iPhone and iPad Tips, Tricks, and Tutorials

How Does Find My iPhone Work?

– Posted in: Testing and Experiments


Around three weeks ago, a buddy mine was at the gym playing racquet ball.  He saw a young kid, about 16 years old, lingering around where he had placed his iPhone 4S.  But didn’t pay too much attention to him at the time. When he finished his game his iPhone was gone.

Having been a friend of mine, he had his iPhone locked with a passcode and had Find My iPhone turned on.  When he got home he attempted to ping his phone but did not receive an updated location.  He called me wanting answers, but unfortunately I had none to give him.

Luckily, he recognized the turd who stole his phone as one who frequents the gym he goes to.  He saw the turd a few days later in the parking lot and politely confronted him.  I don’t remember exactly what he told the turd, but it was quite the elaborate bluff.  Sure enough, the next day he received a call from the gym stating that someone had dropped off an iPhone at their front desk which turned out to be his.

I can’t stand not knowing, so I set out to find out why he could not ping his phone.  My first idea was that his phone had been turned off.

Luckily I had my wife’s old iPhone 4 (I’ll refer to it as the test phone) to help me with my testing.  You’ll see why below.

I logged into my iCloud account and went into the Find My iPhone app.  My iPhone was turned on and soon located.

Once it was located I powered it down completely.  I then waited about 4 minutes and hit the refresh button from the Find My iPhone app.  Just as I suspected, I could not locate my iPhone.  While the other devices in the app said “Located 1 Minute Ago”, my iPhone said, “Located 4 Minutes Ago”.

I then pulled the SIM card from my iPhone 4S and turned it on.  I made sure it was not connected to Wi-Fi and refreshed again.  It now said “Located 7 Minutes Ago”.  In the “Play Sound or Send Message” option I sent a test message and left the “Play Sound” option on.  I received a message that said, “Actions will apply when this iPhone connects to the internet.”

I waited a minute or so and nothing happened.  I walked over to a known Wi-Fi base station.  As soon as my iPhone connected to the base station I received the sound and message.

It seemed as though the Find My iPhone feature was connected to my iCloud account and not my SIM card.  I wanted to confirm this.

I put my SIM card into the test phone and turned it on.  I left my iPhone next to the Wi-Fi base station.  I set up the test phone to “Enable Location Services” but I did not sign in to iCloud.  Because both my iPhone and the test phone were so close together that I would not be able to tell them apart on a map, I sent another message and sound.  Find My iPhone still connected to my iPhone 4S even though I was able to make phone calls from my test phone.

So what does all of this mean?  Find My iPhone or Find My iPad is tied to the device by your Apple ID.  If someone steals your iPhone or iPad and turns the device off, you won’t be able to locate it.  If your device’s SIM card is removed, you will only be able to locate it when it is connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot.

If anyone from Apple happens across this article (How cool would that be, huh?), please implement the following:

Place the SIM card inside the iPhone or iPad where it is only accessible by, say, removing the battery.  That way it will be less likely to be removed if the device is stolen.

Require the passcode to shut down the iPhone or iPad.  Maybe the following process:  Hold down the Sleep/Wake button until the red “slide to power off” slider appears.  Slide the slider and a keypad pops up with “Enter Passcode” above it.  Only if the correct passcode is entered will the device power off.

I think that by implementing those two features, a lot more stolen iDevices would be returned to their owners.  Or knowing these features are in place would prevent the thieves from stealing them in the first place.

So what do you think?  What other security features would be nice to have?  Let me know in the comments below.

Happy iOSing,



A big thank you to Frank for commenting on this post and bringing something to light.  In iOS 6, Apple implemented a “Lost Mode”.  This took the place of “Lock”.  I’m not sure exactly what iOS version this started in, but that’s not really an issue here.  Just know if you are running iOS 6 then this will apply to your device.  For Apple’s support article on this, you can check it out here.

While I didn’t spend a whole lot of time testing this, I was able to get a basic idea of what happens.  I was able to use my wife’s phone as a test subject.  Thanks honey!

I logged into her iCloud account and clicked on the Find My iPhone app.  Once the device was located, I clicked the green dot.  This will bring up the tag that identifies the device.  I then clicked on the “i” icon within that tag to bring up my options.  From there I clicked “Lost Mode”.

Clicking lost mode immediately locks the device if it is turned on and able to receive a signal (WiFi or Cellular).  The two following screens gave me options to enter a call-back phone number and a message.  I left them blank for this test.

According to Apples documentation, the phone will constantly update.  I did not find this to be true under the circumstances that I presented to the device for this test.  More on this subject below.

I then turned the iPhone off.  I was able to power the device down.  Sorry Frank, unfortunately it is possible to turn off the device.  But that would have been an awesome feature to have.  I then walked down to my mailbox (about 75 yards south of my house) and locked the phone into the box.  I came back and checked the devices location.  Sure enough, no update.

I returned to the mailbox and turned it on.  I left the device in the mailbox.  When I returned, it took a couple of minutes, but the devices location moved on the Find My iPhone map indicating it was near the mailbox I had placed it in.

I then retrieved the device, left it powered on, and brought it back to the house.  I waited 2-3 minutes to see if the location would change.  To my surprise, it didn’t.  I don’t know why either.  It could have been that the distance between my mailbox and my house was not far enough.  When I clicked the refresh button the location changed.

Because I did not get the dotted line with the past locations like shown in Apple’s documentation, I put the phone back into lost mode and took a drive with it.  After a 3-4 mile drive I returned to find, again, that no location history had been documented.  I tried different map views and tried refreshing the location but got nothing.

When I returned from my drive I noticed that the location had not refreshed for 14 minutes.  So my guess is that the location is only documented when you manually refresh it.  Which would be the typical scenario anyway.

If there is anything I missed please let me know.  If you have any further questions please ask.  I’ll update and answer as soon as I can.

Again, Happy iOSing.

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Frank April 11, 2013, 11:42 AM

As of iOS 6.0, I am positive Apple implemented a “Lost Mode” which does not allow the iDevice to be turned off.