Can You Call 911 Without Service?

This post contains affiliate links. If you click on a link and make a purchase, we may earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

By Bryan Lynch •  9 min read

When an emergency happens, most of us will try to handle the problem ourselves initially. But more often than not, we need help.

Maybe a small kitchen fire quickly gets out of control, or someone is bleeding out from a car accident, or you’ve become lost in the outdoors.

Whatever the situation, the rising levels of fear and panic make your heart race faster as you realize you can’t do this on your own. You reach for your smartphone to call 911, or anyone that can help but there is zero network signal.

Your eyes widen, and your heart feels like a hammer knocking away in your chest because you think you are dead in the water.

…Or are you?

In this article, we’ll be breaking down:

no signals

How A Cell Phone Call Works

cell tower for cell phone users and emergency calls

I’m sure you know of cell phone towers and have probably even seen a few of them, as they have become an integral part of the landscape around us. But do you know how they work?

I won’t get all geeky and technical because, honestly, most people don’t care – so let’s keep it very simple.

For the sake of the article, let’s say your cellphone provider is Verizon. When you place a call, a signal leaves your phone and searches for the nearest Verizon tower.

The signal then leaves that tower and travels to the next nearest tower, and the next network tower, and the next network tower, until it reaches a tower close enough to who you are calling and a connection is established.

Contacting Emergency Services Without Service

limited cell signal

It’s easy to see that a cell phone has no signal and therefore, logical to assume you can’t place any calls. The number of bars on a cell phone indicates the strength of the network signal, and when you don’t see any bars, you think you can’t make a call.

But that’s not the case when you are trying to make emergency calls. That’s because emergency assistance doesn’t rely on your network signals or cell towers.

When trying to call a normal number, a cell phone will only connect to the network signal of your carrier. So, if there are no bars or the phone doesn’t have service, then the call won’t go through.

contact emergency services

However, on cell phones, there is an emergency call function that recognizes certain numbers, like when you call 911. When you’re trying to make emergency calls, the cell phone recognizes the numbers of emergency services and will connect to any tower close enough – and not just to the tower of your wireless service provider.

This means that even if cell phones don’t have cell service from a carrier’s network, an emergency call function will still work.

Of course, as time goes on, more and more cell phones are interacting with satellites, much like satellite phones do, and an emergency call may just bypass a tower altogether.

Wi-Fi For Help

text messages

There may come a time when, for whatever reason, an emergency call just won’t go through. Maybe you can’t get a network signal or the mobile network is overloaded due to a widescale emergency.

Just because phone calls won’t go through doesn’t mean you can’t notify others. Applications on phones work on a slightly different mode of transportation.

If an internet connection or wi-fi network is available, you can still get connected with first responders or communicate with someone who could help through various apps like:

This is especially important to remember during a large-scale emergency because phone service will likely become overloaded. Leave a message on any platform you can that will help communicate the details of your situation, including your location or last known location.

Remember these alternative modes of communication may still work as long as you have wi-fi access.

Cell Phones And A True Survival Situation

Okay, let’s take this topic a step further and say you find yourself in a true survival situation, like being lost in the wilderness. What should you do, and how can a cell phone help you?

The first thing you should do is to try the phone’s emergency call button or dial an emergency number (dial 911) to see if the call will go through.

Remember a cell phone doesn’t have to have a carrier plan for you to be able to connect with a 911 call center. You also don’t have to be close to one of your carrier’s towers, because when you dial 911 the signal will use the towers of other providers when possible.

If you are successful at getting an answer from a 911 call center, listen to their instructions and do exactly what they tell you. While the phone is on they may be able to get your exact location.

They can locate callers because every so often a phone checks in with the nearest cell towers. When it does this, the signal provides the location of the phone in relation to the tower.

caller's location

If calling doesn’t work or you don’t get an answer, try to use any communication-based apps on your phone to contact an emergency agency or someone that can contact them for you.

If neither of these options works, and you don’t plan on trying to make emergency calls for a while it’s time to start making some changes on your device. Even though cell phone towers seem to be everywhere, you could find yourself truly in the middle of nowhere.

In such an area there may not be any towers for quite a distance, and it’s probably time to start saving the battery. Here are a few ways that you can save the phone battery life:

If you don’t have a way to recharge your battery, the best way to save power is to turn it off. Yes, turning the phone on and off does use power, but if you know you’re not going to use it for hours at a time and you don’t expect any check-in calls from a rescue team, this will save more than it uses.

Survival Uses And Last Resort

In a survival situation, the best way to use a cell phone is to call for help. However, if that doesn’t work a phone that has power can be useful in many other ways. Of course, you are going to have to weigh the options of using the phone for these purposes versus saving battery life.

The first options below work best if you have the means to recharge your phone:

Here are a few ways to prepare and use your phone for a survival situation.

Last Resort

Technology can be a great thing but a phone is only going to last so long and if you don’t have access to any method for charging, eventually the phone is going to die. When that happens, don’t throw the phone to the wayside because you can still get more use out of a dead device by cannibalizing it.


Can You call 911 without a SIM card?

Yes, you can still call 911 without a SIM card, which stands for subscriber identification module. A sim card is mainly used to store certain identifying information and to link a phone to a particular network service. So phones without sim cards can be used for calling an emergency number.

How long does it take to transmit a call to towers?

A cell phone signal is incredibly fast and travels at the speed of light, which is 186,282 miles per second!

How do you keep your phone charged in the wilderness?

When you don’t have access to a wall outlet, there are several ways to keep a phone charged, such as portable solar panel chargers and small battery banks.

You can even charge your cell phone with fire! Find out how by checking out this article about the BioLite CampStove 2.

What’s the best way of keeping your phone protected from damage?

The best way to keep your phone in working order is to protect it with a hard case and a screen protector, and then place it in a waterproof hard case.

What is the FCC?

FCC stands for Federal Communications Commission. It is an agency that regulates cable, radio, television, and satellite communications.

Wrap Up

A smartphone is a powerful tool with a lot more capability than most of us use it for. Almost every single person now has one that they keep on their person or nearby constantly, which means it will likely be with us when an emergency happens.

You can be better prepared for emergencies by properly protecting your phone, downloading useful information and maps, and knowing how to use your phone both inside and out. And remember, even if you don’t have service, you should always try to dial 911 first.

Thanks for reading and stay prepared!


Bryan Lynch

Bryan grew up in the Midwest and spent every waking moment outdoors. Learning how to hunt, fish, read the land, and be self-reliant was part of everyday life. Eventually, he combined his passions for the outdoors, emergency preparedness, and writing. His goal was to spread positive information about this field. In 2019, Bryan authored the book Swiss Army Knife Camping and Outdoor Survival Guide. His second book, Paracord Projects For Camping and Outdoor Survival, is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2021.