It’s easy to focus on the dystopian aspects of technology, but Apple has spent the last few years assembling a collection of features aimed at protecting its users against online and physical threats. They include Communication Safety (insulating kids from images and video containing nudity, enabled by parents), Sensitive Content Warning (warnings for everyone of received media containing nudity), Lockdown Mode (increased security for targeted users; see “Apple Adds Lockdown Mode to Protect Activists and Government Targets,” 6 July 2022), and Safety Check (audits settings to prevent inadvertent sharing). These features help you preserve mental and physical well-being and safety.
The latest addition is Check In, a feature built into Messages in iOS 17. It provides a valuable safety enhancement for your whole life that works essentially like your parent saying, “Call me when you get home so I know you arrived safely.” Check In lets you send a timer or a destination to a safety partner—a friend, relative, colleague, or anyone you trust who is also running iOS 17—that lets them know if you fail to check in after the timer ends or by the time you should have arrived at your destination.
Respond within 15 minutes of your iPhone prompting you, and Check In reveals nothing other than that you’ve literally checked in. However, if you fail to respond—or invoke Emergency SOS or have it invoked automatically, such as by a fall or crash—Check In sends details to your safety partner.
The best analogy to describe Check In is a security guard making their rounds in a building with a specialized alarm system. At specific time intervals, the guard must insert a key in a particular alarm box along their route—these days, that may be an RFID card tap or similar mechanism. (See this historic example from the Fritz Lang classic M.) If the guard fails to hit that point in their rounds, an alarm goes off, the police are called, or other consequences ensue. It’s hard to identify when something doesn’t happen in our day-to-day life—what I like to call negative knowledge. We are used to alerts, alarms, phone calls, texts, and knocks on the door to tell us something has occurred, or positive knowledge. When something fails to happen, we often don’t know about it until it’s too late. Check In builds on a mix of both positive and negative signals.
With Check In, Apple creates a process where your lack of response is an indication that you cannot respond—in other words, something is wrong and you can’t ask directly for help.
You might be familiar with a similar feature: the Uber app’s Share My Trip, added in 2016. Uber introduced it after concerns that a driver might abuse, kidnap, or terrorize a rider, rare as that is. In 2017, drivers received the complementary Follow My Ride to protect themselves against possible violence from riders.
Apple’s Check In has a much broader focus and could help identify people who are at risk, become lost, or suffer an injury. When such a person fails to respond to an alert, Check In’s notification could make it possible for their safety partner to prevent or quickly halt abuse or get someone emergency medical care—it could even save lives. I think the coming months will bring stories about people being saved by Check In like those about Emergency SOS, such as “Emergency SOS via Satellite Saves Lives in Maui Fires” (10 August 2023).
Check In Provides a Safety Backup
Life can be dangerous but, for most people, most of the time, only in sporadic, unanticipated situations. No one expects to be in a car crash, mugged while walking home, or caught in a wildfire. Nevertheless, there are occasions when harm is more likely, such as when you’re in a neighborhood in which criminals expect they can waylay people late at night or are driving a long distance alone. Check In is designed to help in exactly these situations, alerting your safety partner if you don’t respond to your timer or arrive as planned. It could be especially beneficial for children traveling without adults present.
Check In works for a range of situations that may be less obvious. Consider what happens if you are prone to falling due to being unsteady on your feet, may be at risk while recovering from a medical procedure or illness, or live with a condition like epilepsy that can produce infrequent but unexpected cognitive impairment or temporary unconsciousness. With Check In, you can have your iPhone automatically alert someone if something goes wrong rather than them needing to contact you repeatedly. (In fact, the one missing piece is a “recurring Check In” for those who would want to have to respond throughout the day to provide peace of mind for their loved ones.)
When you use Check In with a destination, you can specify the means of transport: driving, by transit, or on foot. Because Check In can access map and traffic data, it provides an estimated arrival time. As you move towards your destination, Check In adjusts the time at which it requires you to respond based on travel conditions and your location along the route. You can also add a time buffer if you anticipate being unable to deal with your iPhone immediately upon arrival or live somewhere with unreliable travel estimates.
