What Is Airplane Mode? How Does It Work, and Should You Use It?

Especially if you don’t fly frequently, chances are good that you don’t use your smartphone’s airplane mode all that often. We all know that we’re supposed to switch our phones to airplane mode before the flight takes off. But what is airplane mode, exactly? What does it do? And how important is it that you use the setting when the flight attendants tell you to? Here’s what you need to know.

What is airplane mode?

Airplane passenger listens to music on his phone

An airplane passenger listens to music on his smartphone. | Chalabala/ iStock/ Getty Images Plus

Let’s start with the biggest question: What is airplane mode? It’s a mode that turns off the wireless functions of your smartphone (or tablet, though we’ll refer mostly to smartphones here, just for the sake of simplicity). When you turn this setting on, usually by finding the plane icon and tapping it, airplane mode turns off the cellular voice and data connection on your phone. Often, it also disables Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Airplane mode is called “airplane mode” because it was designed to make your device safe to use during a flight. As The Daily Dot explains, the radios inside your device could emit electromagnetic interference. That interference could affect the operation of the instruments and equipment on the plane. Or, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), it could even disrupt service in cellular towers on the ground.

Why do you need airplane mode?

By turning off your cellular service and Wi-Fi, you make the device safe to use in an airplane, as per federal regulations and airlines’ rules. In the case of the iPhone, at least, Apple makes it pretty clear that airplane mode is there to enable users to “comply with airline regulations.”

Business Insider notes that there’s scant evidence that mobile phones can really interfere with navigation equipment or with the performance of an aircraft. Nonetheless, the Federal Communications Commission wants you to switch your phone to airplane mode when you fly. The FCC is more concerned about the implications for cell towers on the ground. The FCC warns that phones 40,000 feet in the air could pick up service from multiple cell towers, crowding networks and disrupting service.

What can your phone do in airplane mode?

Because airplane mode blocks your connection to cellular networks, you won’t be able to make phone calls, send text messages, or use FaceTime. Usually, you won’t be able to do anything that requires an internet connection because airplane mode will also shut off your Wi-Fi connection. However, as Digital Trends notes, the FAA updated its guidelines in 2013 to allow passengers to use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections.

So if your airline has Wi-Fi on its planes (or if you have Bluetooth devices that you want to use during your flight), you can still use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when your phone is in airplane mode. You’ll just need to switch them back on manually after turning on airplane mode. Using those capabilities, you can connect to in-flight Wi-Fi or use your favorite wireless headphones while the plane is in the air.

When should you use airplane mode?

You should switch your phone to airplane mode when you fly. (At least if you care about following the rules.) But there are also some other situations when you might want to use the setting, even if you’re nowhere near an airport. Switching on airplane mode is a great way to save battery, particularly if you’re spending time somewhere with poor service anyway. And The Daily Dot notes that switching your phone to airplane mode can also enable it to charge more quickly.

You can even use airplane mode to force yourself to stop being distracted by Facebook, Instagram, or whatever app you repeatedly check on your phone. Plus, CNET recommends using it when you hand over your phone to your kids to watch a movie or play a game. It will not only prevent them from calling anyone, but will also keep notifications from interrupting whatever they’re doing on your device.

Read more: 5 Airline Perks You Didn’t Know You Could Get in Coach Class

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