The 3 Best Ways to Legally Track a Cell Phone

Tracing phones isn't as hard as you think

Woman on a cell phone
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Simply put, if you came into this article hoping you could end up acting out your fantasies of being a genius private eye, prancing around, hacking into people's mobiles without facing any legal consequences, prepare to be disappointed.

Sure, most adults in the United States own a cell phone of some sort, which makes mobile devices the most effective way of tracking down a specific person's location at any given point of time. This presents as an opportunity for law enforcement officials, who use this technology extensively. However, what if you're just an ordinary civilian, who finds themselves in extraordinary circumstances where you absolutely need to trace a cell phone? How could you even do that without committing a federal crime?

Is It Legal to Track a Cell Phone?

Generally speaking, it is not legal to track, access or modify a computing device, including a cell phone, that does not belong to you. Only officials who work for law enforcement can do that, and only if they have a warrant to that effect.

You can, however, obtain written permission from the owner of the cell phone in order to track it remotely without facing any legal repercussions. This is only useful when you want to keep track of a loved one while they're away, or if you want to locate your smartphone after it's been stolen.

Why Even Track a Cell Phone

There are a few special circumstances under which it is legal and useful to keep track of a cell phone.

Let's say, for example, that you're a working parent with a teenage son or daughter. It might be useful to put a tracer on their phones in such a case so that you may know where they are even when you're not around to watch them, being able to protect them from such things as bullying or foul play.

It can also be useful when you have an elderly parent, especially one who is a patient with dementia. Families, for example, often set up trackers on each other's phones so that they can always keep track of each other. There are even companies that specialize in using tracking on smartphones, such as GreatCall, to help locate elderly or special-needs family members. 

Companies sometimes do the same with their employees. It is also a good way to locate a phone after it's been stolen.

The 3 Different Ways to Track a Cell Phone

Via Cell Phone Carrier
Major telecom companies like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all come with a paid feature that allows you to track cell phone numbers that are connected to your account, provided you have permission. This is completely legal and a good way to keep track of family members while they're away. 

Telecom providers generally use cell phone towers to triangulate the geographical position of a mobile to the nearest 100 meters. This technology does not require a GPS facility and can, therefore, work just fine even on basic cell phones like the Samsung a157 or LG 328BG.

On Smartphones
Of course, tracing a cell phone becomes that much easier if you own a smartphone device running Android or iOS. The Android Device Manager lets you remotely access the current location of any Android smartphone via the internet, so long as the smartphone has its GPS functionality turned on. Similarly, Apple offers the Find My iPhone and Find My Friends apps, which lets people trace an iPhone via any other iOS device. For any of these methods to be successful, however, the phone that you're attempting to trace has to be GPS-enabled.

Using Third-Party Apps
In order to trace phones using this method, you'll generally need to have physical access to the cell phone that you wish to track as well as written permission to do so in order to avoid any legal repercussions. Third-party applications such as Find My Friends and mSpy on Android and iOS allow you to track smartphone locations via GPS, the only catch being that both the device you're attempting to trace and the one you're running the trace with must have the app installed on them.

Third-party tracking apps range widely based on price and capability. From accurately locating your loved ones from a distance to allowing you to spy on your kids' phone calls and messages, these applications come in all sorts of pricing structures: free, one-time and monthly payments.

The Bottom Line

Generally speaking, it is not illegal to track or trace a cell phone or computer that you own or have permission to access. However, laws differ widely state by state in the U.S. and it is a good idea to make sure that everything that you're doing is on the right side of the law to avoid possible repercussions.