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Cell phones require cellular towers and often run out of signal just when you need them most. This is where satellite phones come in.
They enable you to make phone calls from almost anywhere in the world because they beam their data directly to and from satellites orbiting Earth.
Sometimes referred to as sat phones or terminals, they are the communication devices of choice in areas with minimal coverage, such as sparsely populated or poor countries, government-restricted areas or when natural disasters wreak havoc with ground-based systems.
You don’t even have to be a back-country skier or wartime correspondent to justify a satellite phone purchase. If a cell tower goes down during an emergency, entire networks can be overloaded or fail entirely.
Satellite phones then become a critical tech tool that entirely bypass the local system. Rarely affected by even the most violent storms, these phones work virtually anywhere in the world.
Sat phones offer relatively basic functions, focussing on placing calls or sending short text messages. Nonetheless, they vary in price and quality, so we have reviewed five of the best options on the market right now.
Let’s take a look at some of the best satellite phones on the market right now.
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1. Best low cost product
Overview: A low cost product and service without the bells and whistles.
- Network: Globalstar
- SOS: No
- GPS: Kind of
- Water resistant: No
- Battery life: 4 hours talk time or 36 hours stand by
The Globalstar GSP-1700 is our favourite entry-level phone and despite being very affordable, it offers crystal-clear voice calls with decent regional coverage.
The GSP-1700 is the brand’s first and only phone (for now at least) and as well as being a bargain up front, the network’s service rates are extremely reasonable compared to others. Globalstar’s airtime plans offer over 50% savings versus the competition.
Similar to many of the more expensive phones, the GSP-1700 has automatic system select, meaning you just need to turn up the satellite antenna, and your phone will automatically seek out the Globalstar network.
If you require your remote conversations to be perfectly clear then this could be the one for you. Because Globalstar’s satellite phones link with cell ground stations, they have the best voice quality.
With 9.6 kbps data transfer speed, it is also the fastest in our list. Data speeds come in at four times faster than any other mobile satellite company and continue to improve. You can send emails or surf the web via the internet at speeds up to 56 kps.
However, it can’t send or receive SMS messages and while there is no GPS, you can get your longitude and latitude from the phone while in talk mode.
For those based in America, a local phone number can be acquired to make calling more affordable and the phone also has voicemail capability.
Prospective buyers should evaluate the coverage map to ensure they won’t be travelling outside of the network. For users in Asia, Africa and parts of Central and South America, you’re better off with Iridium or Inmarsat.
2. Overall value and all-rounder
Overview: Overall value and all-rounder, especially for those who get wet a lot.
- Network: Inmarsat
- SOS: Yes
- GPS: Yes
- Water resistant: Yes
- Battery life: 8 hours talk time or 160 hours stand by
One of the best things about Inmarsat’s phone is the global coverage with flat rate call charges.
Alongside this you can make voice calls, send SMS messages, and track your position with GPS from anywhere in the world (excluding polar regions) without worrying about high-cost roaming charges.
Although it doesn’t do data, it is practical and functional with a dedicated SOS button connecting to a GEOS dispatch centre for one-touch emergency notifications.
The battery claims one of the best talk times but we found that it depleted faster than this, with a 10-minute call eating 15-20% out of the battery.
The IsatPhone 2 satellite phone is designed to work in all weather conditions – from rain and dust storms, to searing heat, tropical humidity and sub-zero cold. This means that you can rely on it regardless of what adventure you’re going on.
In fact, Inmarsat has been a go-to option for emergency responders, journalists and military agencies for years. Also popular with maritime users because of its long battery and water resistance (though not entirely waterproof), Inmarsat guarantee a 99% network availability.
The dropout around the Poles is because it relies on geostationary satellites above the equator.
The IsatPhone 2 offers pretty good coverage worldwide and in areas where it sometimes struggles to connect, relocating to higher ground usually solves the issue.
The main gripe is the compromised sound quality and slight delay but these are a tradeoff for the smaller price tag.
You get all the basic functions including multiple language offerings, call history, caller ID, call waiting/holding and speed dial.
The compass makes finding the satellites easier as it displays a picture and advises you where to point the aerial – an upgrade on the older iSatphone Pro model.
