Do Apple AirTags Use GPS to Track Location? A Comprehensive Guide

Affiliate Disclaimer: If you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you!
Photo of author

Jack Lin

Does Airtag Have Gps

As a technology journalist who has tested countless tracking devices over the years, a common question I get is whether Apple AirTags use GPS to determine location. Having thoroughly tested AirTags since their release, I can definitively say that the answer is no – AirTags do not contain GPS chips or use satellite-based positioning. Instead, they rely on a clever combination of Bluetooth and crowdsourced location data from Apple’s vast Find My network.

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll explain exactly how AirTags pinpoint their location, factors that impact accuracy, step-by-step instructions for setting them up, and expert tips to get the most out of these handy tracking devices.

What is GPS and How Does It Work?

Before diving into how AirTags function, it’s helpful to understand what GPS is and how it differs from the location technologies used by AirTags.

Gps

Global Positioning System Explained

GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System, is a satellite-based navigation system owned by the U.S. government. Originally developed for military use, it was opened up for civilian use in the 1980s and now features in everything from smartphones to fitness watches to aircraft navigation systems.

The GPS network consists of 24 main satellites orbiting 12,500 miles above the Earth. These satellites constantly transmit radio signals containing their location and the precise time the signal was sent.

How GPS Determines Location

GPS receivers, like those in smartphones, pick up these satellite signals and calculate how long it took each signal to arrive. By measuring the time delay from at least four different satellites, GPS receivers can determine their precise location on Earth through a process called trilateration. Key data points provided by GPS include:

  • Latitude
  • Longitude
  • Elevation
  • Highly accurate time

While GPS is the most well-known satellite navigation system, other countries have developed their own equivalents, like GLONASS (Russia), Galileo (European Union), and BeiDou (China). Collectively these are referred to as GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems).

How Do AirTags Track Location Without GPS?

Airtag

Now that we understand how GPS works, let’s examine the technologies AirTags use to accomplish similar location tracking functionality without using GPS satellites.

AirTags Use Bluetooth, Not GPS Chips

The first key thing to note is that AirTags do not contain any GPS receiver hardware. Apple has confirmed there are no GPS chips inside AirTags. Instead, each AirTag contains:

  • A Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radio
  • An Ultra Wideband (UWB) radio
  • A built-in speaker
  • A replaceable CR2032 coin cell battery
  • A U1 chipset (handles UWB communications)

The lack of GPS is why AirTags can’t provide real-time tracking or location history – they simply don’t have the hardware required to communicate with positioning satellites.

Communicating with Nearby Apple Devices

So if AirTags don’t use GPS, how exactly do they determine their location? The answer lies in Apple’s sprawling Find My network.

Every active AirTag constantly emits a secure Bluetooth signal that can be detected by any nearby iPhone, iPad or Mac that has opted into the Find My network. When these devices come within range of an AirTag (around 30-50 ft outdoors), they pick up its Bluetooth identifier, tag the AirTag’s approximate location using the device’s own GPS, and relay this location data (along with a timestamp) up to Apple’s iCloud servers where it can be accessed by the owner through the Find My app.

This crowdsourced location data is end-to-end encrypted and anonymized to protect user privacy. Apple devices never have access to AirTag ownership details, and AirTag owners never see any specifics on which devices their AirTags utilized to report its location.

Precision Finding with Ultra Wideband

While the Bluetooth/Find My combo allows AirTags to report their general whereabouts, it’s not precise enough for close-range retrieval. This is where the Ultra Wideband radio comes in.

iPhones and Apple Watches equipped with the U1 chip (iPhone 11 and up) can take advantage of Precision Finding to get real-time directional guidance towards an AirTag once within 15-30 ft.

UWB utilizes radio waves in a high frequency band (between 6-8.5 GHz) that allows for spatial awareness and highly accurate ranging by measuring the round trip time of the radio waves between devices.

So when you initiate Precision Finding for a nearby AirTag in the Find My app, the U1 chips in your iPhone and the AirTag send a burst of UWB pulses back and forth to calculate their relative position. The Find My app then displays a directional arrow and distance reading to guide you right to your AirTag. It’s like playing a game of “hot and cold” but with cutting-edge radio tech.

Marking AirTags as Lost

If your AirTag is truly lost and outside of Bluetooth range of all your devices, you can activate Lost Mode in the Find My app. This does a few important things:

  1. Flags the AirTag’s identifier as “lost” on Apple’s Find My network
  2. Allows the AirTag to more aggressively leverage nearby devices to report its location
  3. Enables NFC so people who find your AirTag can tap it with any smartphone to view your contact info and return instructions

Even if out of Bluetooth range, your AirTag will dutifully report its location anytime an opted-in Find My device passes within radio range, allowing you to view its most recent location in the Find My app.

Factors Impacting AirTag Location Updates

While Apple’s crowdsourced Find My model allows AirTags to punch above their weight class in terms of location tracking, there are certain factors that can impact AirTag performance:

Population Density and Device Proximity

Since AirTags rely on nearby Apple devices to report their whereabouts, location update frequency and accuracy tends to be better in populous areas with a high density of iPhone users. If you lose an AirTag while hiking in a remote area, it may be hours or days before another iPhone passes by close enough to register its location (if at all).

