The incredibly enthusiastic response to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 is yet another sign the South Koreansmartphone maker has real clout in the mobile industry. People anticipate the announcement of a new Galaxy device with a kind of fervor previously reserved for Apple. Perhaps it is this lofty position in the mobile industry that convinced Samsung it had to do something about all those importers moving phones from one country to another. All of Samsung’s new smartphones — even those which are ostensibly unlocked — have a region locking feature that could prevent you from using it internationally. However, the situation is not as cut and dry as it seems at first glance.
There are certainly carrier-locked versions of Samsung’s phones, which is the version most users end up with in the US. If you go into the AT&T shop and buy the Note 3, you’re getting a version that has been SIM locked to AT&T. Getting that model unlocked means paying off your contract with AT&T and begging for the unlock code, or buying one from the gray market online. Buying a SIM-unlocked phone should do away with these pesky restrictions, but a warning label on the Note 3 box says otherwise.
According to the label, each SIM-unlocked Note 3 is locked to a certain region, like the Americas or Europe. If you try to activate it with a SIM from the wrong region, the device will not work. This is completely different from SIM locking, which can be bypassed with a code. Samsung is implementing a Mobile Country Code (MCC) check to enable regional device restrictions. Every SIM card has an MCC that identifies its country of origin, and every new Samsung device is checking that code against a whitelist embedded in its software by Samsung. If the SIM isn’t on the whitelist, that’s when the region lock kicks in.
The way around this is to simply activate a device in the right region. If you get a new SIM-unlocked Galaxy S4 or Note 3 for the European market, but want to use it in the US, it has to be activated with a European SIM card first. Doing so will disable the region lock so the phone can be used with any SIM card. If someone does insert the wrong region’s SIM during activation, a Samsung-authorized repair center can reset the lock, allowing the owner to try again with the right SIM (if they even have one). This isn’t the most user-unfriendly practice, and certainly not as awful as the label makes it sound, but it will still cause some annoyances.
This measure is mainly directed at stymieing importers who buy devices cheaply in one country, then move them to another where they can be sold at a profit. Basically, Samsung wants to be making that profit instead of the importers, and users are getting caught in the crossfire. This will probably mean fewer of those awesome deals on unlocked Samsung devices from online retailers. Furthermore, if you do buy an unlocked phone, you’ll have to be very careful to make sure it’s the right regional model.
A smaller phone maker might not go with this draconian approach, but very few of Samsung’s customers will encounter this scenario. Frankly, it’s selling so many devices these days that a few upset phone importers aren’t a concern.