Anyone can be an amateur spy with today’s phone-tracking technology, which is great if you need to keep track of your spouse, check up on your kids or find a lost device. Knowing how to track a phone can save you countless hours of worry and aggravation.
Cellphone trackers rely on GPS, or global positioning system, technology. GPS uses satellites to pinpoint locations and aid navigation—it’s the same system Siri uses to guide you on a road trip. GPS technology was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to track submarines, but today it’s used for everything from helping emergency responders quickly get to the scene of an accident to reassuring anxious parents that a child arrived safely at a friend’s house.
It’s easy to track a phone number—but you need to stay within the law. Here’s what you need to know about how to track a phone and when you’re legally allowed to do so.
Reasons to track a phone number
Any parent can think of dozens of situations when knowing how to track a phone would be useful. But phone-tracking technology isn’t just for nervous moms and dads.
“There are several legitimate reasons why someone would want to install tracking software onto a phone—certainly parents ensuring the safety of their children could see the benefit,” said Attila Tomaschek, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy. “But also, employers who need to keep track of company-issued devices used by employees could find tracking software vital to their operations at large, as well as to the safety of their employees.”
Some couples say phone tracking helps them keep track of each other’s location. When you can’t reach your partner by phone, you can check his location to make sure he’s on his way to pick up the kids or gauge his ETA at a meeting point, for example.
Phone-tracking technology has personal privacy and security uses, too. “Some people may want to install tracking software on their own phones in order to give them the means to recover or remotely wipe their phone in the event it gets lost or stolen,” Tomaschek said.
When is it illegal to track a phone?
If you’re a law enforcement officer and you have a warrant on someone, you can legally track their cellphone. For everyone else, it is against the law to track another adult’s phone without explicit permission.
As Darrin Giglio, chief investigator at North American Investigations, said, “I often wish that the type of cellphone tracking you see on detective shows was available to my staff and I. Unfortunately, cellphone tracking is typically illegal without the consent of the person being tracked.”
He lists three circumstances when it’s legal to track a phone number:
- You’re a parent or guardian tracking a minor child’s phone.
- You have express consent of the person you’re tracking, such as a clause in an employee contract.
- You’re a law enforcement officer with a warrant.
“While there are ways to track a cellphone without the person knowing it,” Giglio said, “the apps that allow you to do so are equal to malware. Many apps disguise themselves as something else—typically a game or ‘useful’ app like a flashlight—for the purpose of attaching a tracking app to the phone.”
These thinly veiled tracking apps are considered spyware and are technically illegal. “The U.S. Supreme Court declared in June of 2018 that GPS trackers had to be accompanied by a warrant. Other ways to track, like using cell towers, weather info and the like aren’t as readily available to the general public or even to professionals like me,” Giglio said. “So that’s the reason for the proliferation of the spy apps.”
If you don’t have permission and you’re not tracking your minor child, resist the temptation to skirt the law with one of these apps. All but a few states have specific GPS tracking laws on the books, and you could be charged with a misdemeanor or even a felony in certain situations.
How to track a phone using built-in iPhone or Android software
If you use an iPhone, you can use the manufacturer-installed Find My app to track your device and any other devices on your Family Sharing account. Here are the steps:
- Open the Find My app (a recent Apple amalgamation of the Find My iPhone and Find My Friend apps) on your device or sign in to iCloud.com/find from a web browser.
- Click “Find iPhone,” and select the device you want to locate.
This method only works if the other person has the Find My app activated on their device, however. If the app is toggled off, there’s no way to locate the device using iPhone software.
Even if you don’t have a Family Sharing account, you can share your location voluntarily with anyone you choose. Simply open the app and click the People icon at the bottom of the screen. Select the people from your contact list with whom you want to share your location. This is a useful feature if you want to track someone’s phone who isn’t on your account.
Android phone users can use Google’s Find My Device service to track a phone, but you need to register the same Google account on each device you plan to track. If your spouse or children’s phones are registered with their own Google accounts, Find My Device won’t work—unless, of course, you have their log-in credentials.
- Download the Find My Device app on each device you want to track.
- Log in to your Google account and turn on “Location.”
- If you are logged in to your Google account, type “find my phone” in the Google search bar and select the device you want to track.
- If you aren’t logged in to a Google account, type android.com/find into any desktop or mobile browser and select the device you want to locate.
Both the iPhone and Android phone-finding apps have other useful features in the event your device is lost or stolen. You can remotely lock your device and erase all your personal information, although if you erase your device, you’ll no longer be able to track it.
How to track a phone using apps
Free tracking apps can be dangerous because they are often used to plant malware in your device. They are also illegal unless you have the express consent of the person you’re tracking.
If you decide you want to use a phone-tracking app, Life360 has a free version that lets you share your location and ETA with others in your circle. There are also paid memberships for families that include crash detection and even a driving report if you have a new driver in the family.
There are also apps such as mSpy, Spyzie, PhoneSpector and Highster Mobile that charge a monthly user fee. These apps include more intrusive features such as call, text, email and social media activity monitoring. Expect to pay between $10 and $30 a month for these advanced phone-tracking systems, although some are significantly more expensive.
If you only need short-term phone tracking, the free WhatsApp messaging app shares real-time location information for up to eight hours at a time. The user just toggles the location-sharing option and chooses the timeframe (from 15 minutes up to eight hours). You’ll be able to track the device during that time as long as it’s connected to the internet, even if the app is closed.
How to track a phone using a cellphone carrier
Most major telecom providers offer an optional paid service that lets you track devices on your plan:
- Verizon’s Smart Family plan includes activity tracking and content filters as well as location sharing, and it costs between $5 and $10 a month depending on the package.
- T-Mobile has FamilyWhere, which includes location tracking with a seven-day location history report and automatic location alerts for $10 a month.
- AT&T’s Secure Family app includes location tracking, arrival and departure alerts, and location history for $8 a month.
These services are great for parents who want to better monitor and manage their kids' mobile activities. Both Verizon and AT&T lets you block internet access during certain times of the day or pause Wi-Fi connectivity.
The bottom line
It’s helpful to know how to track a phone in case your device is lost or stolen or you need to keep tabs on a family member. If you have kids, today’s phone-tracking apps give you more control over how they use their mobile devices. As long as you operate within the law, you have more visibility into your loved one’s digital lives than ever before.
But phone-tracking is only one part of a safe communication strategy in an always-on digital age. Reverse phone lookup can help you find out who’s behind any unusual calls or texts your family members receive. Address lookup may be able to show you who they’re visiting and give you important information to help you decide if it’s a safe place for your loved one to go.
Ultimately, it’s usually a good idea to install or activate the phone-tracking apps offered by your phone manufacturer. You’ll have peace of mind knowing that you can find a missing device and protect your personal data in case it gets stolen—and you’ll have the legal tools you need to keep track of your loved ones.