Updated: Oct 3, 2020
I mentioned — in at least 3 of my blog posts — that the Global Positioning System (GPS) does not require mobile data, but I still get queries regarding "GPS cannot be used without a data plan". So I decided to write this post to focus on the topic: "No! GPS does not require mobile data" and state it in the title too.
First of all, GPS is the technology that enables end-users, like you and me, to see our locations on a map or navigation app. It usually appears as a blue round dot on a map app (popularly Google Map or Apple Map). It is extremely useful when you need to find your way around some unfamiliar areas or when travelling in foreign countries.
Second, try to understand how GPS works:
Like I explained in the above post, the GPS receiver in each mobile device requires direct line-of-sights with at least 3 to 4 GPS satellites to get good location fixes, which are computed from the satellite signals received by the GPS receiver. There is no telecommunication network involved in the process — it is not your telco who is tracking you and telling you where you are via their data networks. If the telcos can do that, everyone will be suing them for privacy invasion.
In other words, no mobile data (or data roaming plan) is required to get a GPS location pin-point!
However, you will need mobile data to download the map before the location pin-point can be of any use. At this point, you will probably want to challenge me with "See? mobile data is still required!"
I had travelled to many places without roaming mobile data and I had relied on GPS and map apps to help me get to places — even when my mobile phone is set to "Airplane" mode. I had done all those, so there is no doubt on what I wrote in my articles. Below, I will share in details how I use both GPS and map apps without using mobile data.
Before you travel...
1. Ensure you have Google Maps app or Apple's Maps app installed on your mobile phone.
If you are an iPhone users, Apple‘s Maps app is installed by default. And you can also download and install Google Maps app for greater flexibility.
2. Connect to Internet via WiFi and locate the place that you intend to go on the map app. Mark that location — the most important piece of information is actually the coordinates (latitude and longitude) of your destination, which is difficult to obtain when on the go.
If you are using Apple's Maps app, make sure to zoom in and out several levels of the map around your intended destination. This will allow the Maps app to cache (or remember) the map data on your phone. Remember to mark your destination. Note that caching is done automatically by Maps app, do not browse to too many places or the map data that are cached earlier may be replaced.
If you are using Google Maps app, you can download and save the map around your destination. In the app, tap on menu and select "Offline Maps", then "Custom Map". When adding a new map, position the map so your destination is in the center of the box. Tap "Download" to save the map and give it an appropriate name. You can delete the map after the trip to recover some storage space.
See my pack of travel "gears":
Alternatively, use my trusty little app, iPackTravel (iOS only). iPackTravel features a handy "Location Finders" function to help travellers to get to destinations with a simple direction indicator and distance information display. Showing map is optional in case you do not have mobile data. Knowing the direction and distance (proximity) to where you want to go is sufficient to get you close to your destination.
More importantly, iPackTravel allows the coordinates of your destination to be recorded in the app and retrieved for use when travelling — totally offline.
Check out iPackTravel for more details:
When on the road...
3. Keep your mobile phone on "Airplane" mode if you do not want to use unsubscribed mobile data unintentionally, which can be very expensive.
4. Launch the map app you are using and show your own location on the map. You will be able to know where you are and whether you are near your destination. No mobile data will be used as the maps are cached on your mobile phone and GPS does not require it.
This works for me. It should work for you too. And there is no need to waste money on roaming data just to get to places, although they do come in handy if you do not do your homework before travelling — pay for being lazy.
Read more on roaming data charges: