- Most DVDs and Blu-rays are region-locked and cannot be played in other countries
- That is, unless you’ve equipped yourself with multi-region audio/video equipment
- Region locking is often at the insistence of copyright holders and not issuing labels
- Streaming is the future, but not for a long time, for those into older and niche titles
- Many releases have superior transfers, extras and packaging than local editions
- When the world’s your oyster, you can buy the best releases from anywhere at all
- Amazon is awash with one-star reviews from frustrated and annoyed customers
- They didn’t bother to check before buying and can’t play their specially imported discs
- This simple guide will help show if you can enjoy particular releases with no problems
Note that in this article I’ve bypassed a lot of techno-babble in order to get the basic points across as simply as possible. Much more detailed info can be found via the many links or a quick search.
The vast majority of DVDs worldwide are encoded in either the NTSC or PAL analogue TV system. Chief NTSC territories are the US, Canada, countries along the western coast of South America, and parts of the Far East, including Japan. The PAL format is used in Europe, Australia and practically the rest of the world. Note: NTSC DVDs can be played in PAL countries but PAL DVDs are seldom playable in NTSC countries. For NTSC territories, as a rule of thumb if your player is 50Hz compliant (most major non-Sony brands except for their PS4 and 4K/UHD players) and your TV is 50Hz compatible or your player converts it and outputs a 60Hz signal, PAL content will play fine.
Also bear in mind that for technical reasons, video encoded in the PAL format plays back at 4% faster than film speed: basically 25 frames per second vs the 24fps of both sound film and NTSC video. This means that in the case of two DVDs containing exactly the same 100-minute film, an NTSC-encoded disc will have the same timing, while a PAL disc will have a runtime of 96 minutes. Along with the PAL speed-up comes a commensurate increase in audio pitch, but it’s usually corrected during the mastering process. Some people are quite sensitive to PAL speed-up, while most can’t detect it at all. Regardless, if playing via PC disc drive, varispeed options are standard with most playback software, so can easily be set to 96% speed, although then corrected audio must also be readjusted to its original pitch or it will sound as if it’s playing 8% too slowly.
PAL DVDs have a resolution of 720 × 576 pixels, while NTSC DVDs are 720 x 480 pixels. Although PAL has more resolution, neither is inherently superior. There are many variables to be taken into consideration when ascertaining picture quality between two differently encoded discs, such as the source master used, the quality of the encode itself, and so on.
In order for studios to control the release dates and distribution of DVD sales worldwide, different regions were devised. They’re enforced by locking or coding each disc and player to a specific region. There are seven main regions for commercial DVD:
- Region 0/free/All – no coding or flags 1–8 set; NTSC region 0 DVDs are playable anywhere
- Region 1 – US and Canada
- Region 2 – Europe, Japan, Middle East, South Africa, British Overseas Territories and Dependencies
- Region 3 – Hong Kong and Southeast Asia
- Region 4 – Australasia and Latin America (Mexico also usually coded for region 4)
- Region 5 – Russia, South and Central Asia, Africa (except South Africa)
- Region 6 – China
- Regions 7 and 8 – reserved for non-commercial use
Blu-ray Discs (BDs) do not use either PAL or NTSC coding but rather are in the 1080p worldwide high definition standard. “1080” refers to to number of pixels making up the vertical resolution, with 1920 pixels on the horizontal. Be aware that there are a tiny minority encoded at 1080i – sometimes called “1080p 25fps” on the sleeve. They still contain HD video but encoded via a different method (interlaced, not progressive) with playback at PAL framerates. Therefore, they may not be viewable on TVs in NTSC countries (US, Canada, etc) without a framerate converter built into the TV or player. They’ll either send out a signal your TV can’t display properly, or just default to a black screen.
Some BD players can be harmlessly modified to become multi-region too, though in this case it’s then usually necessary to enter a four digit code each time you want to change the region. This is not as annoying as you might think: it only takes seconds and the majority of BDs, as much as 70%, are actually region free anyway. For instance, Disney, Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. discs are always region free.
Note that if you live in a non-PAL country, even if you buy a region 0 foreign BD, any standard definition menu screens and extra features may still be in PAL and unviewable.
Another thing to bear in mind is the Blu-ray specification only allows for standard definition content to be encoded interlaced (480i or 576i), not the generally superior progressive method found on most DVDs. Essentially, any SD material will almost always look appreciably better on DVD, so hang onto your old discs for their superior quality extras!
