Can You Make Emergency Calls Without a Cell Signal?

Most folks, including preppers, are inseparable from their cell phones these days and it is not hard to see why; even now people take for granted just how much capability is packed into such a tiny device.

All of the many apps and functions are certainly handy but far and away a cell’s most critical function is still the most basic: reliable long distance communications, even in an emergency.

cell phone

Can you make emergency calls without a signal? Yes, much of the time. When your cell phone is reading no signal it doesn’t mean there’s no nearby network, it just means there is no access to your carrier’s network. Calling using the emergency call function will utilize any open network within range. Even in the total absence of a cell phone network, emergency calling over wi-fi may be possible.

That is certainly a relief to people who have been worried about losing communications during an emergency, especially if they live or work in an area with limited or unreliable access to their carrier’s cell network.

There is more to know about this important subject however and we will delve into the details just below.

Understanding Cell Network Basics

Luckily we live in a time where cell phones have become so ubiquitous and service for them so widespread that is often times more remarkable when we don’t have signal, then when we do.

Nonetheless it is critical that you understand the basics of cell network infrastructure, and how your cell phone interacts with this network so that you may more reliably use it in times of trouble.

At its simplest, any given cell phone provider will have installed a wide-ranging network of towers throughout their service area. These cell phone towers serve as relays, bouncing a signal from one to the next in a giant chain until the signal finally reaches its destination.

Note that certain cellular providers simply have agreements with the owners of pre-existing towers to carry their client’s calls, but functionally this makes no difference for you and I.

The signal that is transmitted and relayed by these cell phone towers originates, of course, from your cell phone. When you place a call your cell phone will transmit the signal, reaching out and looking for any available tower that supports the network of which you are a paying customer.

cell phone tower

If this network is located and the phone and tower are able to communicate, then your call will be placed, bouncing along each node, one to the next, until it finally reaches the recipient, who then picks up their now-ringing phone and begins speaking with you.

Although technologically marvelous, the fundamentals of how a cell network functions are easy enough to understand.

No Membership, No Service

But let us say that your cell phone is reporting a complete lack of signal, AKA “no bars”, as denoted by an empty indicator on your phone’s information display. What this really means is that your phone did not locate or cannot reach any tower that supports your cellular network.

It decidedly does not mean that there is no cellular network of any kind in the area. To the contrary, unless you are really, really out in the sticks there is almost certainly someone’s network around that can be used.

But, because commerce is what it is and cell phone service providers jealously guard their market sectors, you are out of luck.

Or are you..?

Emergency Calling Activated

Luckily, there is a way past this restriction, but only in a genuine emergency. Simply, all you have to do is press your phone’s emergency call button, usually located on the dialing interface or even on the lock screen for maximum convenience and speed.

When you press the emergency call button you’ll be presented with the dialer interface per usual, but now your phone will look for and utilize any cell phone tower and available network owned and operated by any carrier, in stark contrast to the usual method of assessing available networks.

Once the emergency call button is pressed you will be able to dial 911 (or in some cases just press the “begin call” button) since some phones will auto-populate the recipient number field with 911.

Emergency Call Specifics

But this is not just a way to jump on to another network when you are in a jam. No, some pretty interesting things take place when a cellular network is fielding a legitimate emergency call placed with the emergency call function.

For starters, your phone will utilize its software to rapidly sort and analyze all available signals from all available networks that will field the emergency call. It will then choose the strongest or overall best signal based on your current position.

When the call is placed it goes out with what is essentially an emergency “tag” so the network will recognize it and prioritize it for service.

This emergency tag must be recognized and serviced by any cellular networks, by law, no matter what phone or provider it originates from. Your phone does not even have to have a SIM chip in for this to function.

Additionally, the priority status of an emergency call means that in the unlikely event that the network is completely full and cannot handle even one more request it will kick someone off of the network who does not have the priority status attendant to an emergency call, ensuring your emergency call can go through.

Pretty cool, huh?

Tips and Tricks

One thing you should be aware of when traveling in areas without your cell carrier’s towers is that your phone is constantly searching out potential towers and networks to connect to, and others just in case you have to field that emergency call.

This requires power, and can drain your battery surprisingly quickly when you are out on the fringes.

If you notice that you are in such an area (or that you will be heading into one and staying there for some time) you might be best served by preemptively placing your phone on airplane mode.

Airplane mode will shut down the vast majority of your phone’s transmissions, saving you a considerable amount of power.

However, placing an emergency call per usual will often wake the phone up from airplane mode, instantly saving you time and fumbling in a time-is-life situation.

This is something you will need to verify that your phone does, but so long as it provides this functionality there is no reason to let your phone guzzle battery looking for networks you will not be able to use unless there is an emergency.

It will find one quickly enough when you place the emergency call.


It is entirely possible for a cell phone to place emergency calls even when it does not have signal, so long as other networks’ cell towers are present and functional. The emergency call function forces any available network to field the call and transmit it.

So long as there is some kind of cell service in the area the emergency call function will allow you to contact first responders.

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