Looking to go off the grid? A satellite phone is an essential tool to help you maintain some contact with civilian life. Unlike cellular phones, which are limited to places with cell towers, satellite phones allow people to make phone calls from virtually anywhere on the planet. This capability makes satellite phones the ideal choice for those whose adventures take them well away from civilization.
Not all satellite phones are alike, however. They can range dramatically in the amount of coverage they provide, and in voice clarity, battery life, and durability, making choosing the right one for your off-grid excursions a challenge. This guide will cover what features you should consider when shopping for a satellite phone and our picks of the best satellite phones on the market.
— Best Overall: Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone
— Best Combo: Thuraya X5-Touch
— Best for Backpacking: Garmin inReach Mini
— Best for Global Coverage: Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone
— Best for Teams in the Field: Icom IC-SAT100
— Best Smartphone Extender: ZOLEO Satellite Communicator
— Best Two-Way Messenger: SPOT X Satellite Messenger
— Best for Hiking: Garmin GPSMAP 66i Hiking GPS
How We Picked the Best Satellite Phones
I used various criteria in reviewing more than a dozen top satellite phones for our list of the top five models. For a satellite phone to be useful, it needs to work where conventional cell phones do not. With that in mind, I leaned toward phones with better global coverage, but that wasn’t all I considered when it came to coverage. Even if coverage is global, a phone isn’t much good if the connection is poor, so I favored models with high ratings for voice clarity. Satellite phones are typically taken to rugged environments, so I chose models with at least an IP65 rating, which means they can survive a good dousing without being damaged. Since satellite phones must often function for long periods between charges, I chose models with longer standby and talk times. Since usage fees can be steep for satellite phones, I leaned toward phones with reasonable monthly rates.
The Best Satellite Phones: Reviews & Recommendations
Best Overall: Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone
Why It Made The Cut: Iridium has the best global coverage of any satellite phone we reviewed, along with excellent voice quality.
— Product Dimensions: 5.5 inches L x 2.4 inches W
— Battery Life: 30 hours standby, four hours talk time
— Weather-Resistance: IP65
— Impressive voice quality
— Global coverage
— Comparatively compact size
— More expensive than other satellite phones
— Short battery life
The mark of a great satellite phone is its ability to work just about anywhere in the world, which is why the latest Iridium model, the 9575, tops the list as the best satellite phone overall. While its battery life may not approach the 8 or 9 hours of other models, the phone provides perhaps the most comprehensive coverage of any satellite phone with global service. And though it's one of the more expensive satellite phones when it comes to voice calls — a 90-minute plan will cost you $100 a month — Iridium is highly regarded for the clarity and reliability of its service. You’ll still experience dropped calls and dodgy service when the phone’s line of sight to the sky is blocked, but at a much lower rate than with other satellite phones.
The Extreme 9575 also includes an SOS button, which is accessible at the top of the unit under a cover. Press the button, and, after a 20-second delay, the phone will send an emergency message with GPS information every five minutes. The Iridium’s battery life is shorter than other phones’, with a talk time of four hours, but you’ll want to keep those calls brief; Iridium’s talk plans are among the priciest, at $70 a month for 60 minutes. You can purchase a backup battery if you need more talk time. The phone itself is also one of the more expensive on the market, but you can find it for as little as $1,000.
Best Combo: Thuraya X5-Touch
Why It Made The Cut: This is the only satellite phone we could find with smartphone capabilities.
— Product Dimensions: 5.7 inches L x 3.1 inches W
— Battery Life: 100 hours standby, 11 hours talk time
— Weather-Resistance: IP67
— Large full-color touch screen
— Compatible with Android apps
— Rugged IP67 construction
— No coverage of the Americas
The Thuraya X5-Touch is limited when it comes to coverage, and it struggles with download speed, but for those who have to have a smartphone with satellite capability, there really is no other choice. The X5-Touch runs on the Android operating system and supports Android-compatible apps. A 5.2-inch, 1080-pixel touch screen gives X5 an interface that users of regular smartphones will appreciate. Just keep in mind that those apps will be markedly slower than on a smartphone. While 60 Kbps (kilobits per second) is fast for satellite data transfer, it’s a snail's pace compared with the 25 Mbps (megabits per second) of a truly high-speed connection that you’ll get on a smartphone. You’ll also pay for that smartphone functionality. At nearly $1,200, the Thuraya is one of the more expensive phones on the market.
