How Accurate are iPhone Location Services and Tracking?

Find My iPhone, Find My Friends, and iCloud Find My are Apple’s solutions for lost iPhones, iPads, Watches, and other devices. However, sometimes they are not very precise, and you wonder why.

For example, you may have tried using one of these iPhone location services and tracking apps with your device lying on the table in front of you. Then the app shows you the device is about one mile away. Perhaps, you were trying to locate your child who was visiting a location, but the app showed her location with a variance of 10 miles. That’s why you shouldn’t use the location data from location services and apps in drawing an inference.

But why is the service sometimes inaccurate? In this article, I’ll explain why the location data vary from one situation to the other.

How Accurate are iPhone Location Services and Tracking?

The iPhone location services and tracking apps are very accurate, with a 5 to 6 feet variance. However, these location services can be very inaccurate in the presence of any physical (geographic or atmospheric) barrier or location data receiver issues, among others.

How often have counselors had to deal with consultations where they had jealous partners or anxious parents accusing spouses or children of being dishonest based on the geolocation information provided after using tools such as Find My iPhone or iCloud Find My?

It appears that the cell phone of the accused person was far from the said location.

But I’ll tell you what? It is dangerous to blindly rely on data from these tracking systems as a basis for an accusation, proof of dishonesty, or an inference that the tracked person may have been kidnapped. Location service data can be blatantly wrong!

A case study

The writer and computer journalist Cory Doctorow proved my conclusion with a personal anecdote.

His 11-year-old daughter was in riding lessons but did not answer their calls.

He then used Find My iPhone, which indicated that his daughter’s cell phone was 13 miles from school. Fearing the worst, they alerted the police. But shortly after, her daughter called from the school, where she had been the whole time.

What really happened?

Doctorow explains that the problem arises from two factors. The first is that the location of mobile phones uses various sources. These include nearby WiFi networks, GPS, and IP addresses assigned by the telephone operator.

But suppose a GPS signal isn’t received (for example, when indoors or in a windy/rainy condition). In that case, services like Find My iPhone can only use information from other location services. So, the phone’s location data may be inaccurate or outdated.

If the mobile phone is in an area where there is little coverage, the mobile phone may not be able to update the location service. However, the service still considers the information sent to it previously valid. In this case, the mobile phone appears to be in a place it passed through when it is no longer there.

It is even worse if the location can only be based on the IP address once assigned to the mobile phone (maybe via VPN). This is variable and temporary. In this case, the mobile phone can appear to be located in a very large circle with a radius that spans several miles.

The second factor is that location apps often don’t indicate the margin of error in the data they display. For example, the apps can say, “The phone is exactly here or in this circle,” but they never say, “it could be in this area, but I’m not sure.” And above all, they don’t specify the location method they use. This leads to false certainties, which can be very misleading.

Moral of the story: Before accusing someone based on the location of their mobile, think twice. It can save you from major embarrassment.

How Does iPhone Determine Your Location?

Your iPhone knows your location and uses the device’s location services to geolocate you. According to the Apple Support:

Location Services uses GPS and Bluetooth (where they’re available), along with crowd-sourced WiFi hotspots and cellular towers, to determine the approximate location of your device.

In simple words, a bunch of different tracking technologies is used for this technology to work. You may have noticed that Apple emphasizes the term “approximate,” which is the key here.

However, technological combinations ensure that your device’s location is more precise than approximate. For example, Apple Maps or Find My uses GPS, WiFi, and cell towers’ data. So if your GPS signals are down or inaccurate, you’d probably have your WiFi or – most likely – your network service on.

Location determinations are based on the principles of triangulation. Measurements are taken from various fixed points to another point. With this, your device can easily calculate its position.

With the GPS (Global Positioning System), location is done thanks to the 24 earth-orbiting satellites in space. You can see which satellites are in view and in use by your phone by using the GPS Test app, for example.

How Accurate are iPhone Location Services and Tracking?

The above are the satellites in use and in view by my phone’s GPS as of the time of writing this. Due to the simultaneous reception of these satellites, a very high GPS accuracy is achieved.

At a minimum, your phone uses information from up to 6 satellites, sometimes exceeding 10. This is why GPS data are very accurate.

The combination of these results in accuracies of less than one meter. 6 to 10 satellites cannot relay the wrong information simultaneously.

The reception of their information may only be affected. And that’s in the case of a physical blockade or when the GPS receiver has a problem. 

How Accurate Is Find My iPhone?

The Find My iPhone app is usually very accurate, with a variance of around 3 meters. This is because it works with the built-in GPS chip on your phone, which receives GPS signals and then accurately determines your location.

