Are You Ready To Go Region Free? A Guide For Film Fans

Okay, so you love films and collecting DVDs and/ or blu-rays, right? I'm assuming so because, if not, this site must be pretty boring to you. So you're building your collection and things are great, but it's kind of a bummer every time you read about an awesome sounding special edition that's only been released in another country. And it's region 4, or C, or PAL, and you're afraid if you buy it, your machine won't read it and you won't be able to play it. And if you just bought a regular player from your local electronics store, you're probably right, you can't play it. But there's no reason to be standing out side, tears welling up, pressed against the glass. There's no reason your next player can't be region free and then you can get every awesome import and all great stuff not sold in your native land.

Is going region free illegal? Nope! It's not like stealing cable or downloading movies from pirate sites. You're 100% within your rights to own a region free player and region free discs. The companies that make the players and the discs typically sign agreements to region lock their players, because movie rights owners historically have always sold films by regions (parts of the world). This is basically a carry over from classic theatrical distribution. So, if you own a movie, you'd typically license the film to one distributor in the USA to release it there, and another in Japan, who would release it there. And they'd each collect all the profits from releasing it in their home country, and then the same thing would apply to their country's television rights, and home video.

But once everybody got on the internet and invented DVDs that work pretty much universally around the world, the division between a US disc and a Japanese disc were pretty arbitrary. You could just as well order a Japanese disc from Amazon.jp as an American disc from Amazon.com regardless of which country you live in. But movie studios thought ahead and put region locking technology in place, preventing the Japanese discs from playing in the US and vice versa. That way film owners can keep selling rights to individual markets without it devaluing their film in the other markets. So that's what region coding is and why it's there.

Now, the companies that press the discs and make the players, they've probably signed contracts and could get into trouble selling region free stuff. A DVD label could get sued for not locking their discs out of regions they didn't buy the rights to, and popular chain stores are pressured by manufacturers not to sell them. Maybe that can make going region free feel sneaky or illicit. But no, you're good. I mean, I guess I'm not familiar with the minutia of every single country's laws on the planet, and I'm certainly not a professional offering you legal counsel. But we're talking about business agreements between companies, not laws of the land. I'd be more worried holding an open can of beer on my front lawn than watching 88Films' blu-rays.

So let's start with DVDs. DVDs have been around longer and more people are already pretty savvy circumventing DVD regions. There are six DVD regions, or seven if you count region free.
R1 = USA and Canada
R2 = Europe and Japan
R3 = Indonesia and the Philippines
R4 = Australia and South America
R5 = Russia
R6 = China
R0 = region free, there is no region coding on these discs or players
And, you know, all the other different little countries fall into one of the above regions. There's no real reason to keep track of what region code applies to what area. All your local discs are going to be in your region and most foreign discs aren't. But if you are still region locked, it can be handy to know that, for example, if you live in the USA, you can still import discs from Canada.

So, if you live in the USA you have a region 1 player. You can play region 1 discs and region 0 discs. Unless you have a region free player, which are not that uncommon. Often, stores like Best Buy have sold players that are region free without marketing them as such. You could have a region free player and not even know it. But it might be a bit foolish to assume that and start importing discs and hoping they play. So I'd suggest googling the make and model of your current player with the phrase "Region free," and find out. Many players might be superficially region locked, but you only need to enter a code on your remote control to turn off region locking. Others are always region free right out of the box. If you don't have a region free player, you can easily one either by ordering from sites that specialize in selling them, or looking up what common players are already region free that you could buy from your local shop. Yes, Amazon sells tons of region free players.

But wait, there's PAL! Besides region locking, there's one other hassle that faces DVD importers. PAL vs NTSC. All DVDs are either one or the other. PAL (Phase Alternating Line) and NTSC (National Television System Committee) actually refer to the kind of television you have. European and North American TVs are made differently, they play at different frame rates. So stick a PAL DVD in your NTSC player and your NTSC television will show you a very distorted picture, or refuse to show the image at all. And the same works for Europeans trying to play NTSC discs.

Fortunately, most region free players are made to convert NTSC/ PAL and will handle this problem for you, too. So it doesn't matter if I stick a PAL or NTSC disc into my region free player, it will play fine on my TV.  There are also separate little PAL/ NTSC converter things you can buy, but you shouldn't need one. Just make sure the player you're getting also handles PAL and NTSC. Again, almost all region free ones do.

What about playing foreign discs on my computer? That's even easier. Many will want a region free DVD player because who wants to ask their family to huddle around their laptop to watch a movie on Friday night, but hey, if you're good watching movies on your PC, you're all set. In fact, you could have your computer set up to output to your family TV; that's another option. Or your computer monitor is huge and it essentially is your family TV now. All that's up to you.

Conveniently, your computer doesn't give a fig about PAL/ NTSC. It plays both handily, so throw those concerns right out. It will still care about region coding, though. Most DVD drives on computers can be switched between regions, but only a certain amount (like 5 or so) of times. So for most people who don't care about importing movies, they stick in a region 2 disc, the drive switches to region 2, and the user never deals with regions in their lives. But if you're reading this, you're probably thinking, what am I gonna do? Watch five movies then throw my drive away and buy a new one? Or buy a bunch of extra external DVD drives? Well, I guess you could, but no. There's plenty of software out there that can either prevent your player from checking what region your disc is, mask your DVD's region to make your computer think all DVDs are region free, or just reset your drive, so you have an infinite amount of times you can switch your drive's region. There's also alternate video playing software that doesn't care so much about region, so maybe Windows Media Player will tell you "this disc won't play on this machine because it's coded for another region," but download another player and "hey, no problem-o."

