IMEI numbers are a source of both mystery and paranoia within many circles around the Internet. These cryptic, nebulous numbers stamped around various parts of your phone are commonly used to identify it, leading some to wonder whether they can be used for surveillance or other nefarious activities. We’re here to demystify IMEI numbers and tell you what they are, how they work, and how you can find them.
If you know what an IMEI number is and just want to know how to check the IMEI on your phone, you can jump straight to it here.
What Is an IMEI Number?
The International Mobile Station Equipment Identity number (IMEI) is used to identify a device that uses terrestrial cellular networks.
What is a terrestrial cellular network? It’s the network you use when you place a call on your cell phone or access an Internet connection provided by your cellular carrier through your data plan. It’s called “terrestrial” because it uses planet-side antennas, not satellites, to connect.
Since the IMEI standard is used for any terrestrial cellular network device, 3G/4G/5G tablets, laptops with older PCMCIA or newer integrated PCIe 4G LTE/5G wireless cards, and other mobile equipment are also tagged with these numbers. If you have a dual-SIM phone, you’ll see two IMEI numbers, one for each SIM slot.
What Is the Purpose of an IMEI Number?
IMEI numbers have one principal purpose: To identify mobile devices. Their secondary purpose is to prevent theft. If a mobile device can be universally identified, a thief cannot change the SIM card on a phone and expect to keep it. IMEI numbers are hard-coded onto the device itself rather than the card, providing an extra layer of identification that isn’t tied to something interchangeable.
When a carrier knows that a device has been stolen, it can blacklist the IMEI code and lock it out of the network. It may also tell other cellular networks to do the same. Each country has its own policy for how this works, either using a blocklist (the majority do this) or an “allowlist” (a whitelist that carriers can add to, used in a few countries like Chile, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan).
Note that this mainly happens when the carrier is the one that issued the phone. If you buy a phone online that’s not attached to your mobile carrier’s plan, you may be on your own, as your carrier may not have the legal green light to blacklist the IMEI number.
Can the Government Use My IMEI Number to Track Me?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: It depends. If they can’t attach a name or some form of personal identification to your IMEI number, they don’t know who your phone really belongs to. This is often the case with prepay customers. Since they don’t sign contracts with their wireless carriers, there’s no way to attach a face or ID card to the IMEI number. The process of doing so is tedious at best.
This is why governments in Europe (with the exception of Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and several other Eastern European nations) and some in the Middle East have passed legislation that requires purchasers of prepaid SIM cards to present photo identification. In fact, the tally as of 2022 was up to 157 governments.
If you have a contract with a mobile carrier, the government could use a search warrant to access your IMEI information for number and location tracking. Even if you swap out your SIM card with a subscription for a prepaid one, you can still be traced.
The government is not the only entity you should worry about. Hackers can also trace you using your IMEI number. However, these situations rarely ever happen to the average citizen, as the effort required to mount such a surveillance operation is still immense. If you want to stay under the radar, try a burner phone.
Do ALL Mobile Devices Have IMEI Numbers?
Since counterfeit phones aren’t made with regulatory compliance in mind, they often lack IMEI numbers. In 2010, India encountered problems with these devices, and they tried to counteract the issue for years. The answer to the question is, “No, some devices do not have IMEI numbers, but they are universally illegal.”
You’ll find it impossible to connect to some carriers without an IMEI number anyway, so it’s generally not worth trying to subvert the system.
Is My IMEI Number Valid?
Some counterfeit phones have bad IMEI numbers. The easiest way to check the validity of an IMEI number manually is by using the Luhn formula for verification of identification codes (for Android phones, use the method listed here). If you want an easier way to check your IMEI, there’s always the online checker at IMEI.Info.
How to Check Your IMEI Number on Android
The fastest method of checking the IMEI number on your phone is to open your keypad and type *#06#. Your IMEI number should pop up on your screen instantly. You won’t be able to copy and paste the number, unfortunately, so you’ll need to write it down separately.
