Samsung: We don’t region-lock our phones (apart from when you first activate them)

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(s goog) smartphone and taking it with them as they travel to another part of the world. That said, I’ve seen a report today on 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(s 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.