With just two satellites at its disposal, Thuraya’s coverage is also very limited. It works only in Australia, the northern half of Africa, Europe, and most of Asia. There is no coverage for North or South America. Beyond those specs, the Thuraya gets a respectable six hours of talk time, has an SOS button, and is fairly compact in size.
Best for Backpacking: Garmin inReach Mini
Why It Made The Cut: The Garmin inReach offers the longest battery life of any satellite messenger we reviewed.
— Product Dimensions: 4 inches L x 2.4 inches W
— Battery Life: 90 hours standby
— Weather-Resistance: IP67
— Long 90-hour battery life
— Allows family members to track devices with a username and password
— Compact size ideal for backpacking, biking, and hiking
— Four-button design makes writing messages tedious
— No talk ability
The Garmin inReach Mini is not a satellite phone, in the sense that it does not have the capability to make voice calls. It does, however, connect to satellites to allow you to send texts from pretty much anywhere, making it useful for sending brief messages from the wild to worried family members. I say brief because the phone’s four buttons make it tedious to type out longer messages. Even if you opt not to send out texts with the phone, your loved ones can log in and follow your progress on a map as long as the inReach Mini is on.
And, since it has a standby battery life of 90 hours, you can go on long treks without power and still stay connected. As with a satellite phone, there’s an SOS button that allows you to communicate with a GEOS center to call for help. In terms of size, the Mini is notably smaller than a standard satellite phone, at just 4 inches long and 2.4 inches wide. The size, long battery life, and features make it the ideal choice for those going deep into the woods on a backpacking, hiking, or mountain biking adventure.
Best for Global Coverage: Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone
Why It Made The Cut: Made by the company that offers the best global satellite phone coverage, the Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone packs durability and reliability into an easy-to-use package.
— Dimensions: 5.63 inches L x 2.17 inches W
— Battery Life: 30 hours standby, four hours talk time
— Weather-Resistance: IP65
— Built to work with Iridium’s satellite network
— True global coverage
— Compact size
— Tough exterior
— Expensive monthly plans
As operators of the largest network of satellites used for satellite phones, it’s not surprising Iridium makes our list twice. Built to work on their network, the Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone is plenty rugged, even if it’s not quite as bombproof as our top pick, the Iridium Extreme 9575. But keep in mind, the 9555 comes in nearly $1,000 cheaper than the Extreme. With its compact size, physical dial pad, and illuminated display, the phone looks like that old school Nokia your parents had back in the ‘90s. It even has a pull out antenna for better connections. The main difference is that pulling out the antenna on this phone allows for voice calls from the North Pole.
Battery life is on par with the Extreme, giving you 30 hours on standby and four hours of active talking. If running out of juice is a worry, extra batteries for the 9555 are available for about $30. The phone supports SMS (texting) and emails, though you’ll have to use the 12-key dial pad to type. If that feels like another throwback to 1995, the 9555 makes up for any retro vibes with its extensive satellite network. Iridium currently operates 66 active satellites, all circling Earth in a low Earth orbit (LEO). The paths of those satellites converge at the poles, meaning you truly get global coverage. And since each satellite is cross-linked to other satellites, if something goes wrong with one satellite, your calls will still make it through.
Iridium doesn’t offer plans directly, they outsource service coverage to providers like Bluecosmo, RoadPost, and Satellite Phone Store. Plans tend to offer the best value at the 100-minute level, which average around $100 per month. Each plan includes different amounts of texting and each has different overage and activation fees, so it’s best to shop around to find the plan that fits with how you’ll use the phone.
Best for Teams in the Field: Icom IC-SAT100
Why It Made The Cut: For communications between a team, Icom’s IC-SAT100 push-to-talk phone offers a rugged way to stay connected over Iridium’s vast global network.
— Dimensions: 5.31 inches L x 2.28 inches W
— Battery Life: 14.5 hours standby, seven hours talk time
— Weather-Resistance: IP67
— Fast communication over Iridium’s network
— Less expensive than other Iridium PTT phones
— Interoperable with other radios and phones
— No standard phone call capabilities
A little different from a standard satellite phone, this Icom IC-SAT100 is a push-to-talk (PTT) handset. PTT phones are literal lifesavers when groups like rescue workers, utility teams, off roaders, or field units need to stay in contact with one another when cell towers are nowhere in sight. Unlike satellite phones that can make a call to anyone, PTT phones work a little like walkie talkies, in that you’re communicating with other people who have a similar device and are talking on the same “wavelength” (in this case, it’s other people within your “talkgroup”).
