Using a Cellular Apple Watch as Your Kid’s Cell Phone

It is feasible to just send your child off to school with only an Apple Watch (Photo by Skip Owens)

When my 13-year-old told me she really didn’t want a smart phone but my wife and I needed to be able to reach her (since we both work) I immediately thought about the Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular as an option instead of getting her a cell phone. Contrary to popular belief, going Apple Watch–only with your child REALLY can work as a replacement for carrying around a cell phone. It works even better for a younger person who has yet to be become addicted to the full power of a smart phone. This is a rather long article that hits the following major aspects of sending your child off with only a cellular enabled Apple Watch:

  • iPhone Requirements
  • iPhone & Apple Watch Cell Phone Numbers
  • Benefits of Going Apple Watch Only With Your Child
  • How to Manage Apple Watch Battery Life
  • Tips for Getting Around “Apple Watch Only” Pain Points

iPhone Requirements

But wait… don’t you also have to have an iPhone? Yes, going Apple Watch–only with your child still requires an iPhone in order to setup an Apple Watch (and you can’t just use your iPhone; it needs to be an iPhone with a phone number that is not currently in use by anyone else). So if you think getting your child an Apple Watch gets you out of having to also get them an iPhone… guess again. But that doesn’t mean it has to be super expensive. Most families these days hand down older generation iPhones as they upgrade phones, so ask around to see if any of your family members are itching for a new iPhone. If they aren’t, then getting a refurbished or a used iPhone is also an option. The Apple Refurbished online store is an excellent way to get an essentially new iPhone at a pretty good discount. Amazon and Gazelle are also good options to get a used iPhone at an even more discounted price. But as of right now you will need at least an iPhone 6 or newer iPhone in order to set it up and pair it with a cellular Series 3 Apple Watch.

Once you have an iPhone you will also need to have a cell phone plan for that iPhone. But what if you never intend to let your child even have access to that iPhone, much less carry it around? You still have to have cell service for that iPhone and here’s why. The cellular version of the Series 3 Apple Watch has what is called an eSIM and not a normal SIM card like most cell phones have. The eSIM is permanently soldered to the watch’s main board. In order to use the eSIM card the eSIM must be provisioned by the Apple Watch itself and that can only be done when it is paired with an iPhone that already has cellular service. Since the Apple Watch is designed to be used WITH an iPhone and not INSTEAD of an iPhone, the pairing and setup process and the cellular plans worked out with the carriers is all built around having both an iPhone and a Cellular Apple Watch data plan. Maybe if enough of us start using the cellular Apple Watch as a standalone device Apple will adapt, but for now we are stuck with paying for cellular service on both an iPhone and an Apple Watch.

So, for example, I am on the AT&T network and have a family share plan. So it costs me $15 per month (before taxes) for a new line of service for an iPhone and then an additional $10 per month (before taxes) to add an Apple Watch to my plan. Both the iPhone and the Apple Watch are then using the allocation of data we share as a family each month. So assuming the addition of another iPhone and Apple Watch doesn’t break your current shared data usage, it will cost you a minimum of $25 a month (plus taxes) to add you child’s iPhone and cellular Apple Watch to your cellular plan (actual price will vary depending on your situation and cell carrier).

iPhone & Apple Watch Cell Phone Numbers

Phone numbers, especially with the cellular enabled Apple Watch, can be a bit confusing (Image by Skip Owens)

So does the Apple Watch have its own phone number? Yes and no. Sorry to be so confusing with this one but you can thank our wonderful cell carriers for this mess. Technically, the cellular Apple Watch has its own phone number assigned to it but in practice it takes on the identity of the phone number of the iPhone you set it up with. Each carrier calls it something different. With AT&T the service is called NumberSync®. Basically what this service does is it allows you to make and receive phone calls and text messages from your Apple Watch (even when your iPhone is not nearby). I guess the simplest way to describe it is that it treats your Apple Watch like it is a 2nd iPhone that has the same phone number as your iPhone. So if you leave your iPhone at home and only have your Apple Watch and you call or text someone (or they you) they see the phone call as coming from you (your normal iPhone cell number or text number). It truly “syncs” the phone number associated with your iPhone with your Apple Watch. The only reason I said “yes and no” earlier is that on your cell phone bill you will see your Apple Watch listed as a separate phone number (one that is unique to your Apple Watch). As far as I can tell the phone number associated with your cellular Apple Watch has no purpose other than as a billing identifier.

