'Unlocked' EU and American Note 3s only region-locked if you first 'activate' them with an unapproved SIM — and even then, there's a way back
Over the past day or so it's come to light that "unlocked" Samsung Galaxy Note 3s from Europe and Latin America seem to be locked to SIMs from their specific regions. Note 3 devices sold in these countries were packaged with an ominous sticker warning of incompatibility with SIMs from outside their approved regions. As we reported yesterday, that'd present a serious inconvenience (not to mention expense) for frequent travelers who use local SIM cards when overseas.
Fortunately, though, fresh details have come to light today which point to the situation not being quite as serious as it first seemed. Let's take a look at what's going on with region-locking on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
Unlocked, except for when it's not
Samsung's sticker doesn't tell the full story.
If you pick up an unlocked, SIM-free Galaxy Note 3 in Europe or Latin America, you'll see the sticker resembling the one above. It's used to seal the box, so it's pretty hard to miss. And after reading it, most customers would come away with the impression that you can't use the device contained within with a SIM card from outside its approved region. For what's supposed to be an unlocked GSM handset, that seems rather unreasonable.
Experiences of Note 3 owners with these unlocked, but apparently region-locked handsets have been varied. After removing our EE (UK) SIM from our own Note 3 we were able to use it with a T-Mobile (US) SIM without issue. But many others, including Nirave Gondhia from UK Mobile Review, who first used a United Arab Emirates SIM in his Note 3, found they were presented with a SIM lock message.
So what's going on? Well, it turns out Samsung's sticker doesn't tell the full story.
Region-locked, except for when it's not
The region-lock only kicks in if you first "activate" it with a SIM from outside the list of approved countries.
As it happens, the crucial factor is which SIM card you first use when you set up the phone. Lars from AllAboutSamsung.de was given information to this effect when he got in touch with Samsung Germany, and it's since been confirmed by Nirave Gondhia, who got his hands on additional Note 3s to test the theory. A second Note 3, first "activated" with a UK SIM, could then be used with a UAE SIM — the same one rejected by the first device.
(This also explains what happened with our own unlocked Note 3. It was never region-locked, as we used our EE (UK) SIM to run through the initial setup.)
So the region-lock only kicks in if you first "activate" it — i.e., switch on the phone and run through setup — with a SIM from outside the list of approved countries. It's probably a measure designed to ensnare grey (unauthorized) importers of Samsung phones. And it means you should be very careful about which SIM card you use to activate any "unlocked" Samsung phone from now on.
What to do next
Even if you've gotten the SIM lock message, you're not completely screwed.
If you've got an unlocked European or American Galaxy Note 3 and used a local SIM when you switched it on for the first time, you're good — you don't need to do anything. Your Note 3 should be unlocked to use any SIM when you travel outside of the phone's home region.
If you've got (or plan to pick up) a Galaxy Note 3 but haven't switched it on yet, make sure to use a local (same region as the phone) SIM when you switch it on for the first time and run through the initial setup.
But even if you've already used a foreign SIM the first time you switched on your unlocked Note 3, and have gotten the SIM lock message, you're not completely screwed. In fact, there are a few options open to region-locked Note 3s. A local (to the phone) Samsung service center should be able to unlock the device for you, or there are third-party firms you can try (UKMR suggests some in its piece today.)
So hopefully that clears a few things up. The situation is still far from ideal — these are GSM unlocked phones, after all —but at least the vast majority of Note 3 owners who use a local SIM first won't be affected by Samsung's lockdown. For everyone else, it's just a case of paying extra attention to which SIM you use on that crucial first boot.
Update: Samsung statement
Samsung UK has now released a statement basically confirming what we've written above.
"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."