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 tying 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 or a Samsung Juke – we’ve still got your back.
Tracking your phone before you lose it
If you’re here just to prepare for the day that you lose your phone (which is inevitable, really), then you’re ahead of the game. If you’ve got a smartphone, consider installing the apps listed below
|For smartphones of any kind, we recommend Prey. It’s a free and open-source anti-theft application that can be used for both computers and mobile 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.|
|For non-smartphones, we recommend using a GPS tracking service called AccuTracking. It’ll cost you six bucks per month (less if you subscribe for a year), but now that Google Latitude and InstaMapper are dead, it’s the best option you have left. The service uses your phones built-in 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 over eight years old, 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.|
Tracking your phone after you lose it
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 download an application called Plan B. Even though your phone is gone, you can log into your Google account on any computer install the app from Google Play. When you click install, the app will begin downloading to your missing phone, and when the download is complete it will send your phone’s location info to your Gmail account. To retrieve the phone’s whereabouts again when you’re away from a computer, just text the word “locate” from a friend’s phone and you’ll receive a text with location info.
iPhone users can download the infamous Find My iPhone application. If you’re rocking a phone with iOS 5 or later, then this app will come preinstalled on your device. If not, just borrow a friends iDevice, install Find My iPhone on it, and log in with your Apple ID. Once you’re all logged in, the app will display your phone’s location on a map. You can even remotely trigger your phone to make a loud noise for two minutes, which makes pinpointing it a snap when it’s nearby.
|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.|
Tracking someone else’s phone with their permission
If somebody doesn’t mind you tracking their whereabouts, don’t forget that there’s always the option of calling and asking where they are. There’s no need for any fancy GPS applications if the person doesn’t care about you knowing their location. 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 FourSquare has some pretty robust location-sharing features as well, but our favorite app for keeping track of people’s whereabouts is definitely Find My Friends. It’s avaliable for iOS and Android (they’re not from the same developer, but it’s basically the same app), and allows you to track multiple people at the same time.|
|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.|
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.
In conclusion, 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.
Update 10-31-14: This article has been updated since it was originally published to include an instructional video.