The Best Satellite Phones of 2021

Gear
Best satellite phone
Photo: Shutterstock

Satellite phones provide voice-to-voice communication in the most remote corners of the planet for safety, peace of mind, and emergency response.

Satellite phones support remote adventures with text and voice services in places where cell phones can’t connect. Short Message Service (SMS), which allows texts up to 160 characters without pictures or videos, is enough for brief updates with support teams back home. But a satellite phone call allows better discussion about complex issues, or just to connect emotionally with family, especially after tough days. Overall, satellite phones work anywhere, or almost anywhere, compared to cell phones.

Some explorers choose to travel sans communications, but that’s a rarity these days. In places like Antarctica, it’s not allowed. No ocean rower or North Pole trekker travels without communications. But you don’t even need to be that far-flung to carry a satellite phone. It’s an important tool for everything from backcountry skiing to a rim-to-rim-to-rim trail run in the Grand Canyon.

“Communications is a critical component to team safety and at the end, being able to talk to the home team and support personnel is essential,” says Polar Expedition Leader Keith Heger, who is the program director at The Northwest Passage and a lead guide and instructor for PolarExplorers. 

Satellite phone technology works by line of sight. Only the Iridium satellite phone network offers complete global coverage, including in the polar realms. The Iridium system taps into 66 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. All of the other satellite systems have equatorial orbits. As a result, they sit below the horizon in the polar regions and a signal cannot be detected.

Technically, they stop working around 80˚ latitude, but even many hundreds of kilometres before that, the signal is often cranky. You need a clear line of sight to the satellites — no mountains or other obstructions in the way. (Satphones do work inside tents.)

Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue makes a satellite phone call inside a Labrador bush tent. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Meanwhile, you can use any satellite phone in mid-latitudes, as long as you’re not at the bottom of a narrow canyon or in a thick jungle. The phone always needs to see the satellite to catch the signal.

In addition to Iridium, two other leading providers in the satellite phone market include Inmarsat and Globalstar. Globalstar’s 48 LEO satellites have excellent, reliable coverage but not 100 percent worldwide connectivity. Inmarsat depends on four satellites that hold a geosynchronous orbit at a height of 51,000km above the equator. The robust network covers 90% of the globe and connections are clear and solid within those areas. The only regions lacking Inmarsat coverage are the two polar regions.

Be sure to examine closely where you plan to travel and each satellite phone’s coverage area, to ensure that it matches your needs. Check the satellite phone regulations or required permits in your country of travel, too. For instance, Iridium and Thuraya satellite phones are illegal in India, and phone registration is required in Russia. 

Ultimately, satellite devices enhance human connection across the entire planet for positive reasons from safety to stress relief. Scroll through to see all of our recommended buys, and for more information about satellite phones, check out our buyer’s guide and FAQ at the end of this article. 

The Best Satellite Phones of 2021

Best Overall: Iridium GO

Photo: Iridium

One of the best satellite phone manufacturers develops devices that are operable from the earth’s polar regions: Iridium. “If you’re traveling to the ends of the Earth — literally — you only have one option for sat phone coverage and that’s Iridium. Iridium has a number of high-quality phones that tick most of my checkboxes for reliability and ease of use. The Iridium product lineup also offers the most features,” says Annie Aggens, director of Polar Expeditions. Aggens is also a Master Polar Guide and co-author of the Encyclopedia of Outdoor and Wilderness Skills.

Aggens explains that the Iridium GO ($700) is the only Iridium device that not only allows voice communication but also lets you send images back home. The model also provides SMS text messaging, GPS and tracking, email, weather forecasts, social media posts, and an emergency SOS button.

“The Iridium GO doesn’t look like your standard satphone,” Aggens says. “You don’t talk into it. Rather, you pair it with your smartphone, which means that it’s relatively intuitive. Importantly, you need to load the required apps to your smartphone before you leave!” The device is compatible with both Apple and Android products. 

Aggens regularly uses the Iridium GO in conditions as cold as -40˚. The military-grade device is durable, shock and water resistant, compact, and portable.

“No other device can match it’s functionality,” says Eric Lillstrom, Assistant Program Director and Lead Guide at PolarExplorers, which organizes polar expeditions and training programs. “Also, the emergency beacon and tracker features do not require a paired phone to function.”

Lillstrom has used the Iridium GO near the North and South Poles and while crossing Greenland. With it, you can call home with a clear connection from the North and South Poles, he confirms.

Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist whose work takes him around the globe, including to Antarctica, agrees: “Iridium GO, which is a text-based email service, is my favorite option.”

One drawback with the 997-gram Iridium GO is the very slow data rate for uploads and downloads. Sometimes, it’s a sad reminder of the dial-up modems of the 1990s, with their 14.4 kilobit per second connection. It could take hours to download a single news page, so don’t expect to be browsing the Times or Facebook in the tent each evening. Likewise, this option does not upload images or video particularly quickly — but it works. 

