GPS Tracker without SIM Card? Your Questions, Answered.

17 May 2023

Get the answers to all of your questions about GPS trackers with and without a SIM card. Plus, find out why a SIM card, subscription and cell service are often needed to provide the best tracking experience.

dog GPS tracker and sim card

Searching for a GPS tracker without a SIM card? It can get confusing with all the GPS tracker options out there. Why do some GPS trackers use SIM cards? What about simless GPS trackers – are there any GPS trackers that don’t require a SIM card or subscription plan? Or a GPS tracker with no monthly fee? Which types of GPS trackers are available, and how to pick the right one? Oh, and what about Bluetooth trackers? You probably have tons of questions. Luckily, we have tons of answers.

Quick summary: Is there a GPS tracker without a SIM card? 

GPS trackers without SIM cards do exist. Also known as GPS loggers, they typically only record GPS data. You can later download and view the GPS data by connecting the logger to your computer.

Most GPS trackers need to send location data to another device, for example, so you can view the coordinates on your phone or computer in real time. The most common way of transmitting this information is via the cellular network using a SIM card.

For this reason, most GPS trackers require a SIM card and a monthly service fee to be paid. The benefit? SIM cards generally make it possible to track something in real-time, over any distance.

packaging of the Tractive GPS DOG tracker

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What is a GPS tracker?

A GPS tracking device (or GPS tracker) is a device that uses GPS and other technologies to pinpoint location. Often used by companies to track vehicles and cargo – and let you see where your delivery is – it’s also loved by outdoorsy athletes and farmers who want to keep an eye on their animals.

Oh, and of course, pet parents!

A GPS tracker is a device that tracks and records the movements of something or someone, using the Global Positioning System (GPS).

In most cases, location data from the GPS tracker goes to an internet-connected device via cellular network (GSM/LTE), radio, or satellite modem. If a GPS tracker is sending location data over a cellular network, it will need (naturally) cell service and a SIM card.

Basically, a bit like a smartphone.

If it wasn’t clear to you at first why GPS trackers require a SIM card, you’re not alone. Why should a GPS tracker need all that just to track your dog, or your car, right? But hopefully now you better understand why most GPS tracking devices out there use mobile networks and SIM cards.

What are the different types of GPS trackers?

There are many different kinds of GPS trackers. For example, small, wearable GPS trackers. These include trackers for pets, hikers or hunters that prevent them (or their furry friends) from getting lost, as well as devices which can share live location in case of emergency.

Larger GPS trackers – like a car navigation system – often have a screen, and can help with finding directions. Asset trackers, on the other hand, mean business, and help companies follow trucks, boats, containers and more.

Beware of “fake” GPS trackers – a.k.a. Bluetooth tracking devices – that are sold as GPS units even though they don’t have GPS technology.

GPS Tracker Comparison

To help you get your head around the different types of GPS tracking devices out there, we’ll be comparing four categories. GPS trackers and satellites or iridium trackers which contain a SIM card, and GPS loggers and navigation systems which do not require a SIM card.

Tractive GPS tracker for dogs

GPS Tracker

– Small, personal GPS tracker, used to track pets, vehicles and people
– Real-time, live tracking
SIM card required, connects to best network available
– Unlimited range, worldwide coverage
– Low cost ($50) and a small monthly subscription fee
– Popular brand: Tractive

Tractive GPS tracker for dogs

Satellite or Iridium Tracker

– Adventure and rescue tracker: best for extremely remote areas, as it can provide potentially life-saving communication where there’s no cell service
– Uses satellite communication systems (such as Globestar)
SIM card might be required, depending on the tracker
– Unlimited range, worldwide coverage & real-time tracking
– High cost of $100 to $600 and a monthly subscription fee of about $15
– Popular brand: Spot

Tractive GPS tracker for dogs

GPS Logger

– Only records route, which can be viewed on your computer after a hike or walk is over. Used by bikers, hikers and skiers.
– No active tracking, only passive. No protection against theft.
No SIM card required. The route is not sent to a phone.
– Exact positioning, worldwide coverage
– Costs around $50 – $150
– Popular brand: Renkforce

Tractive GPS tracker for dogs

GPS Navigation System

– Used in cars and vehicles for navigation purposes.
– Built-in monitor or screen which displays location
No SIM card required, route is not sent to a separate device
– Costs between $100 – $350
– Popular brand: Garmin

How do I choose the right GPS tracker for me?