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Benefits of Going Apple Watch–Only With Your child

I know, this seems like a waste of a perfectly good iPhone. After all, if you have to physically have an iPhone and pay for the service to the iPhone in order to activate and use the cellular Series 3 Apple Watch, why not just use the iPhone too? There are several benefits associated with going Apple Watch only with your child:

  1. Safety. Look at it this way. When you hand your young child something as powerful as an iPhone you have just given them the ability to hop on a plane and instantly fly anywhere in the world and meet with anyone on the planet without you even knowing it. Are you ok with that? You can lock the iPhone down, but it takes a lot of effort and, trust me, your child’s friends will show them how to get around almost anything you do to lock down their iPhone.
  2. Cost. I’m not talking about the cost of setting up the device but rather the replacement cost. It is very easy to drop or lose or have your iPhone stolen, but with the Apple Watch strapped to your child’s wrist the odds of those events go WAY down and it’s a lot cheaper to replace an Apple Watch than it is an iPhone.
  3. Reachability. If you just give your child an iPhone and you try to call them, they may or may not have their iPhone near them when you call. With the Apple Watch it is physically attached to them so they really can’t use the excuse of “my iPhone was in the other room.”
  4. Social Simplicity. The number of messaging apps and games and social media activities associated with the iPhone are extensive. By going Apple Watch–only with your child they are able to communicate with their friends via text message, iMessage, and other messaging apps (check for compatibility with the Apple Watch) but without having to fully engage with pictures and videos (because the Apple Watch doesn’t have a camera). For older kids this can be a real drawback but for younger kids it’s actually a safety feature (remember, there are creeps out there). Plus, not all kids are ready to create an Instagram account and send photos back and forth via Snapchat. This allows your child to still interact with friends but in a much simpler way. Remember, they still have an iPhone but you can keep that iPhone plugged in in your bedroom and slowly give them more freedom with it as they mature and can better handle the responsibility.

How to Manage Apple Watch Battery Life

If you do an internet search on Apple Watch battery life you will get all kinds of horror stories about how bad the battery life is. Remember, this is the internet and people like to whine. My daughter has been using the cellular Series 3 Apple Watch for the last 6 months and has only run the watch battery down a couple of times (and that was because she forgot to charge it before heading off to school). It is true that the Apple Watch battery will drain much faster when it is constantly using cellular service instead of just using Bluetooth to connect to an iPhone. But the real battery drain with the Apple Watch is using it to make phone calls. It only has about an hour of battery life for phone calls. But kids really don’t call each other. Honestly, the only time your child will use the call feature on the watch is if you call them. Texting is the main mode of communication and that doesn’t take a lot of battery or data. The easiest way to ensure your child always has an Apple Watch with power is to send them to school with a battery clipped on to their backpack. I recently did a review of the Griffin Travel Power Bank right here on GeekDad.

The Griffin Travel Power Bank is small enough to clip to a child’s backpack but has enough power to more than get you through a heavy use day with the Apple Watch (Image from Griffin)

The Griffin Travel Power Bank works great as a compact battery charger for your Apple Watch. Because it can be clipped directly to a backpack it is perfect to send to school with your child so they always have a way to charge up their Apple Watch. The other key ingredient was getting my daughter on a regular schedule for charging her Apple Watch daily. Either have your child charge it at night while they sleep or if they wear it for sleep monitoring like I do have them charge it for an hour or so while they get ready for school each morning.

Tips for Getting Around “Apple Watch–Only” Pain Points

There are some drawback associated with going Apple Watch–only with your child. After all, Apple designed the Apple Watch to be an accessory to the iPhone so if you push those boundaries you will encounter some pain points. Here are a few tips that are key for helping your child use their new Apple Watch like a pro:

