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How accurate is the Find My iPhone app really?

The Find My iPhone app is touted by Apple as the go-to solution to find missing iPhones, iPads, and other devices made by the company. But sometimes, the app is not very accurate and you might be wondering why that is.

For instance, you may have tried it out while your phone was sitting on the desk in front of you, only for the app to give you a position a mile away. Or, you might have attempted to locate your daughter who is visiting her grandparents in Indiana but the app showed her location with a 10-mile variance.

After experiencing such cases, you might also be wondering why the service can be so accurate when you are standing in the middle of a city centre.

In this article, we will attempt to explain all of the reasons why its accuracy can vary so much in different occasions.

How does Find My iPhone know where an iPhone is

Let’s start off by first explaining how it works. The feature uses Apple’s Location Services to track the location of iPhones. Here is what Apple has to say about that:

Location Services uses GPS and Bluetooth (where those are available) along with crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and mobile phone mast locations to determine your device’s approximate location.

Now let’s try to understand what that means.

Note: We will only be discussing the iPhone here because the way other iOS devices are tracked (e.g. the iPad) can differ greatly.

In essence, a bunch of different tracking technologies are used in order to attempt to pinpoint your location. Apple uses the term “approximate” carefully, and what it really is trying to do is to estimate where the iPhone might be. When these technologies are combined, Find My iPhone can improve its estimation and get accurate results.

When they are used alone, they produce widely different results. We put that to the test in order to find out exactly how the service works for you:

Find my iPhone accuracy when wifi is off
Find my iPhone accuracy when wifi is off

In our tests in an urban environment, where there are plenty of Wi-Fi hotspots around, we found out the most accurate readings.

However, as you can see, the results are often approximate. The green dot represents the best possible location fix that the app can calculate and the wider circle around it showcases an area of where the phone might be if it is not located inside the green dot.

In other words, the app attempts to pinpoint an accurate location. When that is not possible, it will attempt to provide an approximate location with a margin of error.

That margin of error, however, can be vastly different across different cases. For instance, when Wi-Fi is off and there is no way to access GPS signals, the app might only use nearby cell towers for location tracking, a technique which might give an approximate location circle across miles instead of meters.

Which tracking technology gives the best accuracy?

You may have thought that GPS is always used for accurate location tracking but that’s not always the case.

In fact, Apple’s services are smart enough to use nearby Wi-Fi hotspots to understand where you are located!

Remember: In most cases, Find My iPhone will provide you with an approximate location. Various factors can affect accuracy as we will see in another section (See How accurate are Find My iPhone and Find My Friends anyway?)

Using GPS only to locate a phone would take up too much time. That is the reason why Apple collects and stores a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile phone masts (cell towers) to locate phones quickly and efficiently.

Essentially, Apple is using Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile towers to locate satellites in order to get quick GPS readings when the phone is located outdoors.

Thus, Wi-Fi hotspots and cell phone towers are always used. When there is GPS available, the service will use it too. When it is not, it will only use Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers.

This is especially true in densely-populated areas where Wi-Fi hotspots are abundant from places like cafes and shopping malls.

Finally, Bluetooth is used in specific situations where Apple’s iBeacons are installed.

Curious about what iBeacons are? Wonder no more!

Apple’s iBeacons are Bluetooth sensors that can automatically connect with iPhones. They can improve location accuracy in indoor public places such as malls, airports, and shops.

Your iPhone knows which iBeacon it’s connecting to, so it instantly knows where your are located!

Is Find My iPhone more accurate than other location tracking apps?

The answer to that is a bit complicated so let us look at some examples instead.

  • Ideal condition → The phone is located inside a small building, in a large city, inside a shop that has iBeacons installed.
  • Less-than-ideal condition → The phone is located in a rural, mountainous location with bad cell reception.

In the ideal scenario, Find My iPhone will be the most accurate because it can use a number of different technologies to get an extremely accurate reading.

In the less-than-ideal condition, however, any tracking app that uses GPS may give similar results.