In contrast, an AirTag lost in a busy urban area like Manhattan or San Francisco will likely be able to update its location every few minutes given the ubiquity of Apple devices. Many users report their lost AirTags showing movement patterns following major streets and transit lines as they are ferried around by unknowing iPhone owners.

Obstacles Affecting Bluetooth Signal

Like all radio technologies, Bluetooth is susceptible to interference from physical obstacles. While Bluetooth Low Energy has an outdoor range of 30-50 ft, that quickly drops off if the signal has to pass through walls, metal, water or even human bodies.

So if your lost AirTag is buried at the bottom of a backpack in a locker or stuffed between couch cushions, its Bluetooth signal may be too weak to effectively communicate with nearby devices. Precision Finding in particular requires a relatively strong, unobstructed connection between the AirTag and iPhone to calculate an accurate directional reading.

Using AirTags to Find Lost Items

Now that we’ve covered how AirTags use Bluetooth and the Find My network for location tracking, let’s walk through how to actually use them to find lost items, from initial setup to locating techniques.

Linking AirTag to iPhone

Setting up a new AirTag is extremely straightforward:

Find My Airtag
  1. Ensure Bluetooth is enabled on your iPhone and you are signed into your iCloud/Apple ID account
  2. Unwrap AirTag and remove the plastic battery tab (you should hear a chime)
  3. Attach the AirTag to your item using the keyring hole or an adhesive accessory
  4. Hold AirTag next to iPhone and tap “Connect” when the pop-up appears
  5. Choose a name for your AirTag from the list or enter a custom label and tap “Continue”
  6. Register AirTag to your Apple ID and tap “Done”

Your AirTag is now linked to your Apple ID and should be visible under “Items” in the Find My app. You can link up to 16 AirTags per Apple ID.

Playing Sound to Locate Nearby

If you misplace an item with an attached AirTag within Bluetooth range (~30 ft) of your iPhone, you can use the Find My app to play a sound on the AirTag’s built-in speaker:

  1. Open Find My and tap the “Items” tab
  2. Tap the AirTag you want to locate
  3. Tap “Play Sound”
  4. Follow the chirping sound to your AirTag

The AirTag will play a chirping sound pattern for 2 minutes or until you tap “Stop Sound” in the app. If sound playback isn’t working, the AirTag may be out of range or its battery may need to be replaced.

Using Precision Finding

For iPhone 11 and later, Precision Finding provides more granular location info for nearby AirTags:

  1. Ensure you’ve updated to the latest iOS version
  2. Open Find My app and select the AirTag
  3. Tap “Find” and start moving around slowly, holding iPhone in front of you
  4. Using input from the camera, ARKit, accelerometer and gyroscope, the iPhone screen will display:
    • Direction and distance to the AirTag
    • “Getting warmer/colder” feedback
    • Notes about AirTag’s location (e.g. “9 ft ahead on your left”)
  5. As you get very close, the iPhone will vibrate and an on-screen circle will change from black to green to indicate you’ve reached the AirTag

Note: Precision Finding works best in a clear open area with minimal obstructions between the AirTag and iPhone. Reflective surfaces like metal and water can interfere with the accuracy of UWB ranging.

Viewing Last Known Location

If the AirTag is outside of Bluetooth range, the Find My app will display its last reported location on a map, including a timestamp indicating how recently it was detected by the Find My network. You can view the location history of where the AirTag has been seen over time.

You can tap into the location marker to get directions to the mapped location. If the AirTag has not been located by the Find My network for more than 24 hours, you’ll get a “No location found” message.

Keep in mind this location data represents where the AirTag was last seen by another device, not necessarily where it is currently. But it gives you a helpful starting point to go retrieve or track down your lost item.

Enabling Lost Mode

If you can’t immediately retrieve a lost AirTag, enabling Lost Mode allows you to provide contact info to anyone who finds it and increase its reporting priority across the Find My network:

  1. In the Find My app, tap the AirTag and scroll down to “Lost Mode”
  2. Tap “Enable” under Lost Mode
  3. Enter a contact phone number and message for someone who finds the AirTag
  4. Confirm Lost Mode is enabled

Once in Lost Mode, any iPhone that comes within NFC range of the lost AirTag will receive a notification they’ve found a lost item. They can then tap their iPhone to the white side of the AirTag to view your contact info and get in touch about returning it.

AirTag Battery Life and Replacement

Each AirTag contains a standard CR2032 coin cell battery that Apple claims will last about a year with regular use before needing replacement.

To check your AirTag battery level:

  1. Open Find My app
  2. Tap the Items tab
  3. Select your AirTag from the list
  4. Battery status is displayed under the AirTag’s name

If the battery icon is at 25% or below, Apple recommends replacing it soon. Low battery AirTags may take longer to report location and have reduced Precision Finding range.

