the stickers on the retail boxes clearly say the phones are not compatible with SIM cards from other regions, if that is not the case?
  • Do Samsung service partners have to unlock all devices that are presented to them?

Then there are the technical questions, about how Samsung applies the locks (SIM module firmware? Software?) – hopefully these too will be answered in time.

The question about service partners’ obligations is important, because the most likely (albeit still unconfirmed) explanation for this whole debacle is that Samsung instituted the locks in an attempt to combat gray-market sales — a European buying a phone from Hong Kong over eBay to save money, for example.

However, if Samsung service partners have to unlock any improperly activated Galaxy Note 3 or S4 that the customer wants, then this measure becomes one of inconvenience rather than genuine enforcement.

PR disaster?

Either way, it looks like an issue that will only be annoying for a small subset of people, namely those who buy their phones from other regions of the world and those who buy them at the airport before flying to another region and trying to activate it for the first time there. Most people buy their phones from a local carrier or retailer and activate it in their home country. And even those who are affected can fix the problem.

That’s not to say it’s a consumer-friendly way of going about things, because it plainly isn’t, but it’s a far cry from being a deal-breaker.

But even if that’s the case, then Samsung made a grave error by putting misleading stickers on its stock. Even retailers naturally assumed that a sticker reading “This product is only compatible with a SIM-card issued from a mobile operator within Europe” (for example) means just that.

After all, why on earth would any company tell its customers that the smartphone they’re buying is restricted in such an unreasonable way, when that’s not the case? That’s the question I really want to see answered.

UPDATE (Monday 30 September): Here’s an English-language statement that Samsung put out, followed by a video of a user apparently showing it to be incorrect (he activated a Europe-region phone in the Netherlands with a Dutch SIM card and it works, but it won’t work with Thai SIM cards):

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 center.

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.

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  1. Don’t care either way. I don’t travel out of the US. Gonna get this phone!

    1. really not helping the travellers out there. What if you decided out of the blue one day to travel and take your s4 with you? All samsung did was make my decision for me, i’m going with sony

      1. I feel the same. I don’t like the plastic look and feel of Samsung but bought them for their performance and knowing that I can unlock them. Sony ((Z1) or Nexus for me next!

      2. Agree. Z1 or Nexus 5 for me. So long Sammy.

  2. I just spoke to Christopher Cross (a Tier 2 rep) in Samsung UK who was calling me back to explain position on region lock.

    – He said that there is a region lock and that it’s application after activation is a “grey area” which they have been discussing with engineers all day.

    – He said there is no way currently to get service centre to remove regional lock.

    – He agreed that there are some SIM providers outside Europe on whitelist.

    – He confirmed that this region lock policy applies to galaxy 3 and 4 and note 2 and 3 which are being distributed now.

    – He said that this will apply to all Samsung mobiles accepting Kitkat mobile update due to come out shortly!!!

    They are still waiting for further update from Samsung management this evening. He recommended I do NOT buy Note 3 if I am concerned about region lock at least until clarity as to whether can be removed.

    1. Gosh – sounds like the left hand really doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. I have to say, I’m a bit concerned that there’s still no English-language statement (though I did speak with the German PR to make sure I understood the German statement – sadly, after two years living here, my German is still not good enough to be entirely confident on such matters).

      1. I think it’s safe to take the sticker at face value. The sales reps are clearly uninformed.

        In addition to the person you cited above, gfung on XDA forums activated a UK Note 3 with his vodaphone sim and then tried a Hong Kong sim with roaming enabled. No dice. The Hong Kong sim didn’t work. It’s region locked.

        Sorry to everyone who wanted a Note 3. Do not buy it. It is obviously region locked.

  3. I bought the Note II not long after it first came out in the US, and when I traveled to Europe earlier this year, I had to get it unlocked by T-Mobile before I could use it there. T-Mobile gave me an unlock code just for the asking, but would have been more than an inconvenience if I didn’t have other phones with me to get in touch with T-Mobile to tell them about the problem in the first place.

    A phone that you own outright should not have any restrictions on its use.

    1. This is a different beast altogether. You received an unlock code so the note II could work on a different carrier Europe. Now there is a lock on the region so even if you have a carrier unlock, it won’t work if the carrier is not in the home region.

  4. What seems particularly incomprehensible to me is that Samsung is rolling out the region lock to all those Galaxy variants upgrading to Kitkat which currently have no such restriction. If those who are already activated can already use other region’s SIMs what purpose could applying the region lock serve in the KitKat update? Seems consumer unfriendly and regrettable if Samsung is now intent on introducing regional whitelists of MCCs in all Samsung radio firmware as part of its ongoing mobile strategy.

  5. not true, check the xda thread, people are finding otherwise.

  6. not true,
    activated my European phone in Europe, is NOT working in china

  7. “That’s not to say it’s a consumer-friendly way of going about things, because it plainly isn’t, but it’s a far cry from being a deal-breaker.”

    Unfortunately it is a deal breaker for me. This just should not be there in first place and I cannot be bothered with the hassle of dealing with a company that appears to be trying very hard to make sure some persons in some countries pay over the top for for the same product available at a much lower price in another country. Personally I will never deal with a company that looks at me in this way. Bye bye Samsung, I liked you for a while.

    “If you want to activate it for the first time with a U.S. SIM card while abroad, you will need to find a local Samsung service partner to unlock it for you.”

    Yeah, well lets think about that then. So this seems to be saying that it will be unlocked anyway, which really raises the question why bother putting the lock in place in the first place? The real question here is what are Samsung really trying to achieve with doing this because it does not actually look like it is about grey market sales, more like forcing persons to go into places with the phone and give up personal information so that Samsung can track a person with the phone. Anyone else involved in forcing this to be? NSA? GCHQ? Why else would a company care who has the phone after the sale, and why have differing prices for different regions? No explanation has been forthcoming I note.

    1. I bought my samsung S4 when am about leaving USA to Nigeria and t came with Tmobile SIM card. I didn’t activate it before leaving the USA. I am now in Nigeria, what do I have to do so I can use my phone with Nigeria local SIM card? I am afraid to open the phone after reading people’s comment. Any useful reply.

  8. lol and sony rolls out their flagship phone just in time to catch all the customers that are fleeing samsung

    1. Definitely. Sony Z1 or the upcoming Nexus will be my next phone. Samsung should fire whoever decided this policy was a good idea.

  9. I think it is done to maintain price difference in various parts of the world. Right now, you can buy a top end smartphone for $600-700 in USA and sell it for $900+ in most parts if Asia if box packed. (If opened or used, you can’t command $900). The quality has improved so much that people are ready to buy without warranty to save $200+.

  10. I WAS a Samsung fan until now ! This kind of attitude is exactly why I never bought an Iphone! I really thought the people at Samsung were better then that ! :( Now, they decide not to sell the 64g version in Thailand and sim block the countries where they do sell them. And they still expect people to buy their product ???? Well they can count me out and it seems to be the general opinion around here ! Good Luck Samsung, If you want to commit suicide, you’ll find most people will be happy to let you.

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