The location checks on a mobile phone happen in the background, is relatively efficient, and can go unnoticed. Today’s smartphones calculate fairly-accurate GPS coordinates and send that location through the Internet. While we travel, we turn on tracking as a safety step, but I recently wondered can you tell when someone checks your mobile phone location?
No. Android and iPhone’s iOS do not notify or give an indication when someone checks your location. There is a brief icon displayed in the notification bar when GPS is used by location services. Any number of apps or system processes trigger a location check. Only your mobile service provider can track you continuously.
Read on, and we’ll cover why your mobile service company is tracking you and some smartphone-specific uses of location tracking.
Table of Contents
- Your Cellular Provider Needs Your Location Continuously
- Location Sharing
- Remote Location Services
- Final Thoughts
- Related Questions & Tips
Your Cellular Provider Needs Your Location Continuously
We usually don’t consider how cellular phone service works. We simply subscribe to a company’s plan and start using the service.
For your phone to ring when someone calls, chime for a text, or connect you to the Internet, your device needs to be continuously connected to a cellular tower. The phone company keeps a centralized log of which phones are connected to which towers. They then route your service through the best-connected tower.
This coordination happens once every few minutes to several hours depending on factors like your usage, your movement, and the geographic location of the towers. The log of tower connections is kept for varying lengths of time based on the company’s policies.
How to Tell Someone Checks Your Location
There’s not a direct way to see when your mobile carrier reviews their logs. Go ahead and assume you’re being tracked.
Hide From Your Mobile Provider
There are a few ways to stop your phone from updating your mobile provider.
First, simply turning off your mobile device is not enough to stop it from transmitting. You need to remove the battery. Yet, many devices, mostly smartphones, also have a secondary battery. This extra battery is mainly used to keep the clock running. There is some research showing this extra power source can be used to send transmissions to nearby receivers.
Wrapping your switched-off phone in a few layers of aluminum foil will prevent any additional signal transmission or reception. This will further ensure no connectivity to your cellular provider.
As I write this article, I wanted to test this bit of research for myself. I went to the kitchen and grabbed the roll of aluminum. I successfully called an old, pre-paid mobile while unwrapped. I then wrapped it in foil like a burrito. The second test call went to voicemail and the phone inside the aluminum did not ring.
Your phone’s location is used to help apps but can also be shared so others can keep track of you. Google Maps location sharing and Apple’s Find My Friends (now combined with Find My iPhone into “Find My”) are the two main ways users can share locations between trusted users.
Google offers limited-duration and continuous sharing of location through its Maps service. If you have a Google account, you’re ready to share directly in the Maps app to other Google users or via a temporary web link for those outside the ecosystem. Google’s full support page provides great instructions.
Apple Find My Friends
The People tab inside Apple’s Find My app is your destination for location sharing between iPhone users. MacRumors does a great job explaining the service in this video from YouTube.
The Other Location Services
There are several cross-platform alternatives for location sharing: Life360 and GeoZilla are designed for family safety. For an open-source location app, check out Hauk on the F-Droid app store. Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp both offer social network location-sharing features within their app.
- Messengers can be horribly insecure. We have a table of 11 messaging apps that you’re likely using to send your location. I recommend stopping using #1-6.
- Also watch out for the privacy of social networks. Here’s a list of the safest social networks where sharing your life and especially your current location has a higher-level of user respect.
How to Tell Someone Checks Your Location
For Google Maps on Android, you’ll see two brief location notifications.
GuidingTech has a good post showing how to view your Android notification logs.
For Apple Find My Friends, a hollow location icon in your status bar will indicate that your device has sent an update to the Find My service.
You can read more about iOS location and privacy on Apple’s support site.
For the other location-sharing services, they each disclose your location updates differently. Please note that the operating system should offer the best glimpse into telling when the service checks your phone’s location.
Remote Location Services
Remote device administration is another use-case for location data. Google’s Find My Device and Apple’s Find My iPhone (now combined with Find My Friends into “Find My”) are the out-of-the-box options for locating your lost or stolen device.
Find My Device provides
- Status on last seen date/time, network connectivity and battery level, phone identifier (IMEI), and location on a map
- Remote administration features including high-volume ring, display an on-screen message, secure lock and sign-out of the Google account, and remotely erase/wipe of the content on the device
Find My iPhone provides
- Date and time last connected to iCloud, location on a map, approximate battery level, and if the device is charging
- Remote ability to ring the phone, set the iOS device to lost mode, and remotely erase
The best alternative for tracking a lost or stolen smart device outside of the Apple or Google ecosystem is Prey. The service offers free and paid tiers of service and can track mobile devices as well as laptops.
How to Tell Someone Checks Your Location
When Google’s Find My Device service is used, a brief notification is displayed and again can be easily seen in the notification log.
Android 11 surfaced an easier-accessed Notification History list. Pull down the notifications tray and tap History. All dismissed notifications are presented chronologically.
For iPhones, the Find My service through iCloud functions similarly. There’s a brief notification icon in the status bar when the device’s location is checked.
Prey is a little different. The service works hard to not display notification tracking.
For all these lost/stolen phone services, you can remotely secure the device and post a message on-screen if you want to disclose the device has been tracked.
Did You Know:
Your smartphone has 5 ways of tracking your position. Can you guess which is the best? Check out this article for the answer.
For all mobile phone users, remember that your approximate location is a technical requirement for providing cellular service and mobile data. Your carrier continuously logs your location and may be required to disclose this history through legal information requests. Private individuals will not have this location data.
Smartphone users can tell when someone or some service checks their location. You can find some tracking history by digging into your device’s apps or settings. Users may also have the ability to see this location list in a service’s website.
As users become more privacy-concerned, device manufacturers, app developers, and mobile service providers are introducing more transparency notifying users about how location data is obtained, used, and stored.
User Note: Remote location services and location sharing come with a privacy cost. You’re entrusting the companies you employ to secure your real-time data against theft and only disclose your location to third-parties that have the legal authority to get it. Please use these services when and if the advantages outweigh the risks for you.
In this video (6m13s@2x), The Hated One goes over all the ways your smartphone is tracking your location.
Can I track a cell phone with just a phone number?
Private individuals can’t track a phone’s location based on only a phone number, SIM chip, or IMEI phone identifier. Law enforcement, through legal means, can gain access to an approximate location through mobile service providers.
How can I track a mobile phone for free?
Google’s Find My Device and Apple’s Find My iPhone services can both track a mobile phone for free without cost. Several third-party services like Life360 and Prey Project have free/gratis offerings. These are described further in this article.
How can I track a cell phone location without them knowing?
For smartphones, tracking location can be accomplished by installing an app that requires physical control of the device and the owner’s approval. Feature or “dumb” phones require help from the mobile service provider to locate the phone based on cellular tower connectivity.