Can You Use Cellular Data On A Plane?

Last Updated on January 27, 2022

Many portable electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets, or even some laptops can connect to the internet using a sim card and the cellular network.

But can you use that cellular data on a plane? Are you allowed to use your 4G or 5G mobile connection? And does mobile data even work when you are on a plane and high in the sky?

Let’s find out.

Does Data Work On A Plane?

Here’s the bad news.

You are required to turn airplane mode on when you are on a plane. This will flat out stop data working on mobile phones by disabling the cellular connection.

So your first problem is that the rules don’t allow you to connect your phone to the cell towers.

The Federal Aviation Administration does allow you to use a phone on a plane in flight mode.

But the Federal Communications Commission rules stop you from using it to make calls or connect to the data network.

But suppose you are a crazy rebel that doesn’t care about rules and will just turn your data connection on anyway.

Well… data still isn’t going to work on the plane.

And here’s why.

For your cell phone to provide data it must connect to a cell phone tower.

For roughly the first 10 minutes after take off your plane will be low enough in the sky that it might be possible to connect to a cell phone tower if one is nearby.

After about 10 minutes your plane will have climbed too high in the sky to connect to any cell phone tower. So even if you sneakily turn your cellular data on you won’t be able to get a data connection on the plane.

Your plane is also moving fast and if you are over land will be passing over multiple cell phone towers quickly.

When flying over a city your nearest cell phone tower would change every 3 or 4 seconds. You’d no sooner have connected to a tower than you’ll have flown away and gone out of range.

This would prevent you having a stable connection to receive data.

The cellular data network just isn’t designed to work when you are sitting on a plane, wizzing past the cell phone tower at more than 500 mph, and 30 or 40 thousand feet away up in the sky at cruising altitude.

Cell phone towers are built as tall structures to enable them to get up high. The antenna are then aimed back down towards the ground to where all they people with the cell phones are. They don’t point the antennas upwards where the planes are flying.

So unless you have just taken off or are coming in to land then you just won’t get a decent signal and you cannot use data on a plane.

So how are you going to stay connected to your social feeds when flying?

Surely there must be a way you can update your instagram with the view from the plane?

Can You Use The Internet On A Plane?

Since airplane mode will disable your cellular data you cannot use the internet on a plane via the cellular network.

The only way to use the internet on a plane is if the airline provides in-flight wifi.

Not all airlines provide in-flight wi-fi and even when they do it is rarely cheap.

Some airlines are still rolling out wifi across their fleet so not all routes have the equipment installed.

Special mention to JetBlue for providing free basic wi-fi on all their flights.

Full service airlines like American Airlines, Delta, and United have wi-fi but it’s pretty expensive.

The Bottom Line

You cannot use data on a plane. Once the doors are closed you should enable airplane mode and that will disable your cellular data connection.

Even if you are a rebel and don’t turn on flight mode you’ll only get a signal for 10 minutes after you take off and 10 minutes before you land.

You could land yourself in trouble with the flight attendant. Your phones cellular signals can cause interference with the planes communication systems and while it won’t bring down the plane it annoys the flight crew.

Also, if you don’t turn on flight mode your cell phones battery will drain quicker. You will use up your battery trying to connect to towers so it really is better to turn on flight mode.

For TV, movies, and entertainment it is still best practice to download something to watch before your flight.

In terms of surfing the web, checking email, or responding to socials a flight is the perfect time to disconnect for a few hours and you can catch up with your messages after you land!

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