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Home / Features / What is Apple’s Emergency SOS satellite feature?

What is Apple’s Emergency SOS satellite feature?

Point up in case of emergency.

Apple's Emergency SOS satellite feature in use on iPhone 14

Just when you thought your smartphone couldn’t do anything else, they gained the ability to talk directly to the sky. Well, sort of. With the iPhone 14 range, Apple began including satellite connectivity tech in its handsets. This tech gets used in a flashy new feature called Emergency SOS.

While satellite communication sounds rather swish, it’s reserved for emergencies only. That means no phone calls to ET, you can put your tin foil hats away! But rather, your iPhone can take advantage of satellites already in the sky to contact the emergency services when you’ve got no other options. It’s actually a rather important feature – one that you hope you never have to use, but could save your life.

But what actually is Apple’s Emergency SOS satellite feature? And how does it work? Here’s our guide breaking down everything that you need to know.

What exactly is Apple’s Emergency SOS satellite feature?

Mobile signal proves to be a major problem in rural areas, even since the advent of the mobile phone. It can result in quite the predicament during emergencies. Ever been stuck in the middle of nowhere in an emergency with no signal? We certainly hope not, but it’s definitely happened before. Thankfully, Apple’s flagship Emergency SOS feature aims to change this. It provides users with easier access to help during emergencies.

The feature allows iPhone models (starting from the 14 series) to connect to satellites when the phone doesn’t have a regular cellular connection. Rather than pinging off mobile towers, your iPhone can connect to satellites that are in low Earth orbit. Initially, the feature rolled out to the US exclusively, but made its way to the UK and other European countries.

Apple’s aim for Emergency SOS is to provide further reach to the emergency services if you couldn’t otherwise reach them. For example, if you’re stuck up a mountain trail and injure yourself but have no signal, Apple’s feature would allow you to reach the emergency services.

How does Emergency SOS work, and how do I use it?

Apple iPhone 14 emergency SOS screenshots

To use Apple’s Emergency SOS, you should attempt to ring your local emergency services as usual. If you don’t have any signal, your iPhone will prompt you to use the emergency feature. Thanks to some snazzy software (and extra hardware inside), your iPhone will guide you to point your handset towards the satellites in the sky, so you can reach a stable connection.

Once connected to the satellite, you’ll be able to send emergency texts to emergency services. This is just like calling 999, 911, or your equivalent, but over text rather than a phone call. Emergency SOS uses Apple’s more sophisticated SMS replacement. If your local services don’t support texts, Apple will run these texts through local relay centres to get you connected to help.

Your iPhone will show you a short questionnaire which is transmitted to dispatchers in the initial message, so you can alert help if you need it. Alternatively, you can provide extra information of your own, though this is limited to a character restriction. Once received, the emergency services will communicate back with you. They might ask for extra information, or let you know that help is on the way.

What’s the catch?

Apple’s SMS replacement service can only send small amounts of data at a time, as it’s an awful lot harder to transmit data to satellites. So, you’ll find that there’s a limited character count for messages. This is why you’re presented with a questionnaire at first – to try and send all necessary information as efficiently as possible. If you do need to shoot over further details, try to be brief.

Helpfully, you can also share your Medical ID with emergency services, and your location with both emergency services and emergency contacts. This will help to save time in getting help on the move, and mean that there’s less back and forth between everyone involved.

Don’t expect satellite connectivity to expand to any other functionality in the near future. It’s incredibly unlikely that the newfangled tech will ever support checking your emails or social media. Satellite connectivity isn’t designed for a cellular replacement – it’s reserved for emergencies.

When the feature launched, Apple explained that iPhone users get two years of the service for free, but then have to pay an undecided subscription amount. It’s unclear how this subscription might work, or when it would come into play. Expect to hear more about this from Apple when it becomes relevant.