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Apple Watch GPS vs Cellular: A Complete Comparison

As an experienced technology writer and Apple device enthusiast, I often get asked about the differences between the GPS and cellular models of the Apple Watch. For new and existing Apple Watch users alike, deciding whether to splurge on that always-connected cellular functionality can be a difficult choice.

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll explain everything you need to know about how Apple Watch GPS and cellular models compare in terms of features, connectivity, battery life, and more. My goal is to provide enough details and recommendations to help you decide which model better matches your needs and budget.

Key Differences Between Apple Watch GPS and Cellular

At first glance, both the Apple Watch GPS and cellular models look nearly identical. But there are some important distinctions:


  • GPS – Relies entirely on a connection to an iPhone to receive calls, messages, notifications and stream music/podcasts. Without an iPhone in range, functionality is very limited.

  • Cellular – Has an embedded eSIM that allows it to connect directly to cellular networks. You can receive calls, text messages, stream content and more without needing an iPhone nearby.

Calling and Messaging

  • GPS – Can only make calls or send messages when iPhone is in Bluetooth/WiFi range.

  • Cellular – Can make calls and send messages over cellular network without iPhone present.

Family Setup

  • GPS – Does not support Family Setup feature.

  • Cellular – Supports Family Setup to add family members without an iPhone.

Battery Life

  • GPS – Typically gets up to 18 hours battery life per charge.

  • Cellular – Battery drains faster, with up to 12-15 hours battery when actively using cellular connection.


  • GPS – Starts at $399 for 41mm aluminum model.

  • Cellular – Starts at $499, a $100 premium over GPS. Stainless steel and titanium models cost even more.

{{Image of Apple Watch GPS vs Cellular models}}

So in summary – a cellular Apple Watch gets you that always-connected experience to make calls, get notifications etc without an iPhone nearby. But you pay more money upfront and sacrifice some battery life in exchange for cutting that connectivity cord.

Below I’ll explore some of these differences in more detail and make recommendations on which users may want to choose cellular or save money by sticking with GPS.

Connectivity: How the eSIM Makes Cellular Apple Watches Stand Apart

The cellular Apple Watch models essentially have a mini smartphone built into them, thanks to the embedded eSIM. This allows them to connect directly to your cell provider‘s network and access data coverage anywhere you have cell signal, without needing your iPhone.

The eSIM eliminates the need for a physical nano SIM card while still assigning you a unique phone number and cellular plan through your provider. All major providers like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are supported.

This means you can handily receive notifications like text messages, take phone calls via Bluetooth headphones, stream Apple Music playlists and use apps requiring an internet connection without having your iPhone in range.

The GPS models simply don’t have this capability – they need to piggyback the internet connection from a paired iPhone via Bluetooth and WiFi. Separate the watch from the phone, and functionality becomes quite limited.

So frequent travelers, outdoor exercisers, and anyone who doesn’t always carry their iPhone will benefit most from an Apple Watch with cellular. But you will need to add it to your existing wireless plan for around $10 per month – more on cellular plan options next.

{{Image showing cellular connectivity range from eSIM}}

Adding Your Cellular Apple Watch to A Wireless Plan

Once you get a cellular Apple Watch, you have a couple options for adding cellular service:

1. Share your iPhone’s phone number – This allows your watch to share the same number as your iPhone. Incoming calls and messages will ring/alert on both devices. Minimal extra cost per month, if any.

2. Add a new phone number – Assign the watch its own unique cellular number for more privacy. Has a higher monthly cost as it becomes its own line.

I recommend most users start by sharing their iPhone number for simplicity, minimal cost and integration. But those wanting more privacy for keeping business/personal calls separate may want a dedicated watch number.

You’ll need to contact your wireless carrier directly to get the watch set up on your account and make billing arrangements. Expect to pay around $10 per month to enable cellular capabilities.

And remember – cellular plan payments are in addition to the monthly cost for your iPhone cell plan. The watch itself does not have any annual contract though, so you can cancel service at any time.

Unique Benefits of Cellular Models: Family Setup and International Roaming

Beyond basic phone calls and internet outside iPhone range, cellular Apple Watch models have a couple other unique benefits:

1. Family Setup

Family Setup allows you to add a cellular Apple Watch to your Family Sharing plan for a child, parent, or other relative who doesn’t have an iPhone. This lets you easily share locations, messages, establish permissions and more.

