Ask AC: Can I use my phone just on Wifi without a carrier?

We're all so used to buying a phone with intentions of using it on a carrier that we often don't consider what it will operate like without a SIM in it. Rest assured that your phone will operate just fine without active service from a carrier, leaving it as a Wifi-only device.

Looking to order an unlocked [Galaxy Note 4] N910A off eBay. I'm moving in a couple of months, but where I live now I have no service at all so I'm wondering if I can use the phone's Wifi features in the mean time or do I need to activate it with a carrier before I can use any features at all?

Whether you're buying to use the phone on Wifi permanently or just for a short period of time — perhaps while you're traveling abroad — you won't find many issues. Great apps like Hangouts will even let you make VoIP calls without any carrier involvement, provided you're able to find good Wifi connections.

There are just a few things to be aware of when buying a phone to use without a carrier, though. Of course you're overpaying a bit for a device with cellular capabilities you aren't using, so consider weighing the difference in price between that unlocked phone and perhaps a small Wifi-only tablet. Also remember that phones use cellular connections to help with location information, so when you're out of the house without Wifi it's going to be a pain relying on just GPS with no data connection. And lastly, if you choose to buy a carrier-branded phone off-contract, you may run into issues getting software updates without an active SIM from that carrier in the phone.

That being said, picking up an unlocked phone to use just on Wifi can be a great solution if you're not ready to pay monthly for a phone plan or just want a second phone around for a specific use!

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

72 Comments
  • I use an LG Realm as a mini Android tablet, using wifi only.
  • a realm isn't a tablet. Posted via the Android Central App
  • that may be why Shawn wrote mini
  • Hi. I'm jakeuten, and I only read the parts I want to read. --- This message brought to you via the sarcasm keyboard available for download at the Google Play Store.
  • I use my S4 now as a mini "tablet" now that I have my N6. Just can't make phone calls obviously Posted via the Android Central App
  • You can, though. Just use Google Voice with Hangouts.
  • Waaait... I though GPS Signals will work even without a carrier?... :/ am i wrong?
  • Google Maps will let you load maps offline, but there is no POI data and you can't navigate. Nokia Here Maps works great for complete offline use. What he was referring to is the assisted aspect of GPS, your phone will triangulate off cell towers to get a very quick rough location, then a finer location using the GPS antenna, as it picks up the satellites.
  • GPS does work. However it takes around 15 minutes to get the constellation needed for GPS to work.
  • Get a phone with GLONASS capabilities. The galaxy s5 has it, and most new phones also have it. GLONASS are the Russian satellites, and you will be able to triangulate with the US satellites as well. GPS locks in seconds with my s5, and I have NO CELL CARRIER whatsoever. Look into FreedomPop. I pay $3 a month for 500mb of data (plenty to make an emergency call or get a fix on my GPS to where I need to go. When I get my google navigation with my FreedomPop 4g LTE "mifi" and Google maps, I shut off my freedompop myfi (so to save my s5 from trickling data). Google maps does NOT need data connection to give you directions WHILE you drive...even if you make a wrong turn somewhere. Also pick up a "zerolemon 8500mah battery from ZeroLemon.com. I have GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi on all day for more then a day and I don't drain the ZeroLemon battery. The FreedomPop $3 a month is to rollover my free 500mb a month otherwise you just pay for the mifi and you can 500mb per month free for the rest of your life. I've had a "cell" phone for an entire year now completely free (I just recently started the $3 a month roll over). Everything works great. The s5 has been killer, and FreedomPop rules. Google hangouts phone calls use about 650kb a minute which means you get about 800-1,000 talk minutes per month FOR FREE with the mifi LTE on hangouts. You DO have to get used to using Google music and a large SD card if you want to listen to music on the road vs. Songza/Pandora (I upload all my stuff to Google music, then download the albums I like to listen to when I am in wifi), cut back your youtubing and netflixing a little for when you get home. I went from $85 a month to $0, and now $3(mostly because I want to support freedom pop a little now). Let's see some more people put the fire under " big cell." How much data do you ACTUALLY use for phone calls on a cell tower? Let's be honest - a few hundred megs TOPS. Are YouTube videos or streaming music REALLY worth $60-$90 a month? I say, "nope." Oh... And download "3G watchdog" from the play store. 3g watchdog will monitor your outgoing data on a "specific WiFi network" (example the FreedomPop mifi) and if you get near 500mb of data 3g watchdog will notify you or you can set 3gwatchdog to shut off the connection to the SSID aka the name of that specific WiFi hotspot. Therefore, you never ever go over you 500mb... Thought I've never ever gotten past 300mb so far. Feel free to PM me on reddit.
