Blu-ray zones: with empirical examples
Summary: if you are thinking of buying a Blu-ray title from a different country or zone, and the label says it won’t play on your player, it probably won’t play. The only exception are documentaries, which are usually not region locked.
Blu-ray and DVD discs can be locked to a particular geographic area, so discs purchased in one area can not be played in a player from another area.
Region locking allows studios to limit where discs can be used. They might do this to restrict sales for legal reasons (e.g. licensing, censorship or release dates), or so they can charge some customers more than others (i.e. customers can’t buy it from a different area where it is cheaper).
DVDs have regions. For DVDs, there are eight flags for setting the region a disc can be played in. Six of those flags map to geographical regions and countries. The other two are not used on retail discs. Region 0 means none of the flags are set, and the disc will play in any player.
Blu-ray have zones. But the familar term of “region” is often used to mean zones.
UHD Blu-rays (also known as 4K Blu-rays) do not have region locking.
Blu-ray zone system
There are three zones in Blu-rays:
- A (North, Central and South America, Japan, Korea and southeast asia);
- B (Europe, Africa, Middle East, Australia and New Zealand); and
- C (Russia, India, China and the rest of the world).
A Blu-ray disc is locked to one or more of those zones. When a disc is “locked” to all three zones (i.e. ABC), it behaves as if there is are no restrictions (i.e. it can be played on any player).
Since there are three zones, there are 8 possible combinations. But having no zone is not used, so there are only seven combinations to consider:
- ABC - common (plays on all players)
- A - common (plays only on a zone A player)
- B - common (plays only on a zone B player)
- C - possible
- AB - very rare, but does exist
- BC - very rare, but does exist
- AC - possible
Possible means it is possible that Blu-ray discs locked to those zone(s) might exist, but I have yet to come across an example. It is also possible that such discs don’t exist at all.
An example of a disc locked to zone AB (i.e. it does not play on a zone C player) is the UK Release of Ghost in the Shell 2.0.
An example of a disc locked to zone BC (i.e. it does not play on a zone A player) is the Australian release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Australian release of The Sound of Music, 50th anniversary edition is also locked to zone BC.
The above is based on actual testing of discs. A Blu-ray player that can be switched to the different zones was used, as well as a player that could only play one zone.
The zone printed on the disc and/or on the cover can be misleading.
Disc is only playable on the players indicated by the label
The most common case is where the label correctly matches the zones on the disc. That is, the disc matches exactly what the label claims.
For example, the label says it is a zone A title and it really contains zone A discs. Or the label says it is a zone ABC title and it really contains zone ABC discs.
This category also includes the situation where there is no label and the title contains zone ABC discs.
In my collection 80% of titles are like this. All the percentages in this article are based on titles since that is more meaningful: a title normally has one label on the cover, but may contain multiple discs (especially in box sets).
Disc can be played on more players than the label indicates
The second most common case is where the label says it is locked to a particular zone, but the discs can actually be played on any player (e.g. it contains ABC discs). That is, the discs are less restrictive than the label claims. For example, the label says it is a zone A title, but actually contains ABC discs.
In my collection, 19% of titles are like this.
Mistakes in labeling or discs
The only bad label I’ve come across is the UK release of Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which is locked to AB (i.e. does not play on a zone C player), but the label doesn’t say anything about being zone locked. That is, it could be mistaken to contain ABC discs. But it shouldn’t create any problems for most people, who purchased it in the UK to be played on a UK/European player.
Discs can also be pressed with unexpected restrictions. For example, the Australian release of Future Man: Season 2 is a two disc set, with the first disc locked to zone B and the second disc is not locked to any zone (i.e. ABC). The label on the cover claims the discs only plays in zone B. Note: season 1 and 3 both contain unlocked discs and are also labeled zone B.
These mistakes account for slightly over 1% of the titles in my collection of approximately 150 titles.
Region free players (multi-zone players)
A Blu-ray player that can play discs from different zones can be very handly. Especially when some titles or content are only released in some countries/zones. Multi-region DVD players are relatively easy to find, but it is a different story for Blu-ray players.
Multi-zone Blu-ray players can be very hard to find. Even in Australia, where it is illegal to have such restrictions, they are becoming harder to find. Try looking at the unfamiliar brands (especially those manufactured by companies that do not also own movie studios). Alternatively, there hardware modifications that can be made to some high-end players, but it can be cheaper to simply buy a second player.
All the region/zone free players I’ve seen can play any region DVDs, but must be switched between the different Blu-ray zones. They are region free DVD players, but are technically not zone free Blu-ray players—they always have a zone, but that zone can be changed.
Purchasing discs for zone locked players
In my collection, 43% are not zone restricted (despite the label claiming they are restricted), and 57% are restricted as indicated by their labels. That is if documentaries and titles that are labeled ABC or have no labels are ignored.
But if someone is deliberately purchasing a title from a different country/zone, it is probably an unusual title that is not available locally. Those might not have worldwide distribution rights or are from specialist publishers (e.g. from The Criterion Collection or Curzon Artificial Eye). Therefore, the discs are much more likely to be region locked.
In my collection—only considering non-documentary titles where the label says they won’t play on a local player—effectively all of the titles are restricted and won’t play. There is one title that does play, but that is a very old movie from 1945—so it should be considered an outlier.
Therefore, if you are deliberately considering buying a title that is not available locally and whose label says it is for a different zone from your player, it probably won’t play. The only exception are for documentaries, where all the ones in my collection are not restricted (even the ones where the labels claim they are restricted).
If you really can’t get those titles locally, consider getting a multi-zone Blu-ray player or try ripping it to a computer (depending on the drive and software used, that can work).
Update: missing labels does not always mean no restructions
Since this article was originally written, I’ve come across discs where there is no label indicating any zones (neither printed on the cover, nor printed on the disc), but the disc is restricted to a zone.
These were the American release of Impostor (no label, but disc is restricted to zone A), and the Australian release of Iron Sky (no label, but disc is restricted to zone B).
So caution should also be taken if there is no label. In most cases, no label does mean no restrictions (zone ABC). But that assumption is not always true.