For example, giving a cellular watch to your child enables you to call or text them without the need for getting them a phone. It brings peace of mind knowing you can check on their location.

2. International Roaming

Planning a trip overseas? Cellular Apple Watch models contain an international roaming feature for staying connected while traveling abroad. You can access data and phone usage in over 30 countries and regions.

Contact your carrier before traveling to ensure your watch plan includes international roaming and if any extra fees apply. This makes the cellular watch even more valuable for globetrotting jet setters!

{{Image showing Family Setup and countries with international roaming capabilities}}

Battery Life: Expect Less from Cellular Models

One compromise of the always-connected cellular models is shorter battery life. Maintaining that cellular signal and background app refresh does drain battery faster.

Here’s a breakdown of what to expect for battery life, assuming normal daily usage:

  • GPS model – Up to 18 hours battery
  • Cellular model – 12-15 hours battery

Both models offer a new low-power mode that can further extend battery when needed:

  • GPS model – Up to 36 hours in low power mode
  • Cellular model – Up to 24 hours in low power mode

So while convenient, that cellular connectivity means you’ll likely need to charge your Apple Watch daily – perhaps multiple times per day with heavy use. Plan accordingly and you’ll be fine.

I recommend aiming to charge while getting ready for bed. Top back up to 80% or so overnight, then throw on the charger again when showering, prepping breakfast, etc. Fortunately charging is quick – hitting 80% takes less than an hour.

If battery life is absolutely critical for your usage, the standard GPS models are the way to go. But for most owners, the minor battery compromise is worth it for the always-connected convenience cellular brings.

{{Image showing Apple Watch charging}}

Cellular Models Cost More: Are They Worth the Premium?

We‘ve established that cellular Apple Watches boast always-connected independence from your iPhone. They unlock unique features like Family Setup and international roaming too. But this great power comes with a cost – literally.

Let’s break down the pricing difference:

{{Apple Watch Pricing Comparison Table}}

Model GPS Starting Price Cellular Starting Price $ Difference
Apple Watch Series 8 41mm Aluminum $399 $499 +$100
Apple Watch Series 8 45mm Aluminum $429 $529 +$100
Apple Watch Ultra 49mm Titanium $799 $899 +$100

As shown, you‘re paying around a $100 premium for a cellular model over an equivalent GPS model. This holds true all the way from the entry-level SE to pricier stainless steel and titanium lines.

You also need to factor in those previously mentioned monthly cellular fees – usually around $10 per month added to your wireless bill.

Over two years of ownership, you could end up paying $240+ more in cellular fees. Add it all up and yes – there is notable cost burden that comes with cellular capabilities and convenience.

So when does splurging on the cellular upgrade make sense? Here are three user scenarios where I think it offers good value:

  1. Frequent Exercisers – For runners, bikers and gym-goers who don’t always carry their iPhones, the freedom to stream Apple Fitness+, Music and Podcasts is a game changer. Safety features like fall detection give added peace of mind.

  2. Travelers – Both domestic travelers and globetrotting international jet setters will benefit greatly from cellular capabilities. Easily navigate a new city with GPS, access travel apps and language translators, enjoy entertainment, and stay connected – no iPhone required.

  3. Young Children – Parents who want connectivity/location tracking for a child too young for a phone get great utility from a cellular watch. Family Setup and schooltime/downtime restrictions provide that needed oversight during the “He’s not quite ready for a phone, but I still want to stay connected” phase.

If any of those categories describe you, I think you can easily justify the premium pricing that cellular commands. For everyone else, the standard GPS model should still meet most needs – just be aware of the limitations when away from your iPhone.

{{Image showing good user scenarios for cellular Apple Watch}}

Apple Watch Buyer‘s Guide: GPS vs Cellular Recommendations

Now that we‘ve covered all the key differences in connectivity, features and pricing between standard GPS Apple Watch models and cellular, let‘s summarize everything into straightforward buyer recommendations.

Apple Watch GPS – Best for Most First-Time Buyers

For new smartwatch owners getting their very first Apple Watch, I think the GPS-only models make the most financial sense. Highlights:

  • Cheaper Upfront Cost – $100+ savings over cellular is nothing to sneeze at. Use it to upgrade to a stainless steel style or simply bank the savings.

