Can You Track an iPhone by the Serial Number?
By John Lister
A serial number identifies a specific device such as an iPhone. Knowing your serial number does not in itself allow you to track your device if it is lost or stolen. However, your local law enforcement agencies may be able to use the serial number to confirm that a device has been stolen and then return it to you. Apple does offer tracking, but the service doesn't rely on a device's serial number.
Types of Numbers
Your iPhone has two numbers that identify it. One is the serial number, which is issued by Apple as the manufacturer. The other is a specific reference number that is associated with individual cellphone handsets (both iPhones and other makes and models). This number is known as the IMEI, MEID or ICCID depending on which type of phone network your iPhone is designed to work on.
Using Serial Number
You can find the serial number on your phone by tapping "Settings," then "General" then "About." You can also find the serial number on the original packaging. Apple itself does not use serial numbers for tracking. In some locations, police departments maintain a registry of serial numbers, though you'll usually have to actively add your serial number to the registry. Police departments that run a registry may use it to identify the owner when they find a lost phone or confiscate it from a thief. In some cases, police departments may make the registry available to stores dealing in used property so they can check if any iPhones they receive are stolen.
Using IMEI Number
You can find the IMEI number on your phone by tapping "Settings," then "General" and finally "About." You can also find it engraved on the bottom of the rear of the phone case on the iPhone 5 and later, or in the SIM tray of earlier models. Note that if your service provider uses MEID numbers, which are 14 digits, you may need to drop the last digit listed on your device. You cannot use your IMEI number to track your phone. However, if you report your phone as stolen to your cellphone service provider, the provider can use the IMEI number to block the phone from connecting to the service and racking up charges.
Find My iPhone
The only method Apple provides for physically tracking an iPhone is through the free "Find my iPhone" app. To take advantage of this, you must install and set up the app before your phone is lost or stolen. If and when this happens, you can log into the Find My iPhone website (see Resources) and get a rough physical location of the phone. You can also remotely add a new passcode or remotely erase the data on your phone to stop a thief from gaining access to your information.
A professional writer since 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, John Lister ran the press department for the Plain English Campaign until 2005. He then worked as a freelance writer with credits including national newspapers, magazines and online work. He specializes in technology and communications.