Do you travel a lot and find yourself regularly “off the grid,” or you are the sort of person who likes to go on adventures but still needs to stay in touch? Forget the smartphone.
You need a satellite phone.
OK, it might seem a little James Bond — calling it a “sat phone” adds to the secret agent vibe — but they are more widespread and accessible than you might think, and there are several options available.
Keep in mind a subscription is required to access a satellite network, and prices vary depending on the network you use, what kind of service you need, and how long of a subscription you are taking. Also, note that prices are far higher than for cellular networks and can reach eye-watering proportions.
Convenience of satellite and GSM
Is it a satellite phone? Is it a regular GSM phone? The Thuraya XT-LITE is both, all using a single SIM card. And better still, it automatically switches from satellite to GSM without any hassles… so no forgotten calls because you’re out of coverage.
A decent, rugged, no-frills sat phone.
Note that the Thuraya satellite network does not offer coverage in the US, so this is a sat hone for when you’re in other territories.
- Satellite and GSM
- Doesn’t offer global coverage (doesn’t cover north or south America)
- Battery life isn’t great
- Dimensions: 128 × 53 × 27 mm
- Weight: 186g
- Services: Satellite calls and satellite SMS
- Network frequency: L-Band
- Satellite antenna: Omni-directional (walk-and-talk functionality)
- Battery life – talk time: Up to 6 hours
- Battery life – standby time: Up to 80 hours
- Network features: Call barring, Call diverting, Conference calls, Call waiting, Closed User Group, Voicemail
- Organizer: Alarms, Calendar, Calculator, Stopwatch, World time
- External interface: UDC data cable with USB connector, earphone jack (2.5 mm), DC power
Garmin inReach Mini 2
Built-in satellite receiver that lets you send and receive SMS
A handheld GPS receiver with a built-in satellite receiver that allows you to send and receive SMS messages via the Iridium network.
Garmin actually makes many satellite-enabled devices, from the simple Garmin inReach Mini 2 to the Garmin inReach Explorer+. These combines the power of the Iridium satellite network with a handheld GPS receiver loaded with topo maps.
- Cheaper than a dedicated sat phone
- More features
- Not a true sat phone
- Dimensions: 2.04 x 3.9 x 1.03 inches
- Display: 176 x 176 pixels, sunlight-readable, monochrome display
- Weight: 3.50 oz
- Battery life: Up to 14 days in 10-minute tracking mode
- Waterproof: IPX7
- Interface: USB-C
Mobile satellite route
Now we move from a phone to a mobile satellite router.
Just fire it up, it connects to the Iridium satellite constellation, and you get enough data bandwidth to check emails, use Twitter, pull up weather forecasts, and limited web browsing. You can connect up to five devices to the Iridium GO! hotspot.
This is not a cheap kit, and is designed for those who truly want to go off-grid. It includes not only the Iridium GO! base station and AC travel charger with an international adapter but also comes with a solar charger and a desktop charger.
The Iridium GO! offers up to 15.5 hours of standby battery life and up to 5.5 hours of talk time.
- Acts as a satellite hotspot so that multiple devices can connect to it
- Good battery life
- Good selection of accessories
- Dimensions: 114 x 82 x 32 mm
- Weight: 305g
- Services: Satellite calls and satellite SMS
- Battery life — talk time: 5.5 hr
- Battery life — standby time: 15.5 hr
- Operating temperatures: 10 to 50 ℃
- Durability: MIL-STD 810F
- Ingress protection: IP65
Two-way device that looks like an old Blackberry
Another company that offers satellite trackers and messengers is SPOT.
There’s the SPOT X, which is a two-way device that looks a lot like an old Blackberry, the SPOT Gen3 Messenger, which allows the user to send check-in and SOS messages, and the SPOT Tracker, which allows tracking of things like cars and suitcases.
