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Do Emergency Calls Work Without a Signal? | What to Know

Chances are, you’ve gotten the dreaded “No Network Signal. Emergency Calls Only” message on your cell phone a few times before. While the message itself is inconvenient, it brings up an even more pressing question: how can you make any kind of call if you don’t have a network signal? As far as most people know, cell phones need a network signal to make calls through their providers.

You can make emergency phone calls without a network signal. When your phone loses signal from your provider’s network, it automatically connects to the strongest network that it can find in order to allow for emergency calls to go through. However, since it is not your network, you cannot make other calls.

If you want to have peace of mind that your safety won’t be dependent on a cell phone signal in an emergency, you may want to look into getting a satellite phone, like this one that I recommend from Amazon.

Cell phones have become an integral part of people’s lives today, so it is important to understand how they work and what you can do if you’re caught without a network signal for any reason.

How Do Emergency Calls Work Without Signal?


To understand how emergency calls work without a signal, you must first understand how network signals work. Cell phone providers have network towers all around the world. When you call someone on your cell phone, a signal releases from your phone and finds its way to your cell phone company’s nearest network tower.

After the initial signal hits the first network tower, it bounces from tower to tower until it reaches the network tower that is closest to the person you are calling. Once the signal reaches that final tower, it is sent to the phone of the person you are calling, and you two are able to connect and talk to each other.

Cell phones allow you to see how strong your network signal is by displaying bars in one of the top corners of your phone. When all bars are visible, your signal is strong. If the bars completely disappear, you have lost the network signal.

How Do You Get a Signal to Make Emergency Calls Once You’ve Lost Your Provider’s Network Signal?

Most cell phones today are designed with a technology that allows them to leech signals from the network towers of other providers in order to allow you to make emergency phone calls. If you need to make an emergency phone call in one of these situations, the signal will find the closest network tower it can to transmit the call for you.

The signal is transmitted in exactly the same way as a normal call is transmitted with your usual network signal and towers – it’s just sent through a network that is not your own.

Are There Other Ways to Call Out Without Network Signal?

In this age of smartphones and Wi-Fi technology, you don’t only have to rely on the emergency call allowance to communicate when your network signal goes out. If you are within reach of a Wi-Fi signal, your phone retains its internet capabilities and can do everything you normally do on it except for making calls that require the network.

For instance, the following apps can be downloaded onto your phone and allow you to make phone calls when you are connected to Wi-Fi:

  • WhatsApp Messenger
  • Skype
  • Facebook Messenger
  • Google Hangouts

Not only do these popular apps allow you to make phone calls over Wi-Fi, but they also allow you to send text messages when connected to the internet. So, if you find yourself without a network signal but with available Wi-Fi, you can feel secure in the fact that you can still make calls and send texts without an issue.

Reasons You May Have Lost Network Signal

Sometimes, you venture into an area that is not near any of your provider’s network towers; however, there are also other reasons that can explain your loss of network signal that is easily fixed.

Some reasons you can lose network signal include:

  • You haven’t paid your bill – Yes, this happens more often than you’d think. You may not have realized the date, or there was an unknown issue with your payment, but if you randomly lose the network signal, make sure that your account status is activated.
  • You need to restart your phone – Smartphones are like little computers. They need to rest and be refreshed at times. If you haven’t turned off or restarted your phone in a while, try restarting it to restore your network signal.
  • Your SIM card may be loose or malfunctioning – Check to see if the SIM card is properly inserted and that it fits securely in its slot.
  • Your phone may need a software update – Go into your settings and manually check for a system update. Additionally, there could be software bugs that are causing an issue.
  • Your phone may be damaged – Inspect your phone for water damage or structural damage.
  • Your phone case could be causing interference – If you just put on a new phone case and are having issues keeping a network signal, then the phone case is likely the problem.
  • You may be in an area where buildings or other structures are interfering with the signal – Simply move away from the area of interference.
  • Your phone may need a factory reset – When all else fails, and you know that you should have a network signal where you are, try factory resetting your phone.
An illustration of cell phone signal bars showing no signal
Having no signal at the wrong time is no fun.

How Cell Phones Can Help You Survive in the Wilderness

It is one thing to lose the network signal when you are within the safety of civilization, but it is an entirely different thing to lose a network signal in the wilderness – the absolute middle of nowhere – especially when you need help. While there are many more network towers available for signal today than in years past, there are still areas that will lose network signals.

Some people will bring a satellite phone along with them when they are trekking the wilderness, but a regular cell phone can also help you! Even if a cell phone does not have a network signal, it can alert rescuers and medical personnel to your connection and can potentially save your life.

Related How Much Does a Satellite Phone Cost? (And Plan Details).

For instance, a dayhiker in the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix, Arizona, was found by rescuers who used night-vision goggles and were able to see her cell phone from an incredible two miles away! Additionally, a mother and her two children that were stranded in the Oregon mountains were found when cell phone technicians triangulated the transmissions from her cell phone and found her location.

Bringing help to your destination is not the only way that cell phones can help you in the wilderness, either. Cell phones can be used in many ways to aid in survival when you need them – you just may have to break the phone.

The Art of Manliness reports that you can use a busted cell phone to meet five different survival needs in the wilderness.

  1. Crack your cell phone open and look for a metallic layer of material that resembles a mirror behind the screen. You can attach these reflective pieces to trees or other places to act as a signal that you need help.
  2. If you need help with navigation, you can use a magnet from the speakers within the phone. Within the broken phone, you can find magnets and wires to piece together a makeshift compass.
  3. For protection, you can use the circuit board from inside your phone in order to make cutting or stabbing tools. For instance, you can make an “arrowhead” out of the circuit board and attach it to the end of a stick to make a spear.
  4. The battery of a cell phone can be used to make a fire. You just have to short-circuit the battery in order to make sparks and find some flammable tinder. Fire can be used in many ways to ensure your survival and signal help.
  5. You can even use parts of the phone as fishing lures in order to catch fish for food while you wait for help. If you happen to have headphones on you as well, you can use the wires from the headphones to set up makeshift snares to catch animals for food as well.

