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SOS on iPhone: What It Means and How to Resolve

a person holding a pink phone

SOS, the universal distress symbol, is rarely a reassuring sight – less still when you see it on your trusty iPhone’s status bar. If you’ve spotted it and worried about what it could mean, you’re not alone – recently, phone customers across multiple networks experienced nationwide outages, which prompted a wave of SOS symbols across iPhones.

If you've never had your Apple iPhone go into SOS mode before, you might be confused or concerned about this mysterious symbol. The good news is that your phone is fine. Your iPhone isn't broken – SOS mode just means that your device isn't connected to a cellular network. When your iPhone is showing SOS, you can only make calls to emergency services or send texts.

In this post, we'll walk you through what SOS on iPhone means and how you can fix it. We’ll also talk about Emergency Mode, which is often confused with SOS mode. 

If the SOS symbol is a familiar sight on your iPhone, that might mean that you need better coverage for your area. Our free, unbiased Plan Finder below can help you compare cell phone plans to find the best choices for your location and needs.

What Does SOS Mean on iPhones?

Your iPhone will go on SOS mode if you don't have a solid cellular connection to your carrier’s network. This alert doesn't necessarily mean your phone is completely out of service. Let's break down the details:

  • Limited cell connection: There's not enough cellular signal strength to make regular calls or use data services.
  • Emergency calls are possible: Even with limited cellular connectivity, your iPhone can still connect to emergency service networks, which means you can still make emergency calls or, in some regions, even send an emergency text message if you need help. For example, if you were abroad and did not have roaming enabled on your phone, you’d still be able to use your phone to call emergency services.

As of iPhone 14, iPhones can access emergency services even in the most remote locations (think caves, remote mountaintops, and the middle of the ocean) thanks to satellite networks. Satellite connectivity is not meant for regular communications but is specifically designed for emergencies. That way, you can contact emergency services even if no other network is available.

In short, it's a great safety feature, but it can also be disconcerting if you don't know how to turn it off or restore your regular service.

Apple’s SOS Mode vs Emergency SOS

There is some confusion when you search online for SOS mode and Emergency SOS. That's because people often use the terms interchangeably.

You might see people talking about getting “stuck on SOS mode.” What they’re actually talking about is the screen where you have the option of either turning off your phone or using the Emergency SOS feature.

The difference:

  • Emergency SOS: This feature automatically makes a call and shares your location with emergency services. After the call ends, Emergency SOS sends your emergency contacts a message to help find you in an emergency, such as a car accident. On iPhone 14 and later, you can use this feature to contact emergency services, such as 911, even if you have no coverage where you are.
  • SOS Mode: This feature just tells you that you have no cell service where you are. On iPhone 14 and later, your phone is equipped with satellite capability so that you can use Emergency SOS to contact emergency services if needed even when SOS is displayed in the top corner of the screen.

SOS Only on iPhone: How to Fix

Once this pesky little icon pops up, you might wonder how to turn it off. For anyone wondering how to turn off SOS on iPhone, the first thing to understand is that, unlike Emergency Mode, there is no real way to turn off SOS only. It’s just a signal that you don’t have your normal cellular service. Despite having no service, you can still contact emergency services. 

To get rid of it, the simplest answer is to move to an area with better coverage. Once you’ve got coverage, your phone will be able to access the typical networks and make calls and texts as normal. However, it’s not always possible to just get a better signal.

If you're in an area where you normally do get a good connection, you might just need to help your iPhone reconnect to the signal.

Wondering how to boost cell signal? The fastest, easiest ways are to:

  • Try turning your cell data on and off
  • Turn airplane mode on and off
  • Restart your phone
  • Check your iPhone's cellular settings

These tips can help jog your phone into reconnecting to the network.

If you're still having issues, the best bet is to contact your carrier. They may be working on technical issues in your area. Apple Support is another good resource, as they might be able to share if there’s a technical issue affecting your phone.

What if the tips above to boost your cell signal haven't worked? If your iPhone is regularly displaying SOS only in areas where it shouldn't or where your friends on the same network are getting signals, you might try taking the phone to your retailer. You may have a problem with your SIM card slot or need a new SIM card.

How to Turn Off Emergency Mode on iPhone

Apple makes it easy to go into Emergency Mode as a safety feature, even when you have no service thanks to the SOS-only ability to call emergency services even when you’re out of network.

On an iPhone, all you have to do is simultaneously press and hold the side button and either of the volume buttons. When the sliders appear and the countdown on Emergency SOS ends, release the buttons. Your Apple Watch is also equipped to go into Emergency Mode. You just have to press and hold the side button until the sliders appear, then drag the Emergency Call slider to the right.

That’s great for safety reasons. If you’re in a dangerous situation where you don’t want to get your phone out or don’t want to make noise, being able to silently and subtly send your location to emergency services can be a life-saver, literally.

However, it also means if your iPhone is in your pocket or loose in a purse or bag, or even if you’re holding it too tightly in your hand, you can accidentally put your phone in Emergency Mode without meaning to. You might find that you're accidentally calling emergency services more often than you’d like.

Luckily, you can disable this iOS setting if desired. But remember, disabling this mode means that you won't be able to contact emergency services as easily if you need them. If you still wanted to take advantage of this feature, you would need to re-enable the setting.

If you want to disable the Emergency SOS feature on your iPhone, go to Settings > Emergency SOS. From there, toggle off the Call with the Side Button option and the Auto Call option.

The Bottom Line

It's no wonder there are so many people confused about what SOS on iPhone means. To recap, if you see SOS only on your iPhone status bar, it means your iPhone is in SOS mode (read: not well-connected to the network).

Meanwhile, Emergency SOS is the ability to contact emergency services from your iPhone which can be done even when it says SOS only as long as you're using an iPhone 14 or more recent version.

If you're frequently plagued by SOS only, you might want to consider switching carriers and finding a plan that better suits your needs. With our free, unbiased Plan Finder, you can quickly and easily compare cell phone plans to find the best deal for you. 

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