What is a satellite phone?

Everything you need to know about satellite phones and why they could be your emergency lifeline

Ben Gran
Researcher & Writer
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October 31, 2022

Satellite phones (also called “sat phones” for short) are mobile communication devices that provide worldwide coverage in places where cell phone networks don’t reach. That’s because satellite phones receive and transmit signals not from land-based cell towers, but from space-based satellites.

With a satellite phone, you can make phone calls from anywhere on Earth—at sea, in remote areas like mountains or deserts, and in foreign countries where your cellular phone data plan might not work.

But satellite phones aren’t just for making calls; depending on the satellite phone device you choose, you might get a wider range of communication features like SMS (text messaging), email, fax, and smartphone internet capabilities. That’s why satellite phones are also sometimes called satellite communicators, satellite emergency communicators, or satellite text communicators.

Who needs a satellite phone?

Whether you need a satellite phone or not depends on your lifestyle, your work, where and how you like to travel, and what your emergency communication needs might be.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you an intrepid outdoors explorer who likes to bike, hike, or climb in remote wilderness areas?
  • Do you own a boat, especially for deep sea fishing?
  • Do you want to travel to foreign countries where cell phone infrastructure might be limited or non-existent?
  • Do you have a knack for preparedness and situational awareness, so with the right tools, you can call for a medical evacuation from a mountaintop?
  • Do you want to have reliable backup phone service in case of a natural disaster that knocks out cell service in your area?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, getting satellite phone service might suit your needs. Read on to learn more about how satellite phone service works, and why it might be more affordable than you expect.

Satellite phone prices and plans: How much does it cost to have a satellite phone?

Here’s a quick overview of our top four satellite phone services, and why we chose them. Some of these satellite phone services and satellite communication devices are better for simple camping trips or boating trips, while others are for more extreme expeditions to  remote areas.

Satellite phone service provider
Best for
Pricing
Coverage
GlobalstarExtreme environments, intense expeditionsSat phone plans start at $99.99 per month for 150 minutes of phone calls. Globalstar GSP-1600 Satellite phone ranges from $199–$275Globalstar has extensive coverage for most of North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and East Asia.
IridiumExtreme environments, intense expeditionsDepends on device. Iridium Extreme 9575 satellite phone costs $1,595 to purchase, and has a 90-minute voice call monthly plan for $89.95 per month.Iridium’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites offer coverage of the entire planet, promising “connectivity unmatched by any other communications provider.”
HughesNet or ViasatVoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) satellite phone service for home or office HughesNet Home Voice service starts at $29.95 per month, and Viasat’s home VoIP service starts at $29.99 per month. Discounts might be available if you choose to bundle with satellite internet service. If you live in an area with limited cell coverage, or need an emergency backup phone for your home or office, HughesNet and Viasat are good VoIP satellite phone service options.

Before choosing a satellite phone device or service, make sure it will have adequate coverage for the places you want to go. Below, we’ve highlighted some of our favorite devices from the service providers above.

Satellite phone brand
Best for
Pricing
Coverage
Iridium GO!® + your cell phoneCamping and boating; lighter adventuringDevice pricing starts at $795 with monthly or prepaid SIM card plans available. Monthly service plans start at $52.95 for 5 minutes of voice/data and 5 text messages. Iridium GO!® lets you turn your existing smartphone into a satellite phone. It’s like a hotspot for satellite phone service.
Garmin InReach®Text-only safety and SOS communications for occasional adventuresThe basic “Safety” subscription plan starts at $14.95 per month, which gives you 10 text messages and unlimited SOS calls. You will also need to buy a Garmin InReach® device, which start at $299.99. If you don’t mind going without voice calling capabilities, this can be a good cost-effective option for SOS, texts, and other emergency communications.

Before purchasing an expensive device or signing up for a monthly plan, remember to think carefully about why you need satellite phone service, and where and how you want to use your satellite communications device. That will help you pick the best one for your needs.

Why would I want a satellite phone?

If you like to venture out into wilderness areas, climb mountains, go boating on big lakes or in the sea, or travel to remote places around the world, your cell phone service might not follow you far enough. Every year, people get lost in the wilderness or encounter difficult conditions at sea and tragically die because they couldn’t get emergency help when they needed it most.

That’s why satellite communicators and satellite phones are worth having; they can save your life, depending on your lifestyle. Below, we’ve created some typical examples of people who might want a satellite phone.

Exploring Elaine: Elaine is a rugged adventurer who likes to travel to remote reaches of the world with harsh terrain; she needs a heavy-duty piece of hardware that can withstand monsoon rains or desert sandstorms, while keeping her in contact with her friends, family, and emergency services in case of medical emergency or natural disaster.

How to choose a satellite phone: Someone like Elaine who loves to visit extreme environments in faraway, off-the-grid places will need a full-featured satellite phone device with a more expansive monthly service plan.

