Cell phone service coverage in Alaska and keeping devices charged and connected
Posted On March 28, 2022
Planning a trip to Alaska but unsure about cell phone coverage, keeping your devices charged and other connection related questions? If so then this article is for you!
I lived in Alaska for 7 years and I still spend time there about three times a year and in all different parts of the state so I know all about navigating cell phone coverage as well as keeping devices charged in heavy use on the go! One note before we continue, this advice is for visitors to Alaska, not for those who are planning a move to Alaska, who might want to consider changing their phone carrier, depending on the circumstances. Visitors do not need to do this.
Before we go any further I want to add that screen breaks and unplugging are important and beneficial for our mental and physical health. However, most people will want to be able to communicate and have some entertainment from their devices on their Alaska trip and that’s what this article is all about! Unless you are staying entirely in the bigger cities, you will have less connectivity and internet speed than you’re used to, but it will be ok! I’ll show you how to make it work.
Probably! Although not in every location, it might be slow and you may be roaming.
If you have a cell phone plan with one of the major carriers in the United States, you will probably be able to use it in Alaska. I highly recommend checking with your cell phone provider to make sure. Most people from the rest of the US will be roaming in Alaska. I recommend making this is included in your plan, or changing your plan if it is not. If you have AT&T, you will remain on AT&T’s network for the most part in Alaska.
You will also need to turn on roaming data if you want to use your phone for anything other than texting and making calls (unless you have AT&T).
Alaska’s major cell networks statewide are ACS (Alaska Communications System), GCI and AT&T. While the landscape is always changing in cell service, these three companies provide good coverage in towns and cities and on parts of major highways. If you are outside of a town, plan on the cell service being either spotty (too spotty for streaming and using the internet) or non existent. You will find it sometimes in places where you wouldn’t expect it, but don’t count on this.
It is possible that your cell service may be slower while it’s roaming, for example you might have only 2G or 3G instead of the 4G or 5G you are used to at home. This will depend again on where you are exactly, your cell service provider and your cell phone plan. You can get all this information from your cell service provider in advance.
Will I have Wifi in Alaska?
In many places, yes. There are plenty of people who live in Alaska who don’t have indoor plumbing but do have high speed internet (I was one of them for two years!). However, this does not necessarily mean it’s easy to find as a visitor.
Hotels will often offer wifi in major cities and towns, but in rural areas don’t assume you will have it. Same for vacation rentals and you should be able to see this when booking. In rural areas, wifi may be too slow to support streaming. If it’s important to you to have wifi, make sure to ask BEFORE booking to make sure. And if you need to be streaming or using zoom, make sure to ask if the internet is fast enough to support that.
Some hotels and lodges in remote areas do have wifi, but don’t assume they will. Ask before booking if it’s important to you.
Another common situation is for there to be public wifi in common areas, but not in individual guest rooms.
Campgrounds generally do not have Wifi and the Alaska Ferry and the the Alaska Railroad also do NOT have Wifi.
Will I be able to stream Netflix or Spotify on my phone in Alaska?
Don’t count on it. If you’re staying at a hotel or vacation rental in a bigger town or city, such as Fairbanks, Anchorage or Juneau it’s quite likely that you will, but if this is important confirm with your hotel or host before you go.
If your cell phone service is strong enough, you can also stream over the cell network, but you may need to turn this on on your phone.
In most other places the cell phone signal or wifi is not strong enough for streaming. But there’s a solution! See below.
What to do if you can’t stream entertainment due to lack of cell service or wifi?
There are some people who will tell you just to enjoy nature and not to worry about the lack of connectivity, but I am not one of those people!
I absolutely believe in unplugging but in my opinion those who are purists about it have not traveled with teens or anyone with ADD or an anxiety disorder. For myself, I’m fine without anything to watch, but I need music. I also need my traveling companions to have what they need in order to enjoy myself. Whatever it is for you, downloading in advance is your friend!
Before you leave home, make sure all members of your travel crew have determined what entertainment they want to make sure to have on the trip. Some games can be played offline and some cannot so you’ll have to research that if it’s important.
Download everything you want for the trip BEFORE you leave home on your home internet. This is the fastest and most guaranteed way to do it. If you know you’ll have good wifi at some point on your trip then you can top up then, otherwise get it all now.
Most streaming services offer at least some amount of downloading to your device. Sometimes the amount is limited so you may have to prioritize. Movies, shows, music, podcasts and ebooks can all be downloaded and then you don’t need cell service or wifi to use this content. If you have a cell signal but it’s too slow (common) you can just watch/listen/read offline.
Make sure to double check and make sure everything actually downloaded before leaving home.
Using your phone for photos and videos without cell service or wifi
There are two really important things to do if you’re relying on your phone for photos and videos (like most of us are!) somewhere without cell service or wifi.
Put your phone in airplane mode – your phone wastes a lot of energy looking for a signal when you don’t have one and this significantly reduces your battery life. If you put your phone in airplane mode it will make your battery last MUCH longer. You don’t want to have your phone die at that perfect bear video moment, or the moment the glacier calves in front of you!
Bring a back up battery. I use this one and it’s been awesome. It’s easy to use and you connect any charging cable to it (as long as it has a USB) which is wonderful as I can use it to charge my phone as well as all my other devices which is really convenient. It holds at least three full charges for my phone, which so far has gotten me everywhere I need to go, even if I am doing a lot of video.
Safety and navigation without cell phone service
It’s important for you and your travel crew to set up expectations with folks back home about your availability. This can help ease anxiety about being out of touch on your end as well as yours.
If you will be in areas without cell phone service, let loved ones know where you will be on what dates and when you’ll be out of contact. In some cases you might not have service but they could contact the lodge you’re staying at if they needed to reach you in an emergency.
If you’re going to be out of contact it’s really important to tell someone where you’re going, when you expect to be back and when to contact help if you haven’t returned. This is a really important practice in case something goes wrong.
I spend a lot of time outside of cell phone range and often by myself and for this reason I choose to carry a Garmin InReach Mini (get one here on Amazon or here at REI). This is NOT required but I have chosen to make the investment (in addition to purchasing it there is also a monthly subscription fee). Carrying the garmin is not a substitute for telling someone where I’m going though, this is still the most important.
Since you may be navigating driving or hiking without cell phone service, I recommend downloading maps onto your phone in advance (before you leave home) or carrying a paper map as a back up.
Tips for keeping devices charged on the go
If you’re using your phone for lots of photos and video, or watching downloaded shows or listening to downloaded podcasts or music, you’ll need to charge frequently, even in airplane mode.
My tips for keeping everything charged are:
Make sure every member of your travel crew has one charging cable for every device (sharing doesn’t work when charging resources are at a premium)
Get a back up battery like the one I have described above for each member of your traveling crew
Charge when charging is available even if the devices aren’t completely dead. Prioritize what to charge first, in what order and be ready to manage it a little more – for example, charge the kindle before dinner, the back up battery after dinner and the phone overnight.
Keep devices in airplane mode when you don’t need the signal (phones, kindles and other e-readers, smart watches, tablets, airpods or other wireless headphones, camera batteries)
Bring charging cables that you can use to charge while driving if you are renting a car. You can charge any device from a USB cable in the car, not just your phone! Make sure you rent a car with USB ports for charging.
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!
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