  • GPS definitely works, but what most people think of when they think GPS is actually network triangulation based on the nearby cell towers your phone is connected to. Getting a precise location based solely on GPS satellites and no network takes several minutes.
  • Just powered up my Note 4, fired up GPS status. It showed that it took 4 seconds to get a solid GPS satellite lock.
  • Because it's either using the cellular network it get a rough location first (as already mentioned), or it had previously downloaded gps-assist data and already knew your rough location.
  • My five-year old Garmin standalone unit gets a fix much quicker than that and it's old. Satellite fixes don't take nearly as long as they used with the modern chips. Having a rough location helps but it's still pretty fast.
  • GPS signals work fine all the time whether you have cellular service or not, however because of their huge file size, phones dont usually carry all the maps around, so they download what small sections of maps they need as they use them. so yeah, you will be able to know exactly where you are, but you probably wouldn't have a map to put that location on, and unless you're very good with longitude and latitude, that location without a map isn't much use...
  • Agree, GPS is fine... couple minutes to lock... not a problem - anyone ever heard of Garmin or Magellan? Even before the smartphone craze I had handheld GPS units that worked just fine without cell. (In fact even my Magellan from ~2002 & my Garmin are still more accurate than any of my phones to date! Still, I'm glad that many (Android) wifi only tablets still have GPS... that's a must have feature for me. (AFAIK Apple hasn't put GPS in any of their wifi ios offerings) As far as offline maps, skip Google... their navigation only works if you set destination while you have data (and good luck getting back home if you don't have data @ your destination or you accidentally close Maps! .... try downloading the free Nokia Here maps and you can download entire States and even have turn by turn navigation all without a data connection. (Great even WITH a cellular plan if traveling through mountains, National Parks, or other wide open spaces where cell service would be spotty. I download whatever states I'plan to be travelling through before leaving.) There are other offerings like osm+ that use openstreetmaps for offline mapping - but Nokia HERE is great... wish they would have come to android sooner.
  • Most Smartphones use something called AGPS. Basically, the cell towers or Wi-Fi is used to get data on the general location, and then GPS is used for precision. This speeds up the GPS lock and also reduces battery usage. This allows the use of cheaper GPS chips that aren't as powerful, saving more battery, but also means that when you don't have any data connection it'll take awhile to get a GPS lock. To avoid this issue you can use an app like "GPS Status" to pre-download the AGPS data, which will speed up the GPS lock for 1 or 2 days. Posted via Android Central App
  • No. You're not. The article was poorly worded. --- This message brought to you via the sarcasm keyboard available for download at the Google Play Store.
  • Yes and no. GPS does not need a carrier to work BUT the MAPS and DIRECTION it needs MIGHT need a carrier. There are apps that you can use in local mode that allow you to download maps to your device. But, it's something you have to do beforehand. If you simply want to use something like Google Maps, the map part would need a connection to the internet. GPS just gives you what your coordinates are and translates that to whatever app is asking for the data. GPS will work without a data connection. Make sense?
