Use A Phone Without A SIM Card: What Happens With No Chip


The average consumer replaces their smartphone about every 3.5 years, leaving them with a device that’s too old to trade-in. Other consumers such as telecommuters and thrifty budgeters want to save on the $113 monthly bill, so they cancel their mobile plan. Both types of smartphone owners wonder if they have any use for a phone without a SIM card.

As a general rule, you can use a phone without a SIM card. Smartphones without a SIM chip cannot make calls or send regular text messages on the cellular network. Secure messaging apps can replace this functionality by leveraging WiFi. Phones can call emergency services without a mobile service plan.

With wireless internet blanketing in most homes, businesses, and communities, you can test your SIM card usage by removing and restoring it securely. We’ll also go through some frequently asked questions regarding phones without SIM Cards. Stick around to the end to find out some ingenious ways of using an old smartphone!

Man holding a globe and sim chip with questioning look wondering if you can use a phone without a sim card

Can You Still Use WiFi Without A SIM Card?

You can connect to a WiFi network even if your phone does not have a SIM card. A SIM chip has a different function; it does not interfere with your phone’s ability to connect and operate on a WiFi network. 

Your SIM card will authenticate itself with its cellular service provider through identification with the IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity). After identifying the SIM, the mobile network will establish your phone’s location and store it in the mobile network’s central database. The database holds permanent subscriber information known as the HLR (Home Location Register). 

This is essentially how your SIM card works when connecting with your android device or iPhone service provider.

How Does WiFi Work?

WiFi works differently. Your phone will search for wireless networks that operate on wireless routers in the area. These wireless networks aren’t connected to cellular networks. However, they are still linked to the internet via an ISP (internet service provider). Using the WiFi (IEEE 802.11 standard), your phone will connect to the router through a specific radio frequency, allowing it to have access to the internet. 

Note:

WiFi coverage is limited due to the small size and power of most routers. This means that you have to be in the range of a router to get a strong signal. There is no guarantee that WiFi routers will produce signals which can penetrate thick concrete walls over long distances. 

Hence, if you plan to use your iPhone or Android phone with WiFi, make sure that your home has full coverage by placing additional WiFi extenders or access points. Your best bet for optimal coverage would be to set up a mesh network in your home. 

Unfortunately, mobile data does not solve not having a SIM Card or a strong WiFi signal. Mobile data runs over your mobile service provider, not a WiFi network.

How Can You Browse the Internet Without a Sim Card or WiFi?

If a wireless network and SIM card are not an option for you, there are still ways that you can connect to the internet. 

Tethering Via Bluetooth

The first way is to share data via Bluetooth by tethering two phones together. This option is only available on devices with Android version 2.2 and above. All you’ll need to do is pair the two devices together, then enable ‘Bluetooth tethering’ on the device that has access to the internet. Pretty straightforward, right?

Using Mobile Hotspot

Another solution is tethering your iPhone or Android smartphone to a mobile hotspot like this via USB cable or WiFi. A mobile hotspot works by taking an LTE connection (mobile data connection) and converting it into a WiFi signal, thus acting as a router. You can think of it as a portable wireless router. 

Ethernet Connection

If WiFi does not work correctly on your phone, try searching for a wireless router as well as a USB-C to ethernet cable adapter or a USB-C to an ethernet cable. With the adapter and network cable, you would plug them directly into one of the ports on the router. For your information, only devices with USB-C will be able to operate this way. The older technology USB versions aren’t advanced enough to send this type of data over the cable. 

Using WiFi Hotspot

The last way you can access the internet through your cell phone is by linking to another device with its WiFi hotspot enabled. This is akin to Bluetooth tethering, but the hotspot-enabled device will come up in your network connections. You will need a password to connect to it. This is arguably superior to Bluetooth, seeing as WiFi is much faster than Bluetooth

What Happens When You Call Without a SIM Card?

Since your mobile service provider cannot register your SIM card on its network, you won’t be able to gain access to its coverage. This means that you will not be able to make any calls. If you try calling, the recipient’s mobile phone won’t even ring. You’ll go right to voicemail or get immediately disconnected.

Keep in mind that SIM cards work on GSM technology now. As such, you can use the service of other cellular providers for emergency calls if you do not have sufficient network coverage of your own. 

If you don’t have a SIM chip but have access to the internet by using mobile data, you can make data calls. You can do this by using many communication apps like Skype, WhatsApp, and the best option, Signal. You can dial other phones and make WiFi calls – as long as that phone is also connected to the internet. 

Woman on couch texting because she knows you can use a phone without a sim card

Can You Receive Text Messages Without a SIM Card?

This functions similarly to trying to make calls to another phone without using a SIM card. If your phone does not have a SIM card in place, the mobile service provider will not give you a space on its network. Hence, you won’t be able to receive or send any SMS or MMS messages. 