  1. Contacts. Since most of the time your child will just have his or her Apple Watch and no iPhone it is critical that you set up the contacts in the iPhone before they start using the Apple Watch without the iPhone. Make sure you have all of your family members, friends and neighbors as contacts… anyone you are comfortable with them contacting in case of emergency. Also make sure to fill out the field in all of the contacts that defines the family relation or relationship. For example, “Father,” “Mother,” “Brother,” and “Sister.” There is even a “Custom Label” field here so if your child has a nickname for their grandma or grandpa or a family friend this is a way to assign that nickname to their contact. The relationship field is important because once you fill that out your child can simply use their voice and ask Siri to “call Mom,” or “call Dad,” which is a lot easier to remember to say than the contact’s full name. Also make sure you set up a list of favorites in the phone app on the iPhone and set the phone app as one of the apps in the dock of the Apple Watch. This will allow them with just a few clicks on the Apple Watch to call anyone from that favorites list.
  2. Siri Commands. Going Apple Watch–only means your child will need to depend on using Siri commands almost exclusively. At a minimum make sure your child knows how to use Siri to dictate a text message and make a phone call (including how to call 911). CNET has a great article that lists out quite a few of the commands you can give Siri so make sure your child learns texting and calling immediately and slowly teach them others as they get more comfortable with the watch.
  3. Emergency SOS calling. This is a feature I highly recommend you enable on your child’s Apple Watch, but you do need to think about it before you do. When enabled, this feature will automatically call emergency services (like “911” in the US) when you press and hold the side button of the Apple Watch. The risk in enabling this feature is if your child accidentally presses the side button too long and doesn’t realize they just did it. Even adults have been known to make this mistake. The good news is that even after you press and hold the side button and then continue to hold it down the watch will tap your wrist notifying you that an emergency phone call is about to be made. If you train your child how to use this feature I think the potential safety benefits far outweigh the risk of accidentally calling emergency services. You set up this feature on the iPhone and can specify which emergency service is called. After the phone call is placed and ended, this feature also send a text message to the emergency contact(s) you specify notifying them that this emergency call just took place. Then after the initial text if your location changes the Apple Watch will automatically send the emergency contact(s) the updated location and will continue doing so. The reason I recommend this feature so strongly is because your child can call the police without anyone even knowing it. There are a lot of situations where it may not be safe for them to be seen making a phone call and this gets around that problem. Emergency responders are trained to listen to the background audio of calls that come in when no one answers on the other end for situations like I just described. Apple has a support article that explains the Emergency SOS calling feature and how to set it up.
  4. Parental Controls. As I mentioned earlier, the more limited functionality of the watch will already help in this department but there are still a few parental control features you may want to enable, especially if you allow your child access to their iPhone. The parental control setting on the iPhone (for the most part) will mirror themselves on to the Apple Watch. So depending on the age of your child and your strategy on monitoring your child’s internet access and electronics, you may want to enable parental controls on the iPhone (and by proxy the Apple Watch). Read Apple’s support page about parental controls and make your own decisions about what makes sense for you and your family.
  5. Default Replies. When you only have an Apple Watch you really only have two main options to respond to a text message: you either dictate a response using Siri or you configure some default replies. Default replies are a set of pre-configured text message responses you can choose from in a list that shows up on the Apple Watch below the text message you just received. Simply scroll down the screen by either using the Digital Crown or by swiping on the screen with your finger and there they are. Apple provides a default list of these but you can customize them for your specific needs. If you think through all the things you get text messages about you can come up with pre-written replies so that most of the time all you need to do is select the reply appropriate for that particular text message. See Apple’s article about this feature and how to configure it and make sure your child is involved with writing these pre-configured replies.

I wish I could tell you that equipping your child with only a cellular enabled Apple Watch was easy, but it isn’t (as you can tell from this rather lengthy article). The main reason it is a bit complicated is because this was NOT a use case that Apple had in mind when they designed the Apple Watch, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Honestly, if you are looking at getting your child an iPhone, then you are going to go through much of this pain already as properly locking down an iPhone for a child is quite a challenging task all by itself. The benefit of going Apple Watch–only with your child is that it greatly simplifies the parental controls you have to worry about just due to the reduced capability of the Apple Watch. So if you have a need to always be in contact with your child, you aren’t crazy about them carrying around a smart phone just yet, and don’t mind spending a bit of extra money and effort, then this is certainly an option you should think about. Apple has a 14-day return policy on their hardware so you can try it out for a couple of weeks, and if it isn’t working for you, return the Apple Watch and go another route. Six months into this experiment with my daughter and we are both happy with results so I wanted to share this as an option for other parents out there that wanted try out going Apple Watch–only with their child. Good Luck!