  • This is what I have done for my daughter. She is using her tablet and my old Galaxy S3 as a wifi calling/texting/video device using Google Hangouts. I don't have to pay for a plan, and she has a phone. Win win
  • Same I bought my 10year old son a moto G first Gen and he uses it like an ipod for music and games and using hangouts for messaging. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Yup. I've noticed many of the stores I lose my signal in provide WiFi. When I need to reach my wife under these circumstances, I switch to Hangouts. Furthermore, now that Comcast has commandeered the use of its leased access points to create more prevalent hot spots, so long as you are a customer, you can pick up a signal in more places fit for longer. I don't completely lose WiFi until I leave my street and turn onto the main road. Posted via Android Central App with my LG G3
  • I tried using the latest iPod Touch (sorry, wrong OS) as a phone as an experiment a year ago. Used VoIP apps and a Verizon hotspot to supplement a lack of consistent Wifi when outdoors. It'll never be as convenient and seamless as a regular smartphone, but it worked surprisingly well. I was able to make and receive calls, and it generally worked like a standard iPhone. It's not something I would want to do full-time, but it was very cool to pull it off.
  • Yep, you can do the same thing with any Android phone using wifi and groove IP. I did this with an N4 while in Korea. I avoided the ridiculous international rates. You get a little reverb and delay, but it's free.
  • Great article. I'm using my old phone running ice cream sandwich as a media player. The entire phone is up to date except Google Now. Google Now isn't supported on ice cream sandwich but yeah you can use your Android device as a Wi-Fi only device. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Nope, it becomes a paperweight as soon as you remove the Sim card. /s ......lol Posted via the Unrivaled Note 4 or Tab S 10.5
  • 9ners fan.....your phone will still operate without the sim card. Using wifi for calls is allowed and will work with no problem. You can even call 911 without a sim card and no wifi Posted via the Android Central App
  • /s means he was being sarcastic... Posted via the Android Central App
  • "And lastly, if you choose to buy a carrier-branded phone off-contract, you may run into issues getting software updates without an active SIM from that carrier in the phone." If I unlock that phone and use it with a SIM abroad I still won't get updates, why? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Well, the thing is, as I understand it, carriers push out updates to carrier specific phones. So whether its still locked or unlocked from the carrier, I believe since the carrier is still the one pushing the updates, it needs to detect that carrier Sim in order to receive it. I might be wrong, and that may be how some work and others don't. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I thought the carrier approves the update and the OEM pushs the update. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I think it depends on the carrier. AT&T is this way. Back in the day I had a HTC One X branded AT&T that was carrier unlocked and I was using it on T-Mobile. Since it didn't have an AT&T sim it couldn't find updates. Luckily I was able to find the update on HTC's support site and flash it manually.
  • My understanding was that any carrier branded phone would need to be rooted and rom flashed in order to receive updates once you take the phone off the network. I thought all US carriers pushed their own updates.
  • Do I remember some of the prepaid Moto G phones requiring some kind of carrier activation?
  • I have a Boost Mobile Moto G that I use as media player via wifi to a Chromecast or wifi/bluetooth speakers. Best $59 I've ever spent.... Just swipe down on the activation screen, hit the recent apps button and swipe Activation to the right, continue setup. Excellent Wifi Personal Media player.
  • The Boost Mobile Moto G can also be used on many Sprint MVNOs. Just setup a friend of mine with a BM Moto G on Ting. It's working perfectly. Only downside is the lack of LTE and a MicroSD slot on that model. Posted via Android Central App
  • How recently did you do that? We did that too a couple months back, but I've heard that some people are having trouble activating the Moto G and other prepaid phones since the whole unlocking thing happened (I think that was around the 11th). So if we deactivate it, it couldn't be active again until it is on Boost or Sprint for a year or something like that.
  • Moto G is a great little media player device. Sure it has 8 gigabytes of RAM but it's still capable and it has a sd card slot so anyone with lots of movies and music can just side load them on the the SD card slot and you are done! Better alternative to a iOS iPod touch 5 which I also own BUT that is iOS and doesn't have a sd card slot but storage reaches 64 gigabytes but it's cost is more. Posted via the Android Central App
  • think you meant ROM...