It should also be noted that Find My iPhone is one of the only apps that uses crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspots to get approximate location readings. Building a database of Wi-Fi hotspots is a huge undertaking and the only other company to do something similar is Google.

Though we cannot know exactly how Apple’s location tracking works, our research and tests have shown us that what makes these apps unique is their combination of various technologies along with the company’s database of hotspots and cell tower locations.

When the circumstances are just right, it is safe to say that Find My iPhone is perhaps the most accurate location-tracking app that you will find on iOS.

How do I know if Find My iPhone is accurate right now?

Find my iPhone exact location is determined by the green dot
Find my iPhone exact location is determined by the green dot

If you see a simple green dot on the map, that means the location of the phone is tracked extremely accurately. Basically, if you go to that location, you are certain to find your phone.

If you see the green dot but there is also another, larger green circle around it, then the location is much less accurate.

More specifically, the green circle represents an approximate area of where the phone might be; meaning it can be anywhere inside the green circle but most likely where the green dot is.

If you see a large green circle, this indicated the accuracy is low
If you see a large green circle, this indicated the accuracy is low

As you can see in the example above, sometimes the green circle is so large that it is basically useless.

If you lost your phone in the city, for example, that green circle might represent hundreds of different apartments – a less than ideal scenario.

If all you see is a gray dot, then that means the service cannot locate your device for some reason. For example, it might be offline.

Gray dot denotes that the iPhone is unreachable
Gray dot denotes that the iPhone is unreachable

Another possible reason is that the battery may have died. Find My iPhone will only keep the last known location for up to 24 hours, after which the phone will simply be shown as “offline”.

Finally, you might be located in a country where location services are not offered by Apple. If that is the case, the service might say “no location available” instead of “offline”.

How accurate are Find My iPhone and Find My Friends anyway?

Well, that depends on a whole lot of things as we saw above. In ideal conditions, they are extremely accurate. However, conditions are not always ideal.

Here, we have compiled a list of possible things that might affect the accuracy of Find My iPhone and Find My Friends:

Popular FAQ concerning accuracy

Is Find My iPhone more accurate in the city or in rural regions?
In most scenarios, the service would be more accurate in the city than in a rural location.

There are two main reasons for that:

  1. Crowd-sourced Wi-Fi: When there are Wi-Fi hotspots near you, the app knows that and it can use them to locate you much more accurately. As you can understand, Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes and other shops are much more common in the city.
  2. Better cellular connections: Faster cellular connections like 4G are much better in the city, which means that it is faster to get your location data, especially as you are moving around the city.
Does being indoors or underground affect location tracking?
Yes it does. For instance, if you are in a dense building (such as a metal warehouse), then accuracy might well be affected. The denser a building is, the harder it is for signals to be sent out and received. This is even worse underground. As you are probably aware already, cell reception underground is spotty at best, non-existent at worst.

Another culprit here is line of sight. For example, GPS works better when the phone is directly under the sky as it can access more satellites. Though the signal can definitely travel through solid matter, it definitely weakens or is completely blocked (which happens when you are underground).

However, being indoors can also be helpful. As seen in our ideal condition above, being inside a small building with iBeacons will make Find My iPhone as accurate as it can possibly be.

Does the combination of GPS, Wi-Fi, cellular data, and Bluetooth help with accuracy?

It certainly does. Apple’s location services use a combination of all four of those technologies (when possible) to track your location with extreme accuracy.

In our tests (which we demonstrated above), we learnt that Wi-Fi is the single most important factor to consider when using these apps.

However, we also learnt that their combination provides the most accurate and fastest readings.

What network (2G, 3G, 4G) is better for accuracy?
Newer networks are faster and often more stable. Apple’s location services rely heavily on Internet connectivity in order to track a phone’s location.

Each new network is better than the previous one because it can send out data faster. Thus, the Find My iPhone and Find My Friends services can work better by calculating your location faster, especially as you are moving about.

