Satellite Phones vs. Cell Phones: Which One Should You Get?

Understand the different benefits of satellite phones versus cell phones, and how to choose the right phone for you.
Best satellite phone
Garmin InReach® Mini 2
  • pro
  • pro
    Starting at $14.95/mo.
  • pro
    100% global satellite coverage via Iridium® satellite network
  • pro
    Interactive SOS alerts
Best cell phone
Samsung Galaxy S23 Plus
  • pro
  • pro
    256GB storage
  • pro
    6.6" Adaptive

Ben Gran
Jun 29, 2023
Icon Time To Read6 min read

For many people, a cell phone is all they need for everyday connectivity. Cellular phone networks, including high-speed 5G service, now reach more and more rural and remote areas of the U.S. than ever before. But If you’re struggling to get consistent cell phone connectivity at your home, or if you often leave the grid for work or recreation, then a satellite phone service might be the right choice to help you stay connected and safe.

So which phone service is for you? Let’s dive in.

Quick comparison: Satellite phones vs. cell phones

Phone type
Price range
Features to look for
Satellite phones$199–$795 for device, plus $11.95–$52.95/mo.
  • 100% global coverage (or coverage where you live and travel)
  • SOS alerts
  • Text messaging and customizable check-in messages
  • Advanced mapping and weather forecasts
    • Connectivity everywhere—good for emergencies
    • Many devices have 100% global coverage—no dropping the signal
    • Extremely durable, waterproof, and dust-resistant
    • Flexible subscription plans
      • Most devices cannot do voice calls
      • Could be more expensive than cell phones
      • Not ideal for everyday communication
        Cell phones

        • Nationwide networks
        • 5G coverage (if available) where you live
        • Unlimited cellular data
          • Essential for everyday communication
          • Mobile apps for work, errands, shopping, or entertainment
            • Most require a 2-year contract
            • Cellular signal does not reach remote areas
            • Phones can be damaged by harsh conditions (water, dust, impacts)

              Deep dive into satellite phones vs. cell phones

              Satellite phones and cell phones have some of the same functions and purposes, with a few key differences. Both phones can make calls or send texts, and both can be used on the go. However, the biggest difference between the two is the technology they use for connectivity.

              Cell phones operate using cellular networks, while satellite phones use satellite networks.

              How does a cell phone work?

              When you use a cell phone, you are connecting to a nearby network of cellular signals from cell towers, using radio frequencies. These cellular networks exist here on the ground and the cellular network is in the air all around us; sometimes you can even see cell towers in your neighborhood.

              However, that also means cell signals weaken the farther you are from a cell tower. For example, it can be difficult to get cell service in National Parks and other wilderness areas. Depending on where you go within your cell provider’s network or even within your home, you might experience calls dropping or slow data speeds.

              How do satellite phones work?

              You probably already knew what a cell phone is. But what is a satellite phone? The satellite phone gets its signal from a satellite constellation in space. Because satellite phones are connected to an outer space network of satellites, they can get continuous coverage even in the most remote places on Earth where cell networks don’t reach.

              Some of the best satellite phones are actually called “satellite communicators” because instead of voice calls, they let you send SOS alerts, customized check-in messages, emails, or SMS (text) messages. Some satellite communicators can connect to your cell phone via Bluetooth and mobile app, giving you constant satellite connectivity through your everyday mobile device.

              Are satellite phones better than cell phones?

              Cell phones are great for everyday life, but they can have some big limitations in remote areas. You don’t want to end up in an emergency or get lost on a hiking trail, only to discover that your cell phone has no signal. For the wandering traveler and remote adventurer, satellite phones are a better option because they give you wider coverage all over the planet.

              What are the best satellite phones?

              Check out our recommendations for the best satellite phones and satellite communicators:

              Equipment price*
              Subscription cost
              Signal coverage
              Emergency messaging
              Get it
              Starting at $14.95/mo.100% global satellite coverage via Iridium® satellite networkInteractive SOS alerts
              Starting at $20.00/mo.100% global satellite coverage via Iridium® satellite networkSOS alert button
              Starting at $19.99/mo.100% global satellite coverage via Iridium® satellite networkSOS alerts and customizable check-in messages
              Starting at $52.95/mo.100% global satellite coverage via Iridium® satellite networkSOS alerts with position tracking
              Starting at $11.95/mo.Good coverage in North America, Europe, Australia-New Zealand, and most of South AmericaUnlimited SOS messages

              * Price (as of June 2023). See full disclaimer.

              What are the best cell phones?

              Here are our recommendations for the best cell phones—and they all have 5G capabilities. Depending on where you live and travel, these phones will let you access the fastest (5G) cellular data that your mobile service provider can offer. 

              Best for...
              Best overallSamsung Galaxy S23 Plus$999.99 (256 GB)$999.99 (256 GB) 6.6" Adaptive
              Best featuresiPhone 14 $688.97 (128 GB)6.1" Super Retina XDR with OLED
              Best cameraOnePlus 11 5G$798.99 (256 GB)6.7" AMOLED
              Best budget pickSamsung Galaxy A54 5G$374.99 (128 GB)6.4" FHD+ Infinity-0

              * Price (as of June 2023). See full disclaimer.

              Fun fact: the iPhone 14 also has satellite phone features now available. For more on that, check out our iPhone 14 satellite guide. We go over step-by-step instructions on how to use it, as well as possible payment expectations in the future.

