GPS is great for recovering your device when lost or stolen and navigating while driving with Google Maps. And it’s especially nifty because GPS works even when disconnected from the internet. Just download your maps ahead of time!
But how about using an Android phone as a GPS tracker? It may not be the most reliable option, and it does comes with some not-so-insignificant drawbacks, but it can get the job done if you’re desperate. Here’s how to turn your Android phone into a GPS tracker.
Note: These instructions are based on a Samsung Galaxy S8 running Android 8.0 Oreo, but the steps should be relatively similar for most Android devices.
Tracking With Native Android Features
Most Android devices released in 2014 or later have a built-in feature called Find My Device (formerly called Find My Android). This service constantly pings your device’s location back to Google’s servers so that Google knows where your device is. You can then use Google’s web interface to see where your device is at any given time. You’ll need a Google account to use this feature.
How to Enable Find My Device on Android
- Navigate to your device’s Settings.
- Tap on Lock screen and security.
- Tap on Other security settings. (This step may be unnecessary depending on your particular device and Android version.)
- Tap on Device admin apps. (This step may be called Device Administrators depending on your particular device and Android version.)
- Tap Find My Device.
- Tap Activate.
Note: In order to activate this service, you’ll need to allow four permissions: 1) the ability to erase all data, 2) the ability to change your screen unlock password, 3) the ability to lock the screen, and 4) the ability to turn off functions on the lock screen.
The nice thing about Find My Device is that it’s not just a tracker—it lets you control the device from afar in the above-mentioned ways. Learn more in our overview of Find My Device.
How to Use Find My Device on Android
Once enabled, all you have to do is launch a web browser, navigate to the Find My Device dashboard, and sign into your Google account (the same one associated with your device).
Once you’re logged in, select the device you want to locate, click the Locate button for said device, and it’ll show its last known location and how long ago it was last spotted. It’s fairly accurate in my experience, but I live in an urban environment; it can be off by up to 20 meters in areas with poor GPS visibility.
Tracking With Third-Party Android Apps
If you don’t like Find My Device for whatever reason, you can always resort to one of the many third-party alternatives available on the Google Play Store. These apps are easy to install and you don’t really have to do anything beyond creating an account to use them.
There are two that we recommend:
1. Lookout: Lookout is an all-in-one security solution where device tracking is just one of its many features. As such, it might be too bloated if device tracking is the only feature you’re interested in. But if your device currently lacks a good antivirus app, you might as well use this one and kill two birds with one stone.
2. Prey: In practical usage, Prey is very similar to Find My Device. Its one big advantage is availability across multiple other platforms, including Windows, Mac, Linux, and iPhone, so you can track ALL of your devices from anywhere.
Most of these are marketed as anti-theft and anti-loss security apps for Android—and they’re certainly useful for those purposes—but you can use them for straight-up tracking if you so wish.
Making Your Android Device Mountable for Tracking
Once your device is set up as trackable, whether using Find My Device or a third-party app, there’s only thing left to do: attach the device to the person or object that you want to track. Obviously, this is much easier said than done.
Want to know how to track a car with a cell phone?
The easiest and most effective option is to use a magnetic car mount. Most two-piece kits come with a magnetic insert (that you place inside your device case) and a magnetic base (that you attach to whatever you want to mount). With a good model, the magnetic force should be strong enough for your phone to “snap” onto the base and stay there securely.
The WizGear Universal Stick-On Magnetic Car Mount is easy, convenient, and affordable. It’s a stick-on model that uses an adhesive, and contains 10 magnets for maximum magnetic strength.
If you don’t trust adhesives, you might consider the WizGear Universal Suction Cup Magnetic Car Mount. It’s a lot more conspicuous than the stick-on variant, but the suction cup is strong and may be worth the trade-off.
Don’t have a phone case? You can use adhesive metal plates instead, such as these Pop-Tech Universal Adhesive Metal Mounts. They stick right onto the back of your device and let you use magnetic mounts per usual.
Nothing Beats a Dedicated GPS Tracker
While your Android device can work as a tracker in a pinch, don’t expect it to pass for a serious tracking device. There are three main drawbacks that you should be aware of, and if any of these drawbacks prove problematic for you, then you should consider using a dedicated tracker instead:
- Battery Life: Your smartphone has a lot of software running in the background at all times, such as system-level services and third-party apps, and all of that processing drains battery life. A dedicated GPS tracker only needs to process GPS tracking, resulting in much more battery life per charge.
- Signal Quality: GPS trackers aren’t perfect, but their signals are far superior to smartphone signals. As such, not only are dedicated GPS trackers more accurate, but they can keep tracking even in areas where smartphones would normally cut out.
- Risks and Costs: Are you willing to lose your Android device? Suppose you mounted it to the undercarriage of a car and it fell off in the middle of a highway? Dedicated GPS trackers are easier to mount, more robust, and even if they’re lost or damaged, they’re cheaper to replace.
In other words, don’t convert your Android phone to a GPS tracker unless you have no other options. For an alternative that’s more accurate and reliable, consider trying something like the Spy Tec Portable GPS Tracker.
Looking for a GPS tracker for your kids? How about a phone watch: