Can You Use Data on a Plane? Essential Tips to Know When Flying

Can You Use Data on a Plane?

Despite what you may have heard, using your phone’s data while flying is perfectly safe and legal. It can even help you save money. Learn more about how to make the most of your time in the air by using your phone’s data and what you can do before boarding a plane with limited connectivity.

Can you use data on a plane? You can use your phone’s data in the air to stay connected with your loved ones, check your email, or catch up on the news.

However, you can do a few things before boarding a plane with limited connectivity to make sure you can make the most of your time in the air.

First, make sure your phone is fully charged. You may also want to download any apps or updates you need ahead of time so you can avoid using data while you’re on the plane.

If you’re going to be working on a project, try to get as much done as possible before takeoff. And finally, don’t forget to pack your headphones!

Can You Use Data on a Plane?

Browsing on Social Media Inside the Airplane

Yes. The Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, and most major airlines can confidently say that no laws prohibit you from using your phone’s data while flying.

However, the kicker is that different airlines can have rules regarding what services can be used during flights.

See Related: Best Day to Book Flights

The FCC Clarifies

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set out to establish whether or not using your phone’s data is against federal law.

In a notice about this issue, the FCC said it can “understand concerns raised by airline passengers who are unable to use their mobile devices during takeoff and landing because these air carriers have decided to prohibit voice and/or text services.”

However, the commission also said it “has not yet identified any specific statute or regulation that prohibits the use of mobile data services on an airplane.” Here is a direct statement from the FCC on the matter. You can read here if you’d like to learn more about the direct statement.

“Current FCC rules, which were designed to prevent harmful interference to wireless networks on the ground, restrict the in-flight use of mobile devices operating over certain wireless frequencies. 

Special equipment (called an “airborne access system”) that can be installed directly on an airplane is now available to prevent such interference. It has already been deployed successfully in many other countries around the world without incident.

Based on these technological advances, the FCC has adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would allow airline carriers to allow passengers to use their mobile wireless devices, such as cellphones, to access data, texting, and/or voice services while flying above 10,000 feet.

The FCC is considering whether these advances in technology no longer warrant – solely on a technological basis – the prohibition of in-flight mobile phone use.

The FCC will collect and carefully review consumer and technical input before taking any final action to potentially change the existing ban on using cell phones on flights.

The proposed rules would make clear that, as a default, the ban on operating cell phones on planes would remain in place ultimately if the FCC adopts new rules.

It would be the airlines’ decision, in consultation with their customers and consistent with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation (USDOT) rules, whether to permit Internet access, texting, and/or voice services on mobile wireless devices while airborne.”

Simple, right? Right.

See Related: Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now? Factors to Know

Airlines Can Disable Services

Even though there is no law prohibiting cell phone data usage on a plane, that doesn’t mean that airlines can’t disable these services. The FCC says that “air carriers can (but are not required to) disable all cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth services on board aircraft.”

This is why it’s important to check with your airline before you fly to see if they have any restrictions on using data or other mobile services.

Why can’t I use data on a plane?

You can’t use data on a plane because the signal can potentially impact the network systems for pilots. Even the slightest interruption is not worth the reward of allowing cellular data, especially when you all share the same, thin-skinned, metal tube flying at 400mph, tens of thousands of feet above the Earth.

Most flights can’t connect to the sky downlink system (GAN), which coordinates flight traffic and transmits information like weather updates and text messages.

And this goes for streaming, too: not only can your phone’s middle ground not intercept an online signal, but there is virtually no cell service to call anyone, check Twitter, or find pictures of someone’s muffin recipe.

The GAN will route any cellular signals around planes as it does with Wi-Fi hotspots, so you’re just out of luck if you need that connection to exist. You can still text after take-off through Verizon and AT&T, but only if you can get LTE cell service, which is already rare in most parts of the country.

Sprint and T-Mobile can’t offer this connection; however, any messages sent through these carriers can be delivered during flights.

Keeping your cellular network turned on can also impact your battery life. Draining it before you take off or while at cruising altitude can cause problems when you can’t recharge your phone.

This can be solved by turning your cellular data off when not in use or simply by purchasing a mobile charger so can charge your device during the flight.

If you’re flying via an airplane with GAN connectivity, it’s possible to connect to the Sky Wi-Fi system and use your data to surf the net or send messages.

However, this can be incredibly expensive depending upon the airline you’re flying with and can cost around or over $20 for a 4-hour flight.

See Related: Layover vs Stopover

What happens if you use cell data on a plane?

Cell phone usage can create a “phantom load,” activating the cell towers on an airplane and draining a device’s battery. That means that while you can certainly use your data connection while flying, you risk going through your batteries too quickly or even damaging your device if it has to work harder than normal to hold onto its signal.

So unless you’re Wi-Fi enabled, be cautious about using apps that require a good amount of cellular data when in flight. It could stop others from using their devices, too.

See Related: Best Travel Routers

How to Use Data on a Plane

Taking Photo Inside an Airplane

You can make the most of your phone’s data while flying in a few ways.

1. Check your airline’s policies ahead of time.

As we mentioned, airlines can have different rules about using phone data. Make sure you know what is and isn’t allowed before you fly.

2. Download content ahead of time.

If you know you’ll be without internet access for a few hours, download movies, music, or books beforehand. This can help keep you entertained during your flight.

3. Use flight or airplane mode.

Most phones have an airplane mode that can be turned on to help conserve battery life and data. If you stay in airplane mode, you won’t interfere with a cellular radio connection and disturb the flight crew. However, you will still be able to connect to in-flight wifi.

4. Connect to the plane’s Wi-Fi.

If your airline offers Wi-Fi service on their planes, you can connect to the internet that way. However, be aware that this can be expensive (depending on the airline and your ticket) and can slow down your data speeds.

5. Use a VPN.

A virtual private network (VPN) can help you keep your data safe and secure while you’re flying.

Public wifi networks can be extremely vulnerable to security breaches on your portable electronic devices, so if you use a VPN you’ll restrict access to your electronic devices and have better peace of mind regarding your data.

See Related: Airplane Joke for Travelers

Final Thoughts

Aircraft Interior

The bottom line is that you can use cellular data while flying, but it’s important to check with your airline beforehand to see if they have any restrictions.

Most airlines do have restrictions in place for using mobile phones while flying, so it’s rare that you can find one that does. With a little preparation, you can make the most of your time in the air.

FAQ

Can you use data or WiFi on a plane?

A lot has changed in air travel over the last few years. In-flight WiFi can now be found on planes from all major airlines, and many people fly with just a phone to keep them connected.

Can you have Internet on a plane?

Now, many airlines offer onboard Wi-Fi to passengers at no extra cost or included in the price of an inflight meal.

And while Wi-fi access can be spotty depending on how close your flight is to Gogo’s satellite coverage area (typically about 48 states), there are many reasons why connecting can be helpful — like saving money for flights that don’t include Wifi.

Can you text on a plane?

Yes. You can communicate via text messages when an airplane is flying, but a message can also contain a specific method or format you wish to send.

What happens if you forget to turn on airplane mode?

Unless your phone is broken or does not work, it can never connect in airplane mode to a cell phone tower. This will deplete the power of your phone while providing no voice continuity.

Related Resources

Kyle Kroeger
WRITTEN BY

Kyle Kroeger

Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He's a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he'd heard.

Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he's learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.

He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time. Read more about his portfolio of work.