How do AirTags work? AirTag, Tile, and SmartTag Tracking Explained

Apple AirTag with Find My software

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Smart trackers like the Apple AirTag and Samsung Galaxy SmartTag promise to help keep track of your luggage, wallet, and other personal effects. Indeed, they can come in handy if you tend to misplace your belongings or forget where you’ve left your car keys. Newer models can even inform you of their whereabouts remotely, allowing you to even track them from a different city altogether. Here’s everything you need to know about how smart tracking tags like AirTags work.

Related: The best Apple AirTag alternatives

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Most smart trackers, including Apple AirTags, don’t use GPS to transmit their location. Instead, they use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to signal their whereabouts to your smartphone. Some recent models also include Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology, which enables them to offer positional guidance down to a few inches.


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How do smart tags like Apple AirTags work?

airtag precision finding

Smart trackers like the Apple AirTag and Tile Tag use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to communicate with your smartphone. It’s worth noting that modern smart trackers also send out Bluetooth signals that any smartphone can pick up in the vicinity – not just your own. These nearby smartphones routinely upload your tag’s location to the cloud, allowing you to see its last known location on a map from anywhere in the world. Apple calls this the Find My network, while Samsung has a similar network called Galaxy Find.

While Bluetooth works well enough to approximate a tag’s location, it doesn’t help narrow down the search once you’re within a few meters of it. For this reason, a handful of tags now also include Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology.

Apple AirTags use both Bluetooth and Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technologies to signal their whereabouts.

In a nutshell, UWB is a short-range wireless communication protocol that co-exists alongside existing standards like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC. Unlike those protocols, however, UWB enables exact location tracking, down to a few inches. This allows your phone to literally guide you to the tag’s exact location once you’re within UWB range, as pictured above.

Modern flagship smartphones, including the iPhone 13, Pixel 6 Pro, and Galaxy S22 series, support UWB. As for smart tags with UWB support, you’ll have to choose between the Apple AirTag and Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTag Plus.

Don’t worry if your smartphone doesn’t include UWB or you’ve purchased a Bluetooth-only tracker. Virtually all tags on the market also feature an onboard speaker and can play a sound. You’ll need to be within range of the tag and use the companion app.

How AirTags, Tile, and SmartTag Help You Find Your Stuff

While Apple’s AirTags work with just about any modern iPhone, most other third-party trackers on the market will only work if you have the corresponding app installed on your device.

Upon unboxing a new smart tag, you’ll first be prompted to pair it to your account. This is usually as simple as holding the tag close to your smartphone and following the on-screen prompts. Once you’ve linked a smart tag to your account, you should be able to track its location from the accompanying app. With UWB, as explained above, your phone should also be able to offer positional guidance to the tag.

If you’re not within Bluetooth or UWB distance of a paired AirTag or Galaxy SmartTag, you may still be able to access its last known location. In fact, your chances of finding it improve if it’s in a busy or populated area. This is because strangers walking past your tag will have their smartphones automatically detect your tag and upload its location to the Apple Find My and Samsung Galaxy Find networks.

See also: How to find your Apple Watch when it’s lost or stolen

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