Does the iPhone model matter in Find My iPhone Accuracy?
Once again, the short answer is it depends. Technically, the phone model does not really matter as they all use similar technology to locate your phone as we have seen above. Even the GPS sensors are the same.

The only thing that might matter is that older models may not get access to the latest updates which may improve the performance through small background changes.

Can bad weather decrease GPS accuracy?
The short answer to this is no, it does not. Rain, snow, or even thunderstorms do not affect technologies like Wi-Fi and GPS. Space weather conditions, such as solar wind, can indeed affect GPS accuracy but only in rare occasions and then it is usually negligible.
Can iPhone cases affect location accuracy?
Definitely. Most cases are fine because they do not provide much of an obstruction. Some types of cases, however, can negatively affect signal receptions. For example, metal, aluminum, and even carbon fibre cases can decrease signal reception.

On top of that, Apple warns that magnetic clips on certain cases can also affect signal. The easiest way to check is to use the phone in the exact same spot with and without the case on and see if it works differently.

Once again, however, it should be noted that most cases are fine and do not obstruct the phone’s signal reception. If they do, however, then this will also affect location tracking because Apple’s apps heavily rely on data connections to improve accuracy.

Does my carrier have anything to do with Find My iPhone?
In most cases, no, it does not. However, your carrier can indeed affect location tracking services. For instance, there is a famous case where several Sprint consumers using Find My iPhone were redirected to a wrong location.

More specifically, they were directed to the home of a Las Vegas retiree for no apparent reason, which suggests that errors on the carrier’s side can lead to inaccuracies in such apps. This is because Find my iPhone, in this instance, relied on data from Sprint to address the location.

How do I improve location accuracy?

We have seen several things which can affect the accuracy of phone-locating services. Now, we would also like to offer you some suggestions which might help to improve the accuracy of such services.

Check your phone and iCloud settings

Before doing anything else, you should make sure that your iPhone is set up correctly so that Find My iPhone and Find My Friends can be used without issue.

Log into iCloud

  1. Open your Settings.
  2. If you are prompted to log in, do so right away. Otherwise, go to the iCloud menu and log in there.
  3. If you are not logged in to iCloud, the service can get bugged and list your phone’s location in different places (such as the last location where you had logged in to iCloud).

Make sure your Apple ID matches

  1. Go to iCloud.com and log in with your Apple ID.
  2. You should now see your iPhone listed here.
  3. If you do not, you might be logged in with different Apple IDs in iCloud and your iPhone.

Check your date and time settings

  1. Open the Settings again.
  2. Go to General > Date & Time.
  3. Check the toggle for “Set Automatically”. This will ensure that your iPhone always has the correct date and time. This is important because the GPS satellites communicate with your phone on a time-based system so they cannot correctly calculate your location if the time on the device is wrong.

Ensure that Location Services can always be on

While you still have your phone, there is no reason for you to touch Location Services. If they are turned off, the location accuracy will be decreased dramatically.

So if you ever lose your phone or suspect that it is stolen, go to Find My iPhone on iCloud immediately and turn on the Activation Lock. These will prevent anyone from disabling Location Services so you can get accurate readings.

Do not obscure the phone with anything

There are plenty of fantastic cases for iPhones out there that do not obstruct the device too much so if you have to use a case, try one of those.

If you are trying to get a good signal, move towards a window or (even better) go outside. Any physical obstruction can reduce the accuracy of the service so try to remove obstacles when possible.

Make sure that your phone can have service as long as possible

Your phone needs to have service (a signal) in order for Find My iPhone to work. As we have seen before, losing the signal (such as when you go underground) can make it unstable or unavailable.

So if you get your phone stolen and wish to locate it, for example, do not report it to your carrier right away. They will deactivate your SIM, which means that the phone will have no signal, which in turn means that you won’t be able to find it.

Have you noticed Find My iPhone or Find My Friends being inaccurate at times? Do you know anything else that might affect accuracy? Share your story with us in the comments below!

Adam Pothitos

Adam Pothitos

Technology writer and psychology major.

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