Cell phones are pretty much everywhere these days as modern life has made them an essential tool. Everyday parts of life, including work, recreation, travel, and healthcare, have been significantly changed thanks to cell phones. You can certainly navigate the modern world without one, but it’s going to be quite an inconvenience.
In 2022, the average smartphone cost $722 and was lightyears ahead of the 1984 car phone. The average cost has steadily increased in the last decade, but experts expect it to even out and plateau over the next few years.
Unfortunately, it’s become way more common for people to lose their cell phones. It’s a bit difficult to misplace a phone that’s attached to your car, but extremely difficult to lose one that’s roughly the size of your hand.
A lost phone isn’t only a waste of money; it’s a security hazard too. There is a ton of personal information on your phone, and losing it might be worse than losing your wallet. If you’ve lost your cell phone, immediately start taking steps to recover it as soon as possible.
To keep data secure, enable lost mode and then change passwords and log-in information. Then, you can start tracking it down.
How Are Cell Phones Tracked?
Before we get into how to recover a lost phone, it’s important to understand how cell phone tracking is possible. There are actually several different methods that can be used to track a phone. In fact, you’ve probably used a few of these services before without even realizing it:
The most popular method of cell phone tracking is to use the Global Positioning System (GPS). It’s the most accurate form of phone tracking and can be used to pinpoint the location of a cell phone in real-time. If you’ve ever used a navigation app like Google Maps, you’ve used GPS.
The way it works is fairly simple: Satellites orbiting the Earth will send a signal to your cell phone and “ping” it like sonar on a submarine. When the signal returns to the satellite, it provides a real-time location of the phone. The phone functions like a beacon, making navigation apps possible.
Cell Tower Triangulation
Cell phones must connect to a cell tower to function properly. As there are several thousand cell towers in the United States, it’s common for a cell signal to be picked up by multiple towers at the same time. Your cell phone will typically connect to the closest one as the signal will likely be the strongest. As the phone moves location, it will seamlessly transfer the connection to another tower.
For triangulation to work, a cell phone must be registered by at least three (hence the “tri”) or more towers. The overlapping of these three (or more) signals can help provide a fairly accurate idea of where the cell phone is located. However, it’s not as accurate as GPS and could vary between 500 and 1,500 meters in some cases.
Every phone is assigned a unique 15-digit code that represents its International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI). Phone carriers and manufacturers created these numbers and share them with one another to specifically track stolen, lost, or compromised smartphones. IMEI tracking services utilize the Globe System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network that functions in a similar way to GPS services.
The difference is that the GSM can not just track the phone but block it from accessing other networks rendering it useless if stolen. For that reason, it’s wise to have a record of your IMEI number, which you can find under your phone's battery pack, on the box the phone came in, or through the “Settings” of your phone.
Is It Possible To Track a Phone That’s Been Turned Off?
You probably noticed that the list above primarily relied on a phone being active to work. Unfortunately, it’s pretty difficult to track a phone that’s been turned off, as it will no longer send signals to cell towers or satellites and won’t be connected to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
The most effective method would be using the IMEI number to try to trace it. Even then, it’s most likely that the only thing you’ll be able to discover is the last known location before the phone was turned off. Such information could be enough if the phone is only lost and the battery dies. For stolen phones, you’ll probably need to wait until it was turned on again before you can find them.
What Are Some Ways To Locate a Lost Cell Phone?
Whether you are Team Android or iPhone, there are methods for recovering a lost phone no matter which side you fall on. The bad news is that most of them will only work if you’ve previously downloaded and installed specific apps or software. If you haven’t downloaded any apps to locate a lost phone or enabled location services, you won’t be able to recover your lost phone super easily.
The Find My iPhone App (Apple Users Only)
Arguably, the “Find My” program is one of the best benefits of having an Apple device. You can use it to help locate any Apple device that uses your Apple ID. These iOS devices include iPhones, iPads, AirPods, iPods, Apple Watches, and Macs. The Find My Phone only works as long as they’ve been updated and use the current iOS, of course.
Seeing as how the average American household has about 2.6 Apple products, it can be an extremely helpful app and is very simple to use:
- Open the “Find My” app on your second Apple device.
- You may have to enter your Apple ID and password if you’ve never used the app on this device before.
- The iPhone should appear in a list of devices as long as you’ve previously turned on the “Find My” feature. If it doesn’t appear, then “Find My” was not enabled, and you’ll need to try another method.