- SOS feature
- Low-cost solution
- Physical keyboard
- Limited features
- Physical keyboard is a bit small
- Dimensions: 166 × 38 × 24 mm
- Weight: 198g
- Services: Satellite SMS, automatic positioning, and SOS
- Battery life — 240 hours
- Operating temp: -20 °C to 60 °C
- Durability: MIL-STD-810G for shock
- Ingress protection: IP67
Inmarsat IsatPhone 2.1
Looks and acts like a phone
Now we move onto something that looks and acts like a phone. The Inmarsat IsatPhone 2.1 offers the ability to make and receive voice calls, SMS, track your position with GPS from anywhere on the globe. (Well, mostly, satellite coverage at the north and south poles is poor. Outside of those areas, people will get excellent coverage.)
The built-in lithium-ion battery offers 8 hours of talk time and 160 hours standby, and the entire package is IP65 rated for dust- and waterproofing. The price starts at $569 for the phone, charger, and SIM with no airtime.
- Fully-featured sat phone
- Near global coverage
- Good battery life
- Big and bulky
- Size: 16.9 x 7.65 x 2.9 cm
- Weight: 318 g
- Ingress protection rating: IP65
- Impact protection rating: IK04
- Scratch resistant color screen
- Micro-USB interface
- View/send GPS location as text or email
- Bluetooth for hands-free calling
- Programmable emergency assistance button
- Incoming call alerts when antenna is stowed
- Supports text-to-text: 160 characters
- Supports text-to-email: 160 characters
- Free web message-to-Isatphone 2
What is the best satellite phone?
It’s less a question of which is best, and more which is best suited to you. Three factors in particular come into play:
- What you need it for
- Network (and associated coverage)
|Satellite phone||Price||Satellite network||Coverage|
|Thuraya XT-LITE||$560||Thuraya||Europe, north Africa, Asia, Australia|
|Garmin inReach Mini 2||$390||Iridium||Global|
|SPOT X||$229||Globalstar||Close to global|
|Inmarsat IsatPhone 2.1||$2950||Inmarsat||Close to global|
Which is the right satellite phone for you?
Let’s answer this question based on what you want from a satellite phone.
|Choose this…||If you need…|
|Thuraya XT-LITE||A satellite phone that also acts like a smartphone but you don’t need satellite coverage in the US and South America|
|Garmin inReach Mini 2||Occasional satellite communication and SOS support|
|Iridium GO!||Want global coverage and need a to create a hotspot for multiple devices|
|SPOT X||A device for occasional use or in an emergency|
|Inmarsat IsatPhone 2.1||A classic satellite phone with global coverage|
How did I choose these satellite phones?
When choosing the best satellite phone, I considered several factors, including:
- Price: Cost is always a factor, especially for those who are going to use their satellite phone only occasionally.
- Availability: No point listing something that’s not in stock!
- Coverage: Not all satellite networks offer global coverage, so knowing this in advance is important.
- Use case: Are you looking for a traditional satellite phone, or do you want something more specialized like a satellite hotspot ort emergency beacon?
Isn’t the iPhone 14 a satellite phone?
Well, sort of.
Apple has added a feature called Emergency SOS via Satellite which allows owners to contact emergency services when in an area without cellular or Wi-Fi coverage.
Emergency SOS via satellite is free for the next two years, after which Apple plans to start charging for the service, although right now we don’t have a price.
This service is currently available in the US and Canada, and will roll out to France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK in December 2022.
Can a satellite phone replace a smartphone?
Not really. They’re big, bulky, expensive, and the data rates are awful compared to even 3G. They are mostly for emergencies and situations where a regular phone won’t work.
Which satellite network is the best?
It’s less about which is best, and more about what bits of the planet you want coverage on. Every network offers maps and details of coverage, and it’s advisable to check this at the time of purchase because coverage can (and does) change regularly.
Can you get a satellite phone that doubles as a regular phone?
How reliable are SOS devices such as the SPOT X of Garmin inReach?
In my experience, these devices are very reliable and are a great insurance policy for those heading out into the great unknown. But bear in mind that satellite communication is not fast, so forget the usual back and forth that you’re used to from services such as iMessage.
Are there alternative satellite phones worth considering?
Here are a couple of alternatives that are also worth taking a look at.
ZOLEO Satellite Communicator