The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite program wasn't just designed for acquiring correct directions to a particular location. It can also be used to track the location of devices and loved ones when you sign up for the appropriate service.
AccuTracking offers a pay-as-you-go service for real-time GPS tracking. There is no contract to sign, and the service works with either GPS tracking devices, like those that may be installed on vehicles, or with a compatible cell phone. You can track the location of your cell phone from a PC or a mobile browser, including a full 30-day history with a trail view. The tracking data can also be downloaded in Microsoft Excel (CSV) or Google Earth (KML) file formats.
Monthly pricing starts from around $6 per unit with a seven-day free trial.
Carrier-Based Location Tracking
Some major cellular service providers in the United States offer location-based tracking for their mobile customers. These services typically use a combination of GPS tracking and tracking via cell phone signal based on tower locations.
- AT&T FamilyMap: Geared mostly toward parents who want to keep track of their children, AT&T's service costs around $10 per month to locate up to 10 lines. You can view real-time locations, receive arrival alerts, and track daily location history. Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and feature phone devices are not supported.
- Verizon Family Locator: The equivalent service from Verizon is priced at the same $10 monthly fee to keep track of up to 10 phones. From the family dashboard, you can view everyone's location at a glance, review location history, and receive alerts when your kids arrive at school or leave home.
- Sprint Family Locator: From the Safely family of services, Sprint Family Locator lets you see the location of connected family members at any time, including on both smartphones and feature phones. There is no need to install anything on the phones you track. The service is priced at around $6 for up to four phones.
Android Device Manager
If you have an Android smartphone, like a Samsung Galaxy or a Google Pixel, then you have access to the Android Device Manager for free. This connects to your existing Google account, the same one you would have used to set up your Android phone in the first place.
- Go to the Find My Device in a web browser on your computer and log into your Google account.
- Select your Android device from the ones connected to your account near the top-left corner.
- The website will then attempt to contact your device.
- If successful, you will be a shown a map with the last known location of your Android phone, as well as its last known battery level and if it is connected to a Wi-Fi network.
- Also from this page, you can choose to "play sound" even if the phone is set to silent, "lock" the device, or to "erase" all content from it.
Find My iPhone (iCloud)
The Find My iPhone feature from Apple works in a very similar manner and comes at no additional cost if you already have an iCloud account. You must first enable this feature through the settings menu on your iPhone.
- From a web browser on your computer, navigate to the Find My iPhone page on iCloud.com. You can also use the Find My iPhone app on a different iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.
- Log in using your Apple ID and password.
- Select a connected device to view its current location on a map. If you have Family Sharing, any member of the family can locate the missing device for another family member.
- Like Android Device Manager, you are also afforded additional options like remotely locking or erasing your device.
Geared more toward employers and professional contexts, Btracking requires a paid subscription for every device you would like to track. The service includes access to a cloud-based, real-time mapping platform, a heat map for frequently visited locations, up to six months of routing history, real time alerts delivered by text message or email, and Salesforce CRM integration.
Cell phone tracking costs $15 per month per device for up to 50 devices.
Device Tracker Plus
Device Tracker Plus installs onto existing mobile devices to allow you to track the exact location at any time and in real time. This works globally, even where the device does not have cell phone reception. Device Tracker Plus also supports a feature called Virtual Barrier. You can draw a "barrier" around a location and be alerted whenever the tracked cell phone leaves the defined barrier zone.
Monthly pricing starts around $15 to track a single device or about $20 for families who wish to track up to 10 devices.
Legal Considerations and Limitations
With the noted exceptions of parents tracking their children, law enforcement personnel with a valid court order, and caretakers tracking elderly patients with dementia, it is generally illegal to access someone's computer (and a smartphone is a computer in this context) without their consent. For several of these GPS tracking options, specific software must be installed or enabled on the smartphone before the device can be tracked. The owner of the phone must authorize this feature.
GPS tracking typically requires a relatively good "line of sight" to GPS satellites and thus may work poorly (or not at all) while inside buildings or otherwise obstructed by other physical barriers. The data you receive from tracking solutions may not necessarily be 100 percent accurate and up-to-date.
To Pay or Not to Pay
Paid tracking options may be able to provide more accurate and timely results as well as more advanced features. Thus, they may be more desirable for concerned families. If you're simply worried about losing your phone or having it stolen, however, Android Device Manager or Find My iPhone may be perfectly adequate.