Many people, especially infrequent flyers, think that they can’t use their phone on a plane, but this isn’t strictly true.

You can use your phone on a plane, though are limited in what you can do, as for most of the flight, your phone is required to be in Airplane Mode.

In other words, you will not be able to make calls or send SMS messages while flying.

2 Reasons You Can’t Use a Phone on a Plane

There are two reasons why you can’t use your phone on a plane (at least in non-airplane mode): electromagnetic interference and to prevent disruption to cell towers on the ground.

1. To Prevent Disruption to Cell Towers on the Ground

The FCC state that you can’t use your phone on a plane because it can disrupt cellular towers on the ground.

If you don’t put your phone in airplane mode, it will attempt to connect to every cell tower on the ground that the plane passes.

As a plane travels very quickly, there are too many cell towers and too many channels that are available to a single phone at a given time, which confuses networks.

2. Electromagnetic Interference

When your phone isn’t in airplane mode, it’s possible that it can interfere with an aircraft’s communication and navigation systems through electromagnetic interference.

According to Tekla S. Perry and Linda Geppert, who are safety researchers, planes have shielded electronic systems that should protect them from electromagnetic interference, though these degrade with increasing age, cycles of use, and even some maintenance procedures.

Others have argued that there is no definitive evidence that phones cause electromagnetic interference, so they should be allowed to be used on planes.

You Can’t Use a Phone on Domestic Flights

In the USA, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) prohibit the use of mobile phones on planes while they are in the air.

But the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) allow passengers to use mobile phones in non-airplane mode as long as they “will not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft.”

Considering that all airlines follow FAA guidelines because they are the aviation authority in the U.S., you are not able to use your phone when not in airplane mode.

You May Be Able to Use a Phone on International Flights

Interestingly, the EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency), allow passengers to use a mobile phone without the need to be in airplane mode.

However, this is only if an airline is able to prove that aircraft systems are not affected in any way by a mobile phone not being in airplane mode (flight mode), which costs time and money and simply isn’t worth it from an airline’s point of view.

So, in all likelihood, you won’t be able to use your phone in non-airplane mode when flying with a European airline.

If You Don’t Put Your Phone in Airplane Mode, Nothing Bad Will Happen

If you don’t put your phone in airplane mode, in all likelihood, nothing is going to happen to you or the plane.

This is because a single phone is unlikely to cause any interference, and flight attendants and pilots are not able to pinpoint anyone who has not put their phone into Airplane Mode.

It is only when enough passengers don’t have their phones on airplane mode, that pilots will notice interference and remind passengers to switch airplane mode on.

You’ll Probably Be Able to Text on a Plane

Except before takeoff and after landing, you are generally unable to text on a plane, as SMS messaging requires cellular data to function, and you can’t use data on a plane.

However, if your service provider and phone support texts over Wi-Fi, you may be able to send texts when on a plane.

You’ll Probably Be Able to Use WhatsApp Too

As WhatsApp works through Wi-Fi, you can use Whatsapp during any stage of the flight, including during takeoff and landing, as long as you are connected to a plane’s Wi-Fi service.

Avoid Making Phone Calls or Taking Video Calls

It’s possible to make and take a phone or video call through Wi-Fi, though most airlines will prevent you doing so.

This is because your fellow passengers would find it annoying.

You Are Allowed to Use Bluetooth on a Plane

Generally, you can use Bluetooth on a plane during the flight, but it must remain switched off for taxi, takeoff and landing.

This includes Bluetooth devices such as Bluetooth headphones, phones, keyboards, and mice.

The Future of Using Your Mobile Phone on a Plane

Several U.S. airlines have announced plans to install a device known as a picocell that will allow passengers to use their mobile phone on a plane.

A picocell would not interfere with either the cellular system or the aircraft’s avionics, as it would operate on separate frequencies.

So you may be able to use your mobile phone in all its functionality on a plane in the future.

Related: Be Careful When Using Charging Ports At the Airport

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).