Obviously, you should never dismantle your phone unless it is an absolute last resort because you are in dire need of something it can offer. Keeping your phone intact is the only way rescuers can track your location using the transmissions from the cell phone.

Off the Grid News: Better Ideas for Off the Grid Living outlines 7 ways that your cell phone can be used to save your life while still intact.

  1. The first thing you should do if you notice that you are in danger in the wilderness is to try to call for help. This is your most reliable way of communication. In addition, you should always let someone you trust know where you are headed and teach your loved ones how to use the “Find My Phone” feature that is on many cell phones.
  2. Use your phone as a survival library. You may not read e-books on your phone, but you can download e-books about wilderness survival if you are frequently found in the wilderness. Topics like bushcraft, starting fires, and finding food are incredibly helpful in the wilderness.
  3. Find your current location by turning on the GPS function on your phone. If you are close enough to signal, your phone’s GPS function can plot out a route that will take you back to civilization. If you cannot get a route back to a town, you can at least look for water or other landmarks that may help you find your way out. You can also download a compass app to use for directions.
  4. Make sure to utilize the flashlight on your phone to help you get around in the dark.
  5. Use your camera zoom function as makeshift binoculars to check out the areas that surround you and the areas that are a bit too far ahead to see.
  6. Take advantage of the reflective screen of your phone to signal for help. You can point the reflection to airplanes or helicopters that are flying overhead to try to get their attention.

How to Preserve Your Cell Phone Battery While Lost in the Wilderness

Some say that cell phones have become the most important item to bring along if you are venturing into the wilderness. Today’s smartphones are equipped with GPS and other applications that use location-based technology that makes them extremely helpful in finding an estimated location of a lost individual.

But there is one shortcoming of smartphones that everyone is aware of – the battery life does not last very long. Therefore, there are measures you must take if you are lost and need to conserve the battery in your phone.

First, you should understand how rescuers use your cell phone to find your location and what you need to do with your phone to help them out.

  • If your phone still has a network signal, locating you is easy. Your signal constantly transmits to towers, and rescuers can triangulate your location.
  • If you have no network signal, call 911 for help. This emergency call will transmit to the closest network tower to you, giving rescuers an idea of where you are located.
  • No signal is emitted from your phone if it is turned off or dead. Since you have to conserve your battery, you should turn your phone on periodically to ping the nearest tower to you to help rescuers.
  • When you are not actively trying to send a signal out with your phone, keep it turned off.

Second, you can choose to bring other ways of communication with you, like satellite phones, in order to have multiple ways of communication – increasing your chances of survival if you find yourself lost. Cell phones are incredibly helpful but have serious limitations like excessive use of battery power, short battery life, inability to change to another battery, and less accurate GPS than wilderness-specific GPS.

Third, you should be aware of the following facts about cell phones:

  • The battery power of your cell phone will not last forever. Be aware of these battery use facts:
    • Your phone can use power when it’s not being used.
    • Turning on the screen of your phone uses lots of battery.
    • Texting and using social media use lots of power.
    • The navigation function of the phone drains power fast.
  • Rescuers will only be able to get an estimated location for you when you are out of your network signal.
  • Sometimes, the GPS on your phone can be activated by rescuers to find a more exact location.

Clearly, it is crucial to understand the limitations of your cell phone’s battery life when you are lost in the wilderness. Some tips for saving your battery power when you’re in the wilderness include:

  • Keep your phone OFF unless you are actively using it.
  • DO NOT use the phone for navigation.
  • As soon as you realize you are lost, call for help IMMEDIATELY.
  • CALL 911 and give them the following information: the area you are currently in, the area you started in, and any other information that is important to your location, like landmarks or bodies of water.
  • After you call for help, STAY OFF OF YOUR PHONE.
  • Make sure to answer any calls from RCMP, Search and Rescue, or Unknown.
  • If you are told to turn your phone on and off at specific times, make sure to do so.
  • Search and Rescue members will typically call you when they are close to your estimated location to see if you can hear their voice or tell what direction they are coming from in order to help locate you more quickly.
Cell Phone Tower No Signal

Final Thoughts on Cell Phones and Survival

Statistics show that “cell phone users spend the majority of their time on games (49%) and social networking (30%).” So, it is obvious that most people do not immediately connect wilderness survival with their smartphones. However, in actuality, GreenCells reports that “present-day cell phones have more computing power than the computer used for Apollo 11 to land on the moon!”

Consider the following facts:

  • The fastest-growing industry in the entire world is the cell phone industry.
  • For every 1 computer type, there are 5 cell phone types.
  • About 80% of the entire world population has a cell phone.
  • Over 90% of adults keep their cell phone within arm’s reach at all times.

These statistics show how dependent people have become on their phones. Cell phones are always around because they’ve become an integral part of life today.

This is precisely why cell phones are perfect for survival.

So, keep your cell phone close. Don’t leave it behind during trips into the wilderness. As you’ve read, there are many ways that your cell phone can help you when you are lost. Remember that you don’t have to have service to make emergency calls, you must conserve your phone battery at all costs to keep emergency calls and calling for aid possible.

Related Questions

Can you call 112 without a signal? Despite an email circulating that you can access emergency services in the area without a signal it is not possible to make this call without cell phone service.

Can deactivated cell phones call 911? Cell phones without service are still able to dial 911 for emergency services. They have no other access to cell or data service.

For more, check out 7 Best Ways for a Man To Carry a Cell Phone.