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Do You Need Cellular in Your Apple Watch?

As you may know, I’ve started a new independent venture called Apple Buying Advice to offer quick Apple product advice to regular people who want to buy Apple gear but aren’t technology hobbyists. Front-page picks are intended to satisfy most people, and short guides go into further detail with the Jobsian intent of narrowing Apple’s increasingly overwhelming list of options.

My front-page Apple Watch pick is the GPS-only Apple Watch Series 7, and in the accompanying guide, I explained why I felt cellular connectivity is a waste of money for most people. Hoo boy, were you quick to set me straight! Many readers pointed out that a cellular Apple Watch is valuable for those whose clothes lack or have insufficient pockets, those who want to be able to call 911 from their wrist if they feel threatened, and those for whom the fall-detection feature could be a lifesaver.

Apple Watch Series 7

In my defense, I didn’t discourage cellular Apple Watches entirely. For the Family Setup feature, which lets you set up an Apple Watch for a loved one who doesn’t have an iPhone, cellular is required, quite reasonably. But since an Apple Watch configured via Family Setup does not support ECG or irregular heart rhythm notifications (among much else), I recommend the cellular Apple Watch SE for that purpose. It doesn’t have those features anyway, and it’s quite a bit cheaper than the Apple Watch Series 7, so why pay more?

Also in my defense, my wife always has pockets, even when she’s wearing a dress. But she’s not a good example since she once owned an Apple Watch and doesn’t want another, regardless of how it communicates with the outside world.

So who should buy a cellular Apple Watch? And who should save their money?

Reasons to Avoid the Cellular Apple Watch

First off, a cellular Apple Watch isn’t generally a way to avoid owning an iPhone. Unless another person in your family sets up your Apple Watch with their iPhone, you’ll need an iPhone anyway. And as I mentioned, watches using Family Setup lack some potentially welcome features.

The base price of an aluminum Apple Watch Series 7 is $399, and the cellular model is $499, a whopping $100 increase, or 25% more. But it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons across the Apple Watch line. For the $279 Apple Watch SE, cellular adds only $50—about 11% more. The luxury Apple Watch Edition and Apple Watch Hermès models are cellular-only, which simplifies things. So you can see—from a cost perspective—why I recommended the cellular Apple Watch SE but not the cellular Apple Watch Series 7.

You must also factor in the monthly service fee, which hovers around $10 per month or an extra $120 per year, plus taxes and additional fees. Although you’re fine if you use one of the Big Three carriers in the US—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—only a few smaller carriers and MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) support the Apple Watch, and even fewer of those support Family Setup. So if you’re like me or others who prefer to work with an MVNO that resells access to another carrier’s network, a cellular Apple Watch may not be an option (see “Consumer Cellular Offers Cheap, No-Nonsense Access to AT&T’s Cellular Network,” 12 July 2021).

Let’s say you buy a cellular Apple Watch Series 7 and pay for service for 4 years. That would increase the cost from $399 to $979—a $580 difference. Obviously, if you’re going to make use of that connectivity, it’s your money to spend, but if not, it’s a lot to waste.

Note that you can buy a cellular Apple Watch but choose not to activate it. Adam Engst took that path several years ago when he bought an Apple Watch Series 5 (see “Upgrading from an Apple Watch Series 2 to a Series 5,” 20 January 2020). That gave him the flexibility to pay for the cellular connectivity if it ever became useful to him (it hasn’t) and so he could pass it on to his wife Tonya, who relies heavily on the cellular capabilities of the Apple Watch (alas, she opted to buy a new cellular Apple Watch SE instead). The cellular capability might still improve the trade-in or resale value, and it will still call 911 if that ever becomes necessary for him.

Many people buy and activate a cellular Apple Watch only to change their minds later because the benefits don’t end up justifying the cost. In part, that’s because Apple’s built-in features like messaging and fitness tracking are the main win, not third-party apps (see “How I Finally Embraced the Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker,” 7 February 2022). For instance, you might think it would be helpful to be able to call an Uber from your wrist if you twisted an ankle while on a run, only to realize that Uber and other developers have given up on Apple Watch development.

