How to use an Android phone as a GPS tracking device

ByLance T. Lee

Dec 16, 2019

GPS is ideal for recovering your device in the event of loss or theft and for navigating while driving with Google Maps. And that’s especially cool because the GPS works even when it’s disconnected from the internet. Simply download your maps in advance!

But how about using an Android phone as a GPS tracker? It might not be the most reliable option, and it has some significant drawbacks, but it can get the job done if you’re desperate. Here’s how to turn your Android phone into a GPS tracker.

To note: These instructions are based on a Samsung Galaxy S8 running Android 8.0 Oreo, but the steps should be relatively similar for most Android devices.

Tracking with native Android features

Most Android devices released in 2014 or later have a built-in feature called Find my device (formerly known as Find My Android). This service constantly returns the location of your device to Google’s servers so that Google knows where your device is located. You can then use the Google web interface to see where your device is at any given time. You will need a Google account to use this feature.

How to activate Find My Device on Android

  1. Access the one on your device Settings.

  2. Press on Lock screen and security.

  3. Press on Other security settings. (This step may not be necessary depending on your device and Android version.)

  4. Press on Device administration apps. (This step can be called Device administrators depending on your device and Android version.)

  5. Faucet Find my device.

  6. Faucet Activate.

To note: To activate this service, you need to allow four permissions: 1) the ability to erase all data, 2) the ability to change your screen unlock password, 3) the ability to lock screen, and 4 ) the possibility to deactivate the functions on the lock screen.

The good thing about Find My Device is that it’s not just a tracker — it lets you control the device remotely in the ways mentioned above. Learn more in our Find My Device overview.

How to use Find My Device on Android

Once activated, all you need to do is launch a web browser, go to the Find My Device dashboard, and sign in to your Google Account (the same one associated with your device).

Once connected, select the device you want to locate, click on the button Locate button for said device, and it will show its last known location and how long it was last seen. It’s pretty accurate in my experience, but I live in an urban setting; it can be shifted up to 20 meters in areas with poor GPS visibility.

Tracking with third-party Android apps

If you don’t like Find My Device for some reason, you can always resort to one of the many third-party alternatives available on the Google Play Store. These apps are easy to install and you don’t have to do anything other than create an account to use them.

There are two that we recommend:

1. Belvedere: Lookout is an all-in-one security solution where device tracking is just one of its many features. As such, it might be too big if device tracking is the only feature you’re interested in. But if your device currently lacks a good antivirus app, you can also use this one and kill two birds with one stone.

2. Prey: In practice, Prey is very similar to Find My Device. Its main advantage is the availability on several other platforms including Windows, Mac, Linux and iPhone, so you can keep track of ALL your devices wherever you are.

Most of these are marketed as anti-theft and anti-lost security apps for Android — and they’re certainly useful for those purposes — but you can use them for direct tracking if you want.

Make your Android device mountable for tracking

Once your device is set up as trackable, whether using Find My Device or a third-party app, all you have to do is attach the device to the person or object that you want to follow. Obviously, this is much easier said than done.

Want to know how to track a car with a cell phone?

The easiest and most efficient option is to use a magnetic car holder. Most two-piece kits come with a magnetic insert (which you place in your device’s case) and a magnetic base (which you attach to whatever you want to mount). With a good model, the magnetic force should be strong enough for your phone to “snap” to the base and stay there securely.

The WizGear Universal Magnetic Car Holder is simple, convenient and affordable. It is a stick-on model that uses adhesive and contains 10 magnets for maximum magnetic strength.

If you don’t trust adhesives, you might consider the WizGear Universal Magnetic Suction Cup Car Mount. It’s much more noticeable than the self-adhesive variant, but the suction cup is strong and may be worth the trade-off.

Don’t have a phone case? You can use adhesive metal plates instead, such as these Pop-Tech Universal Adhesive Metal Brackets. They stick directly to the back of your device and allow you to use magnetic media as usual.

Nothing beats a dedicated GPS tracker

While your Android device can function as a tracker in a pinch, don’t expect it to pass off as a serious tracking device. There are three main drawbacks you need to be aware of, and if any of these are problematic for you, you should consider using a dedicated tracker instead:

  1. Battery Life: Your smartphone has a lot of software running in the background all the time, such as system-level services and third-party apps, and all of this processing drains battery life. A dedicated GPS tracker only needs to process GPS tracking, which dramatically increases battery life per charge.
  2. Signal quality: GPS trackers aren’t perfect, but their signals are far superior to signals from smartphones. As such, not only are dedicated GPS trackers more accurate, but they can continue to track even in areas where smartphones would normally be cut off.
  3. Risks and costs: Are you ready to lose your Android device? Suppose you put it on the undercarriage of a car and it fell in the middle of a freeway? Dedicated GPS trackers are easier to assemble, more rugged, and even if they get lost or damaged, they’re cheaper to replace.

In other words, don’t convert your Android phone to a GPS tracker unless you don’t have other options. For a more accurate and reliable alternative, consider trying something like the Spy Tec Handheld GPS Tracker.

Are you looking for a GPS tracker for your children? How about a phone watch:

We hope you like the items we recommend and discuss! MUO has affiliate and sponsored partnerships, so we get a share of the revenue from some of your purchases. It won’t affect the price you pay and helps us provide the best product recommendations.

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