There are a lot of confusing, misleading and in some cases down right inaccurate headlines and articles out there with respect to the new Apple Watch Series 3 that Apple announced yesterday. Many of these articles are leading people to believe that you no longer need to own an iPhone for you to use your Apple Watch and that is simply untrue. So below are a few key pieces of information you need to know before you even consider buying an Apple Watch Series 3:
What phone number is associated with the Apple Watch Series 3?
Just like every version of the Apple Watch before it, the Apple Watch Series 3 MUST be paired with an iPhone to even be setup as a functioning watch. So you must physically be in possession of an iPhone to setup an Apple Watch Series 3. That iPhone must be an iPhone 6 or newer phone in order for it to be compatible with an Apple Watch, so be aware of that limitation as well. During the setup process your new Apple Watch Series 3 will copy/clone the cellular number associated with the iPhone you are pairing the watch to and the Apple Watch will now associate itself (from a physical phone number perspective) with the phone number assigned to that iPhone. So if you make a phone call from the watch the person you call will see the phone number associated with iPhone it is paired with (they won't know if you are calling from your watch or the iPhone). So the simple answer is that the Apple Watch Series 3 takes on the cellular number of the phone it is paired with. The Apple Watch Series 3 has what is called an electronic SIM (or eSIM) which means there is no physical SIM card you insert into the watch like you do your iPhone. The functionality of the eSIM is built directly into the Apple Watch Series 3 hardware.
What can the Apple Watch Series 3 do while away from the iPhone?
The simple answer is that the Apple Watch Series 3 can do quite a bit while physically separated from the iPhone it is paired to. For one, the watch can make and receive phone calls without the iPhone. Below is a list of other things that can be done with the Apple Watch Series 3 without being in range of the iPhone:
- Make and receive phone calls
- Send and receive text (SMS) and iMessages
- Use Apple Maps for directions
- Find My Friends tracks your location using the Apple Watch GPS rather than the iPhone automatically as soon as the watch is out of range of the iPhone
- Other messaging apps like Snapchat will work
- You can stream Apple Music
- You can use Siri (and Siri now talks back to you using the Apple Watch speaker where it didn't before)
- 3rd party apps are able to use cellular data from the watch, so depending on the app you may have a lot of other functionality available to you while away from your iPhone
How much will a monthly data plan on the Apple Watch cost?
So far the big 4 cellular companies (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) in the U.S. are all saying that the monthly fee for cellular data connectivity to their networks will all run you $10 a month. You must already have cellular service with one of these companies in order to add the Apple Watch Series 3 onto your existing account. In my case I am with AT&T and have a family data share plan so for $10 a month I can add the Apple Watch Series 3 and it will share our pool of 15 Gb of data per month. If I didn't have a shared data plan my $10 a month would get me 1 Gb of data dedicated strictly for the Apple Watch (again this is with AT&T so check with your provider for the full details).
Can you use the Apple Watch Series 3 as a stand alone smartwatch for a child?
The smartwatch market has huge hole in it right now with respect to a high quality highly functioning smartwatches for kids. There are a ton of "kid friendly" smartwatches on the market but I have yet to find one that is even worth considering and most of them are targeted for young kids (like 8 years-old or younger). I don't think getting a younger child a cell phone is a good idea. It's great from a connectivity and safety perspective, but until the child gets into high school I would argue that a cell phone is more hassle, cost and responsibility than they are ready for. But if all you want to do is be able text or have a 30-second voice call with your child a smartwatch would be a perfect fit (if a good one actually existed).
So when Apple announced the Series 3 Apple Watch I was really hoping they were also going to also introduce the ability to setup the watch as a standalone cellular device with its own phone number so it could be used by a child as a stand alone smartwatch. But that didn't happen. But not all hope is lost (at least not for me).
I mentioned I have an AT&T family share plan. I have 4 iPhones and one iPad Pro on that plan but I also own (or use) a 5th iPhone that is provided to me by my employer (this iPhone is NOT on my personal AT&T plan). The unique thing about my work iPhone is that I do not use it as a phone. I use it for work email and work calendar and a few work related apps but the phone number associated with that iPhone is not used or even given out. I also do not receive text messages on my work iPhone. All communication with me for work purposes is done through my personal cell phone (all except for email). So this puts me in a very unique situation where I have an iPhone that is on AT&T and the number associated with that phone is not being used. So if I bought an Apple Watch Series 3 and paired it with my work iPhone, the watch would take on the number associated with my work iPhone. Nobody has the number associated with that phone so it would be like a brand new number that my daughter then could use for her Apple Watch. But what about the $10 a month data plan that I would need to get for the watch? Is the data plan connected to the account associated with the phone number on the iPhone? Tricky question.
So I called Apple and talked with their customer support. They were not able to answer my question directly but they consulted with their cellular department and came back and said that while the eSIM in the Apple Watch Series 3 will take on the phone number of the iPhone it is setup and paired with, the data plan associated with the Apple Watch is something that is left up to the individual carriers to manage. So I needed to call AT&T.
I called AT&T and talked with their customer support. I was very specific about my question and in fact asked it several different times in slightly different ways and the answer was the same each time. As long as the phone number the Apple Watch takes on is an AT&T cellular number I can have a separate data plan on the watch from the plan that governs the cell number associated with the iPhone. Because AT&T has a feature called NumberSync AT&T is able to separate the data plan from the physical phone number cellular plan of the iPhone. So I can buy an Apple Watch Series 3 and set it up and pair it with my work iPhone. The Apple Watch will now make and receive phone calls using the number associated with my work iPhone (which is fine because nobody uses that number and nobody knows that number so this will be phone number only used by her Series 3 Apple Watch). I can also sign into my work iPhone with my daughter's iCloud account, again because I don't use that iPhone for any other functions than reading work email and work calendar items (and we use Exchange and not iCloud). AT&T has assured me that simply setting up the watch with the iPhone will not activate a data plan for the watch, it will only associated the watch with the phone number of the iPhone. I can then call up AT&T and they can activate a data plan with the Apple Watch and attach that data plan to my existing family share plan.
Disclaimer...I do not trust that information I received from AT&T is accurate. While I do think what they have told me is possibly correct, I have been burned by AT&T support people not knowing what they are talking about in the past. Even on this phone call the AT&T support person was saying that they may need to send me a physical SIM card for the Apple Watch because "they don't yet know what kind of SIM the watch will use"...and we know that isn't true. Apple explained yesterday at the product announcement that the Apple Watch Series 3 uses an eSIM which is physically built into the Watch hardware and not a physical SIM card at all. So I am totally expecting to buy an Apple Watch Series 3 for my daughter only to find out that the AT&T person I talked to didn't know what they were talking about. But Apple has an excellent return policy so I am willing to give it try.
So in summary it appears that I will be able buy an Apple Watch Series 3 for my daughter and she will be able to use it completely independently of my work iPhone (with the exception of setting it up and the occasional software update). But I am only able to do this because of the very unique way in which I use my iPhone for work purposes, which is strictly as an email and calendaring device. This frees up my work iPhone to serve as a surrogate device for my daughter's Apple Watch. I doubt there are a lot of other people out there that use their iPhone in this limited way, but if you do you may be able to use the phone number of that iPhone as a way to use an Apple Watch Series 3 as a true stand alone device. I'll write up a follow-up blog post once I get the Series 3 Apple Watch and let you all know how it goes. I'm not holding my breath...