Reasons to Get a Cellular Apple Watch

Let’s answer the core question: do you need cellular in your Apple Watch? My guess is probably not, but there are some good reasons to get it:

  • Separated from an iPhone: If you need to be out in the world without your iPhone, having a cellular Apple Watch gives you basic communication capabilities. This might be the case if you exercise without your iPhone or if you sometimes forget your iPhone due to a lack of sufficient pockets.
  • Increased safety: If you’re concerned about your personal safety while away from home, a cellular Apple Watch might enable you to place an emergency call more quickly or surreptitiously than with an iPhone. It could also help a family member see your location using Find My. And as noted, you can make 911 calls even without paying for an account.
  • Fall detection: If you’re concerned about falling and not being able to get up or call for help, the fall-detection feature on a cellular Apple Watch could trigger an automatic lifesaving call to emergency services or make it easier to initiate a manual call.
  • Family Setup: If you’re getting an Apple Watch for a child or senior who doesn’t have an iPhone, Family Setup requires a cellular Apple Watch.

Those are the most common reasons someone would need a cellular Apple Watch sufficiently to justify the expense. If you have other reasons—particularly apps that take advantage of cellular connectivity—please let us know what they are in the comments.

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Comments About Do You Need Cellular in Your Apple Watch?

Notable Replies

  1. I’d add that another argument for the Apple Watch with cellular, even if you don’t subscribe to a plan, is that you can still use it–even without a cellular subscription–to make 911 calls.

    Kevin

  2. What about my vanity?: I just like stainless steel, and it’s not available on non-cellular models.

  3. In my family we are a two iPhone and two Apple Watch family. I have a Wi-Fi only Watch SE because I always have my iPhone with me. My wife has Watch 5 with cell - because she very rarely takes her iPhone with her (that iPhone mostly serves as the “house phone” and stays in the house). The watch works to send and receive phone calls - better than we both expected - so the cell functionality has value for us. It is a lot of extra money over the years, though…

    David

  4. On Verizon, the fees for the Watch took the monthly charge from 10 to 17, almost double. That makes cellular even more expensive – I eventually just turned the plan off for my Series 3 and haven’t missed it.

  5. That must depend on where you live. In my state I pay Verizon $14.01 per month. Still not “ten dollars”, but better than $17.

  6. I bought my Series 4 with cellular and I never activated it. When I upgrade I probably won’t bother getting one with cellular.

  7. My wife has a ‘standard’ Apple Watch 7 and I have a cellular Apple Watch 6.

    I’m bemused by the costs of plans in the US compared to Australia. Down here I’m paying $49 per month for a plan which includes an additional $5 for the watch use. My previous plan was $75. Is it an extra $10-17 a month for the watch access in the States or is that the total cost of the monthly plan?

    I find cellular handy but not necessarily required. As a rock climber, there have been times I’ve taken a call whilst up a wall. I don’t carry my phone whilst climbing so the watch is a good option if you want to stay in touch. I also swim but haven’t worked out how to take calls without drowning…

    It’s also useful around the house when I might be in the shed working and my phone’s in the house.

    I’m glad I have it. If I was buying a new watch I’d probably pay the extra again. I only upgrade after 3 or 4 years so it’s not a major expense over the life of the watch.

  8. I don’t think I really benefit from cellular functionality, but that’s mostly because of the atrocious prices and signal coverage 'round 'ere; on the few occasions I’ve actually used it, it’s been a surprise more often than not that it worked at all, while I just happened to be briefly out and away from my phone. It was an impulse buy that I am unlikely to repeat. It’s not for fitness; it’s a convenience, albeit, a very pleasant one.

    The only thing I believe you can’t have with the Wi-Fi only models is remote notifications, i.e. notifications that are delivered to you whilst you’re connected to another network (including another Wi-Fi network), that originated from your phone. I’d love to be wrong about this, but that seems to be a cellular/mobile exclusive feature, and in the past with Wi-Fi-only models that never worked for me.