Think of the most heavy-duty device with worldwide coverage and all the bells and whistles, like a higher-end Iridium satellite phone. Unlimited voice-calling minutes might be worth it too. 

Boating Barry: Barry is an avid fisherman who likes to pilot his boat far away from the coastline for some deep sea fishing. But cell phone networks don’t reach far beyond shore. A satellite phone or satellite communicator can help Barry and his crew stay in touch in case of an emergency at sea.

How to choose a satellite phone: If Barry is going only on short-term day trips, a simpler satellite phone device like the Garmin InReach® that enables text-only and SOS communications might be a better fit. But if Barry intends to go on weeks-long journeys at sea, a more elaborate satellite phone that has worldwide coverage, like Iridium, might be best. 

Preparedness Paul: Paul and his family live in a rural area and love the wide open space and clear skies. But Paul wants to make sure his family is protected in case of natural disaster or breakdowns of infrastructure, being so far out. With a satellite phone, Paul can have reliable access to phone service in case of emergencies or in case the power goes down.

How to choose a satellite phone: If Paul wants satellite phone service for emergencies only, it might be worth getting an Iridium GO!® device that turns his cell phone into a satellite phone, which has a lower cost commitment than a heavy-duty satellite phone device. Depending on the quality of cell coverage in his rural area, Paul might also want to consider HughesNet satellite phone service for his home.

Snowboarding Susan: Susan loves to go snowboarding, skiing, and snowshoeing in backcountry areas with her friends, but the remote mountainous regions tend to have spotty cell phone coverage. With a satellite phone, Susan and her friends have emergency communication in case someone gets injured or in trouble while out on a slope, making it easier for emergency responders to find them.

How to choose a satellite phone: Susan and her friends should keep safety as their primary focus. They don’t need to make long calls or send complicated communications via satellite phone, so a Garmin InReach device or Iridium GO! might be a good solution for short-term wilderness trips to remote areas.

If Susan’s wilderness travels are limited to certain areas that are well within the satellite phone coverage map of Globalstar, that company’s devices might also be a good fit. 

Are satellite phone prices worth it?

Satellite phones and satellite communicators are not cheap, but they can potentially save your life. So don’t be intimidated by their prices.

If you’re one of the people above, think of it as accident insurance; you might never need to use that satellite phone, but in case you break your ankle on a mountain slope, or in case your boat capsizes a few miles from shore, you will be glad to be able to press that button to send an SOS or call for help.

Even the basic safety features of the simplest satellite phone devices can ultimately save your life. 

Satellite phone features

The simplest satellite communicator devices have only basic features like SOS and text messages. More powerful satellite phones include those basics, plus more extensive networks of coverage, tougher hardware, and voice calling.

Pricing will depend on the device and the service provider that you choose, but you can expect to pay more for more features. Be sure to consider the full range of features and which ones you need when choosing a satellite communicator device for yourself.

Satellite phone network coverage

One of the first features you should look for when considering a satellite phone is the quality and reach of the satellite phone network. Some satellite phone providers offer coverage only for limited areas of the world, while others offer true worldwide coverage.

Depending on your travel needs, you might want a satellite phone provider that covers only your specific countries where you want to travel (which might be cheaper). If you are going to be traveling by sea, you will want worldwide coverage (which might be more expensive).

Also, before you choose a satellite phone service provider, consider the differences between a GEO (geostationary) satellite network and a LEO (low-earth orbit) satellite network a sat phone might come with. LEO satellite constellations can provide truly global coverage, connecting you to satellite phone service anywhere on Earth. GEO satellite coverage might be lower-cost, but more limited in its reach. 

Satellite phone voice calling

Not every satellite communicator is truly a “satellite phone.” Some satellite phone devices offer voice calling and mobile internet capabilities just like a smartphone would, while satellite communicators usually provide only SMS (text messages) and SOS emergency alerts.

But if you want to use full voice call functionality from your satellite phone, you’ll probably still have to pay extra for it. And be prepared to spend more money for any overages beyond your monthly allotment of voice call minutes too. 

Satellite phone text messages (SMS)

Most satellite phone services will also include SMS (text messages) as part of your communication package. Make sure you understand how many text messages you are allowed to send each month as part of your satellite phone package. You could have to pay extra per text ($0.50 per text or more, depending on your plan) if you exceed your monthly limit.

Keep in mind: satellite phones should be used primarily as an emergency communication device or a backup device in case you lose cell coverage. So having a limited number of text messages per month isn’t really a dealbreaker, but be aware of it. If you intend to send a lot of text messages with your satellite phone, you might want to buy an unlimited texting plan.

Satellite phone SOS and emergency support

Some satellite communicator devices offer built-in SOS features to connect you with 24/7 emergency support centers. For example, if you suffer an injury or experience a vehicle breakdown in remote areas, and you need to call for help, your satellite phone should be able to connect you to an emergency center with the simple press of a button.