When it comes to getting a GPS tracker, the first thing to do is think about what you need it for. A GPS tracker for a puppy will have totally different requirements than a GPS tracker used to track a company truck.

After that, you can look into the factors below.

Which factors do I need to consider when purchasing a GPS tracker?

Many people looking to buy a GPS tracker might be turned off by the subscription fee that often comes with the price tag. So they look for a GPS tracker without a SIM card or subscription plan. But by doing so, they often miss out on the benefits that come with a GPS tracking service. For example, getting regular location updates.

Of course, there’s a few more nuts-and-bolts things to consider as well:

  • Battery Life: How long should the battery last on one charge? 24 hours? 7 days? Or one year? Don’t forget, longer battery life often comes with the trade-off of less features, or higher prices.
  • Battery Type: Should the battery be replaceable, non-exchangeable, or rechargable? For example, someone spending a lot of time outdoors – and isn’t sure when they can next recharge – might prefer being able to swap batteries and go on.
  • Charging: What kind of charging mechanism should the tracker have? Do you want to be able to charge it like your phone, or keep it plugged into your car at all times?
  • Range and Coverage: Over which distance should the tracker work? Is unlimited range important, or is it enough that it works in your backyard? Will you be using it in the city, or in the countryside?
  • Durability: Should the device be waterproof? Shock-proof? Chew-resistant?
  • Size and Weight: How big should the tracker be? Does it need to be small and lightweight? For pet parents with smaller dogs, this might be an important question.
  • Features: What extras would you like your from your GPS tracker? With Tractive GPS trackers, for example, you can get alerts if your cat or dog leaves a safe space, see location history and let family, friends or pet-sitters track with you. That, plus keep your buddy fit and in shape with built-in activity monitoring.
Tractive GPS Dog Tracker Virtual Fence Feature Illustration
Virtual Fence lets you set up safe zones anywhere – like your garden – and get notified ASAP if your dog or cat leaves one.

Do all GPS trackers need a SIM card?

Do GPS trackers need a SIM card to work? Technically, no. As mentioned above, there are some types of GPS tracker that contain SIM cards, as well as simless GPS trackers. For example, the navigation system in your car is one type of GPS tracker that does not require a SIM card. On the other hand, the average dog or cat GPS tracker contains a SIM card in order to make real-time tracking possible. Among GPS trackers with a SIM card, some are exchangeable and some are non-exchangeable.

Why do GPS trackers need a SIM card?

Many wonder why so many GPS trackers require a SIM card. After all, there are simless GPS trackers out there. It’s a good question, seeing as your phone GPS can technically work without a SIM card. So, once more, why do so many GPS trackers require SIM cards?

Here’s the short answer. If you want to send GPS location from one device to another (from your GPS tracker to your phone, for example), you’ll need a SIM card so that the two can “communicate”. The data gets sent by SMS from your tracker to your phone, all thanks to its SIM card.

What’s the benefit of having a GPS tracker with a SIM card?

Wireless communication between devices: The advantage of a built-in SIM card in your tracker is that it’s connected to the local mobile network. That means it can communicate with other devices. Say you put a GPS tracker in your child’s backpack* on their first day walking to school alone to make sure they get there safely. The tracker’s SIM card lets it forward location data to your phone. Without a SIM card in the GPS tracker, this would normally not be possible.

