How to Track a Mobile Phone Using Its IMEI Number

A step-by-step guide to tracking your phone using your IMEI number, a 15-digit number that is unique to each phone.

By David Isaac

You’re on 96th Street and Lexington. You search your pockets in desperation. Manhattan is a big place to lose a phone. How could it happen? You had it just before you boarded that crowded subway car. Then it hits you. You’ve been jacked. You shuffle sadly back to your friend’s apartment. Maybe he’ll know what to do. He asks a simple question: "What’s your IMEI?" You reply, “My what?”

WHAT IS AN IMEI?

The IMEI, or International Mobile Station Equipment Identity, is a 15-digit number that is hardwired into every phone. This number, because it’s unique to each phone, means it can be used to track your lost or stolen device.

All you need is the number, which is in your phone… which you no longer have. But if you have not yet lost your phone, this is the point where you write down your IMEI number and keep it in a safe place.

Tip

Most smartphones can be tracked and located using software designed for those phones, so you might not need IMEI information to locate a lost or stolen phone. Read How to Track a Cell Phone and Show its Location for details.

How to Find Your IMEI Number

The 2-Step Process

  1. Dial *#06#. Your 15-digit IMEI number will automatically appear on your phone. There isn’t even a need to hit the call button.
  2. Write your IMEI number down and put it in a safe place in case you ever need it.

The 5-Step Process (for iPhone)

  1. Go to Settings
  2. Go to General
  3. Go to About
  4. Scroll down to IMEI
  5. Write your IMEI number down and put it in a safe place in case you ever need it.

The 5-Step Process (for Android phones)

  1. Turn off your cell phone.
  2. Remove the battery cover.
  3. Remove the battery.
  4. Get your IMEI number from the label on the back of your phone.
  5. Write your IMEI number down and put it in a safe place in case you ever need it.

Here is a video that shows you how to do this (though note that since 2009, when this video was recorded, IMEI numbers have become ubiquitous, so it's far more standard than he implies in his introduction).

Things have changed a lot -- back in 2012, all four major US wireless carriers launched a joint database to track stolen cell phones using IMEI numbers.

There are a few ways to find your IMEI number, but we’ll cover the three most common ones. All are straightforward.

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Tracking Your Phone

Now that you have your IMEI number, you might be inclined to try to track down and recover the phone yourself. This isn't a good idea. Indeed, this point can't be overstated: It's very dangerous to attempt to recover a phone on your own.

Leave tracking to the experts. Notify both the police and your service provider (such as Verizon, AT&T, etc), and give them your IMEI number. Cellular carriers have the ability to blacklist IMEI numbers, making them unusable. They can also track them using a cell tower triangulation method. Basically, the carrier narrows down the location of your cell phone by measuring the angles to it from nearby cell tower antennas.

Can Thieves Change Your IMEI Number?

Remember how we said at the beginning that the IMEI number was unique and hard-wired into your phone? Sort of. Here’s the bad news. It’s actually possible to change it. Once your IMEI has been changed, efforts to track your phone will be thwarted. So waste no time in alerting your service provider and police so they can get right on it.

The best advice we can give you is be prepared. Store your IMEI number somewhere safe.