It's all too easy for consumers to accidentally (or purposefully) purchase a Chinese ROM Xiaomi phone for use outside China. Not only do the company's handsets routinely go on sale there before other countries, they are also typically cheaper.
But it's not until you get your Chinese ROM Xiaomi phone out of the box that you realise you've messed up. Everything is in Chinese, including the keyboard, and there's no support for Google Play or other Google services out of the box. You have three ways out of this:
- Send it back and buy a Global ROM variant instead
- Install Google services and learn how to customise the Chinese ROM to suit your needs
- Unlock the bootloader and flash the Global ROM - full instructions below
Neither of the latter two options are for the faint-hearted, and if you're a tech novice who is uncomfortable messing around with software and settings we would never recommend that you buy a Chinese ROM Xiaomi phone.
How to unlock the bootloader on MIUI
The bootloader is responsible for ensuring the correct operating system is selected when you first power on a device. By unlocking it you are able to swap out the original operating system for something else, but many manufacturers frown upon this. Most Android phone makers sell their phones with locked bootloaders, and unlocking the bootloader will almost always invalidate your warranty.
Xiaomi does not sell any of its phones with unlocked bootloaders, so if you do receive an unlocked Xiaomi phone then you can be certain that someone has messed with the software. It hopes that by locking the bootloader - and making it reasonably difficult to unlock or at least batch-unlock them - it will put people off buying cheap phones in China and selling them on the global market, installing bloated software on genuine Xiaomi handsets, or installing genuine MIUI software on fake handsets.
In order to unlock the bootloader on a Xiaomi phone that phone must be signed into a Mi account, and must have an active SIM inserted. Xiaomi limits each Mi account to unlocking just one phone every 30 days. If you were hoping to get around this by creating multiple Mi accounts with multiple email addresses, know that each account must have a unique phone number associated with it - and you must have access to that number in order to receive a verification code.
Is an unlocked bootloader a security concern?
It can be, making your smartphone more vulnerable to malware, but also allowing anyone who happens to get hold of your phone to bypass the secure login and flash a new operating system to it.
Having an unlocked bootloader can also interfere with the correct working of some secure apps. These apps will not appear in Google Play, but even if you sideload them via the APK file you may find they do not work.
We've found problems with using Google Pay and Netflix on unlocked Xiaomi phones. Some banking apps may also be affected, though we've had no issues with HSBC and Natwest.
So can't I just relock the bootloader?
That depends on the situation. If you have flashed a Global ROM to a previously Chinese ROM Xiaomi phone, or vice versa, relocking the bootloader will result in your phone being bricked.
If you have merely unlocked and then relocked the bootloader, you should be fine. However, do note that unlocking the bootloader wipes all data from the phone, so make sure you have a backup first.
The reality is that if you want to flash the Global ROM on to a Chinese ROM phone, you will have to live with the unlocked bootloader thereafter. If you decide this is something you want to go ahead and do, read on below for step-by-step instructions.
Request permission to unlock the bootloader
- In your browser navigate to your Mi account. Create a free account if you don't already have one
- You must make sure there is a unique phone number associated with this account - click Add next to phone number if there is not
- On your phone go to Settings > About phone > System update and make sure you have downloaded and installed all available updates
- Turn off Wi-Fi so you are running on mobile data. There must be a SIM card inserted in the phone, though it does not have to be the same number that is associated with your Mi account
- Launch Settings > About phone and tap MIUI version seven times to enter Developer Mode
- Now head to Settings > Additional Settings > Developer Options
- Scroll down to and select Mi Unlock status
- Tap Add account and device
- You will see a message pop up warning you not to disconnect from the network, sign out of your Mi account, perform a factory reset or erase system data. Tap Got it
Unlock the bootloader with the Mi Unlock Tool
- On a PC or laptop download the Mi Unlock Tool
- Extract the contents of the Zip file, then double-click miflash_unlock.exe to launch
- Agree to the Disclaimer
- Sign into the same Mi account as on your phone
- Turn off your phone
- Hold down the power button and volume down together to enter Fastboot mode
- Connect the phone to the computer via USB
- Tap Unlock
- You will be warned that unlocking the phone will erase all data. After five seconds select Unlock anyway
- You will be warned that an unlocked device is an easy target for malware. After five seconds select Unlock anyway
- The tool will then unlock your bootloader and reboot your phone
- Safely disconnect the phone from the computer
Find a MIUI Global ROM
Finding and downloading a Global ROM is perhaps the most time-consuming part of this whole procedure, given that the file will likely be somewhere between 1.5- and 2GB in size.
You cannot just install any old Global ROM on the phone: it must be specific to that model and also a stable Fastboot version. We expect you know the model of your phone, but you can be certain by checking Settings > About phone > Device model.
We have found MiFirm.net a good source for Global ROMs. Browse by model name, then select the Global tab in the search results. Choose 'Fastboot Stable' then click Download next to the most recent version. Follow the prompts to download the software to your computer, then extract the contents of the Zip file.
Flash the new ROM to the phone
- To flash a new ROM to the phone you will need to download the Mi Flash Tool on your PC or laptop
- Download the tool, then extract the contents of the Zip file
- Double-click XiaoMiFlash.exe to run the tool
- If you are prompted to install drivers, create a new empty folder called log in the same folder as XiaoMiFlash.exe, then attempt to reopen the tool
- Tap the Select button and navigate to the containing folder of the Mi Flash Tool and other files
- Turn off your phone
- Enter Fastboot mode by pressing and holding the power button and volume down
- Connect the phone to the computer via USB
- Tap Refresh in the Mi Flash Tool and you should see a device ID appear in the list below
- IMPORTANT: At the bottom of the window select Clean all. By default this will be set to 'Clean all and lock'
- Tap Flash
- When the Mi Flash Tool has finished your phone will reboot to the familiar Android login screen. It is now safe to disconnect your phone