Some of our expert product testers say that Iridium’s extensive coverage provides clear, high-quality reception. Other explorers have some reservations about the GO: “The [sound] quality isn’t as good as a dedicated handset. That’s the only real downside for me,” says Lillstrom.

Travelers should prepare for a bigger overall investment, too, as coverage costs are not the cheapest on the market. “The Iridium GO will work anywhere in the world,” says Aggens. “But depending on where you’re headed, there might be less expensive options. You pay a little more for global coverage.”

  • Battery Life: 5.5 hours talk time; up to 15.5 hours on standby 
  • Coverage: Worldwide including North and South Poles

Pros:

  • 100% global coverage
  • Syncs with smartphone 
  • Functions in extreme cold

Cons:

  • Slow data rate 
  • Call quality isn’t the highest
  • Pricier service plan 

Best Durable Hand Unit: Iridium 9555

Photo: Iridium

The Iridium 9555 ($989) is an industrial-grade, small handset for calls, SMS, and email. “The tool that I carry on all expeditions is the Iridium 9555 or the older 9505A [which has been discontinued],” says Heger.

Iridium LEO satellites are only 2,000km above — nearly 50,000km closer than Inmarsat satellites — which is why their service is often has the clearest reception.

“Redundancy is the name of the game,” says Heger. “The Iridium GO is a great complement to a handheld unit.”

As long as you’re not in such a narrow valley that the phone can’t “see” the satellites, you’ll get a signal. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

The Iridium 9555 has an internally stowed antenna, integrated speakerphone, and an intuitive interface. At 266gm, it’s lightweight and has a mini-USB data port. The device also delivers excellent sound quality. Sometimes a call drops if a particular satellite slips out of line of sight, but the call reestablishes shortly as another satellite becomes accessible.

Fun fact: For several years, Iridium 9555 satellite phones were donated to Alaska’s annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for checkpoint volunteers to monitor the event.

  • Battery Life: 4 hours talk time; up to 30 hours on standby 
  • Coverage: Worldwide including North and South Poles 

Pros:

  • Robust, durable construction 
  • Compact and streamlined 

Cons:

  • Lower battery life  

Best Battery Life: Inmarsat IsatPhone 2

Photo: Inmarsat

The Inmarsat IsatPhone 2 ($569) can send SMS texts, short emails, and has an SOS button. Most impressive, the 318gm device has one of the strongest batteries, with 8 hours of talk time. Though the Inmarsat satellite network doesn’t cover the polar regions, it works almost everywhere else, from the Americas to the Himalaya. The sound is clear, too. 

The weather-resistant unit has a large display and an ergonomic interface. When we consider satellite phone costs, this unit is on the lower end. Plus, Inmarsat phones and minimum monthly call plans are cheaper than those of Iridium. There are no roaming charges. Another major benefit is that IsatPhone 2 customers can access the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) and worldwide emergency service free of cost. Users in trouble simply press a dedicated assistance button on the device. GEOS provides 24/7 SOS monitoring and emergency dispatch with responders worldwide. The average response time from receiving a call to connecting with an emergency responder is 11 minutes. 

Tradeoffs: It’s not the most streamlined device, and there’s a slight delay during correspondence.  

  • Battery Life: 8 hours talk time; up to 160 hours on standby
  • Coverage: Most everywhere except the North and South Poles 

Pros:

  • Weather-resistant 
  • User-friendly 
  • Extensive battery life
  • Economic price 

Cons:

  • Not super compact 

Best Budget: Globalstar GSP-1700

Photo: Globalstar

The GSP-1700 ($500) handheld portable satellite phone provides 4 hours of talk time for a tight price. At 9.6 kilobits per second (kbps), the data speed is quick. Our testers found that the quality of sound matched, and sometimes exceeded, the sound provided by Iridium devices. The 198gram unit measures 5.6cm by 13.5cm by 3.8cm. 

This device works best for users based in North America, where a signal is fairly ubiquitous. Furthermore, North American patrons may roam without additional costs throughout most of the Americas, Europe, and part of Southwest Asia. Travelers should closely consider the coverage network before purchase. We found that if you plan to explore Asia, Africa, Central or South America, you could have more consistent support with a device from Iridium or Inmarsat. Regardless, we sometimes needed to wait for the satellite to come into range in order to connect the GSP-1700.  

Bonus for North American customers: Globalstar uses a U.S.-based phone help line free of charge. 