Satellite phone heavy-duty hardware

Depending on where you want to travel and what kinds of conditions you are likely to encounter, you might want to buy a satellite phone with heavy-duty hardware. Some satellite phones offer more extensive, rugged design elements to endure the toughest conditions on Earth—such as water, sandstorms, and extreme temperatures.

Pro tip

We think the Iridium Extreme (9575) is the best satellite phone (Amazon link) because of its military-grade durability. This phone is built for the toughest environments on Earth, and it’s dustproof, shock-resistant, and jet-water resistant. You also get built-in tracking, SOS with the push of a button, and reliable two-way communication with truly global coverage from the Iridium constellation of LEO satellites.

What is the downside to a satellite phone?

Satellite phone service is not cheap, and the devices cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand dollars, depending on which model you want. Plus, not every satellite phone service can deliver truly global coverage—so make sure to do your research about the coverage area before you buy.

On the subject of money, don’t feel like you have spend too much of it on a satellite phone that has more features than you need. High-intensity adventurers climbing Mt. Everest might need the most heavy-duty handsets, but hikers and campers might be better suited to simpler devices like Garmin InReach or Iridium GO!.

Also, keep in mind that traditional mobile phone service providers are working on expanding the reach of conventional mobile phone coverage with the help of satellite service providers.

In August 2022, T-Mobile announced a new partnership with Starlink to connect T-Mobile users to Starlink’s satellite coverage to help eliminate mobile dead zones.1 In the future, if every mobile phone can enable continuous connectivity all over the planet, satellite phones might become obsolete. 

Do we recommend satellite phones?

Satellite phones are essential for safety and emergency connectivity for outdoors explorers and anyone whose work, travel, or hobbies might take them into remote areas with limited cell coverage.

If you’re serious about exploring the great outdoors, want to travel to remote areas or sail the high seas, or need emergency connectivity in case of disaster without ever having to worry about a mobile phone dead zone, then satellite phones should be part of your plans.

Satellite phone FAQ

Are satellite phones legal in the US?

Yes, satellite phones are legal in the United States and in most countries. But in a few parts of the world, the government might confiscate your satellite phone or even arrest you for having one.

In a few countries like India and Nicaragua, satellite phones are illegal to possess, and other countries like Russia and China require advance registration and licensing of your satellite phone with the local authorities.2 Make sure you are aware of local laws before bringing your sat phone on your next adventure.

Can I turn my cell phone into a satellite phone?

If you want to give your cell phone the capabilities of a satellite phone, there is a device called Iridium GO! that makes this happen. Iridium GO! works like a WiFi hotspot for satellite phone service; you can use your existing smartphone to get truly global satellite connectivity.

Apple has also recently announced that the new iPhone 14 will include satellite connectivity for short-text emergency communications, which Apple calls “Emergency SOS via Satellite” service.3 Apple is partnering with Globalstar to offer this service, which will be free for the first 2 years to everyone who purchases an iPhone 14.

But Apple’s satellite SOS service will be limited to a set of short, custom text messages, with the iPhone guiding you how to point it at the sky at the right angle and time to connect to a satellite. It might take 15 seconds or longer to send a message. If you need more seamless connectivity and elaborate features, you might want to stick to a full satellite communicator or sat phone. 

Is it worth getting a satellite phone?

Depending on how much you travel to remote areas; explore wilderness areas; or hike, bike, and climb outdoors, a satellite phone is definitely worth considering.

Every day around the world, people get lost, injured, or incapacitated in remote areas where cell phones don’t work. Having a satellite communicator device can be lifesaving for you and your loved ones.  

Can satellite phones be tracked?

Satellite phones can be tracked—that’s part of their purpose, since they help people find lost or injured people in remote locations. But depending on the device and your satellite phone service plan, you might be able to choose a satellite phone that can go into “stealth mode.”

How long does a satellite phone last?

The battery life of a satellite phone depends on the device you buy and on how you use it. For example, the Iridium Extreme has 30 hours of battery life when on standby, or 4 hours of talk time. The Garmin InReach Messenger device has a battery life of up to 46 days with a message or location sent every 30 minutes, but the battery life is reduced to 23 days if you are in moderate tree cover.

Endnotes

  1. T-Mobile, “T-Mobile takes coverage above and beyond with SpaceX,” August 25, 2022. Accessed October 19, 2022.
  2. U.S. Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), “Guide for Overseas Satellite Phone Usage,” July 2, 2021. Accessed October 19, 2022.
  3. Linda Hardesty, Fierce Wireless, “Apple iPhone 14 will have emergency satellite connectivity,” September 7, 2022. Accessed October 19, 2022.
Ben Gran
Written by
Ben Gran