A mobile network uses many identifiers for your cell phone, and it keeps track of the location of your device at all times to make sure you can access all the services you are entitled to use. One such identifier is an IMEI number which stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity.
A mobile phone can be tracked using an IMEI number to know the phone’s exact location. IMEI tracking can be achieved through the mobile operator, law enforcement agencies (e.g. the police) or third-party apps. The IMEI information is kept in EIR, a database managed by the mobile operator.
There may be many reasons why you may want to know how the IMEI number can be used to track the location of your cell phone. For example, if you lose your phone, any identifier that can help you know the whereabouts of your phone can be a great help. The other side of the spectrum is if you are curious or worried about someone else trying to track you using your IMEI number. Let’s dig a bit deeper to cover all of these scenarios.
What does an IMEI number look like?
A mobile phone has a range of different identifiers, including IMEI, ICCID, MSISDN, IMSI and TMSI, that can be used to know the location of a mobile phone. While most of these identifiers are linked to the SIM card, IMEI is attached to the device itself. So, for example, if you accidentally lose your phone and someone replaces your SIM with another SIM, the IMEI number will still be able to track down the phone. An IMEI number is linked to the SIM compartment of a mobile phone, which is where you insert the SIM card. If you have a dual-SIM phone, it will have two IMEI numbers, one for each SIM compartment. IMEI is a 15 digit number unique to every SIM-enabled cellular device, including mobile phones, mobile broadband routers and dongles, smartwatches and so on. You can locate the IMEI number of your phone by simply typing the sequence *#06# on the dial pad of your phone. Below is a picture of how the IMEI number is displayed on a mobile device with one SIM compartment. I have a dedicated post on the IMEI number with additional screenshots and a comparison between IMEI and other identifiers like IMSI, ICCID etc.
Who manages the IMEI numbers?
The IMEI number is hardcoded on cellular devices by the device vendors. For example, if you have a Samsung Galaxy phone, the IMEI number is hardcoded on the phone by Samsung. But it is only when a mobile phone gets connected to the mobile network that the IMEI becomes active. The mobile operator has a database called Equipment Identity Register (EIR) that contains all the registered IMEI numbers.
Who can track you with your IMEI number?
The most obvious entity that can track you with your IMEI number is your mobile operator, who manages the EIR database. In addition to the mobile operator, law enforcement agencies, e.g. police, have access to the IMEI number to be able to track stolen phones and potentially individuals carrying those phones. Interestingly, there are also several third-party mobile apps and online portals that provide you with a free or chargeable service to locate a phone using its IMEI number.
If you accidentally lose your phone, the IMEI number will allow your mobile operator to track your phone even if someone discards your SIM and replaces it with another. IMEI is one of the device identifiers the police in many countries use to track cell phones in collaboration with mobile operators. Mobile operators follow a rigorous security process to ensure that your personal information is only available to authorised individuals.
Is it safe to give your IMEI number to anyone?
IMEI number can potentially be misused, which is why you should only share it with those you trust, e.g. your mobile operator, law enforcement authorities, your employer etc. There may be occasions when your mobile operator may request the IMEI number of your device for enabling/disabling services.
For example, you need your IMEI number if you want to unlock a mobile phone. If your IMEI gets into the wrong hands, it can potentially be misused. Even though the IMEI number is unique and stays with the mobile device for its lifecycle, it is technically possible for someone (with special tools) to alter it. Making any modification to the IMEI number is called “unblocking, ” a criminal offence under UK laws. If someone with bad intentions gets hold of your IMEI number, and if they have access to specialised tools, they can potentially use your IMEI on any other mobile phone. If that phone then gets used for any illegal activities, your IMEI number can be at the risk of becoming a scapegoat.
Can a random person track you with your IMEI?
It is important to keep your IMEI number to yourself and only share it with those you trust. Technically, anyone who has your IMEI number can use a third-party app or an online service to make an attempt to track your device. Usually, these apps are designed to locate a lost phone which is an excellent service if you are trying to locate your own phone. However, if an unwanted person has your IMEI number, they can technically use these apps to find out the whereabouts of your phone.
The IMEI number is a key identifier for your mobile phone, and it allows tracking your cellphone irrespective of which SIM is inside the phone. While the key entities that can track your phone using its IMEI number are the mobile operator and law enforcement agencies, some third-party apps and online services allow IMEI tracking. The IMEI number is held in the Equipment Identity Register (EIR), a database with all the registered IMEI numbers managed by a mobile operator. If you want to track your lost phone, the best option is to contact your mobile operator.
As a disclaimer, this is my personal view based on my background in mobile telecoms, but this is not professional advice. You should always contact your mobile operator or service provider for any professional advice regarding your phone or subscription.
Here are some helpful downloads
Thank you for reading this post. I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:
Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.
Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.