  9. We both gave the cell model v7 aluminum. It often activates the have you fallen when I was surprised. But I am 77 and sometimes stumble when out and about.

    When driving, i can tell Siri to text a message to my wife without taking my hands off the wheel. Driving instructions also are tactile on watch

  10. I’ve never been able to justify the extra expense of the cellular watch. I accidentally locked my purse in my car, complete with keys and iPhone, but I could still contact road service using my watch. As long as my watch is not too far away from my phone, I can do that, but of course, my phone needs to be nearby. Also, emergency services are accessible on the non-cellular versions.

  11. They are only if you have connectivity to the phone from the watch (or you have connection to WiFi and WiFi calling is turned on for your phone number.) The cellular version can contact emergency services in many countries even without activating a cellular plan if you are away from network connectivity and away from your phone, as noted previously.

  12. Trips to the beach in Sydney are less stressful when I can take my cellular AW into the surf and leave the iPhone safely locked in the car. Fortunately my car also came with a “wet key” that I can wear around my neck so nothing precious is left on the beach.
    The same applies to many water sports.
    Of course I can also buy a coffee or breakfast/lunch with the AW after a surf, but so can non-cellular AW owners.
    :blush:

  13. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m focused on the question of need, at least in terms of raw functionality. With Apple Buying Advice, I want to help visitors save money by recommending products with the most “bang for the buck.”

  14. So no one in this forum obviously has kids. Unfortunately one’s current options for kid cellular watches are these cheap junkie watches that I am sure are connected directly to some PCR servers :joy:or a discounted Apple Watch. I chose the latter. Picked up a series 5 for under $300. I’m a cheapskate $15 pm for each of my my lines so my family is on prepaid. I got around this by signing up for some UK cellular plan for an Apple Watch under $10. It works great. https://www3.truphone.com/consumer/esim-for-watch/#plans And it’s odd that I can’t sign up for this here in the US, obviously Apple has agreements with all the major carriers and pre paid folks are SOL.

    Of course this is an expensive option that’s why most people pay the $150 for the cheaper option. And the whole idea of kids having a device at age 10…… I can set up families mode and they’re not able to bug her around with it until after school. Of course the battery life isn’t very good and barely makes it through the day but the audio is good and the seller works unlike those cheap watches from what I’ve heard. Any cell phone use in school is verboten for for kids under certain age So the idea that I can turn it off for a set amount of time is great. Of course the little buggers have to remember to charge it and we only really need to use it once or twice a week.

  15. I have three! Eight years, three years, and eight months.

  16. I’ve had my Apple Watch without cellular offer to call for help when I’ve fallen hard while snowboarding, with my phone in my pocket. I think the part about needing a Apple Watch with cellular to have it call 911 for you when you fall is incorrect.

  17. In December of 2020, I bought my wife as a birthday present an iPhone SE and an Apple Watch SE. I did this because she would leave her phone in her purse uncharged or with the ringer turned off. Her friends quickly realized if they couldn’t contact her, they could text me to tell her. I became her secretary.

    This reached a head when her Israeli relatives started using my WhatsApp to call her. I don’t speak Hebrew, and few of them speak English, so you realize that fun.

    I bought her the non-cellular version because I have a non-cellular version and I never needed the cellular service. I always have my iPhone on me. However, my wife keeps her phone in her purse, and she doesn’t always take her purse with her. She’ll leave her purse behind if we’re going out shopping together or going somewhere. She doesn’t take her purse when we go hiking or when she takes her morning walks. That means people still contact me to contact her when she doesn’t respond to texts or messages.

    If I had to do it over again, I would definitely shell out for the cellular service for her. In fact, I’m thinking about buying another Apple Watch SE with cellular service for her, and taking over her old Apple Watch SE to replace my Model 3.