The IC-SAT100 only works on Iridium’s satellite network, but like we said above, that’s the only network providing true global coverage, North and South Poles included. Iridium offers their own PTT phone, but Icom’s version will save you around $500 on the purchase price. PTT phones are a little more involved than a standard satellite phone, with the most obvious difference being that you’ll need more than one handset in order to talk to anyone. Luckily, the IC-SAT100 is compatible with other PTT phones running on Iridium’s network. Instead of a regular satellite plan, you’ll opt for an Iridium PTT plan, which costs between $60 and $125 per month, per device and has add-on fees depending on the size of the area you want your service to cover. You’ll also need to set up talkgroups using the Iridium PTT Command Center via their website. Once that’s done, anyone on your team can get a hold of anyone else on the team, no matter where they are.
Best Smartphone Extender: ZOLEO Satellite Communicator
Why It Made The Cut: Ideal for those who occasionally journey away from civilization, the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator is an easy way to extend the messaging capabilities of your smartphone, while providing critical emergency support.
— Dimensions: 3.58 inches L x 2.6 inches W
— Battery Life: 200 hours
— Weather-Resistance: IP68
— Uses Iridium’s global satellite network
— Familiar smartphone app interface
— Long battery life
— Reasonable monthly cost
— SOS function
— No voice calling
Looking a lot like a big retro pager, ZOLEO's satellite communicator links up with satellites (again, Iridium’s network) to extend the coverage of your smartphone. Using the free ZOLEO app, you can send and receive texts over WiFi or cellular when you’re close to civilization, or via satellite when you’re off the grid.
The device itself is tough, with an impressive IP68 rating, meaning the device can survive up to a half hour submerged beneath four feet of water. And with 200 hours of battery life, you’ll get a ton of use before needing a charge. In addition to messaging functions found within the app, the ZOLEO itself has two critical operations: a check-in button and an SOS button. The check-in button will send info like your location and a short message to your contacts — even if your smartphone is dead. Just set up the info you want sent, and to whom, via the app beforehand. The SOS button is protected beneath a cover so you won’t accidentally trigger it, but when you need help, pushing the button will send your SOS message and coordinates to an emergency response team.
As with all satellite devices, you’ll need a service plan for the ZOLEO to work. In this case, you buy the plan directly from ZOLEO and 250 satellite messages run $35 per month. Keep in mind, when you’re within standard service areas, the ZOLEO app will run on your existing cell coverage, and messages don’t count against your monthly allotment.
Best Two-Way Messenger: SPOT X Satellite Messenger
Why It Made The Cut: Rugged yet inexpensive, Globalstar’s SPOT X satellite messenger lets you connect with friends, family, or emergency services from almost everywhere on the globe.
— Dimensions: 6.54 inches long by 2.9 inches wide
— Battery Life: 240 hours in 10-minute tracking mode
— Weather-Resistance: IP67
— Communicate via smartphone or through the device
— Extra long battery life
— Full QWERTY keypad
— Low monthly price
— No voice calling
The second-largest network for satellite phones is operated by Globalstar, and the SPOT X is their flagship consumer product. The rugged device can handle a dunk in three feet of water for up to 30 minutes and will still function at temps of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Like the ZOLEO, the SPOT X connects to your phone via Bluetooth using the free app, allowing you to send and receive messages on your phone when you’re away from cell coverage. Thanks to the built-in keypad and display, you can also type and read messages using the device itself.
Geared towards outdoors folk, the SPOT X lets you use the satellite capabilities to map your progress through the backwoods, pinging your location at regular intervals (from every 2.5 minutes to every hour). There’s a built-in compass to keep you from getting lost and an on-device check-in button that sends your coordinates to pre-selected contacts. If you get in trouble, the SOS button connects directly to search and rescue services. Like Iridium, Globalstar satellites move in a low Earth orbit for faster connections. Their coverage includes a large portion of the globe, though they have service gaps in parts of Africa, Alaska, Asia, and South America. Plans are serviced by Globalstar and they’re among the cheapest satellite plans out there, with unlimited messages for $30 per month on the annual plan, and other per-month plans to choose from.
Best for Hiking: Garmin GPSMAP 66i Satellite Communicator
Why It Made The Cut: Combining the best of GPS mapping and satellite communication, Garmin’s GPSMAP 66i is perfect for hikers who want to leave the grid while staying connected.
