How to Track a Cell Phone and Show its Location

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Android Device Manager found a lost Nexus 6P.
Android Device Manager found a lost Nexus 6P. (Image: Jason Cipriani)

Misplacing a cell phone or having one stolen is a horrible experience. We store a vast amount of personal data on our phones. From health or medical information, to photos, and payment details -- our phones hold intimate details of our lives.

In order to aide in finding a lost device, both Google and Apple include ways to track a missing phone right in their respective operating systems. While the feature may be built-in, you'll still need to do some setup and know how to access it should you ever lose a phone.

Finding a lost iPhone

Apple's solution is called Find My iPhone. This same service is capable of tracking any and all of your iOS devices (not to mention any Mac also associated with your Apple ID). To enable it on your iPhone, follow the steps below:

The process for activating Find My iPhone on an iPhone
The process for activating Find My iPhone on an iPhone (Image: Screenshot by Jason Cipriani)
  1. Launch the Settings app on your iPhone
  2. Scroll down and tap on "iCloud."
  3. Near the bottom of the list, find and select "Find My iPhone."
  4. Slide the switch next to Find My iPhone to the On position. 
  5. While you're there, it's a good idea to turn on Send Last Location as well (more on this in a minute). 

With Find My iPhone enabled, you can track a lost or stolen device through the Find My iPhone app on another iOS device or by visiting iCloud.com and signing in to your iCloud account. When tracking a device from either the app or iCloud website, you can lock it with a new passcode, track where the device currently is as well as where it has been, and as a last resort, you can fully erase all contents of the device.

Keep in mind that your iPhone will need to be turned on and connected to the Internet -- either through a cellular connection or Wi-Fi -- in order for the service to work. So if a would-be thief picks up your device and immediately turns it off, you're out of luck until it's turned back on and able to connect to a network. If Send Last Location is enabled (mentioned back in step 5), your iPhone will report its last known location as the battery gets low. This won't help you pinpoint the exact spot of the device if it's been moved after the battery dies, but it will provide you with a good starting point to begin tracking down your device.

In order to disable Find My iPhone on a device, Apple requires the user to approve the change with his or her Apple ID password. In other words, should a thief pick up your device they will be unable to disable Find My iPhone altogether unless they also know your password.

Finding a lost Android phone

Google's Android Device Manager works more or less the same way as Apple's Find My iPhone. Instead of having the service pre-installed, however, you will need to download the app from the Play Store and set it up in order to use it. Here's how:

The process for installing, setting up Android Device Manager.
The process for installing, setting up Android Device Manager. (Image: Screenshot by Jason Cipriani)
  1. Search the Play Store for "Android Device Manager," or click this link.
  2. Install the app, and then sign in with your Google account.  
  3. Be sure to leave the checkbox "Never Ask Me Again" unchecked. If you leave that box checked, anyone with access to your device would have the ability to disable the feature or track your other devices.

If you ever lose your device, you can then use another Android device to track your phone using the app, or visit Google's Android Device Manager website. You'll need to log into the site using the same Google account you used to sign into the app on your phone.

Using the app, you can play a sound on the device, lock it, or completely erase it. As with the iPhone, if the device is powered off you will be unable to track it until it's turned back on and connected to a network.

Finding other types of cell phones

Android and iOS make up the bulk of cell phones currently used today, but not all. Windows Phone users can follow the instructions laid out by Microsoft here. BlackBerry 10 users can also track a lost device using BlackBerry Protect. If you're still clutching onto a flip phone, odds are you won't have the ability to track your phone in the event it goes missing. Sorry.

If you have a sort of phone we didn't describe here, visit the manufacturer's Web site or contact them to see if they have a method for tracking a lost device.

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