Alternatively, or if the last method doesn’t work for whatever reason, you can go to “Settings -> About Phone -> Status -> IMEI Information.”
If you’re a bit of a hoarder, prepare to feel vindicated for holding onto that box your smartphone came in! The IMEI number of a new phone is usually written on the box, possibly on a sticker with the barcode on it.
If none of the above methods work, then you may be able to find your IMEI number on your SIM card tray, or if your phone has a removable cover, under the phone battery, unless you use an eSIM.
How to Check Your IMEI Number on iPhone
The method for checking the IMEI on your iPhone is much the same. Just enter *#06# on your phone keypad, hit the green “Call” button, and your IMEI will appear on the screen.
That failing, you can just follow Apple’s instructions to locate the IMEI number for your specific iPhone/iPad model. On most phones, this number is located below the iPhone logo or in the SIM tray.
Only iPads with cellular services have an IMEI number.
Run IMEI Check for Your Phone
Now that you have your IMEI, you want to do something with it, right? There are plenty of sites where you can enter your phone’s IMEI number – such as imei.info – and in return, you’ll get a list of exact specifications and information about your device. Another site, imeipro.info, lets you use your IMEI number to check whether your phone has been blacklisted/reported as lost or stolen. It’s always good to do if you’re buying a phone secondhand.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can someone spoof my IMEI number?
Although it’s completely unlikely, it’s theoretically possible. The problem is that there’s really no incentive to spoof the IMEI number of someone at random.
There are a few tools out that allow you to reproduce an IMEI number. The only discoverable instance where such a tool was used in a large operation was when users rooting their Android phones lost their IMEI numbers, and a special post-root procedure returned them.
If you find yourself the target of an IMEI spoofing attack, there’s really nothing you can do to protect yourself other than to go to your carrier immediately.
The only sign that shows this attack is occurring is that you’ll get network errors when you try to place a call or access mobile Internet. However, this error could also happen when your SIM card is faulty. Again, only your carrier can help you with either situation.
Are there alternatives to IMEI?
No. IMEI as a standard has been so thoroughly grafted into how mobile networks operate that creating an alternative would simply create too many issues for people who use international roaming. Making another standard would require a large amount of resources and currently no country stands to benefit from doing so.
Even the 2022 conflict in Ukraine, despite creating an enormous trade crisis between many countries and the Russian Federation, was not enough to get anyone to meddle with IMEI standards or block phones from either country. This should provide some perspective on how resilient this system is and how resistant the world is to mess with this standard. Even the SWIFT banking system the majority of the world uses is less resilient!
What should I do if my phone's stolen?
Go to your carrier immediately and ask them to block the IMEI number they have on record for you. You may be surprised how quickly they would be able to solve this issue. Depending on what your carrier is legally allowed to do, you might even be able to locate and recover your device.
If the latter can’t happen, though, the best you can do is prevent the device from being useful to the person who stole it by wiping your phone’s data remotely, if possible.
Is it okay to share my IMEI number if someone asks for it?
Although there’s little some random person can do with your IMEI number, you should be suspicious of anyone asking for it. It could be a phishing scam. Generally, the number isn’t useful to anyone else other than the person possessing the device and the cellular network carrier they use.
In short, don’t give anyone your IMEI number unless it’s your phone service provider. Even people working at the manufacturer wouldn’t need it to help you.
Can websites track your phone/IMEI number?
If you didn’t give your IMEI to anyone, it’s impossible for them to track you. Giving it away will always present that possibility. In the particular case of websites, if they have access to signal intelligence equipment in your local area, they could execute a man-in-the-middle attack and listen in on your calls, then store them in a database.
The contents of the calls of thousands of random people over any given day wouldn’t necessarily be of interest to a website. Still, you never know. It’s always better to not give away information on the Internet that isn’t absolutely necessary, even if it feels like it’s the right thing to do at the time.
Always ask yourself if your privacy is more important than the convenience that might be offered by giving it away. It usually is! Speaking of your privacy, here’s one more way to protect it: use virtual credit cards.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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