— Dimensions: 6.4 inches long by 2.5 inches wide
— Battery Life: 35 hours in 10-minute tracking mode
— Weather-Resistance: IPX7
— Detailed map screen
— Pre-loaded and downloadable topographical maps
— Global SOS support
— No voice calling
Like Garmin’s inReach Mini that we recommend above, the GPSMAP 66i operates on Iridium’s global satellite network. And like the inReach Mini, this device allows for two-way communication with your contacts, no matter where you roam. The major difference here is the map function. While any satellite communicator lets you call for help if you lose your way, the 66i offers topographical maps to make sure you don’t get lost in the first place. TopoActive maps of the US and Canada come standard, and you can buy and download maps for South America, Australia, Iceland, and more from the Garmin map store.
The SOS button is protected so you don’t accidentally trigger it and the location tracking function allows you to share your location with friends and family. That’s primarily done through Garmin’s MapShare, in which you send a personalized URL to your contacts that they can use to track your location in real time via the web. To grant even wider access to your explorations, the 66i will let you send posts to your social media accounts.
Pairing the device with Garmin’s Explore app on your smartphone lets you access weather updates, and ABC sensors for altitude, barometer, and compass functions are built into the device. The subscription plan is the same as for all inReach devices, running about $50 per month for unlimited messaging on the annual plan, or as low as $15 a month for ten messages. Additional maps will run you anywhere from $20 to $120.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Satellite Phone
A satellite phone isn’t of much use if it doesn’t work in the far reaches of the world in which you plan to use it. While some satellite phone services have numerous satellites that allow them to span (or nearly span) the entire globe, many have limited coverage that may exclude entire continents. Check coverage maps when shopping for a satellite phone to ensure it meets the demands of your travel itinerary.
Satellite phones are designed to allow one to communicate remotely in places that lack conventional cell phone coverage. Those locales are typically rugged with little in the way of civilization, so a satellite phone must be built to endure harsh weather conditions. With this in mind, a good satellite phone should have at least an IP65 rating, which means it can endure low-pressure water spray such as rain or splashes from a river from any direction. IP67 is fully waterproof, which means you can submerge the phone in water as deep as 1 meter for up to 30 minutes without damaging it.
Battery life for satellite phones is broken down into two categories: standby time and talk time. Standby time is the number of hours the battery will last when the phone is on but not being used, while talk time is the number of hours of use one can get out of a phone before exhausting it. Most satellite phones will get about 30 to 40 hours of standby time and 4 to 8 hours of talk time.
Q: What is the most reliable satellite phone?
With 75 satellites orbiting Earth, including 66 operational ones and nine backups, Iridium offers the best coverage of any satellite phone provider. This comprehensive coverage makes the Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone one of the most reliable satellite phones you can buy.
Q: Can satellite phones be tracked?
Since satellite phones have a GPS device inside of them that connects to a satellite, they can be tracked. Satellite phones use encryption to protect them from attacks by hackers; however, they aren’t 100 percent secure. There are cases of journalists and aid workers being tracked down via their satellite phones while working in war-torn countries. Satellite phones’ ability to be tracked makes them unsafe to use in situations where privacy or protecting one’s location is critical.
Q: Is it illegal to own a satellite phone?
Satellite phones are restricted or illegal in some countries, so it’s vital to check a country’s laws regarding satellite phones before traveling with one. Countries in which satellite phones are restricted or illegal include China, Russia, and India.
Q: Why are satellite phones so expensive?
The reason satellite phones are considerably more expensive than cellular phones is due mainly to scale. Satellite services have a significantly smaller number of customers than cellular services. This forces satellite phone providers to charge more for their devices and services in order to pay for the costs of the network and developing equipment.
Q: Are satellite phone calls free?
Satellite phone calls are not free. Like cellular phones, satellite phone services charge monthly rates for usage. Rates for satellite phones are higher than rates for cellular service. A typical satellite phone plan costs about $70 a month for one hour of talk time with steep additional talk-time rates of more than $1 per minute.
Q: How long do satellite phones last?
Satellite phone batteries typically get around 30 hours of standby time, depending on the age of the battery and how hard the phone must work to locate and connect to satellites. Satellite phone talk time varies from 4 hours to as much as 9 hours, depending on the phone.
Related: Best Android Phones of 2023
Final Thoughts on Satellite Phones
Though it's pricier than other satellite phones on this list, global coverage coupled with long battery life and excellent voice clarity makes the Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone worthy of trips to the far corners of Earth.
This post was created by a non-news editorial team at Recurrent Media, Futurism’s owner. Futurism may receive a portion of sales on products linked within this post.