- Select the “Direction” option to locate the most recent location of the phone. The app should create a route to it from your current location.
iCloud Tracking (Apple Users Only)
If you’re a part of the rare American household that only has one Apple device, then you’ll need to use iCloud tracking instead.
It functions in essentially the same way as the “Find My” app, with a few minor changes:
- Enter “iCloud.com/find” into your web browser.
- Log into your iCloud account using your Apple ID and password.
- Select the “All Devices” option, and you should see a list of all Apple devices currently using your Apple ID. If your lost iPhone doesn’t appear, then you didn’t enable the “Find My” service, and this option won’t be of any help.
- Click on the device that you want to locate, and it will appear in the “Find My Device” toolbar.
- If the phone is off, then it will appear as "offline" and only be able to display the last known location on a map.
Google’s Find My Device App (Android Users Only)
Formally known as Android Device Manager, this helpful tracking app functions just like the Find My iPhone App offered by Apple. The difference is that you’ll use your Google account credentials to locate the mobile device.
It’s a fairly simple process that only takes a few steps to complete:
- Enter “Android.com/find” into your web browser.
- Log in using the Google account that’s associated with the lost device.
- You should see the device listed at the top of the screen and any others you might have connected to your Google account.
- Select the phone that is lost, and the location history will be displayed on a map.
Google Maps (Both Users)
Google Maps is the most popular navigation app in the United States by a very significant margin. There were nearly 25 million downloads of the app in 2022, about 2.5 times the amount of the second most popular app.
What really makes that number special is that Google Maps usually comes preinstalled on Androids, meaning most of those downloads were only via Apple users. If you’re only of the roughly billion people that use Google Maps each month, you could hopefully use it to locate your lost phone:
- Enter “timeline.google.com” into your web browser.
- Log in using the Google account that’s associated with the lost device.
- Click the “Menu” option located at the top left of the screen.
- Select the “Timeline” option and click on “Today.”
- A recent timeline of your phone’s travels should be displayed.
- Scroll through to find the last known location of your phone, and it should appear on the map display.
Use Your IMEI Number (Both Users)
Earlier, we briefly talked about how the IMEI number of your phone could be used to track it. The problem with using your IMEI number is that you’ll need to enlist some outside assistance.
If you’ve lost your phone, give the IMEI number to your phone service provider. If you believe that your phone was stolen, give the IMEI to the police when you file a report. You’ll need to rely on either party to help you locate your phone, as you won’t be able to use it on your own.
Here is how you can find your IMEI number for an iPhone:
- Open the “Settings” app on your iPhone.
- Select the “General” tab.
- Scroll down and click on the “About” option.
- You should see the 15-digit IMEI number listed.
- Alternatively, you could open the “Phone” app on your iPhone.
- Enter the following code: *#60#,
- A pop-up should appear that has your IMEI listed.
If you don’t have access to your iPhone, then you can still find the IMEI number by performing the following steps:
- Enter “appleid.apple.com” into your web browser.
- Log in using the Apple ID associated with your missing device.
- Select the “Devices” option to expand the menu.
- Click on your phone to see the IMEI number as well as the MEID and serial number.
Here is how you can find your IMEI number for an Android:
- Open the “Settings” app on your Android.
- Scroll down and select the “About Phone” option.
- The IMEI number should appear along with additional information about your phone.
- Alternatively, you could use the phone dialer code listed above (*#60#) to find it.
If you don’t have access to your Android phone, then finding your IMEI number will be a bit difficult. You used to be able to access the information by logging into your Google account. However, recent updates have eliminated this option. You’ll need to use the “Find My Device” option listed above or track down the original box your phone came in.
Losing your mobile phone is a very common occurrence, and it will happen to everyone sooner or later. In most cases, the phone is merely misplaced and recovered after a brief search. But there are some times when the phone still doesn’t turn despite a thorough hunt.
Not only is losing your phone extremely frustrating, but it’s also very risky for your privacy. The last thing that you want is for your phone to fall into the wrong hands, as they’ll have access to the highly sensitive information inside of it. That’s why some people opt to get a second phone number with Burner.
Unfortunately, the best ways to recover a lost phone will rely upon you having the foresight to enable location services, download certain apps, or learn your IMEI number. Without them, it’s going to be very difficult to try to find your number, especially if the phone has been turned off or the battery has died.
The best bet would be to talk with your phone service provider. They might not be able to recover your lost phone, but they can deactivate it and prevent whoever has it from accessing your personal data. It’s the only way to avoid a bad situation getting even worse.