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This post was last modified on July 19, 2018 5:11 pm

Skip Owens

A rocket-scientist, father of 3, amateur astronomer, piano/keyboard player and soon to be sci-fi author who wears his geek badge with pride.

View Comments

  • Thanks for this great article! I have been debating to activate the cellular feature because I have read so many negative reviews about the battery issue. I know you mentioned that making a phone call is what caused the big impact, but I would like to know how much battery you have left at the end of the day if it is mostly use for just text.

    Best regards,

    Nelson

    • My daughter after being at school all day and having her Apple Watch on cellular only because her iPhone was at home would normally have about 40% charge when she got home.

  • I am about to launch a new type of smart watch for kids, which is basically an android based smart watch with SIM card. Kids can call and message from the watch itself, and also have some other features like alarm, stopwatch, weather, calendar event, etc. Features are very limited, which was by purpose to keep it less addictive.
    Also it has a GPS chipset, so parent can check kids location on the companion app.

    I came across your article through search, and I think you are very thoughtful. Let me know if you are interested in the watch I am making, I would like to hear some advice from you.

  • Our son just started middle school and has sports practices and school activities that go well into the evening, and we don’t like being unable to reach him. But we aren’t comfortable getting him a phone for fear of him losing it, and don’t want to expose him to social media and all the dangers of a phone before he is mature and responsible enough to manage it all. I’m so grateful for the thoughtful and thorough research you included in this article, including the many links you supplied. Looks like the Apple Watch will be the perfect solution for him — thanks again!

  • Amen. Wish Apple would eliminate the iPhone requirement. Hate paying for two mobile plans, and would be nice to setup via iPad, but they're getting there. Sort of.

    On a Gear S3 standalone but it's really only good for phone calls; really screwing up how my family communicates. Tempted to bite the bullet and pay for an iPhone line I'll never use.

  • I also don't want to give my kid smartphone at such a small age but I want to be able to contact him whenever he is away. Purchasing apple watch for him would be a right choice. Thanks!

  • Opinion about lower or higher series watch for location and text services? Series 2 good enough? Added benefits of series 4? Thanks for this info, great resource as I consider for my 12 year old.

    • Only the Apple Watch Series 3 and 4 have the option for cellular connectivity. So unless your child ALWAYS has access to WiFi you will need at least a Series 3 Apple Watch with Cellular to make this work. In theory you could make a non-cellular Apple Watch (a Series 0, 1 or 2) work with jus WiFi if you want to rely on Apple's messages only for texts and on Audio FaceTime for calls but that will only work when they are connected to WiFi. Also be aware that even if your child's school has WiFi they may not be able to join it with their Apple Watch and even if they can they will need to bring their iPhone to school at least for the first day to use the iPhone to connect to the Wifi (the Apple Watch uses the Wifi settings from the iPhone to connect).

        • For an adult there are reasons why the Series 4 is better but for a child I would take advantage of the sales that are out there for the Series 3 and just go with that.

  • What about a comparable non Apple Watch for a preteen? I’m a huge apple fan just looking for a lower price point but not so little kid-ish such as vtech. Thank you!!

    • I go to CES every year and every year I see at least 2 or 3 NEW kids smart watches that get touted as the next big thing and then never make it to market. I have yet to find a kid friendly smartwatch that was worth buying. Now maybe I have missed some that are out there and actually work so maybe others can comment about watches they have some experience with but I would advise you to proceed with caution. So unfortunately the Apple Watch Series 3 or 4 are the only smart watches I can recommend for use with your child. Apple did not design and market the Apple Watch to be used like I am using it with my daughter so that means it costs more money than it really should to use it this way. But this was a trade I was willing to make. Not everyone will be willing to part with that much money to make this work though and I realize that. Wish I had better news for you...

  • Hiya I have an iwatch for my daughter but the strap is too big. Do you know if they do smaller straps for children?

    • Apple does not but 3rd party retailer have bands that will adjust down to a smaller wrist than the Apple S/M size goes down to. My daughter also has extremely small wrists and we were able to find her a 3rd party adjustable band that would adjust down small enough for her.

  • Does the “host” iPhone need to be turned on and connected to the carrier for the iWatch to continue making and receiving calls? I understand that the iPhone can be left at home while the kid is away from home with the iWatch.

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