There are four region codes for BD:
- Region 0/free/ABC – no coding, playable anywhere. Note that any standard definition extras will still be in the NTSC or PAL DVD format
- Region A – Alaska, Canada, North and South America, East and Southeast Asia, including Japan
- Region B – Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, Australia and New Zealand
- Region C – Central and Southern Asia, including China, and Russia
Region C-only discs are quite rare and most in the West will never encounter one. Even in Russia and China, where they’re most prevalent, the majority of discs are region 0 or region B+C.
Incidentally, all 4K UHD discs are region free. In most cases, a single master is created and sold around the world, with the addition of local labels, packaging and non-UHD discs. Studios finally abandoning region coding with the latest format is a victory for common sense. We live in a global marketplace and they’ve been fighting a losing battle for years. Imports tend to flow towards a vacuum anyway, so as long as licensed, official releases are crossing continents, everyone concerned still makes their money.
Thanks to the increasing prevalence of streaming, the market for physical media is shrinking rapidly, as is the volume of new releases. Long gone are the days when you could pretty much count on a quality release in every territory. When it comes to a decent Blu-ray or often even DVD release of any particular title, now we’re lucky to get it just once anywhere. When we do, be grateful for it and don’t assume others will naturally follow. Streaming may be sufficient for the majority of people, but it will be a very long time, if ever, before it satisfies the needs of those into niche and older films and TV. Especially so, when you consider factors I spend such a lot of time discussing on this site: where to find the best quality, most complete transfers or restorations of given works. No matter where you live, it’s cheap and easy to go region free and it literally opens up a world of possibilities!
One workaround is to simply play DVDs on a computer using software like the open source VLC media player. With the exception of some newer hardware, it will completely bypass region locking when used in conjunction with most drives. It’s incredibly versatile and simple to use. Additional benefits include the ability to alter playing speed; playback at 96% slows PAL discs down to normal film/NTSC speed. You can also change the aspect ratio, brightness, colour, contrast, take screenshots, etc. Try it! There are various other forms of PC software that will perform all the above functions and more, bypassing region coding and other restrictions on all DVDS and Blu-rays. Again, there are lots of great open source options like MakeMKV and HandBrake, while AnyDVD is a hassle free, one-stop shop. If you’re a Mac user, there are various equivalents here, here, here and here. Note that since region coding is a commercial application, all home-recorded or burned discs, whether DVD or Blu-ray, will be code free.
Multi-region DVD players are fairly common and some even come region free as standard. If not, many can easily be hacked to be so with no adverse effects whatsoever. In fact, all DVD players are effectively manufactured as multi-region; hacking them simply removes the factory-imposed restrictions. Just do a search for the make and model number of your player along with the words “multi-region hack”, and take it from there. Or you may just find it on the VideoHelp hack forum.
With only a handful of exceptions, BD players always leave the factory region-locked and need to be modified by a third party, either via a firmware or hardware update. Ensure that if you install any future firmware updates it won’t delete your multi-region firmware. Hardware modified players do not have the same problem. As so many BDs are region 0, even someone owning many foreign discs may never encounter playback problems. Therefore, check carefully when buying a second hand player, as sellers often mistakenly think theirs are multi-region-capable and advertise them as such. Here’s a good place to start looking.
The practise of region coding has faced legal challenges in Australia and New Zealand, and they’re generally more relaxed about enforcing it, so multi-region BD and DVD players are easy to come by there. In particular, look out for the likes of keenly priced but good quality brands Kogan and Laser, especially the latter’s very popular BD3000 model. Older models like the Soniq QPB302B and B100 are also well worth picking up and very easily hackable.
- AV Forum: Blu-ray & DVD Player Multi-region Hacks
- Blu-ray.com: Region Free Blu-ray player recommendations
- Criterion Forum: All-Region DVD and Blu-ray Player Advice
A highly recommended US BD player that’s multi-region out of the box, with a simple switch via the menu, is the Seiki SR4KP1. A similar UK player, sadly long discontinued, is the Technika BRSS10. Beware of the Sony BDP-S6500, a 2015 4K upscaling model. It’s hackable but has a detail-killing automatic filter that can’t be turned off for any displays with lower resolution than 4K. Likewise, avoid the Toshiba BDX1400: it has unresolved audio sync issues. But I strongly recommend its sister model, the Toshiba BDX1200 (UK, De/Fr/Es), which is a brilliant player that’s easily fully unlocked – I have two of them!
Lastly, fully multi-region 4K UHD players have now finally arrived, no doubt with more to follow.
You can start by looking here or try:
- US: 220-Electronics aka Code Free DVD
- UK: MultiRegionMagic
Leave a comment if you know of any others.
DVDCompare.net is the single best resource on the internet for checking region code status and general DVD/BD/4K UHD disc specs.