Everything You Need to Know About Using Cell Phones on Planes 

Conde Nast Traveler

Photograph by Bernd Vogel via Corbis Close

Photograph by Bernd Vogel via Corbis

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Photograph by Bernd Vogel via Corbis

Can I use my cell phone on an airplane?

The short answer: Yes and no. Since October 31, 2013, the use of devices like iPhones and tablets is allowed on flights within the U.S., provided they’re in airplane mode during taxi, takeoff, and landing. You’re allowed to switch on the Wi-Fi after an announcement is made—usually when the plane goes above 10,000 feet—that it’s safe to connect to the in-flight network on the growing number of planes that are equipped with that service. Passengers are not allowed to use the cellular connection built in to devices, but that rule may soon change: The FCC has proposed that airlines allow passengers to communicate over cellular connections. Even if approved, individual airlines would still be able to decide if they wanted to allow that level of connectivity.

So I can text?

Not exactly. Since passengers still aren’t allowed to use the cellular connection of portable electronic devices, they can’t send SMS texts. Any communication has to be over Wi-Fi with a messaging app that provides similar functionality like WhatsApp or Viber. Of course, if your plane has Wi-Fi, you can also email, tweet, and update Facebook as much as the bandwidth aboard allows.

Can I make a phone call?

For now, that’s not allowed on domestic airlines. Many people think allowing voice calls is a bad idea, but some travelers don’t think it’d be a problem. After all, fliers have had the chance to make calls in the past—remember the Airfone that used to be installed in every row? Another reason voice calls might not cause chaos? They’re already allowed on some airlines.

So some airlines DO let you call from the air?

Yep, lots of international airlines, in fact, though many only offer the service on select routes. Among the carriers that let fliers chat in addition to text and browse the web are Emirates, Etihad, Lufthansa, and Qantas. So far, there have been no major incidents traced to the fact that phone calls are allowed. Ryanair even discontinued voice calls because passenger interest in them was so low after trying the service in 2009.

Back to the U.S., why is it such a big deal that we can use our phones during taxi, takeoff, and landing?

Mostly it’s because the world has changed. When calls were banned 20 years ago, next to nobody had a cell phone; now, many passengers travel with multiple devices—and they use them as replacements for everything from newspapers to airplane novels to seat-back TV screens. For many shorter domestic routes, the phases of the flight during which it was previously forbidden to use devices added up to a significant portion of an entire trip. For business travelers, that’s lost productivity. For the rest of us, that was a lot of unnecessary boredom.

Awesome, I hate being unproductive and bored! But won’t my phone be dead by the time we land?

Airlines are adding more and more power plugs to keep passengers’ phones and tablets charged. To see if the aircraft on your flight has plugs—some now even offer handy USB connections—check with your airline or consult SeatGuru.com, which shows seat-by-seat info for all major carriers.

Have you used your phone in the air? Are you using it in the air right now? Let us know about your experience browsing from the sky with the hashtag #CNTskycell.

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