Because Check In monitors your route, you’re alerted to respond if the route changes to move you away from the destination in a way that doesn’t match the initial travel instructions. On a recent trip to Maryland, taking public transit from the Dulles Airport required me to go 40 minutes east and then 40 minutes roughly northwest to reach a destination that was actually due northeast—that might have triggered Check In’s route alert, or it might have identified the route and felt I was on course.
If you don’t respond when Check In prompts you, the system notifies your safety partner. Apple also triggers the notification if you make an Emergency SOS call or are in a crash and your iPhone or Apple Watch calls emergency services automatically. If that happens, your safety partner will also receive information that would likely cause them to call emergency services for you, too—and be able to provide at least your current rough whereabouts and potentially your entire route and precise coordinates, depending on your privacy setting. (Apple hasn’t provided details about the server-side aspects of Check In, but it’s not heavily dependent on the hardware of the person who sent a destination or timer because the safety partner will still be notified even if your iPhone runs out of juice, is disabled, or doesn’t have a network connection.)
Check In provides a margin of error to avoid false alarms. Once its timer or location expects a response, a 15-minute countdown starts and plays an alert sound every 5 minutes until you respond. (Apple doesn’t document that alert sound, but we saw it in testing.) You must unlock your iPhone and tap a button to proceed. For a timed alert, ending the timer just updates the status of the safety partner’s Check In card; with a destination, they receive a simple message that you arrived as expected. If you fail to act within 15 minutes, Check In sends them information.
That’s the long and short of it. How to set it up is a little more complicated. I’m not sure Apple has streamlined the process as well as possible in the 1.0 release; I expect it will become easier to use in future updates.
How To Use and Configure Check In
The primary requirement for Check In is that both the person sending a Check In card via Messages and the person receiving it must have an iPhone running iOS 17; the person sharing a Check In must have a cellular connection to initiate the process. (Apple doesn’t list the cellular connection requirement in its support note, but if you try to send a Check In without one, an alert in the Check In card in Messages states the need.) Apple also says Check In is not available everywhere but has not so far released a list of supported countries. (Tell us your country and its availability in the comments!)
The first time you set up Check In, Apple provides more information and has you pick a privacy level. Let’s start with that privacy option, where you can choose either Limited or Full:
- Limited: Your safety partner sees the general area you’re in, the Apple devices with you, their network connections, and their battery life.
- Full: Much more data is sent to your safety partner, who can see your route from the start of the Check In to the current moment, your precise location, and the last times an iPhone or Apple Watch were unlocked or taken off your wrist.
Because your safety partner only receives information when you fail to respond to a Check In request or trigger an emergency call, I cannot visualize the reason to choose Limited unless you were sharing with someone you didn’t really know, like a concierge at a hotel. Even then, I would want emergency services or the police to know exactly where I went and where I was. So please pipe up if you can explain the utility of Limited beyond worrying about strict privacy.
You can change your privacy choice later at Settings > Messages > Check In Data. The Check In Data setting neatly lets you preview what Limited and Full look like, a nice presentation that I hope Apple brings to other features in which complicated choices could be far better summarized visually.
After that initial setup, here’s how the full Check In process works:
- Go to Messages.
- Pick a conversation or start a new one with one person. (Check In isn’t yet available for group conversations.)
- Tap the + icon and choose Check In. You may have to tap More to see it.
- A Check In card appears in the Messages conversation. Check In doesn’t let you pick between a timer and destination when you start but always shows a timer with some prefilled information: “Around time,” where time is about an hour in the future.
- Tap the Edit button to adjust the timer or pick a destination.
- Tap Edit.
- Use the time picker to select a duration.
- Tap Done.
- Check In confirms the time duration you chose.
- Tap the Send button in Messages to start the Check In.
To specify a destination, follow these steps:
- Tap “When I arrive.”
- Tap Change.
- Search for where you’re going. You can instead pick a location interactively on the map with pinch and zoom, but it’s awkward—press and hold to drop a pin on the right spot. You can select Small, Medium, or Large to set the arrival area, which is good for when you know you might have to park blocks away or feel safe within a certain distance.
- Tap Done.
- Now choose among Driving, Transit, and Walking, and tap your choice.