By the way, I wrote a whole article about the dangers of using MMS. I’m clueless why people still use a messaging designed decades ago that has no security or privacy!

However, suppose you are connected to the internet via WiFi, tethering, or hotspot. In that case, you will be able to use apps that allow you to send messages. WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messenger app, but there are many other apps with messaging capabilities. 

Some examples include:

This isn’t the complete list, but you can take a look at the best messaging apps that I reviewed which allow you to text with WiFi. 

Can You Use Mobile Data Without a SIM Card?

Mobile data requires a SIM card no matter which way you want to slice it. This is because this type of data gets sent over your mobile service’s network – not WiFi. Hence, if you do not have a SIM card, you won’t use mobile data. 

Many mobile network providers offer data-loaded SIM cards. This type of data plan comes with options to pay for a top-up or a recurring subscription. These SIM cards will not allow you to make calls or send text messages (SMS or MMS). However, this will enable you to connect to the internet using mobile data without needing a WiFi connection, tether, or hotspot.

Typically, loading a data-only chip in your SIM tray is cheaper in terms of a monthly plan. If you’re not making lots of calls and are looking for a budget plan, this option is ideal for you!

Woman's hand holding a sim chip leaving her to wonder if you can use a phone without a sim card

What Can You Do With a Phone Without a SIM Card?

Without a SIM Card, you might think that your phone is just dead weight. But that is not the case. In fact, there are many reasons why keeping and using your old smartphone can be hugely beneficial. 

For Digital Detox

Firstly, this is a chance for some digital detox. I published a guide to quitting social media which was featured in one of Lifewire’s articles, “Why You Should Upcycle Your Old Smartphone.”.

How does this detox work? You would move all your social media apps, notifications, games, and interactions to another device (your other phone). This allows you to compartmentalize your social media, making it inconvenient to scroll through your phone, keeping your FOMO at bay. 

Cryptocurrency Wallet

If you are an active crypto trader, using an old phone switched to airplane mode would be digitally safer for you. The best way to store cryptocurrency is in an offline “cold wallet”. Many individuals who trade crypto daily use a hot wallet (a device connected to the internet all the time). This could potentially expose your virtual coins to online hackers.

By upcycling your old smartphone, installing a trusted wallet app, and removing the SIM card, you’ll get the best form of digital encryption – no internet connection! Of course, you can connect your phone to the internet via WiFi when needed and switch it back to airplane mode when you’re all done.

Make It A Battery Backup

Some have suggested using your old smartphone as a battery backup. This works if your newer model uses the same battery or can charge phone-to-phone with your old device. 

Dedicated Media Device

You can also use your old phone as a dedicated media device to watch movies or act as an MP3 player. This will preserve your primary smartphone’s battery life.

Woman holding a coffee and smartphone which she's using as a baby monitor since her phone is without a sim card

Baby Monitor

With two phones, you can try one of the many baby monitoring apps out there, like BabyCam (commercial) or Child Monitor (privacy-respecting, Free and Open Source Software; FOSS). This allows you to “live stream” video of your child using your old iPhone or Android smartphone while watching them sleep and play from your primary device.

This can be great for parents who can’t physically watch their children at all times. Furthermore, you won’t have to spend additional money on baby monitors. 

Your Mini-Security System

Another great idea is to turn your old phone into an emergency panic button or portable security system. 

Safe Haven (FOSS) is an app that turns your phone into a personal security device, allowing you to hit a panic button if you feel threatened.

Not to be confusing, but there’s a similarly-named, open-source project called Haven from the Guardian Project. This app uses the plethora of sensors available on your old smartphone to monitor a room. If triggered the app will notify your main device. This is a great option at home or for travelers.

Safe USB Storage

You could also use your phone as an encrypted USB storage device. Because a phone does not look like a high-tech storage device, it can blend into the environment without drawing any suspicion. Who knew old phones could be made of spy-grade material!

Dedicated GPS Navigator 

Lastly, suppose you travel a lot and use a ton of data for GPS. In that case, you could consider placing an offline GPS on your upcycled phone, which uses downloaded maps and can link to OSM. (Open Street Map) It can also work with a corresponding app such as OsmAnd (FOSS), among many others. 

This could save you heaps of data, as well as preserve your primary phone’s battery since the screen is one of the largest power consumers. 

Keep your old phone. It can really reduce the wear and tear you put on your new phone.

Got more questions about SIM cards? I answered 9 common questions about SIM cards that you’ll definitely want to know.

Mike Chu

Mike is a web developer and content writer living as a digital nomad. With more than 20 years of devops experience, he brings his "programmer with people skills" approach to help explain technology to the average user. Check out his full author bio by clicking here.

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