What is this 2002? Tell me about blu-rays, not DVDs! Right. So like I said, a lot of us are savvy about DVDs by now, but still stuck behind blu-ray region locks. It's generally the same principal, but thankfully a little simpler. For example, there are only three blu-ray regions, as opposed to DVD's six.
A = America and Japan
B = Europe and Australia
C = China
R0 = region free, there is no region coding on these discs or player
The fewer regions there are, the more country's discs will likely fall into your region, so that's nice. Even if you're region locked, for example, US viewers can play Japanese blus, even though Japanese DVDs are in another region.

Another good thing about blus: PAL is out. All blu-ray's HD footage plays in NTSC, so you no longer have to worry about this PAL/ NTSC nonsense with blu-rays. With one exception. Notice I said "blu-ray's HD footage." Some blu-rays have special features on them that are still in standard definition. And if so, that SD footage will either be PAL or NTSC, depending on its country of origin. So, a great example of this would be Australia's recent Night Of the Living Dead 1990 blu-ray. It says on its packaging that it's region B locked, but it's actually region free. So yay! US citizens can import it, but some of the extras are in SD... and PAL. So people will region locked players can watch the movie but will have a problem viewing the extras. But a region free player should handle that fine; and again, a PC won't care about the PAL/ NTSC stuff.

Now, region free blu-ray players work a little differently... Region Free DVD players are truly region free. They don't care what region disc you stick in them, they play them all 100%. Blu-ray codes are a little bit stickier, so your "region free" blu-ray player could more accurately be called a "multi-region player." They've generally got a chip soldered into them so that you can switch them between regions with your remote control. It's still super easy, though. For example, with my Panasonic player, I just press 1 on my remote control before turning it on out of sleep mode for region A, 2 for region B, and 4 for region C [why not 3? ::shrug::]. And it stays as whatever region I last watched until I switch it again. Alternatively, on my Seiki, I go to the set up menu on my player, press a 4-digit code on the remote, and it brings up an extra option asking what region I want it to be. Because region free blu-ray players have to get the extra chip put in, though, it means you're far less likely to have unknowingly purchased a region-free blu-ray player at your local electronics store. You pretty much have to go out of your way to expressly order a region-free blu-ray player. But you can find them online easily and reasonably priced.

Okay, so precisely which region free blu-ray player should I buy? I just googled right now, and I'm seeing name brand, region free blu-ray players for under $100. And they come up super easily as the top results, and no you don't need to import them from overseas. Heck, on the front page of Diabolik, they're advertising region free blu-ray players for $34.99. Sure, you might want a fancier, more expensive one, just like you might when buying a regular, region locked player. You do care about wi-fi options? 3D compatible? Are you loyal to a specific brand name, or will cheaper brands last as long? Those are all decisions for you to make whether you're buying a region locked player, and they're all available and applicable with region free ones, too. I won't presume to choose for you, but the decision shouldn't be any scarier than buying any other electronic device.

What about blu-rays on my PC? It's not much different than playing foreign DVDs on your PC. Again, NTSC/ PAL problems are out the window, even if you have a disc with SD extras. Again, your drive will be set to a certain region with 5 or so times it will ask and allow you to switch. And again, there's plenty of software to solve it in all the same ways - oftentimes, the very same software you would have already downloaded for your foreign DVDs will work for your foreign blus.

You say "there's plenty of software," but what specific programs do I need? Okay, there's a lot of options, and different people will have different preferences. It's a lot easier, of course, if you're willing to pay for the software, but trickier if you want to stick to free options. New stuff is coming out all the time, while other ones are becoming obsolete. Unfortunately, anti-piracy groups are constantly updating the code on blu-ray discs to foil this software, and programmers are constantly having to issue updated patches to keep working. It's frustrating if you're not an actual pirate looking to upload and share movies illegally and just want to play your legally purchased discs on your legally purchased blu-ray drive, but that's another topic. My point is, I'm not going to get into linking specific programs or companies. But google around, options are easy to find.

What about these new-fangled UHDs? There is no region coding (or PAL/ NTSC) on UHDs at all! They've finally listened to consumers and are just making them all 100% region free - huzzah!

Do I really need to go region free? Well, obviously that's up to you. For most casual viewers, no. Most of my buddies aren't region free and I wouldn't recommend it. If you just want to watch Guardians Of the Galaxy and Game Of Thrones, they'll all have great releases in every region you could possibly live in. Just buy local discs and don't think about it. Heck, I'm not sure I'd even recommend most casual viewers switch from DVD to blu-ray, if I'm being perfectly honest. How big is your TV?

But if you care about movies to the point where you want imports... films that aren't available in the US or special features that weren't included in your home country's edition... if you've found yourself reading DVDExotica;)  Then there's plenty of great region exclusive stuff that you're missing out on, and that phenomenon isn't slowing down as of this writing.

Of course I get it if you're broke and buying another player is an expense you don't want to undertake. But if you're updating iphone models every six months, and you're already amassing a big DVD/ blu-ray collection, there's no reason a region free player should be an impenetrable barrier to you. Heck, just wait until your current player starts failing or your kid puts peanut butter in it. Then, when you go to replace it, get a region free one instead of a region locked one. Why wouldn't you? People get so grouchy about not wanting to go region free and I don't get it. Instead of pestering your favorite cult labels to release films that already have amazing special editions in other countries, go region free and let them concentrate on all the films that are still in desperate need of a quality release. If you care that much about these movies, stop cursing the darkness and light a candle.


...Alright, that was a little long, but I think I covered pretty much everything important. Hope this helps someone!

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