Real-time tracking: A SIM card also lets you track every moment. For example, Tractive GPS lets you go into LIVE Mode to get location updates every 2-3 seconds, and know your cat or dog is safe and sound. All that is made possible by the tracker’s integrated SIM card.

white dog carrying stick in mouth running through a lake outside,  wearing a dog tracker on the collar. Tractive GPS app screenshot example in foreground
Track your dog’s location LIVE with Tractive GPS

*Note: Using GPS tracking for humans is often regulated and may not be legal in your area. Be sure to abide by local laws in your area when it comes to person-tracking.

How does a GPS tracker work with a SIM card?

Want to get technical? Here’s what’s going on inside a GPS tracker with a SIM card. A GPS tracker with a SIM card usually contains a GPS chip, a GSM chip, a SIM card and a small CPU1. The GPS chips receives signals from at least four GPS satellites to calculate its position. It then forwards that position to the CPU, which cleans up that data.

This is then forwarded to the GSM module, which connects to the mobile network and you (usually via a smartphone, tablet, or computer). GPS tracking platforms (such as the Tractive GPS app) make it easy for end users to read GPS location data by visualizing it on a map.

Like this:

Tractive GPS app feature screenshot LIVE Tracking

Of course, you don’t need to know all that to get peace of mind for your furry friend. 😉

Are there GPS trackers without SIM cards?

Simless GPS trackers do exist. These trackers, however, are mainly used when real-time tracking between devices is not necessary.

For example, GPS loggers record route data, which can then be uploaded and viewed on a computer at a later point in time2. As the name suggests, GPS loggers are great for logging GPS data, but not providing a real-time tracking service.

With GPS navigation systems, GPS location info is displayed on the same device on it was recorded. In other words, no need for a SIM card.

Satellite trackers such as Spot use GPS to determine location, but then send that data over the Globalstar satellite network rather than cellular networks. For this reason, they do not require a SIM card, but still require a high monthly service fee and initial investment. Satellite trackers are most helpful in remote areas with no cell coverage. For example, when you’re climbing mountains in the Alps and want to let your family know you’re OK.

What about Bluetooth trackers? Most Bluetooth trackers do not use GPS technology, so their range is very limited. However, some combination GPS and Bluetooth trackers do exist. See our GPS vs Bluetooth tracker comparison for more information.

Can I use a GPS tracker without cell service?

Most GPS trackers are capable of recording GPS data without cell service – that’s the essential function of a GPS receiver. The big question is, how would you like to view the location data? A GPS logger can help you record GPS coordinates (without cell service) which you can look at later on a computer.

Similarly, a navigation system displays location on the tracking device itself, meaning it doesn’t need cell service. For live, active tracking however, cell service is usually needed so the tracker can actively send location data to your phone (or tablet, or computer) in real-time.

A GPS tracker without subscription?

You might be wondering if there is a GPS tracker without a subscription plan. Is it possible? Sure. Is it useful? Probably not.

After all, most people looking for a GPS tracker for personal use in 2023 would like to be able track from the comfort of their phone. And one of the best ways to make that happen is a SIM card and cell service.

Plus, a subscription can come with a lot of peace of mind.

For example, the SIM cards used in Tractive GPS trackers work with as many local cell networks as possible, all across the world. That way, you don’t have to worry about losing coverage because you’re tied to a single provider.

All of that, for what comes to the price of a coffee and a cookie a month. Not bad, right?

To find out more about features and services that come with a subscription and GPS tracker SIM card, check out our Tractive plans.

What’s the best GPS tracker for tracking pets?

To track your dog or cat in real-time (as you might often need to), we (unsurprisingly) recommend a Tractive GPS tracker. This GPS tracker has a built-in, non-exchangeable SIM card that automatically connects to the best network, so you can track your furry friend anywhere in the world. There’s no need to buy your own SIM card.

See why pet parents love Tractive GPS

brown dog sitting outside in grass wearing gps dog tracker with people in background

The bottom line: with the help of a SIM card, GPS trackers let you track your dog or cat in real time. Without a SIM card, GPS trackers would most likely not be able to send GPS location data about your pet’s whereabouts to your phone. In other words, a SIM card can be a very valuable component of any GPS tracking device.

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