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 phones, leading some to wonder whether they can be used for surveillance and other nefarious activity. We’re here to demystify IMEI numbers and tell you exactly 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 a number used to identify a device that uses terrestrial cellular networks.
“And what is a terrestrial cellular network?” you may ask. This is 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.
You may have already gathered this, but it’s handy to have a definitive answer to the question. Since the IMEI standard is used for any terrestrial cellular network device, this means that 3G/4G tablets, laptops with PCMCIA wireless Internet 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, or intention, 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 the phone. IMEI numbers are hard-coded into device hardware, making it nearly impossible to change them without somehow damaging the device.
When a carrier knows that a device has been stolen, it can blacklist the IMEI code and lock it out of the network. Later on, it tells other cellular networks to do the same.
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 problem 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.
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. So even if you swap out your SIM card with a prepaid one, you can still be traced. We’ll discuss this at length in another post.
Government is not the only entity you should worry about. Hackers can trace you if necessary using your IMEI number. However, neither of these situations happen very often to the average citizen.
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 have tried to counteract the issue for years. The answer to the question is, “No, some devices do not have IMEI numbers, but they are often illegal.”
There are also rumors that government agencies around the world use IMEI-less devices to avoid being traced by counter-intelligence black ops.
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. 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
Check IMEI on Android Phone
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 to keep hold of it.
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, then 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.
A little more fiddly, but 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.
Run IMEI Check for Your Phone
So 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.
IMEI is Awesome!
If there’s anything that has helped us stop thieves in their tracks most effectively, it’s the IMEI standard. While the number could still be used against you, it’s well worth the risk.
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This article was first published in September 2013 and was updated in January 2018.
Image credit: © Raimond Spekking / , via Wikimedia Commons