Apple Watch Cellular vs GPS: What's the difference?

Knowing if you need the Apple Watch Cellular or Apple Watch GPS-only version can be a tricky part of the buying process. It's not like you can upgrade later without buying a whole new watch and who wants to make such an investment then realize they bought the wrong model for their needs? 

On the surface, it's a simple enough decision. If you want to spend less or don't intend on ever leaving your phone at home, the Apple Watch GPS version is the best option. However, if you plan on leaving your phone at home often such as while going for a run, the Apple Watch GPS+Cellular is the more attractive option by a long shot. 

It's useful to know a little more about the differences between the two Apple Watch types though. If you're looking to buy the best Apple Watch for your situation, take a look below to understand the pros and cons.

The Apple Watch was far from the first wearable on the market, but it's now firmly established as one of the most popular smartwatches out there. When buying one though, things can get complicated. There are a lot of similar-sounding choices to pick from, so it can be tricky to know where to begin.

The Apple Watch comes in a plethora of different colors, screen sizes, material finishes, and iterations. Before you go any further, it's useful to know if the Apple Watch Series 8, the Apple Watch SE, or the Apple Watch Ultra is the one for you. You may even wish to pick up a cheaper, older model instead.

Once you've got that far, your next important question is to think about if you need an Apple Watch with cellular data in addition to its built-in GPS. Otherwise, you're better off sticking with the cheaper, non-cellular GPS-only model.

The Apple Watch cellular uses cellular data provided by your carrier to allow you to do things you'd ordinarily need your phone to be able to do. This includes making calls, or using data without needing your iPhone nearby. It offers increased connectivity options over the GPS model. 

The GPS version relies solely on your phone for all its data needs so you need your iPhone nearby at all times. By doing so, you'll still get notifications and emails, as well as be able to stream music or podcasts. While it might sound inconvenient, it's cheaper than the Apple Watch cellular, and you don't have to worry about monthly data costs in addition to your phone's plan.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: An at-a-glance breakdown

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The Apple Watch series 8 with a white strap pictured on a wooden surface.

(Image credit: Future / iMore)

At a glance, the Apple Watch Cellular and the Apple Watch GPS look near identical. The only noticeable difference is a small red ring around the digital crown on the Cellular model. 

Inside is a different story though. Below is a table based on the specifications of the Apple Watch Series 8 and the core differences between the two data models. It's worth remembering that the Apple Watch Ultra and SE are slightly different again, but this is useful for illustrative purposes.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Header Cell - Column 0 GPSGPS + Cellular
Battery life (total)Up to 18 hoursUp to 18 hours
Battery talkN/AUp to 1.5 hours
Audio playbackUp to 11 hours playback from Apple Watch storageUp to 11 hours playback from Apple Watch storage
Up to 8 hours streaming playlist with LTE
Workout battery lifeUp to 11 hours indoor workout
Up to 7 hours outdoor workout with GPS
Up to 11 hours indoor workout
Up to 6 hours outdoor workout with GPS + Cellular
Family Setup battery lifeN/AUp to 14 hours
Charge timesAbout 45 minutes to 80% (Series 8) About 45 minutes to 80% (Series 7) About 75 minutes to 100% (Series 7) About 1.5 hours to 80% (SE 2022) About 2.5 hours to 100% (SE 2022)About 45 minutes to 80% (Series 8) About 45 minutes to 80% (Series 7) About 75 minutes to 100% (Series 7) About 1.5 hours to 80% (SE 2022) About 2.5 hours to 100% (SE 2022)
Monthly cost$0From $10 per month, depending on the carrier

What about the Apple Watch Series 7?

It might be older tech, but the Apple Watch Series 7 is still an excellent smartwatch to choose if you can find one. It's also available in GPS and Cellular versions.

A very similar product to the Series 8, the Series 7 has the same pros and cons. If you're looking to keep costs even lower, the Apple Watch SE (2022) is also a potential alternative.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Band options

Band choices don't differ with the Apple Watch Cellular or Apple Watch GPS. After all, they have the same build.

However, there are plenty of band options out there, with some limited to certain designations. Fortunately, you can swap them out, for a price. For example, if you go for the Aluminum Apple Watch and you want a Milanese loop, then you need to buy one separately.

There are some great straps available for the Apple Watch family. The only thing you have to worry about is choosing the right size to fit your watch. Make sure you check out our best bands for Apple Watch guide to see our selection of favorites.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Carrier restrictions

A close up of the Apple Watch series 8 screen against a white surface.

(Image credit: Future / iMore)

The Apple Watch GPS + Cellular model has LTE connectivity, which stands for Long-Term Evolution. It sits somewhere between 3G and 4G in terms of connectivity. You can use it to piggyback off your current carrier plan for an additional monthly fee. That usually costs around $10 in the US. It gives you internet and phone connectivity even when your iPhone is nowhere near you. To ensure you get a great deal, check out our guide to the best cell plans for Apple Watch.

Not everyone needs this level of freedom. Some people love the fact they don't need to rely on their phone as much though. For instance, if you want to listen to music while going for a run, you can leave your iPhone behind and stick with just your Apple Watch.

An Apple Watch Cellular with LTE coverage means you can do anything on the Apple Watch that you would do when tied to your iPhone's data. That includes placing calls, receiving messages, using Siri, navigating via the Maps app, or using third-party apps that rely on a data connection. 