  18. I’m in the “safety” camp on this one for my 87-year-old mom. She’s had a cellular Apple Watch for three+ years, even though she’s an Apple iPhone owner as well. The fall detection works (we know from experience) and she doesn’t always carry her phone close by when on her three-mile walks around her neighborhood. She’s delighted to pay the small (less than $15 in her area) Verizon fee because, as she points out, it’s significantly less than the $50+ monthly cost of one of those alarms marketed to seniors. Plus, as she points out, she can wear her watch in the shower and it is much more “stylish” (her word) than the “ugly” button necklaces her peers so often wear. :smiley:

  19. My daughter is 9 years old, and at some point in the next few years I’d like to get her an Apple watch with cellular. It’s a very good alternative to getting her a phone. She can still call home (and we can call her), and the watch will be much less distracting than a full-fledged phone. It’ll also be pretty nice when she goes to camp in the summer - I can check and see how far away the bus is when I’m waiting for it to get back!

  20. Great to see you here, Tonya!

    Dennis

  21. I have a series 6 cellular which I activate regularly when outdoors running, walking, hiking,etc. I am in contact as may be needed, and I don’t have to pack the phone. I also can access other cellular services. So the extra expense is worth it for me.

  22. You need cellular if you are away from your phone and away from WiFi. In other words, if you were snowboarding without your phone in your pocket or nearby, with a cellular watch - even without active cellular service - you can call emergency services. You cannot with a GPS only watch, again, unless you have an active WiFi connection and WiFi calling is activated for your line.

    See Use Emergency SOS on your Apple Watch - Apple Support

  23. Uh yeah, I know this, but saying you need a cellular watch for calling 911 when you fall is incorrect. My non-cellular watch has offered to call, again, with phone in pocket.

  24. I am extremely pleased with my iWatch 6 cellular. My wife has one as well. I am able to call, receive cellular calls without my iPhone nearby. I am able to have Ring keep me in touch with visitors to my residence or to be to survey the boundaries of my home with Ring. I find my iWatch6 cellular at a minimum to be worth the expense if only to keep in touch with a loved one. And I concur with all who value this accessibility.

  25. The watch uses power at a higher rate when cellular is turned on which might be a concern for some users. Of course the cellular radio can be turned off as needed to reduce power usage.

    Normally I don’t need the cellular capability but I like the convenience provided by that feature. The added cost is something I accept for the flexibility of not always carrying a phone and ability to be contacted or to contact others at such times.

  26. I bought the cellular version of the AW6 for when I’m out running. I run distances up to marathon and the watch works fine for that (battery life is fine for that). I went from a Fenix 5 to an AW6 and would only go back to a Garmin if they implemented true cellular in their watches.

    The cellular plan for the watch here in Denmark is about 4.40USD so pretty much next to nothing, and it gives me the freedom of not having to carry my phone with me when training.

    So for me - yes I need the cellular option in my watch.

  27. Let’s just say that I might still be stuck in a room downstairs, without my luggage or phone, at Heathrow airport if it wasn’t for the fact that I have an Apple Watch with cellular service. Being able to contact my partner and update her was critical.

  28. Garmin has one now, the Forerunner 945 LTE. I’m not sure how well it works since I’m not that interested in LTE in a watch. I went from an AW5 with LTE to a 7 without because I rarely used the cellular connection on the watch. It’s expected that LTE will make it into other Garmin devices, but nothing has happened yet.

  29. I decided to get one for safety/backup reasons. I live alone and don’t have a land line. I often travel alone. If my phone’s battery ran out, got damaged, or was stolen, I still have a way to make phone calls and communicate with friends and family until I can get a working phone again. My laptop and a Wi-Fi network also work well as a backup for those situations, but the watch is more convenient and works away from a Wi-Fi connection.

  30. We’re not saying that you need a cellular Apple Watch to call 911, just that it becomes possible to do that even if you don’t have your iPhone with you or something renders it inoperable. It’s not inconceivable, for instance, that someone could be involved in a car accident where their iPhone is damaged, but they’d still be able to call for help. Or someone’s iPhone battery could die at the end of the day, but if they had a cellular Apple Watch, they could still call for help during a late-night walk home if necessary.