The Emergency Assistance Button is a new feature and allows you to make a call or send a text alert to a pre-programmed recipient of your choice in under a second.
It alerts GEOS for search and rescue and medivac purposes, and if you have a Postpaid device this monitoring is free – an impressive feature also found in the expensive Iridium 9575 option.
This phone also has a tracking button that can be programmed to leave a breadcrumb type trail and alert people to your current GPS location.
Although not the most compact phone on the market, the user-friendly display, tactile buttons and weather-resistant housing are a plus.
3. Best for Great coverage
Overview: Great coverage and expedition quality without unnecessary ruggedness.
- Network: Iridium
- SOS: No
- GPS: Yes
- Water resistant: Yes
- Battery life: 4 hours talk time or 30 hours standby
Robust yet convenient because of its compact size, Iridium’s 9555 offers unrivaled coverage without the price tag of the flashier 9575 Extreme.
Iridium is well-known for its global coverage and we’re talking every far-flung corner of the planet.
This, alongside reception quality, is the reason that people will pay a premium. The Iridium LEO satellites, around 2,000 kilometres above, provide crystal-clear communications no matter where you find yourself.
The downside is that the constant satellite movement can cause signal dropouts.
If you’re taking a call for more than 15 minutes, you’ll notice a dropped call whilst the phone finds the next nearest satellite – particularly problematic in valleys and canyons where the line of sight is compromised.
With an intuitive user interface the 9555 has both SMS and email capability.
Another bonus is the headset and hands-free capability, allowing you to drive and talk as long as you have the car antenna also. The reduced phone size does unfortunately mean a shorter battery life.
If you just need basic features without heavy-duty ruggedness or backup GPS and SOS, then the Iridium 9555 should be on your shopping list. Just be sure to buy a second battery whilst you’re at it!
4. Best for Android touch and GSM
Overview: Features Android touch and GSM and has extensive battery life.
- Network: Thuraya
- SOS: Yes
- GPS: Yes
- Battery life: 9 hours talk time or 160 hours stand by
- Water resistant: Yes
Thuraya is not one of the leading satellite phone manufacturers but in a few years time we think it could be. The X5-Touch is the world’s first Android-based satellite phone and GSM cell phone, allowing users to switch seamlessly between satellite and cellular networks.
This sort of flexibility is totally unique and we were impressed by the ability to use two SIM cards simultaneously without any issues or setup complications.
Even the newest sat phones look like something out of the dark ages, so this Thuraya option stood out for us. Not only does is have a 14-centimetre full HD touchscreen, but you can install any apps available on Google Play or from other verified sources. This solidifies its use as a multi-purpose adventure and everyday phone.
The touchscreen is designed so that it can even be used when the display is wet or the user is wearing gloves.
Though the phone’s quality of calls is impressive, Thuraya’s coverage hardly touches North and South America. As such, it is left off many recommendation lists, and is worth taking into account. On their website they have a detailed map of countries in which it can be used – take a look before purchasing.
If you want something different then the Thuraya is for you, but if it’s just basic satellite communication you’re after then the price may be a put-off.
5. Best for Global Coverage
Overview: Full global coverage and great durability.
- Network: Thuraya
- SOS: Yes
- GPS: Yes
- Battery life: 4 hours talk time or 30 hours stand by
- Water resistant: Yes
Another option from Iridium, the Iridium 9575 Extreme is the manufacturer’s toughest handset ever. Because they are the only satellite network with truly global service (including the poles), this is your best bet for guaranteed coverage.
Engineered to support high-use customers in harsh conditions, this satellite phone is dust-proof, shock-resistant and jet-water resistant.
At 14 centimetres in length, it is actually one of the smaller phones in our lineup but still has an IP65 durability and a guaranteed function between -20°c and +55°c. Its rugged antenna is able to withstand a few drops and scrapes and show no signs of wear and tear.
If you’re prepared to outlay well over £1000, you’ll get more features and more accessories than any other satellite phone on the market.
Its integrated real-time tracking can be used to increase efficiency, improve military and emergency response, track assets or simply keep family and friends updated on your whereabouts.
