The best satellite phones were once only used by government agencies, spies and well-heeled yachtsman - but they are now easy to buy and relatively inexpensive but can offer you a lifeline to the world, wherever you roam..
Anyone traveling – by truck, boat, foot, or air – to a remote location now has a way to communicate in locations where a normal cellphone can't get signal. You might throw a sat phone in the pack for emergencies when hiking, or use it to keep in touch with loved ones while traveling. You may operate remote staff and need to monitor their location or progress from the office.
Buying into the tech is just like picking up a standard phone; you can get them from online retailers and add monthly plans or use pre-paid cards (with a limited number of minutes and texts, which suits one-off journeys and emergency use). Just search Amazon for a prepaid card with a SIM for your satellite network and destination, or buy one in a bundle. Oh, and when you’re calling don’t forget you need the international dialing code.
What sets the ‘sat phone’ apart is, of course, the satellites; cellular masts – for clear economic reasons – have grown up in towns, cities and near major highways. Because it’s at a different angle to the earth’s surface, each can cover much more land. Inmarsat, the first network originally designed for mariners, covers most of the planet with a handful of geosynchronous satellites. These orbit the equator, never moving relative to the ground, but as you go north and south they get nearer the horizon (in hilly terrain you might not ‘see’ the satellite at all).
The alternative is Low Earth Orbit, in which the satellites move relative to the Earth’s surface, spending only a few minutes useable in any one place. The biggest of these is Iridium, with 66 satellites that the whole planet.
As well as full-blown satellite phones, you should also consider the satellite communicators. These are smaller devices that offer text or data services - so you can check in loved ones and get help in an emergency. And these often also link to your standard mobile phone if you need to actually speak to someone.
Satellite technology is ideal for calling and texting from remote locations (including oceans), but you’ll always need to be outside and get your antenna the best view of the sky you can to ensure you get a signal. Be aware that satellite technology suffers some latency (delay) since your signals have a long way to travel, but you’ll never be out of touch.
Best satellite phones in 2021
The Iridium 9555 starts out looking a bit like a bulky version of a typical 90’s cell phone with a stubby antenna, but it actually extends over 12cm and can be angled to pick up a satellite signal without craning your neck. The case design and button layout seem to owe something to the Nokia 2110 and other phones of that era too, with a central menu up/down key flanked by two action buttons and call keys beneath that. This is a design which works for many, making this handset very easy to cope with, even with gloved hands in cold conditions.
The phone includes short email capability and the ability to receive as well as send SMS and, usefully for those inclined to travel in one country, the option to program in a preferred international dialing code. This handset makes a lot of sense if you’re driving or working in remote locations, whatever the latitude, and able to keep the phone charged; campers will need to charge daily.
The Iridium 9575 Extreme, has a lot in common with its older relative, the Iridium 9555, but brings fully certified durability standard compliance for water jet and dust protection meeting military standards (810F). That, combined with the 99% global coverage, makes this an ideal device for travelers heading into rough environments, or off the beaten track. The integrated tracking can also help with business operation or automatically reassuring relatives.
This is still a relatively bare-bones device with a distinctly average battery life; 160 character texts feel a little retro in the 2020s, but get the job done and perhaps more significant is the inclusion of a programmable emergency button which is backed by the GEOS international emergency response centre, or SEND (Satellite Emergency Notification). If you lift the cap and press the button, critical rapid response will be activated and take advantage of the phone’s location data.
The IsatPhone 2 is the only handset easily found on the Inmarsat network and with its sturdy build and fold-out antenna is ideal for remote travelers. It is especially well suited to sailing while hikers and mountaineers nearer the north and south might have reasonable concerns that, in valleys, finding a signal might be an issue. Outdoorsmen thinking of sticking near the Equator (Florida, for example) will have nothing to worry about. Wherever you are, you will appreciate the configurable emergency button, impossible to press by accident thanks to a flap.
The phone’s menus aren’t technically amazing to the smartphone generation, but there is a straightforward contacts database (remember the country code). You can also send 160-character text messages; after composing your message and hitting send you do need to remember to keep holding the antenna toward the sky, though thankfully it can be easily repositioned. You can also send a text/email/tweet with your GPS location, and if a signal isn’t immediately found, a built-in compass is activated.
With obvious applications for filmmakers, travelling aid workers, and those on energy projects who are always on the move, the X5-Touch brings the ability to pack trusted apps and a phone you can use when you’re in coverage areas in one handy unit. Like other Android devices, there are front (8MP) and selfie (2MP) cameras, and even a panorama picture mode. It’s not the most up-to-date version of Android, at version 7, and there is no 5G support, however this isn’t a device for people planning on remaining in 5G places, and all the key apps are available.
More disappointingly for many, the Thuraya satellite network doesn’t cover the Americas, though of course in GSM/LTE/UTMS mode the handset can be used pretty much anywhere there is a traditional signal. At 60kbit/s down the satellite network provides faster data than some, but it still isn’t really suited to the bandwidth phone apps need.
Best satellite communicators
Created with the explorer in mind, the inReach Mini isn’t a traditional sat-phone, but allows your cell-phone access satellite coverage to send messages from anywhere. The 4 buttons make texting tiresome, though there are preset messages and – more usefully – Bluetooth connection to Garmin’s ‘Earthmate’ app.
Since few hikers leave their phone behind, adding the smallest possible device to your straps is handy. You don’t need to text constantly either; your chosen friends and family can log in and follow you on a map to check things are OK without interrupting your adventure; typical standby time, with tracking every 10 minutes, is 90 hours, which can rise to days with less frequent tracking options set.
In an emergency, there is an SOS button which will communicate with the 24/7 GEOS centre (phone or not), which all adds up to a phenomenally useful (and reassuring) device for mountain bikers, hikers, or anyone else wanting to feel a little more confident they’re connected to the world without the expense of bulk of a phone handset.
The Iridium Go! promises the ability to send and receive data from anywhere on the surface of the planet using your preferred smartphone or tablet, but you need to understand the small print. The big problem is that the data bandwidth of the network simply isn’t suited to the kind of thing you’re used to doing with your phone on typical phone network – so given the limitations the Go! actually pulls quite a few tricks out of the bag.
It does this via apps which allows you to use your phone to make a satellite call. A range of other phone features look a little like a smart phone – texting, tracking, weather update and other icons are there on the main page. There is a separate email app which you’ll need to set up a specific account for the email – while not ideal, it will prevent wasting bandwidth on spam.
The software is polished, and the system overcomes technical hurdles and simplifies them at the same time – though even with the Opera browser’s compression web browsing is not feasible.
While the Garmin inReach Mini is an excellent portable device, ideal for anyone in the outdoors to have an emergency link back to reality, there is another option which makes use of the same Iridium network: the Zoleo Communicator. This offers what, for many, will be the same key function: texting via Bluetooth and an app. In fact it makes an exceptional job of it; if you can get your recipient to use the Zoleo app too you can send much longer texts than standard sat phones, and the Zoleo can switch to cellular to save power if possible
The Zoleo has its own GPS, and four LEDs which is the only means of knowing what’s going on inside, though it is great to have a “check-in” button which, when pressed, simply texts your location to a defined number. There is also a SOS button with 24/7 monitoring, meaning the paired down device has all the essentials and nothing more which makes sense for a budget-conscious backpacker or back-country explorer.