    All highly theoretical, of course, but that’s always the case when you’re insuring against possibilities.

  31. I originally got a cellular watch for my mother (she’s now 81), but after several years of paying $15+ a month to AT&T ($10 + “fees”) I realized she only used cellular about twice in all that time (and one of those was testing it).

    It turns out, she always has her iPhone with her. The one time she forgot her phone at home, she forgot she could use the watch without the phone!

    When I upgraded her to a new watch model with fall protection, I opted to get the wifi-only model. It has been just fine.

    Now, recently, she has become more aware of falls (a lot of her elderly friends have had incidents) and has commented that she’s a little worried that she might fall or have a medical problem without the phone nearby. We’ve tried going over scenarios of how that would happen and haven’t had much luck (if she falls in her apartment, the phone is within 30 feet).

    At least she is aware that she needs the phone, though her grasp on technology is a little iffy: she recently “lost” her phone and called me to help her find it. I was like “How are you calling me if you don’t have your phone?”

    “Oh, I’m using the car phone!” :man_facepalming:t3:

    Her phone had been “lost” under one of the car seats. :wink:

    I had her use her watch to ping the phone, but naturally she’d left the phone in silent mode (side switch) and it wouldn’t sound. The friend she was meeting helped her find it as I wasn’t nearby.

  32. That couldn’t have been it. The phone makes a sound when pinged from the watch even if the mute switch is activated.

  33. Now that is bizarre. I just tested it on my phone and watch and you’re right. I thought that was the case, but at the time she read me the error message on her watch which said, “Phone is in silent mode and can’t make noise” (or something to that effect). She tried it several times and it kept saying the same thing. I thought it was a pretty dumb limitation.

    Now I’m baffled.

  34. Sadly it only sends data to Garmin Connect with live updates (perhaps also a distress message, but no interaction) - you still can’t make or receive calls.

  35. Yeah, from what I understand it’s more like the cellular enabled Kindle; the cost of LTE is folded into the cost of the watch and you don’t really know where you’re getting LTE from. There’s no microphone and the “speaker” is limited to beeps, so no on watch calls and dealing with texts must be a nightmare with the usual Garmin text input UI. Garmin also has inReach, their satellite communications system, and I’m not sure whether they see that as the way forward or LTE. (From what I understand, inReach works anywhere and doesn’t require a cellular network, but what you can do with it may be more limited.) inReach is built into a few Garmin devices, and many more can relay through an inReach device. Will Garmin going forward just build in inReach or LTE?

    The Apple Watch is a much better smart watch than any Garmin watch, but the Garmin watches are much better fitness devices than the Apple Watch. That’s why I have both a AW7 and a Garmin Fenix 5+. Neither has LTE.

  36. Now that you mention it…
    Garmin Inreach works with the Iridium (corrected) satellite network and so works everywhere that you can see the sky. It provides basic text messaging capability (you are assigned a unique cellphone number) as well as weather info and mapping. It supports tracking so invited followers (literally) can see where you are via a webpage. There is a relatively high monthly subscription for the service but it could save your life in remote areas or when there is a natural disaster (or human-made disaster!).
    The Inreach device talks to the Garmin Earthmate iOS app that provides several more features but the UI is pretty clunky on both the Inreach “satellite radio” and the iPhone.
    Needless to say I have invested in one for trips in Australia where cellphone coverage is woeful. I understand that it will work in any country since it is not tied to the cellphone network or internet. However it might be illegal to use/have in countries like China.

  37. The wifi-only model can make surreptitious 911 calls and can call for help if you fall, as long as your phone or wifi is nearby. If you pretty much always have your phone with you, these are not reasons to get a cellular model. My wife has a cellular Watch because she likes to run without her phone My mother-in-law has one because my wife insisted that we pay for it.

  38. I’m pretty sure when I bought mine that the cellular had a larger battery (perhaps that’s no longer the case).

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