Factors that determine the accuracy

Some of the factors that determine the accuracy of Find My iPhone, including other location-tracking services, are:

1.     Cell signal and atmospheric conditions

Find My iPhone works more accurately when the iPhone is somewhere in a shopping mall, office, public place, or where iBeacons are installed. However, this tracker may not be accurate (it’s approximated) when the iPhone is out of place in a rural or mountainous side or in any location with poor network reception.

Physical structures at home and outdoors (i.e., fiberglass insulated walls and mountains), network traffic, etc., impede location signals. The same applies on cloudy or rainy days when the relay of GPS information from the satellites mentioned earlier is blocked.

2.     Location services

If Precise Location is turned on in your phone’s Settings, tracking gets easier and more accurate. If WiFi is enabled and the iPhone has access to GPS, the accuracy will be even better.

Conversely, suppose WiFi is OFF, and GPS signals are interrupted. In that case, an app may only use nearby cell towers to track location. This may not be precise. And sometimes, the approximate circle would be miles apart instead of meters.

Many believe that GPS is the best technology to locate the device, which is true to some extent. However, Apple services are powerful enough to use nearby WiFi hotspots to determine where your device is, even if it’s not connected to any of them.

Tracking via GPS is a slow process and could take a long time. Therefore, Apple mainly uses WiFi access points or masts (cell phone towers) to locate the phone. So if the phone is in an area with access to network services, you can easily track it. GPS is used when available but is not the primary source for locating the iPhone.

Lastly, Bluetooth is also used for location tracking. But it only works where iBeacons are installed. For those who don’t know what iBeacons are, they are Bluetooth sensors that can automatically connect with iPhones.

They can improve location accuracy in indoor or public places such as shopping malls, airports, and stores. Apple knows the iBeacon your iPhone connects to and thus manages to provide you with the location accurately.

Top Tips to Improve the Accuracy of Location Services on iPhone

I know by now you can tell what improves the accuracy of your location services and what reduces it. But here’s an in-depth but short guide to improving how accurate your location services can get:

1.    Enable Location Services on iPhone

Unfortunately, the iPhone does not offer many coordinated setting options for GPS accuracy like Android. But you can regulate the permission of the individual apps by going to Settings > Privacy and toggle Location Services to the rightto improve accuracy on your phone.

How Accurate are iPhone Location Services and Tracking?

While you can deny an app access to location tracking, ensure you enable Location Services for tracking apps like Find My iPhone and Maps. By doing this, other location services are used simultaneously with your phone’s GPS to make tracking as accurate as possible.

2.    Ensure your time is correct

GPS accuracy depends on how many GPS satellites are visible to your phone (as I showed you earlier). And clock errors are some of the causes of inaccurate tracking.

The time, date, and time zone on the GPS receiver (your phone) must be accurate with satellite clocks. To ensure this, go to Settings on your phone. Then, find and tap on General > Date and Time and select Set Automatically.

3.    Keep your phone in view of GPS satellites

As I mentioned earlier, signal reception is poor indoors, in a mountainous area, or where you have tall buildings. When GPS signals are poor, the device is left with just the cellular networks and WiFi as the available location services. This means only one thing: less accuracy!

So keep the phone away from physical obstructions and other things that affect GPS signal reception.

4.    Calibrate your built-in compass

Sometimes the device cannot determine the location correctly because the built-in compass does not “know” its position due to some local interferences. 

As a rule, apps that use GPS location will point this out to you. But you can calibrate your phone’s internal compass manually and automatically.

Manual compass calibration

  • Step 1: Open an app that uses the compass (e.g., Maps ).
  • Step 2: Slowly move the phone in an eight-shaped motion like in the animation below:
How Accurate are iPhone Location Services and Tracking?
Source: Google
  • Step 3: Repeat the above a few times.

Automatic calibration

To automatically recalibrate your iPhone’s built-in compass, go to the Apple Store. Then search for, download, and install the Essentials GPS application. Next, open the app and go to Menu >> Compass >> Calibrate.

How to know the accuracy of Find my iPhone

Look for the green dot while using the feature. The phone’s location is tracked accurately if you see it on the map. However, suppose you see a large green circle instead of a dot. The results are roughly accurate, and your device is near the green circle. Sometimes this green circle is too large, indicating that the results are far from accurate.

If you see a gray circle, the bad news is that the feature can’t locate the device. It could be offline because the battery died or someone turned off the iPhone for more than 24 hours. If it doesn’t show any available locations, it’s maybe because the area where you lost your iPhone isn’t near Apple’s location services. The feature is accurate most of the time, but sometimes, it can be too vague or approximate to be considered an ideal tracking app.

Read also: How to Ping a Phone to Find Its Location