If you need to track down a cell phone, you’ve come to the right place. Whether you’re simply trying to track the location of your lost phone, or you’re a secret agent and you need to gain intel on the day-to-day whereabouts of a crooked diplomat, we’re here to give you the information you need to get the job done. It’ll be easier if you’re trying to track a smartphone, but there are ways to locate older phones as well, so don’t give up hope if you’re still rocking a first-gen Motorola RAZR – we’ve still got your back.
If you’re here just to prepare for the day that you lose your phone (which for many is inevitable), then you’re ahead of the game. If you’ve got a smartphone, consider installing the apps listed below
For smartphones: There are several app choices available for you phone, but also remember to set up any included phone locating software that comes with your device. That includes Find My iPhone, Android Device Manager, and Samsung’s Find My Mobile. Head to the next section for more details. If you’re looking for more choice, try these out:
It’s free to use for up to three devices, there are paid plans for more, and the service can be used for both computers and phones. After you sign up for the service, you simply sync your devices with it, sit back, and relax. The day that your phone goes missing, all you’ll have to do is find a computer, log into your account, and start tracking. It runs discreetly in the background and won’t track your phone’s location until you tell it to, so there’s no need to worry about your privacy while the phone is in your possession. We recommend this for any Android or iOS device, as well as any Mac, Windows, or Linux PC.
It’s available for both iOS and Android devices and combines security, tracking, and anti-virus/malware protection. There are several interesting features, such as the system recording a phone’s last location right before the battery dies, a chance to backup contact data before a remote erase, and it’ll even snap a photo of any would-be thief and email it along with location data to you. There’s a free two-week trial, after which it’ll cost $3 per month.
It also offers a similar security/virus protection app combo for $2 per month. You can remotely lock or wipe your smartphone, record audio or pictures to find the thieves who took the device, and send the device into stealth mode, so that the thief doesn’t know Avast is protecting your phone. Avast also provides SIM card change notifications. You can get it on iOS or Android, and the company offers similar services on Mac or PC, too.
For non-smartphones, we recommend using a GPS tracking service. There are many different options out there, but we’ve picked out our favorite one.
It costs from $6 per month (less if you subscribe for a year), and uses GPS to track the location of your phone, and lucky for you, it works with a wide variety of feature phones. As long as your phone is GPS enabled, this service should do the trick. Most modern cellphones are GPS enabled, so as long as your phone isn’t headed to the museum due to age, you should be fine. When the day comes that you can’t locate your phone, just log in to AccuTracking’s Web interface from any internet-connected computer and — so long as your phone isn’t dead — it’ll immediately show you the location of your phone.
If you didn’t have the foresight to install a device recovery app on your phone before you lost it, don’t worry. There are still some easy ways to get it back.
Android users can use Android Device Manager. Because it’s a Google service, it links with your Google account and can locate any device associated with it. There’s also the option to reset the PIN remotely, or erase stored data. If you want an alternative, there’s Cerberus, which works in the same way and comes with Android Wear support, so alerts will be pushed to your smartwatch should the paired device go out of range.
iPhone users can download the Find My iPhone application. If you’re rocking a phone with iOS 5 or later, then this app will come preinstalled. It works with iCloud — so it can be accessed through a browser, or another iOS device — and the location of your missing device will show on a map, along with the option to show where it has been too. You can remotely lock the phone, display an emergency message, or erase stored data if the phone has been lost forever.
Non-smartphone users are a bit out of luck in this case. If you didn’t register your phone with AccuTracking or a similar service beforehand, you don’t have many options other than calling your service provider and hoping they can help. Most providers do offer GPS location services for a reasonable fee though, so if your phone is GPS-enabled, finding it is sometimes just a matter of activating the GPS chip.
Next page: Tracking someone else’s phone with their permission
Tracking someone else’s phone with their permission
Before going down this route, don’t forget that there’s always the option of calling and asking where someone is, but then again, if you do it this way there’s always a chance that the person in question could lie to you. So, if you can’t always trust the word of the person you’re trying to locate, here’s what we recommend:
Smartphone-equipped friends can use a number of different location-sharing apps to let you know where they are. Facebook and Twitter both have location-aware check-in features these days, and Swarm has some pretty robust location-sharing features as well. However, we have a few more favorites for you to check out:
Find My Friends
Our favorite app for keeping track of people’s whereabouts is definitely Find My Friends. It’s available for iOS and Android. Although the two apps aren’t from the same developer, they offer the same service. The apps allow you to track multiple people at the same time, which can be useful when you’re trying to meet up with a big group.
iMessage and Hangouts
If you’re an iOS user and are just trying to meet up with a friend, provided you both use iMessage then you can choose to share your location through it. Google’s Hangouts app has a similar feature, and is available on both Android and iOS. The app even watches for phrases like “Where are you?” and will then automatically suggest sharing your location.
Several major networks also provide phone tracking services, under the guise of friend and family locators. AT&T has its Family Map, Sprint has Guardian, Verizon provides Family Locator, and T-Mobile has the awkwardly named FamilyWhere app. All come with a free trial, but you’ll have to pay a subscription to continue using them.
Non-smartphone users don’t have as many options when it comes to sharing their whereabouts, but it’s definitely still possible. There used to be more free services out there, but as me mentioned before, InstaMapper and Google Latitude are now defunct, so your best bet for keeping tabs on a feature phone is AccuTracking. The app’s website looks like it’s from 1996, but don’t let that scare you away — it works really well.
Next page: Tracking someone else’s phone without their permission
Tracking someone else’s phone without their permission
It’s best to be upfront about tracking somebody and respect their right to privacy, but if you absolutely must track a phone without the owner’s consent or knowledge (i.e. if you’re a parent), here are a few tips on how to do it.
Tracking a smartphone user is relatively simple. The easiest method is to install a tracking app on the person’s phone whenever you get a chance to do so discreetly. There are dozens of apps out there that’ll get the job done. Just install whatever app you choose when the person is sleeping or they leave to go somewhere – and don’t forget to hide the icon of whatever app you install. You can place it in an obscure folder and hope they don’t notice it too soon, or you can also install an app hider program (like Poof for example) to make the icon disappear entirely.
Tracking a non-smartphone user is a bit more difficult since there aren’t as many options, but it’s essentially the same drill as above. If the phone is GPS-enabled, just wait until the person leaves their phone unattended for an extended period of time and install AccuTracking on it. Go through all the necessary steps to set up the account, make sure that it works, and then hide the evidence as best you can. Try to stash the app icon in an obscure folder so that the phone’s owner won’t discover it accidentally.
Unfortunately, if the phone you’re trying to track isn’t GPS-enabled, you’ll have to pull a James Bond maneuver and install a GPS chip on the phone before you can pinpoint its location. This might be a bit of an arduous task, as you’ll have to figure out which particular archaic model of phone they have, find and purchase a GPS chip that’s compatible with the device, and then successfully install the chip without the person’s knowledge. Try going to a specialty electronics shop or spy gear retailer to find the right hardware. The other option is locating the phone in question via triangulation, but doing it this way means gaining access to cell phone tower data – and the feds probably wouldn’t approve of that.
We know that there are tons of other great tracking apps we didn’t mention here, so we invite you to share your favorites with us in the comments.
Updated on 10-31-14: This article has been updated since it was originally published to include an instructional video.