  • 8gb rom or hard drive. ...no phone has or ever needs 8gb of ram Posted via the Android Central App
  • i wouldnt say ever. only cuz not that many years ago 256 was just enuf. now the standard is 2 or 3 gb that give it another 5 years 8 will probably be standard.
  • What about wifi calling?
    Note 4 has wifi calling feature built in. Works great too! Posted via my Samsung Galaxy Note 4
  • He kinda did mention wifi calling, but just used hangouts as an example. Wifi calling is built into the OS but I think you still need an app to access it (like hangouts, FB messenger, Skype, Groove IP etc). Many carriers like t-mobile also have it built into their branded phones now as well.
  • I'm crossing the border once a month without intl roaming and just for a day I experiment that. Everywhere I go have to request the password to connect in restaurants, malls, etc. Etc.
    Nokia Here Drive works great, you can search for locations totally offline and navigate, but that's it, nothing else works. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I use Voip.ms and a data only simcard. It's a little hard to configure at first but it work very well and used the built in phone app (on stock android and if your's don't you can download many apps to do it) Cost me :
    86cents us for a Canadian local phone number ( you can get a new one or port yours ) 0.009 cents a minutes on call any were in Canada and us 1.75$ a month if you want 911 (Canada anyways) Call from WiFi or 3g Make the maths is basically free
    and so far I made many test and its really good. I have the flexi data only plan from virgin mobile. Cost between 5$/10MB .. 20$/1GB to 40$ for up to 5GB. Also have a 1-800 number for 1.46 a month
    You can set up many nunber . many devices.use a home VoIP phone . have it ring a multiple device phone ect.. The biggest downside is the SMS. You can access them online but won't get then directly in your SMS app... It's OK because I have VoIP.ms send it to me via email (you can also reply by email) and I use hangouts, messenger and what's app with people a talk the most. I've tried a few free VoIP service found in the market but the quality wasn't there at all... And the good one are more expensive and don't have as much possibility. Posted via the Android Central App
  • WWW.VoIP.ms it's not a app but a VoIP service. So you need to configured it on your built in phone app or a 3rd party one. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Data only sim card would still technically have a phone number associated with the sim card. That's how the network allows you to connect to it Posted via the Android Central App
  • When I was going through some hard times and fell behind on my phone payments which led to Sprint cutting my service. I had used my Galaxy S3 as a home phone by downloading an app called Text+. Really helped me with my cheap WiFi that I was able to maintain. The app allows you to send SMS and MMS as you would with a carrier. Calls could be made over WiFi but were choppy at best. Also the app is free and can get support from developers with issues through Google+.
  • I have a nexus 5 and use Talkatone, Talkatone will issue you a new number.... It works great, I haven't paid a phone bill in 6 mo. Since it is a nexus, it updates from Google over WiFi. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I have two phones other than my contract Nexus 5, an iPhone and Windows Phone, both unlocked. When I leave the USA, which I do often, I use WiFi for most things, and pick up a Mexican sim when needed. Posted via the Android Central App on Nexus 5.
  • I use a retired Droid 3 on wifi with a Square reader and account to accept credit cards. It works just fine. In airplane mode with wifi switched on it doesn't even try to contact Verizon.
  • Also, if you don't want the airplane icon showing on your device's notification area, you can go into settings and toggle data off, instead.
  • Anyone have a link to the wallpaper for the phone featured in this post?
  • I think I've seen it on the Zedge app before. I also think in the article a couple weeks age where the writers from the site showed off their home screens Andrew might have mentioned what it is. I think it may be a stock Samsung or LG wallpaper as well.
  • https://www.behance.net/gallery/iPad-Retina-Wallpaper/3516257 Posted via Android Central App
  • Yep, I think Andrew has posted the link a few times over the last couple years himself. He gets asked a lot. They are really nice looking geometric wallpapers.
  • Better alternative to a iOS iPod touch 5
    Thanks for the update.
