Apple Watch potential ban: What you need to know

A photo of the Apple Watch Ultra with the Ocean Loop band
(Image credit: Future)

In case you missed the news headlines, there’s a chance that all of the best Apple Watches could be banned in the U.S. Last week, President Joe Biden upheld a U.S. International Trade Commission ruling that could potentially ban the import of Apple’s smartwatches. Unsurprisingly, the Cupertino-based tech giant is fighting back, big time.

So what exactly is Apple being accused of, and what could happen next? Here’s everything you need to know.

Apple Watch ban: What is Apple being accused of?

Normally, products like smartwatches only get banned if they pose a health risk to users. This definitely isn’t the case with the Apple Watch. Instead, a start-up named AliveCor has alleged that Apple has infringed patents relating to the heart rate monitoring technology on certain models. 

AliveCor told The Hill that it shared details about its wearable ECG technology with Apple in 2015. Things started well between the two, and AliveCor released an ECG accessory for the Apple Watch. ECG monitors have been around on the best smartwatches for a while — they can be used to detect heart problems, but also track your heart’s rhythm and electrical activity.

Yet things reportedly turned sour when Apple added its own ECG monitor on the Apple Watch Series 4, and blocked third-party heart-rate monitoring apps, like AliveCor. AliveCor says this move in 2018 damaged sales of its KardiaBand Apple Watch accessory.

AliveCor CEO Priya Abani told The Hill, “We come up with new technologies, and instead of the ecosystem letting us thrive and continue to build on top of the innovations we already have, Apple cuts us out up front, steals our technology, uses their platform power to scale it, and now is basically saying it’s scaled so it can’t be cut off.”

Apple Watch Series 4 ECG

(Image credit: Future)

As a result, AliveCor has taken legal action against Apple. In 2021, the brand filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission (ITC) — an independent entity that analyzes trade issues like this. AliveCor has accused Apple of copying its patents, and the ITC has ruled in favor of AliveCor.

The ITC has mandated an import ban on ECG-equipped Apple Watches (this includes the Apple Watch 4, Apple Watch 5, Apple Watch 6, Apple Watch 7, Apple Watch 8, Apple Watch SE, and Apple Watch Ultra), blocking them from entering the US. 

Don’t panic, you can still buy, and use, your Apple Watch. Nothing is changing for the foreseeable future. According to Reuters, AliveCor is currently involved in a separate appeal to the Commerce Department's Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), which ruled that the startup's patents in its ITC case are invalid. As The Register highlighted, Apple has already demonstrated that it was working on its ECG technology before AliveCor’s patent filing. 

This means a federal appeals court will have to address this dispute before they can get to the ITC issue. A typical timeline for these cases is 12 to 18 months, meaning that it is unlikely to be resolved until 2024.

Apple Watch Series 8 shown on wrist

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Apple Watch Ban: How likely is it? 

The Apple Watch won’t face an import ban for some time, so it’s likely that when the rumored Apple Watch Series 9 is released, users in the U.S. will still be able to buy it. It’s also likely that Apple will look into a number of other avenues to block the ban. 

AliveCor has said they are open to a settlement. Apple has argued that it is under no obligation to let other companies use its platform. 

Patent disputes are rather complex, but unfortunately for Apple’s legal team AliveCor isn't the only company seeking an import ban on Apple Watches. Med-tech company Masimo also accused Apple of infringing five of its patents based on pulse oximetry; a decision on whether this warrants an import ban will be made in May by the ITC. 

If you want one of Apple's best smartwatches now, we suggest taking a look at our Apple Watch deals page. 

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.