To replace the battery:

  1. Push down on the stainless steel battery cover
  2. Rotate counterclockwise until it stops (like a child-safe bottle cap)
  3. Remove cover and spent battery
  4. Insert new CR2032 lithium 3V coin battery positive side up
  5. Replace cover and rotate clockwise until it locks

You should hear a sound confirming the AirTag has powered on with the new battery.

AirTag Sharing and Privacy Features

While AirTags are primarily designed for finding your own items, Apple has built in several features to allow limited sharing with others while protecting against unwanted tracking.

To add a partner or family member to your AirTag:

  1. Open Find My app and select the AirTag
  2. Tap the “Sharing” icon (looks like a person with a plus sign)
  3. Tap “Share AirTag” and enter the email address of the contact you want to share it with
  4. Choose from three access levels:
    • Can view location only
    • Can view location and play sound
    • Can view location, play sound, and put in lost mode
  5. Tap Send

The person you shared the AirTag with will get an email invite to add it to their Find My app. Once accepted, they’ll be able to see its location and optionally play a sound or enable lost mode based on the permissions you granted.

To protect against someone slipping an AirTag into your belongings to track your location, Apple included a few anti-stalking measures:

  • iPhone users will receive a “Foreign AirTag Detected” notification if an unknown AirTag is moving with them over time
  • If away from its owner for 72 hours, an AirTag will start playing a sound at random intervals to alert anyone nearby
  • Android users can download the “Tracker Detect” app from the Google Play store to scan for and report unknown AirTags near them

While not foolproof, these safeguards help prevent AirTags from being abused for surreptitious tracking of people’s movements and locations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can I use an AirTag to track my pet?

A: While you could attach an AirTag to a pet’s collar, they are not designed for real-time tracking and may not update location frequently enough to keep tabs on an animal’s movements. Pet GPS trackers with geofencing and alerts are better suited for monitoring your furry friends.

Q: Are AirTags waterproof?

A: AirTags are rated IP67 water and dust resistant, meaning they can withstand being submerged in up to 3.3 ft of water for 30 minutes. They’ll easily handle rain, splashes and accidental drops in the sink but aren’t meant for extended underwater use.

Q: Can I attach an AirTag to my child?

A: AirTags are meant for tracking objects, not people (especially minors). The irregular location updates and lack of real-time tracking make them ill-suited for keeping tabs on kids. Child GPS smartwatches with geofencing, SOS buttons and voice calling are much safer and more effective.

Q: Can I use AirTags with an Android phone?

A: AirTags are exclusively designed to work within the Apple ecosystem and do not support Android devices. While Android users can scan a lost AirTag in Lost Mode using NFC, they cannot pair AirTags to their device or see their locations in real-time like iPhone users can.

Q: How accurate is Precision Finding?

A: In ideal conditions (outdoors away from reflective surfaces), Precision Finding can guide you to within a few inches of an AirTag. Accuracy decreases around metal, water and RF-blocking materials and drops off entirely beyond 30 ft.

Q: What do I do if I find a lost AirTag?

A: Any smartphone with NFC can scan a lost AirTag in Lost Mode by holding it to the white side of the AirTag. This will open a website with the owner’s contact info and instructions for returning it. Be sure your phone’s NFC reader is enabled for the scan to work.

Q: What does it mean if an AirTag’s location is in red on the map?

A: If you see an AirTag’s last known location in red, it means the AirTag has not been located by the Find My network in over 24 hours. It may be in an area without many Apple devices, or its battery may be dead.

While AirTags excel at keeping track of easy-to-lose items, they aren’t the only tracking gadgets on the market. Those looking for more real-time updates, geofencing capabilities or Android compatibility may want to consider AirTag alternatives like Tile or Chipolo.

For a deeper comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of AirTags versus dedicated GPS trackers, check out our comprehensive guide.

And if you’re still on the fence about whether AirTags are right for you, our in-depth AirTag review covers everything you need to know.

Key Takeaways

  • AirTags do not use GPS satellites for location tracking. They contain Bluetooth and UWB radios but no GPS chips.
  • Location is determined by anonymously leveraging nearby iPhones/iPads with the Find My network feature enabled.
  • Precision Finding provides real-time directional guidance towards an AirTag when in Bluetooth range (30-50ft outdoors).
  • Lost Mode allows an AirTag to be scanned by any NFC-enabled smartphone to display the owner’s contact info.

More from AirTag Tips

Can An Airtag Be Connected To Two Phones

How to Connect Your AirTag to Two Phones or Multiple Devices

Apple’s AirTags have quickly become one of the most popular Bluetooth item trackers thanks to their seamless integration with iPhone, ...
How Accurate Are Airtags

How Accurate Are AirTags for Tracking Your Belongings?

AirTags have become a popular way to keep track of your belongings. But just how precise are AirTags at pinpointing ...
Find Owner Of Lost Apple Airtag

How to Find the Owner of a Lost Apple AirTag: The Ultimate Guide

Have you ever stumbled upon a stray Apple AirTag and wondered how to reunite it with its rightful owner? As ...