  • Battery Life: 4 hours talk time; up to 36 hours on standby
  • Coverage: Australia; North, South, Central America; Europe; and Southeast Asia with the exception of some countries 

Pros:

  • Fast data speed
  • Clear, crisp sound

Cons:

  • Lacks global connectivity 
  • Talk time is not the most powerful  

Best for Travelers outside the Americas: Thuraya XT-LITE Satellite Phone

Photo: Thuraya

The 186gm Thuraya XT-LITE Satellite Phone ($569) allows phone calls and SMS messages. The antenna collapses for easy storage. There is also GPS waypoint navigation. Another convenient feature is that you can easily send your geolocation to four contacts via text message. 

Coverage-wise, Thuraya’s satellite network blankets two-thirds of the globe, depends on stationary satellites and works fairly fast. If the Thuraya XT-LITE headset (sold separately) is used and the phone remains stable, the connection typically stays strong. In contrast, the Inmarsat and Iridium connections are based on moving satellites, so calls are more likely to drop. The range does not include North, Central, or South America nor the polar regions. Thuraya also provides comparatively economic, prepaid coverage plans. And outside callers can dial and connect with the assigned satphone number at no charge. 

  • Battery Life: 6 hours talk time; up to 80 hours on standby
  • Coverage: Australia, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia with the exception of some countries

Pros:

  • Economic handset and monthly coverage plan 

Cons:

  • The maximum volume is not super loud  
  • Only compatible with the Thuraya XT-LITE hands-free earphones

Best Backup Satellite Communicator: Garmin inReach Explorer+

Photo: Garmin

Unlike satellite phones, which allow voice-to-voice communication, handheld satellite communicators only offer two-way text messages. Some adventurers choose to carry two communication devices for redundancy, and many complement their satphone with the Garmin inReach Explorer+ ($450). Plus, many satellite phones don’t include tracking features, high-quality maps, or GPS navigation tools, which are included in satellite communicators. 

“The Garmin inReach is simple and durable,” says Heger. The device gives two-way text messaging via the Iridium network. The 213gm unit includes an SOS button, tracking, and geolocation sharing: Waypoints are sent to a web-based portal at specific time intervals. The inReach also can access downloadable maps and a digital compass. 

  • Battery Life: 100 hours in 10-minute tracking mode; 30 days in 30-minute interval power save mode
  • Coverage: Worldwide via the Iridium satellite network 

Pros:

  • Simple
  • Tough

Cons:

  • Lacks voice-to-voice capability 
  • Not a touch screen

Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Satellite Phone

Range

A satellite phone range is limited only by the satellite system it taps into. Thuraya’s service range includes most of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Inmarsat’s range is nearly the entire world except for the polar regions. Globalstar covers Australia, the majority of the Americas, Europe, and a segment of Southeast Asia. Only Iridium has full global coverage. 

Service Plan

Each satellite phone manufacturer provides a unique service plan with tiered prices for travelers. Service plans are usually billed by the month or year with additional surcharges for each additional minute. Otherwise, customers can buy a prepaid SIM card with a specific number of minutes that typically expire within a certain time. Also, some companies have roaming charges while others waive roaming fees. Read more about the range of service plans below:

Iridium Service Plan 

Globalstar Service Plan

Inmarsat Service Plan 

Thuraya Service Plan 

Photo: Iridium

Battery Life

The satellite phones in our guide have rechargeable batteries, which each provide 4 to 8 hours of talk time and 15.5 to 160 hours of standby time. Adventurers on long expeditions bring more than one battery and some way to recharge them, such as a solar panel.

Portability

Most satellite phones resemble early cell phones — big but not unwieldy. Their streamlining and durable materials make them very packable. Furthermore, most weigh between 190 and 1,000gm, which is not much considering that they are a piece of safety equipment.

The most important aspect of portability is to check with your intended international countries of travel regarding required satellite permits or regulations. Also, most devices are water-resistant and can survive an accidental submersion but are not waterproof, so they should be transported in a protected, dry bag. One of our testers ruined his satphone by taking a long, post-expedition shower in his motel room. The humidity infiltrated the phone and destroyed it.

Price

Most brand new satellite phones generally cost between $249 and $1,500. Most of the satellite phones in this guide are between $500 and $600. The cost of a service plan is additional. 

Why You Should Trust Us

The experts we consulted included Master Polar Guides, program directors of polar and worldwide guiding services, global scientists and researchers, wilderness skills authors and instructors, and expeditionists. Altogether, their input is based on decades of experience in the farthest reaches of the planet. 

Photo: National Geographic Explorer Isai Madriz and Iridium

FAQ

What is the best satellite phone?

The best satellite phone is one that has coverage in the location of intended use. Secondly, the best satellite phones have good battery life, are durable, and easy to use. All the satellite phones in this guide are among the best choices available. 


How much does it cost to use a satellite phone?