It's not possible to sign up for a separate Apple Watch Cellular plan away from your iPhone. Instead, say you're on AT&T, your Apple Watch needs to be on the plan too. You'll have a separately assigned number for your Apple Watch but it's an account assignment number rather than your usable phone number.

Note: If you buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card for international travel, consider leaving your Apple Watch at home because it will incur international charges if you use it while abroad (there's no SIM card in the Apple Watch).

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Apple Music and Podcasts streaming support

If you have a Cellular Apple Watch, you can stream Apple Music, Apple podcasts, and audiobooks even when you're away from your iPhone.

It's possible to use any Watch, whether Cellular or just GPS, to sync music, podcasts, and audiobooks from your iPhone to your Apple Watch. By doing so, you can then play the content on your Watch, even if your iPhone isn't near you, and the watch isn't online. However, the Cellular option means you can stream content rather than download it.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Family Setup

If you're thinking of passing down your old Apple Watch to someone that doesn't have an iPhone, Family Setup will help a ton. You initially set up the Apple Watch to your iPhone, but you can still use it untethered. Only the Apple Watch Cellular model supports Family Setup, so it's an essential purchase if this feature is important to you, or could be in the future.

The Family setup feature works with the Apple Watch Series 8 Cellular, the Apple Watch Ultra, and the Apple Watch SE Cellular.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Case and screen material

The Apple Watch series 8 with a white strap pictured next to another Apple Device with a shiny Apple logo

(Image credit: Future / iMore)

Both GPS and Cellular options are available in aluminum in the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch SE. It's also possible to buy the Apple Watch Series 8 in stainless steel. There's no Apple Watch Ultra with solely GPS connectivity and it's only available in titanium.

The Aluminum versions of the Apple Watch come with an Ion-X glass display, while you can only get the Sapphire Crystal displays on the Stainless steel and Ultra cases. Ion-X glass is softer and more prone to scratches. On the other hand, it's more sturdy when dropped. The Sapphire Crystal glass is much harder and less susceptible to scratching, but is more likely to crack if the watch is dropped. It's a trade-off based on any concerns you may have but also the style you want. One of the best Apple Watch cases could help cut down on risks though.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Battery Life

Even though the figures sound the same on the surface, does the Apple Watch Cellular suffer from a reduced battery life compared to the GPS only model? Yup.

Fortunately, the battery life can be improved by disabling certain features, or switching to the low power mode available on the watch. However, limiting your options isn't exactly why anyone would buy the Apple Watch Cellular.

Apple claims that the Series 8 will last for 18 hours, and while it's not been particularly forward with its testing methodology, it looks like it’s expecting around 4 hours on LTE connection and 14 connected to an iPhone. In real world use, that number is likely to diminish further with time and use, as well as depending on how you use your watch.

For instance, 11 hours of audio streaming from your phone is expected, but use the LTE connection and that number drops to 8 hours. Use the workout feature and you might get 11 hours connected to an iPhone, but that plummets to 6 hours with GPS and LTE.

The more Apple Watch features you use, the more battery life will suffer. That won't be much of an issue for many people, but if you're a long-distance runner or extreme hiker who may not have access to a power source, most of the Apple Watch range won't cut it for your needs.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Price

The Apple Watch series 8 with a white strap pictured on someone's wrist.

(Image credit: Future / iMore)

As with any purchase, price is important, and both device types offer differences. The current generation SE starts at $249 for a 40mm aluminum case, while the Cellular version begins at $299.

The Series 8 GPS starts at $399 for the 41mm aluminum case, and the Cellular Series 8 costs from $499. These prices rise with larger screens and nicer case materials. The most expensive device is the $799 Apple Watch Ultra, which is only available with Cellular connection. Of course, you can always save money with the best Apple Watch deals and sales.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Which should you buy?

The Apple Watch Series 7 pictured on a pale blue surface displaying the app menu

(Image credit: Stephen Warwick / iMore)

Many people will find the GPS-only version of any Apple Watch model suiting their needs. You get all the same functions, albeit only if your iPhone is nearby. How many of us don't have their phone nearby, though? The GPS-only Apple Watch is also much cheaper than the Apple Watch Cellular. The only significant downside is that you won't be able to use Family Setup in the future.

The Apple Watch Cellular is fantastic if you're out and about a lot, and don't want to rely on your iPhone all the time. They're great for runners who want to stay connected without needing to find a pocket for their phone, for instance. 

For something more robust and geared towards athletes and adventurers, the Apple Watch Ultra is a more appropriate choice, given its far superior battery life, but you're committed to a Cellular build.

Tammy Rogers
Senior Staff Writer

As iMore's Senior Staff writer, Tammy uses her background in audio and Masters in screenwriting to pen engaging product reviews and informative buying guides. The resident audiophile (or audio weirdo), she's got an eye for detail and a love of top-quality sound. Apple is her bread and butter, with attention on HomeKit and Apple iPhone and Mac hardware. You won't find her far away from a keyboard even outside of working at iMore – in her spare time, she spends her free time writing feature-length and TV screenplays. Also known to enjoy driving digital cars around virtual circuits, to varying degrees of success. Just don't ask her about AirPods Max - you probably won't like her answer.

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