              Pros and cons of satellite phones

              Satellite phones offer some significant advantages, as well as a few possible downsides, compared to cell phones. Let’s look at the pros and cons:

              Satellites phones: Pros

              • Global coverage and connectivity: Many of the best satellite communicators have 100% global coverage via Iridium® satellite network. 
              • Communicate from remote or disaster-prone regions: Whether you’re hiking in the wilderness or doing emergency relief work after a natural disaster, satellite phones can keep you in touch, no matter the status of the local cell networks. 
              • Versatility: Satellite phones aren’t just for voice calls. For example, the best Garmin inReach devices are packed with features like 2-way texting, advanced mapping, and weather alerts. 
              • Durability: These devices are built to take punishment in harsh conditions. Many of the best satellite phones are highly rated for being water-resistant, dust-resistant, and able to tolerate extreme temperatures. They also have long-lasting batteries: up to 46 days, depending on how you use the device. 

              Satellites phones: Cons

              • Higher costs than some cell phones: If you’re on a budget, you might not want to add another monthly subscription fee. 
              • Potential service restrictions: Some countries like China, India, and Nicaragua require satellite phones to be registered with local authorities or do not allow satellite phones to be used or imported at all. Check the laws of the countries where you will be traveling. 
              • Limited applications: Satellite phones are intended to be emergency communication or backup connectivity in case your cell phone or other internet service is unavailable. They do not have a wide range of mobile apps or other fun features.

              Pros and cons of cell phones

              If you’re trying to decide between satellite phones versus cell phones, it’s important to remember that cell phones have many advantages and helpful features.

              Cell phones: Pros

              • Devices widely available (and relatively affordable)
              • Convenient mobile apps and entertainment on the go
              • Calls, text, and data within your provider’s coverage map.

              Cell phones: Cons

              • Coverage restricted to provider area (and data roaming expenses outside of it)
              • Little to no connectivity in remote areas like natural parks, wildernesses, etc.
              • Low reliability in natural disaster emergency situations

              How to choose the right phone: satellite phones vs. cell phones

              When considering whether to buy satellite phones or cell phones, remember that this is not an “either/or” decision. Many people can benefit from owning a cell phone and a satellite phone or satellite communicator device.

              Here are a few questions to help you choose whether you want a cell phone, sat phone, or both:

              • How will I use this phone? For everyday use, cell phones are almost always the right choice. But satellite phones can be the best option for travel in remote areas, or if you want to have emergency backup connectivity.
              • Where do I need to use this phone? If you need to travel to remote areas and international destinations, you should get a satellite phone with 100% global coverage. Most of our picks for best satellite phones have 100% worldwide coverage through the Iridium® satellite network.
              • How much durability do I need? If you hike in harsh conditions or explore rugged environments, you want a phone that can get wet and dirty and can handle all kinds of weather and extreme temperatures. A satellite phone will likely be a better choice than typical cell phones for the heavy-duty risks off the grid.
              • How much do I want to spend? Unless you’re a mountaineer climbing Mt. Everest, you probably don’t need the most high-priced, heavy-duty satellite phone. Many of the best satellite phones can be purchased for a few hundred dollars with a modest (and flexible) subscription fee.

                It can be tough to shell out more money for gadgets when you’re already paying a monthly fee for cell service. But having a satellite phone for emergency backup can provide priceless peace of mind.

              • Can I get satellite connectivity through my cell phone? Some cell phones are starting to offer satellite connectivity in emergency situations. For example, Apple now offers iPhone Emergency SOS via satellite service for its iPhone 14 models. And in January 2023, according to Fierce Wireless, Qualcomm and Iridium announced a new partnership to bring satellite connectivity to certain Android cell phones.

                If you can get emergency satellite communications via your current cell phone, this kind of add-on service could be good enough for most people’s everyday needs. But if you want more sophisticated features, or plan to be using them more often than not, a satellite phone could still be the best choice.

              Satellite phones vs. Cell phones for different scenarios

              Best for...
              Type of Phone
              Why We Chose It
              View Plans
              International TravelCell phonesMany mobile carriers offer international calling plans that can fit seamlessly into your budget. It’s also easy to buy a new SIM card for your phone in other countries.

              Unless you’re going to a remote area or a place with limited infrastructure, a cell phone is the best choice for most international travel.
              Outdoor AdventuresSatellite PhonesIf you’re a hiker, mountain climber, camper, hunter, fisher, or other wilderness explorer, it can be all too easy to end up in a place where cell coverage doesn’t reach.

              Having a satellite phone or ultra-lightweight satellite device clipped to your backpack can give you peace of mind and connectivity off the grid.
              Emergency PreparednessSatellite PhonesNatural disasters seem to be getting more frequent and more devastating. What happens if your local cell networks get knocked out by a storm?

              Satellite phones can give you constant connectivity, even in case of disaster.

              Final Analysis: Satellite phones vs. cell phones

              Both satellite phones and cell phones can be part of your mobile connectivity lifestyle. They each have important benefits that make them the best choice for certain situations. 

              Cell phones have become essential for most people’s everyday lives, since it’s easy to work, shop, navigate, pay bills, complete tasks, and organize your daily routine with them. 

              But what happens when you lose your cell signal? If you want to have off-grid coverage to stay in touch or call for help while hiking or exploring in the wilderness, satellite phones can be a life-saving solution. They can even be useful as an emergency backup in case your cell coverage goes down. 

              Ready to learn more? Check out our recommendations for the best satellite phones

              Ben Gran
              Written by
              Ben Gran