How to Use the iPhone’s Compass and Level

Hang a painting or find your way home with your iOS device

Women using digital and analog compass devices.
Forget about that old compass. Use your iPhone's built-in digital tools to find your way.

 Getty Images/Hero Images

All Apple iPhones produced since the iPhone 3G in 2008 feature a digital compass and level, placing a few handy tools into your pocket at all times. Using the Compass application, you can quickly find your way north when needed or use the level to align that new painting you want to hang on the wall.

Using Your iPhone’s Built-In Compass

To access the compass, begin by launching the Compass app which comes preinstalled on all current iPhone models. The application is located on your home screen by default, but if it was accidentally deleted, it can be reinstalled from the App Store for no charge.

Compass app on iOS home screen.

Calibrating The Compass

Once the app is launched for the first time, you will be prompted to calibrate the compass by rotating your phone 360-degrees. To aid the calibration process follow the onscreen animation that Apple provides. Once your device is fully calibrated you will be presented with the compass itself.

Understanding The Compass

The most critical piece of information to note when using the compass app is to ensure that you are holding your iPhone parallel to the ground with the screen facing upwards. At the center of the compass there is a small circle with a crosshair in the center; ensure that your hand is parallel to the ground by tilting your hand to align the crosshair with the center of the compass.

Calibrating the Compass app on iOS.
Ensure that you are holding your device parallel to the ground by aligning the center crosshairs.

The entire compass is displayed with North (’N’), East (‘E’), South (’S’), and West (‘W’) as the primary four directions. A small red arrow, situated above the letter ’N,’ will always point North, while a long, bold white line at the top of your iPhone screen notes the current direction that you are facing.

Compass directions are typically expressed in ‘degrees.’ You can view the current degree of your course by either seeing what number the long, bold white line at the top of your iPhone screen aligns with on the outside of the compass circle or by referencing the sizeable textual number at the bottom of the screen. The current degree you are facing will update are you rotate your device; it will also showcase a letter notating which direction, North, East, South, or West, you are closest to facing at the moment.

Compass Tips and Tricks

If you wish to keep a close eye on the way you are headed, merely face your destination and tap the center of a red bar will now appear to show you how far off you are from your intended course. To make the red bar disappear when it is no longer needed, tap the center of the compass once more.

Utilizing the red bar within the iOS Compass app.
Utilize the red bar to keep track of your current course in the Compass app.

At the bottom of the screen, you will also find additional information noting your GPS position (longitude and latitude), current geographical location, and your elevation above sea-level.

Using Your iPhone’s Built-In Level

If you find yourself looking to hang a shelf or painting, you might choose to use the Compass app’s level function to ensure that it isn’t tilted or shifted off center. To utilize the level function, open up your Compass app once again, but once loaded, swipe your finger across the screen from right to left. You will now find yourself within the level function. To return to the Compass feature, swipe in the same manner from left to right.

Calibrating The Level

To begin using the level function, you will need to calibrate the app with a point that you already have deemed completely flush. A digital level can then note how far off your item is from being perfectly aligned with the original surface.

A green screen showing a calibrated Compass app for leveling.

As an example, if you are hanging a painting on the wall and wish for it to be level with the floor, you would place your iPhone flat against the wall, which tells the device you are working on a vertical axis. You would then move your iPhone either to the top or bottom of the wall so that the device’s edge is touching the ceiling or floor line; this step is essential as we consider the floor and ceiling to both be perfectly level.

As another example, if you are attempting to level a table, you would place your iPhone on the floor that the table will rest. This process tells the iPhone you are measuring in the horizontal axis and that you consider the floor to be level.

Man and woman hang up a painting on the wall.
 Getty Images/ Chris Ryan 

Once you are satisfied that your device is in a state that you consider level, tap the screen — it will momentarily turn green and display the number ‘0’. Your iPhone’s level function is now completely calibrated. Note that you will need to recalibrate your level each time you switch axis or wish to align something differently.

Understanding The Level

Begin by placing your calibrated iPhone level against the object you would like to ensure is level. If we return to our example of a painting, you may wish to place the level against the edge of the frame. As you rotate the canvas left and right be sure to keep the iPhone pressed up against it. The number on your iPhone screen will change depending on how off-center or perfectly leveled your object is in relation to what you initially calibrated.

Using the Compass app to completely level an item.
The Compass app will alert you to how far off you are from an object being completely level.

The number zero will display on screen when an object is entirely level, while a range of numbers will show when you are not; these numbers are expressed in degrees and allow us to understand how far off our object is from being level. Just continue to rotate your object in the appropriate direction to bring it back to zero — a state of perfect level.

Level Tips and Tricks

At any time in the leveling process, you can tap the screen to recalibrate your device if needed. Take note that when measuring in the vertical axis the screen will present you with two small lines on the left and right sides of the screen. When measuring in the horizontal axis, the screen will show you with two circles. Understanding what will be displayed in each situation can help you ensure that you are measuring within the right axis.