- Optionally tap Add Time to give yourself 15, 30, or 60 minutes beyond Apple’s estimate. Because Apple updates traffic and your destination time based on your ongoing position, you might not need additional time in many cases.
- Tap Done.
- Tap the Send button.
With either a timer or destination, the Check In doesn’t start until you send it to your safety partner. Notably, a safety partner doesn’t seem to be able to reject a Check In card—it’s not a request so much as a fait accompli. The recipient can only tap OK to proceed.
After starting a Check In, you can tap the card in Messages to add time to a timer, which is handy if something takes longer than anticipated (below left). However, you can’t change a destination. If your plans change, you can cancel a Check In by tapping the card in Messages. For a timer, tap once (below right); for a destination, tap Cancel Check In and then confirm by tapping Cancel Check In a second time. Your safety partner only sees that the Check In was canceled in such situations.
As a safety partner, each time you receive a Check In, iOS 17 provides a detailed explanation about what to expect, including the estimated end time of either timer or a destination-based Check In. It also suggests that you might want to set Check In notifications as Critical Alerts in Settings so that they arrive regardless of your Focus mode. You may receive an Allow prompt to enable that; otherwise, go to Settings > Notifications > Messages and enable Critical Alerts if desired.
A Check In ends successfully if you respond by tapping End within 15 minutes after being prompted when the timer ends with a duration-based Check In (below left). With a selected destination, you don’t have to do anything: when you enter the area you defined as your destination within the estimated time plus any specified buffer, you receive a notification that your Check In is over, identical to what your safety partner sees (below right). The card appears in both kinds of Check Ins as an update on both sides of the conversation with “Check In Ended.” As noted above, that’s it for timers; destinations also generate a simple message saying you’ve arrived.
Before you share a Check In with someone, have a conversation so they understand what you’re doing, how Check In works, and what they should do if you cancel or don’t respond. (If you cancel, your safety partner sees only that the Check In was canceled, potentially a point of weakness in that an attacker could coerce you to cancel the Check In.)
A safety partner will see one of two kinds of behaviors with a successful completion of a Check In:
- For a timer, the Check In card in Messages silently updates to a checkmark and a message that the timer ended of the kind shown above right.
- For a destination, the safety partner receives a notification that the other party has arrived and sees the message card update as in the figure at above right.
But there are five kinds of behaviors with a Check In that fails:
- For a timer, a failure to Check In within 15 minutes (as shown in the figure above left) results in an alert to the safety partner (below right).
- For a destination that isn’t reached within the travel time plus the buffer time (shown below left), the safety partner gets alerted if you fail to tap End or add time (below center and right).
- For a destination where the course diverges, you get alerted with a chance to respond. If you don’t, Apple alerts a safety partner.
- If Emergency SOS is triggered, the safety partner receives a critical alert.
- If the iPhone goes offline for an “extended period of time,” as Apple puts it, the partner gets a critical alert.
For all of the above cases where a safety partner is alerted, they can tap a notification or use a card in Messages (below left) that explains what didn’t happen and has a Details button to tap to bring up the limited or full details you allowed to be shared in this circumstance (below right, via Apple).
If you’re a safety partner, consider how you might act based on that conversation (or, in the less-good case, the lack of such a discussion) if the person doesn’t check in successfully. Sending them a text (“Everything all right? Your Check In didn’t end successfully.”) followed by a phone call is likely the best initial course of action, especially early on when people may not know how to use Check In well.
If your initial efforts to reach out are met with silence, you might start contacting other people—friends, family members, neighbors, etc.—or wait a bit longer before calling emergency services or law enforcement. After all, it’s possible that the person’s iPhone could have run out of power, lost all connectivity, or been accidentally damaged. Your reaction will depend on a wide variety of factors.
Of course, if an Emergency SOS were sent or triggered, I would immediately try to get municipal help. At least in the US, if the person isn’t in your area, don’t call 911. Instead, find the law enforcement website for where the person is and call that organization’s 10-digit number.
Once you and the people you’d anoint as your safety partners are running iOS 17, give Check In a try and see if it enhances your peace of mind. And be sure to tell us if it helps stave off some sort of emergency.