    By <a href="http://www.techhunters.net/">Tech Hunters</a>
  • All the way. IPod touch is a piece of crap.
  • I swapped out my iPod Touch 5 for the Moto G 2013. Literally gave the iPod Touch away as i had no use for it. The big print giveth, the small print taketh
  • I'm currently using my Nexus 5 with Hangouts and a $5 prepaid data-only plan from Red Pocket. Works fine. Now that Google Voice accepts MMS I can finally use GV as my main cell number. I also use Opera Max to regulate what apps can use my data, plus it compresses some of my data as well, stretching those $5 even further. The only issue I've had is that sometimes it takes awhile for Hangouts to ring when my Google Voice number is called while I'm on Cell Data. Still looking into why that's happening. Posted via Android Central App
  • Dang. How much data do you get and how fast?
  • For five dollars on Red Pocket, you get 500mb of data (it's actually 512mb, plus a little bit of overage, depending on how quickly their systems cut you off after 512mb). For ten dollars you can get 1gb (1024mb). This data-only SIM runs off T-Mobile's network, and connects to LTE. I believe speeds are throttled though, but it's quite fast for the majority of smartphone usage. At last check, I was able to get 8mbps down/5mbps up.
  • If you want to use your phone on WiFi only... Why not just get a Moto X G or E on Republic Wireless and for $10/month get unlimited calls and text when your offline. Its practically free and you still have the ability to connect from anywhere. Posted via Moto X
  • You can't connect from everywhere, it's on the junk sprint network Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm using a HTC first with no SIM as my running device. Smaller phone, but it has 16gb of memory. Running stock 4.22 or something like that. Works well for its limited use.
    That way my nice M8 doesn't need to get sweated on, or potentially dropped. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Might as well just get a tablet Posted via the Android Central App
  • I used phones for years WiFi-only as a broke teen. I got software updates on Sprint, Verizon, and unlocked phones no problem.
  • I use my Moto G 2013 as a WiFi only device around the house. Remote control for Chromecast, checking weather, Facebook, Twitter and all that jazz. Plus Hangouts for my free local calling. The big print giveth, the small print taketh
  • I've purchased several phones from Yippz like the Maxwest Astro 5 and the Verykool s4010 for office and overseas use. None of these Android phones require a SIM card to use the device. I can always log into wifi for data, voip calling and AGPS usage. If I really need to make a cell call, any low cost GSM provider SIM will do. No reason to spend a fortune on a locked or crippled cell phone.
  • can I still receive wifi system updates over my Galaxy Note for via WiFi if I don't have a carrier
    because I have a 1.5 - 2 mile range repeater to pick up wifi.. called amped Wireless repeater http://www.ampedwireless.com/mobile/products/sr600ex.html just plug it into the wall and I pick up wifi within 1.5 to 2 miles...!!! technically it saves me on my internet bill as well because I always find open networks wherever I go I got a little car adapter for the wall outlet and plugged it into my car just piggyback off every open wifi in my area or within that range ( 1.5 -2 miles )
  • would a moto e 2nd gen work as a regular media player without a sim and no problems like not getting updates
  • So, we were out of contract with Sprint and we decided to go Wi-fi only with our existing phones. I have an LG One Max which works 100% fine. Orlando has good to excellent 3G/4G Sprint coverage, perhaps not so great at the attractions, but for the most part good coverage. I work 60 miles away and my wife was concerned with me breaking down and not having a phone with service. I purchased for $20.00 a FreedomPop Overdrive 3G/4G HotSpot (Wi-Fi) which works on Sprint. It has coverage 80 of my drive to work and even connects at work. $4.00 per month for 500MB of 3G/4G data. a 1 minute call is barely 2MB of data. I will keep the modem in my car for emergency calls/texts. I use Google Voice for text messages which I can use on the web anytime and I am using Vonage Mobile for free outbound calls over Wi-Fi. This should work well and save me a lot of cash.