Surprising (and Not-So-Surprising) Places Your Phone Won't Work

The worst part? Getting a local SIM card is unlikely to help

We live in an always-on world, or at least that's the impression most of us have of it. Day after day, the media—which, to be fair, we access via said always-on devices—floods us with articles warning us of the danger of being too connected and also, simultaneously, the many benefits of disconnecting.

The locations on today's list will address both of these points. Indeed, there are plenty of places in the world that are not connected at all, some of which are much closer and more ordinary than you think. And, most importantly, very easy to access, which makes disconnecting by means of traveling to them a sure bet.

  • 01 of 05

    The American Desert

    Utah desert
    Robert Schrader

    A few years ago I was dating someone and got really angry when he didn't text me for several days. I got even angrier when I heard his excuse. "I was driving through the desert," he insisted, "and there was no service."

    Not having traveled much in the American desert, but having done so in other deserts around the world, I figured he was lying and proceeded to have an anxiety attack.

    The good news? He wasn't lying. The bad news? He also wasn't that into me, and our relationship soon went down in flames—but more on that in a different article!

    The point I'm trying to make is that many parts of the American desert completely lack cell service. Local and state governments (to say nothing of Washington) have failed to invest in cell towers in much of the desert, including stretches just outside of big cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. On the off chance that you do have cell service in many of these areas, I hope you like the GPRS network.

  • 02 of 05

    North Korea

    Yeowatzup via Wikimedia Commons

    It's probably not accurate to say cellphones don't work in North Korea. There's almost certainly a cellular communication network in place in the country, even if it's meant only for Kim Jong-Un and other government elite.

    The problem with this, for most of us, is two-fold. If you're an ordinary North Korean, you either (A) can't afford a cellphone or (B) can't buy a local SIM card (they don't exist) to put it in your cellphone and make it into anything other than a camera with a really crappy battery life.

    If you're a foreigner, on the other hand, the nonexistent SIM card issue will affect you, but more than that, the government may choose to confiscate your cellphone upon entry into the country. You know, censorship and all.

  • 03 of 05


    Tokyo Tower
    Robert Schrader

    In general, Japan is one of the most connected countries in the world, but there are a few caveats to this designation.

    The first relates to where you are. Cellphones generally don't work in extremely mountainous areas, or onboard high-speed trains like the Shinkansen when they're traveling at full speed. (Curiously, they do tend to work on the metro and in elevators, but that's a discussion for another time!)

    The second, which should perhaps be the first due to its overarching nature, relates to the strange regulation of SIM card sale in Japan: If you're a foreign visitor (i.e. not living or working in Japan), you can't purchase one. While you can technically roam on your U.S. cell network (or, if you please, rent a SIM from a provider in Japan), it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to use your cellphone in Japan.

  • 04 of 05


    Trinidad Cuba
    Robert Schrader

    I have to give credit where credit is due—and Cuba deserves some credit for the progress it's making with regard to telecommunication. Public Wi-Fi areas have opened up in cities like Havana, Trinidad and even remote Baracoa, making it easier for locals and tourists alike to get connected, even if lines to purchase vouchers can be excessively long and network speeds can be slow due to the popularity of hot spots.

    Unfortunately, actual cell towers are still almost nonexistent in Cuba as of early 2016, and although recent action on behalf of the Obama administration will likely expedite the building of essential infrastructure in Cuba, it's going to be a long time before you can use your cellphone in Cuba, whether you roam with your U.S. carrier or buy a Cuban SIM—those aren't readily available at the moment, either, and probably won't be for some time.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Out at Sea or In the Air

    Boat in Myanmar
    Robert Schrader

    It's no secret to most people that cellphones tend not to work in moving elevators or underground, such as in subway station. This is of course not a matter of physics (as I alluded to earlier, cellphones work underground in Japan and many other Asian countries, due to boosters having been built), but it is nonetheless accepted as reality.

    To be sure, while most people would also accept that phones don't work inside airplanes at cruise altitude, this is also due more to policy and lack of infrastructure, rather than availability or existence of technology. Dozens of companies around the world offer software and hardware to allow cell calls in-flight. In some countries (such as Brazil) this phenomenon is practically commonplace!

    Out on the open sea is another place where you might not be able to use your cellphone. Granted, if you're on a large cruise ship, it might be equipped with satellite-based technology that allows you to connect to cellular networks with relative ease. But if you're on a smaller vessel—say, a yacht sailing through Myanmar's Mergui archipelago—you might find yourself marooned, technologically speaking.

    (Then again, that might not be a bad thing, particularly if you're someplace extremely beautiful. Like, not North Korea.)