This model offers emergency services supported by GEOS International Emergency Response Coordinating Centre included at no additional cost.
As well as GPS positioning, online tracking and a one-touch SOS button, users can send and receive text messages, emails, receive voicemail and chat hands-free.
The 9575‘s maximum data speed is only 2.4 kbps, so short messages work best, but the biggest issue is the diminished battery life, which is not all that good in any of the Iridium phones.
How to decide on the right satellite phone for you
The good news is that the satellite phone market is not as oversaturated as it is with mobile phones, thus making your decision a little easier.
There are three major providers that dominate – Iridium, Globalstar and Inmarsat – with smaller competitors cropping up from time to time.
All make great products but there are a few nuances to look out for when searching for your perfect phone.
This is the first thing you need to look at – even above price and durability. If you buy a great phone but it doesn’t offer any coverage or your calls repetitively drop out when you’re in the field then you could be risking life and limb. At best you will have just wasted a whole lot of money.
Iridium, Globalstar and Inmarsat are all backed by billion-dollar satellite networks, so quality of calls is guaranteed to some extent.
The best thing to do is look at their coverage maps online and check the destinations to which you intend to travel.
Iridium is the safest bet with 66 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites offering connectivity to 100 percent of the globe.
Inmarsat only has four satellites but due to their position 52,000 kilometres above the equator, they actually cover 90 percent of the planet – missing out only the poles – and this makes them a strong choice also.
Globalstar’s constellation of 48 LEO satellites is constantly improving but unfortunately huge sections of the world are outside their reach, making their phones a non-starter for some users.
Even once you’ve got the right phone for the right area, you will need to plan your communications a little bit. Satellite phones work best in relatively open spaces – when in cities you should try to get line of site (try a car park or green space).
Once you extend the antenna it finds itself on GPS and guides you to orient yourself to find a satellite. If you plan to use it in a car or house regularly, you will need to get a secondary antenna to go on the roof.
Before you splash out on the latest and greatest, evaluate the features you use and like. If you are happy with just GPS tracking and messages, you may need a satellite messenger rather than a phone.
Many phones don’t offer tracking, GPS navigational aids or detailed maps.
That said, they are constantly improving and prices are becoming more affordable. On top of which, in serious situations or when you’re at sea for weeks at a time, there is no price you could put on hearing a friendly voice on the other end of the phone.
Keep in mind the internet connection of these satellite phones can only handle low-data usage like email. If you need broadband access, look at options like the Inmarsat BGAN or Thurayas.
For many people a make or break is the phone’s safety features. If you’re heading into precarious situations, look for one-button SOS capability and the ability to leave a GPS breadcrumb trail – both of which can be found in the latest Iridium satellite phone models.
Size and Durability
Satellite phones vary in size and if you’re going to be carrying other gear on your back, the smaller the better.
If you really want to be weight savvy and you’re traveling in an area with Thuraya coverage, you might want to look into their SatSleeve, which turns your existing smartphone into a satellite phone, eliminating the need to carry two separate devices.
If you want more features, you’ll be looking at something closer to 20 centimetres and up to 500 grams.
Most satellite phones are weather-resistant, though very few are totally water and dust proof. Iridium’s handsets are tough, durable and have military-grade weather protection, whilst others are unlikely to survive a decent snowstorm unless inside a drybag.
This will be heavily dictated by the various traits listed above. If you’ve got a strict budget then you need to carefully consider the features you need.
Bear in mind that as well as the phone’s upfront cost, satellite airtime doesn’t come cheap. Pricing and quality are directly correlated, so you will get what you pay for.
If you’re not certain whether you need one yet, consider renting a satellite phone instead of buying. This is a great short-term option and allows you to assess different options before committing to the spend.
And a final note
Though satellite phones are perfect for sparse areas or developing countries with little coverage, you should research and pay strict attention to satellite phone regulations.
Some countries require permits that are paid for in advance or impose outright bans. Failure to comply results in hefty fines and India – where they are illegal – has even been known to throw travellers in jail for simply carrying a sat phone in their bag.
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Last update on 2020-07-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API