The Big Myth About Cell Signal You Should Stop Believing

Losing your cell phone signal is an irritating experience that nearly all of us have encountered at some point. Whether driving through the boonies or camping out deep in the forest, losing connectivity can happen to anyone. Usually when this happens people go to their phones to check the number of bars they have. Most believe that the strength of their cell signal can be determined solely by the number of bars (out of four, generally) that appear in the upper right-hand corner of their display. This actually isn't the truth — not the whole truth, anyway.

The cell signal indicator shows one part of the combination of elements that, taken together, show the true strength of your cell signal. 

The strength of your signal can be impacted by a number of things, including how many people are using the signal from a nearby cell tower. If you've ever been to a crowded event and noticed your cell signal is faltering, even though you have full bars, you may have keyed into the truth behind the misconception.

What your signal bars really mean

Although the signal bars can indicate a bad or good signal, it doesn't necessarily guarantee it. The bars you see actually tell you how many decibels of power you're getting from a nearby cell tower, as explained on We Boost. The stronger your signal (the more bars you have) the more likely it is that you're close to a cell tower. 

However, this is an unreliable way to decipher your signal strength. One phone might show three bars while another (right next to it) will show four. The indicator is meant to be a very general, basic indicator of cell signal. 

If you want a more accurate reading of how much signal strength your phone has, you'll need to enter field test mode on your phone. This will allow you to see signal strength in decibels, rather than just the bars. Doing this may seem a bit complicated, and there is a different way to enter field test mode for either Android or iPhone. However, if you need an accurate reading of your cell phone signal, this is the way to do it.

How to find your true signal strength

If you're on an Android device, go to Settings, tap About Phone, scroll to Device Details, and find SIM Status. Tap SIM Status and find Signal Strength.

If you're using an iPhone, open your Phone app and type *3001#12345#*, then press the green phone button. You will be taken to a screen that says Dashboard at the top. There should be a House icon and a List icon — tap the List, find the list item RAT, under which you should see a Serving Phone Info button — tap that, find the item RSRP and tap the little flag on the right. Go back, tap the House, and you should see RAT RSRP, as well as a figure that indicates signal strength (measured in dBm).

If you have a very weak signal, you'll see -110 dBm or lower. If you have a very good signal, you'll see -64 dBm to -50 dBm. Decibels to denote signal strength are given in negatives, and the closer it is to zero, the stronger the signal is.