  • No Monthly Service Fees – One less bill to think about. No carrier hassle either.

  • Good Battery Life – You’ll easily get through a full day plus workouts without worrying about charging.

  • Tons of Capability – You still get all the core features like notifications from your iPhone, heart rate data, sleep tracking, emergency SOS, fall detection, compass navigation and evencellular service when your phone is nearby. Lots of utility even without an always-connected cellular plan.

The standard GPS Apple Watch models remain incredibly capable smartwatches for most normal use cases. Only reason to pay more for cellular capabilities out of the gate is if you know you’ll frequently leave your phone behind to work out, travel, allow kids to venture out, etc.

Otherwise I suggest most new buyers feel out their real-world usage within normal iPhone range and only upgrade later on if lacking cellular proves overly limiting.

Cellular Models – Best for Power Users Needing Untethered Connectivity

For existing Apple Watch owners and power users who lead an untethered lifestyle, cellular models unlock game-changing freedom and flexibility:

  • Never miss an important notification just because you left your phone at home or in the car
  • Confidently exercise outdoors, knowing you can call for help if injured or lost
  • Listen to Apple Music/Podcasts on a run or bike ride sans phone
  • Use maps, Uber and other apps requiring data while out and about
  • Enable young kids or elderly relatives to stay securely connected with Family Setup

If any of the above scenarios resonate with your lifestyle, you will find tremendous value in the cellular Apple Watch models – easily justifying that extra $10 per month and shorter battery life.

Yes – you pay more upfront and take on a recurring service plan. But for power users and people living life on the go, cellular capabilities bring next-level independence, security and convenience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here I answer some common questions about using, buying and maintaining cellular Apple Watch models:

Do I need an iPhone at all with the cellular models?

Yes, you still need an iPhone to originally set up and pair an Apple Watch, regardless of GPS or cellular models. Many key functions also require installing an accompanying iPhone app. So an iPhone is mandatory upfront.

However, once set up and paired, you can leave your iPhone behind and enjoy standalone functionality like calls, messages, music streaming etc from just the watch itself when on cellular.

Can I use a cellular plan internationally?

Yes! As mentioned previously, cellular Apple Watch models contain international roaming capabilities in over 30 countries/regions. Contact your wireless carrier to ask about any fees for using your watch cellular plan abroad.

How is the call quality on a cellular Apple Watch?

Call quality is surprisingly good! The mic and speaker work very well for basic phone calls. Just don’t expect to have lengthy conversations – keeping your wrist raised to ear for more than a few minutes does get tiring! But for quick calls it works great.

I recommend pairing wireless Bluetooth headphones when possible for longer calls and to keep the watch mic nearer your mouth.

Is the cellular signal strong enough if I leave my iPhone behind?

Cellular Apple Watches can still maintain a solid connection even if your iPhone is nowhere nearby. Of course it depends on your location – connectivity and speeds will drop if you venture into poor service areas just like any cell device.

But under normal circumstances, the watch should have no problem making calls or pulling data when untethered from your iPhone, provided you are still within cellular range.

Do I need a protective case for my Apple Watch?

For stainless steel and titanium models, I typically recommend getting an inexpensive screen protector just to avoid scratching the display. A bumper can also help protect the edges.

For the aluminum models, I suggest going all-in on protection with a rugged case if you plan on rough usage outdoors. There are affordable options offering great shock absorption without too much bulk.

Even with decent scratch resistance, it only takes one bad spill onto concrete to shatter or heavily dent these devices, so protection is wise if doing intense activities.

Final Thoughts

I hope this detailed yet easy-to-digest guide better explains the core differences between Apple Watch GPS and cellular models. They cater to slightly different users and use cases – with cellular offering notable advantages for people who demand untethered connectivity.

Most first-time Apple Watch buyers can save $100+ and skip complexities of cellular service by starting with a GPS model. But for existing users with an already busy wireless plan, cellular may provide the ultimate flexibility if your lifestyle demands being constantly connected, even while away from your iPhone.

Have more questions? Just drop me a comment below! I’m happy to provide personalized advice based on your usage needs and budget to help compare GPS vs cellular Apple Watch models.