The cost of using a satellite phone depends on the type of data plan a traveler chooses. Iridium offers a range of monthly plans with a minimum of 10 minutes ($54.99) with additional minutes for $1.49 per minute. Their menu’s 1,000-minute maximum ($929.99) charges $1.10 per each additional minute. The company also offers annual service plans and prepaid SIM cards ranging from 75 minutes ($159; valid one month) to 5,000 minutes ($3,899; valid 24 months). Their regional prepaid options range from 200 minutes ($225) to 500 minutes ($461) and are valid for 6 to 12 months. 

Globalstar has two monthly service plans for 50 minutes ($65) or unlimited ($80) and two annual plans: 600 minutes ($780) and unlimited ($960). With a different price structure, Inmarsat provides a variety of monthly plans ($40-$400) that range from 10 minutes to unlimited (this last is for U.S.-based customers only). The company’s 180-to-1200-minute annual plans range from $490 to $1,079. An alternative option is to purchase prepaid service ($129-$3,600) that is valid for 3 to 12 months. 

Thuraya offers two monthly plans with different data speeds — 144 kbps or 444 kbps — for $2,750 or $3,750 per month plus a $50 activation fee. (Note: The monthly setup has a two-month minimum). Otherwise, customers can purchase a prepaid plan ($184-$2,700). Overall, when you consider the high expense of international roaming charges for cell phones, the investment of a satellite phone is not exorbitant. 

Do satellite phones work everywhere?

Iridium makes the only satellite phones that work absolutely everywhere, including the polar regions. Each phone provider’s coverage area is based on the satellite locations within its network. That said, a satellite phone functions via line of sight. If a traveler is at the bottom of a deep canyon, it is possible that no system will work. Inmarsat’s service reaches everywhere except the polar regions. Globalstar covers most of the Americas, Europe, and part of Southeast Asia, and Australia. Thuraya covers most of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australia. 

Photo: Inmarsat

Are satellite phones allowed in Russia?

Non-Russian visitors need to register their satellite phone to use their SIM card in Russian territory for up to six months. Unregistered SIM cards can be blocked from the Iridium network. The rules apply to Inmarsat devices, too. Be sure to check with your unit’s manufacturer regarding registration requirements in your country of travel.

Which countries have satellite phone restrictions?

Around the globe, certain countries have restrictions on satellite phone devices or completely forbid them. As a traveler, it would be a bummer to have your satellite device confiscated or to receive a fine — or worse, arrested or jailed. Countries where restrictions exist include Myanmar, Chad, China, Cuba, India, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Russia, and Sudan. 

What is the voice quality of a satellite phone?

Compared to your everyday cell phone, a satellite phone sometimes has a lower sound quality. As you and the other person talk, it’s also common to experience a delay, which is also known as latency.

Does cold affect satellite phone batteries?

Cold is not ideal for satellite phone operation. Some travelers warm up the batteries in an inside pocket before using them. “As with any device, the battery will get sucked dry if you use it when it’s cold,” says Aggens.

How do I get reception with a satellite phone?

Turn on your satellite phone outside and with a clear, direct view of the sky. Once the phone has connected to a satellite, it is ready for calls. Large cliffs, mountains, canyons, or buildings can obstruct the satellite signal. 

Do I need extra batteries?

If you’re traveling on a long, remote expedition, it’s a good idea to bring extra batteries. In general, make sure you have the necessary adapters for your device’s wall charger to recharge in various locations worldwide. If you won’t have access to electricity, solar power can recharge satellite phone batteries. 

+1

About the Author

Morgan Tilton

Morgan Tilton

Adventure Journalist Morgan Tilton specializes in travel and outdoor industry news. She’s received multiple North American Travel Journalists Association awards including multi-accolades for “Wild & Broken: A First SUP Descent of Utah’s Escalante River,” an essay about her 100-mile SUP trip down the country’s most remote whitewater with four friends. When not typing, she’s splitboarding, running, paddling, or throttling in Southwest Colorado’s mountains, where she grew up and lives.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
2 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
drew
drew
4 months ago

Just to note it, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ also connects via bluetooth to your smartphone making messaging, navigating, etc. a breeze. Plus they have cheap monthly plans, so I carry it with me on every adventure. To top it off, it can be paired with a Garmin provided blog and online tracker to easily send out posreps and expedition updates. Great piece of gear.

+1
Louis-Philippe Loncke
1 month ago
Reply to  drew

What? I’ve been using Garmin inReach Explorer+ for 3 years and didn’t know about bluetooth. I want to add some experience using the Garmin inReach Explorer+ for a total of 52+43+22=117 days. a) one it reaches 15% battery, it will stop the tracking. It keeps 15% in case of emergency e.g. use the SOS button. I try to always be above 50% so I charge it frequently during expedition. b) With a full charge and about 12h tracking per day I usually have 10-12 days batteries. It mainly depends on how often I turn it on to check the map.… Read more »

×