Satellite phones are vital for maintaining contact with the world when there’s no regular phone coverage. They’re ideal for anyone from weekend adventurers to those who work in remote areas.
But which is the right one for you to buy? Here’s our guide to the best satellite phones for everyone who enjoys world travel.
What You Need to Know About Satellite Phones
Just as there are competing mobile carriers with different coverage and performance levels, so there are several satellite phone service providers.
The two main services are from Iridium and Inmarsat. A discussion of which is best is beyond the scope of this article, but we can summarize it very broadly:
- Iridium offers full, global coverage, including the North and South Pole. Signals from the 66 low earth orbit satellites can be blocked by trees or mountains, which may sometime result in dropped calls.
- Inmarsat has satellites in high earth orbit. Signals are less likely to be blocked and are therefore more reliable for calls. However, the service is better the nearer you are to the Equator because that’s where its three satellites are located. There’s no coverage at all at less than 50 degrees north or south.
Whatever service your phone runs on, you’ll need to buy airtime as well. This will give you an allowance of minutes and texts, or data, and there are prepaid and regular plan options available. Your plan also gets you a phone number so you can make and receive calls.
Prepaid plans are the most convenient for all but very regular use, but they often have an expiry date of anywhere between 30 days and two years. Airtime is a lot more expensive than you pay for a regular cellphone plan. Make sure you factor this in when you’re budgeting for the cost of your satellite phone.
The IsatPhone 2.1 Satellite Phone works on the Inmarsat service. It’s a large device measuring 6.7 inches with the antenna folded out and is pretty tough. It’s shock resistant, IP65-rated for protection and against dust and water, and can function in extreme conditions. It can handle temperatures as low as minus four degrees Fahrenheit, and 95 percent humidity.
Even more impressive is the battery life. It claims the longest life of any satellite phone at eight hours of talk and 160 hours on standby. As well as calls, you can send and receive texts and emails, and there’s an SOS function that connects you to the 24/7 GEOS emergency assistance service.
The IsatPhone is one of the most popular satellite phones and is highly rated by its users for reliability and call quality.
The BlueCosmo Iridium 9555 has the look of an old school Nokia phone. It’s probably as tough, too, although it is not ruggedized in the way that many other satellite phones are.
The 9555 is an inch shorter than the IsatPhone 2.1, thanks in part to the internally stowed antenna that you need to pull out to make calls or send texts or emails. It’s rated as weather resistant and can handle temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The battery is around three hours of talk and 30 hours on standby.
The 9555 is the most affordable phone for the Iridium network. It works anywhere in the world, although you should note that it doesn’t come with an SOS feature.
The Iridium 9575 Extreme is smaller and lighter than the 9555, but is in a different league when it comes to toughness. It meets the 810F standard for military-grade durability. It’s also IP65-rated; shock resistant and sealed against dust and even water jets.
The phone runs on the Iridium network. As well as calls and text messages, you can use it for basic email messaging. Battery life is a solid 30 hours in standby or four hours of talk.
There’s an online tracking feature, and you can even use Google Maps to send your precise location in an SMS. On top of that, there’s an SOS button for added security.
The Iridium 9575 Extreme is expensive, but it’s a device that will withstand the very harshest conditions.
The Globalstar GSP-1700 is an affordable satellite phone with one big caveat; it runs on the Globalstar service. This has worse coverage than the big two providers, limited to the USA and Australia, plus only partial coverage in Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia.
The phone is lightweight at around seven ounces. The main body is small, although the antenna more than doubles the height when folded out. Features are basic. It supports calls and SMS and also offers voicemail. You can access the internet at dial-up level speeds. Battery life gives four hours of talk and around 35 hours on standby.
The lower price is the main selling point. If you’re heading for a camping trip in an American National Park, this could be the right choice. But if you’re heading further afield, check Globalstar’s coverage maps first.
Not everybody needs the full functionality of a satellite phone. But that doesn’t mean they want to be cut off completely from the rest of the world. In these cases, the Garmin inReach SE+ is the ideal compromise.
The inReach SE+ is a two-way messaging device that works on the Iridium service. You can’t use it for phone calls, but you can send and receive text messages. It also has an SOS button connected to the GEOS global monitoring center. If you get into problems, they can track your device and alert nearby emergency responders.
The SE+ also functions as a GPS navigation unit. You can link it to your phone over Bluetooth to download and access maps.
The Garmin inReach Mini takes the basic idea of the SE+ and downsizes it further. It’s less than four inches tall—including the antenna—and weighs just 3.5 ounces. Despite this, it is water resistant and can deliver five days of battery life. This is a satellite communicator that you can take anywhere.
It has a similar set of features to the SE+, only in miniaturized form. If you don’t fancy typing messages on the 1.27-inch display, you can compose a series of texts in advance to send at the touch of a button.
The inReach Mini supports the SOS service, giving you peace of mind when you’re off the beaten track. You can download weather forecasts or connect the Mini to your phone for mapping. It won’t show maps on the screen but will display waypoints and a compass.
The Iridium GO! 9560 is not a phone; it’s a satellite-based wi-fi hotspot. It works with up to five iPhones or Android phones, enabling them to make calls, send and receive texts, send SOS alerts, and even post Twitter messages.
You need to install the GO! app on your phone to do this. You can also install the Iridium Mail and Web app to use data services including web browsing, email, and photo sharing. The battery is good for around 15 hours on standby and five hours of talk. You’ll need to keep your phone charged, too, of course.
The box itself is small and rugged. It meets the same durability specifications as the 9575 Extreme. With Iridium coverage you can use it globally.
The GO! 9560 is part of a newer breed of satellite device. The communal function makes it ideal for camping or sailing trips.
The Best Satellite Phone for You
A satellite phone is an important tool for world travel. It can be vital in emergencies. And you need one to stay in touch from the most remote areas or to check in with fellow travelers.
If this selection has left you curious, you could check out our guide on how satellite phones work.
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