Can't make your Apple Watch work on an airplane? Here's the fix!

When I was flying last week, I discovered that when I put my iPhone into Airplane mode, it would — obviously — disconnect from Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals, which meant also disabling its connection to the Apple Watch.

Airplane mode exists because the FAA requires that you block cell signals to prevent any signal interference with the plane's navigation systems, but Bluetooth has been legal on planes since late 2013 — and it just so happens to be the primary technology the Watch uses to connect to your iPhone. If you don't want to lose access to your Watch's third-party apps when it's time to go up into the sky, here's what you need to do.

How to use your Watch and third-party apps for it on an airplane

  1. On your iPhone, swipe up to trigger Control Center
  2. Tap the Airplane button to enable Airplane mode on your iPhone. (This should also enable Airplane mode on your Watch.)
  3. Tap the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth buttons to turn Wi-Fi and Bluetooth back on (while keeping Airplane mode enabled for cellular).

  1. On your Apple Watch, swipe up from the bottom of the screen and find the Settings Glance.
  2. Tap the Airplane button to turn Airplane mode off on your Apple Watch. (This will only disable Airplane Mode on your Watch, not on the iPhone.)

Your Watch should connect to your iPhone over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Now, you can use your third-party apps via Bluetooth, and any internet connectivity over Wi-Fi.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

  • My take?
    63% of iPhone owners carry their iPhone in their hand, the others in a pocket or purse. When they sit down they lay their phone on the table, 27" from their furtherest wrist. If they want to know what time it is they pick up their phone. Text? They pick up their phone. Email? Well you get the point. Owning the watch for me was a real waste of money. I returned mine for a full refund and I had to wait in line!
    Seems everyone in line had the same idea and they just realized, the only reason they bought one was "its an Apple, must be useful". But its a nice play pretty just useless.
  • You seriously had to wait in line to return an Apple Watch?
  • I showed my watch to my neighbor in elevator as he was asking what's it good for. Due to my handicapped Chinese I don't like to get on conversations on topics I don't have much vocabulary, so I just said:"Nothing really, I don't even have a SIM card on my phone, just using it with 3G mobile router". He agreed: "Expensive toy?" At that time a WeChat message popped up saying in Chinese: "We already arrived in the restaurant, come to 3rd floor, east side". Suddenly this guy's eyes popped open and he said:"It does WeChat, great, I desperately need that, I can't touch my phone while I'm working and my family circle is messaging all the time, we have one sick kid and grandma's health is not good. How to get one?" That got me thinking, everybody has probably one killer app that will get them hooked, and for most that app has not even arrived. One factory engineer told me his killer app was the Taptic Engine. He had been constantly missing important phone calls and messages because the phone is always inside the apron pocket, and he is in noisy environment.
  • Why do you people insist on making up these stupid stories? Sent from the iMore App
  • You never owned a watch or you did a stupid thing. You could have sold it on EBay and made $150.00 profit. I went to the Apple Store and there was no one in line returning watches by the way.
  • I like Apple and have most Apple products but the watch to me is a total wast of time. Carrying an iPhone and iPad for work is enough. If the watch had a GPS then I may change my view. I just wish this site would write about useful Apple programmes and useful products then going on and on about the watch.
  • I just travelled using mine via BA and American. In some airports and lounges I had to get the phone out because the readers were in difficult positions or too carry for a wrist to fit in. Also passbook only stays on for a few seconds unless you scroll down to the QR code. So when boarding the plane i needed to keep waking it up just before the door so that the flight crew could see the human readable part. Finally I kept getting stopped by some staff wanting to take a longer look and scowls from some who thought I must be a tw*t for having an Apple Watch.
    All in all the flight stuff was disappointing. However Uber was great. Also having a timer complication showing the remaining flight time is a nice thing to have.
  • *too narrow for a wrist to fit in
  • Hi,
    BA at least no longer need to see your boarding pass when you are getting onto the actual plane. The gate staff need you to present the 2D BCBP (bar coded boarding pass) to the reader at the gate. I found that awkward because the turning your wrist then hides the boarding information on the reader from the staff - and I personally always hope for the error beep that means an upgrade.
    Scrolling down in passbook makes the BCBP stay visible for longer, but the whole human interaction side needs more work. I have only used it on 4 flights as a result, and will not bother again. In fact, I went all the way back to a paper boarding pass because keeping the phone in my laptop bag was such a nice experience last time I flew with the watch.
    App in the Air works pretty well whilst onboard for flying time remaining, which is the thing I am always interested in on long flights. Switching on the IFE is just annoying for that in a darkened cabin.
  • It's like all Generation 1 Apple products. Very cool with a lot of potential and should start to be very practical in a few years.
  • It's quite practical already, it's missing some apps (tweetbot, hangouts, whatsapp), and it needs some software updates to fix bugs and annoyances, but those will come. The second generation will just be more independent from the phone and faster (and thinner) Sent from the iMore App
  • The Watch is as practical as it's ever going to be already. All it needs are OS updates, which will come. And more apps. Everyone is swearing by this "next version" mantra... I may be in the minority, but I don't see these having the same refresh cycle as the iPhone and iPad. They don't need it, as extension devices. The phone will remain the device you upgrade every year or two. The Watch may be upgraded as often as the Apple TV. Sent from the iMore App
  • We're kind of way off topic and I hope Serenity sees this as constructive discussion. As long as none of us KNOW the answer, we can disagree. My thoughts don't make me right or you wrong. I think newer versions will come with
    smaller components
    faster processing
    much more battery life
    better display hardware
    2-way voice chat
    much better biometric sensing
    sleep biometric sensing
    lots of OS tweaking
    cameras that keep getting better over time I think it will be at least 3 generations before the average Grandma has one. Remember when only geeks and Apple devotees had the first iPad. My mom finally got an iPad a year ago as it became practical for her. And by Grandma, I mean the average non techies that don't read forums/blogs and currently are happy with their iPhone 4s.
  • I absolutely agree that those types of additions are coming down the line at some point - I DON'T think that "refresh cycle" is annual, like the traditional iOS devices. That's all I'm saying. Apple wants this device to be dependent upon the iPhone, which is fine. I'd like to see a version with dedicated GPS, though. Sent from the iMore App
  • Huh. I guess I never thought of it before - there's "Cellular Data" switch in the iPhone's settings, but no dedicated setting to shut off calls as well?
  • If we are allowed to use wifi and Bluetooth while on plane since 2013, why hasn't Apple changed the function of airplane mode to only shut off the cellular connection, and keep wifi and Bluetooth on? Seems like any easy update Apple could have made to iOS last year?
  • Also, I guess I am a rebel, but I haven't put my phone into airplane mode while flying for the last couple of years anyway. And I fly about twice a month.
  • In the Apple Watch app on the iPhone, one can switch off the "Mirror iPhone" option under "Airplane Mode" so that the Watch doesn't automatically go into Airplane Mode when the phone does. Unless asked by flight staff in some extraordinary case, there's no reason to ever enable Airplane Mode on the Watch, as both Bluetooth and WiFi are permitted during takeoff and landing. Only cellular antennas need to be powered off. From the FAA: "Cell phones should be in airplane mode or with cellular service disabled – i.e., no signal bars displayed—and cannot be used for voice communications based on FCC regulations that prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones. If your air carrier provides Wi-Fi service during flight, you may use those services. You can also continue to use short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards." So, disable this setting in the Apple Watch app on your phone, and then you'll only need to activate Airplane Mode on your iPhone, then re-enable Bluetooth and optionally WiFi (Watch needs Bluetooth, but doesn't require WiFi. Enable WiFi on your phone only if you want to connect to the plane's in-flight WiFi system).
  • Love the watch. I'm just learning it. Re this article, today I tried putting my iPhone in Airplane mode, then checked my Watch. It was not in airplane mode. Then I took Phone off Airplane and went to the Watch App. Under Airplane Mode you have the option of mirroring the phone for Airplane mode or not. I switched this feature on, and sure enough, the watch then switched to airplane mode. However, when I took phone off airplane, it did not take watch off airplane. So I had to manually take it off. Based on above article info, I think best to not mirror phone and use Bluetooth for 3rd party apps while in air.
    But, since I'm here, what I wanted to find out is at night I put my phone in airplane mode to save battery. Assuming my Watch is not mirroring, does the Watch still save battery since it's not getting any signals from the phone. Or does it use more battery searching for pinging? Thoughts.