Do you remember the time, not long ago, when being on a flight gave you a chance to forget things and simply read a book or watch a movie?
Sadly, these days, people often feel like they have lost their right arm if they haven’t been able to see what others are doing on Facebook or message their “bestie” on WhatsApp for at least 10 minutes, so wi-fi is becoming increasingly more common on planes.
A few years ago it would have been impossible to access the internet while flying so you would be unable to use WhatsApp on a plane or any other application but it is becoming more common now.
The Quick Answer: You can use WhatsApp on a plane if you have access to the aircraft’s wi-fi, but even so, in most cases, you will only be able to send WhatsApp text messages (chat) and not make voice or video calls as these require a faster connection than most aircraft currently provide.
Although you may be lucky and have free internet access on board, generally you have to pay to access the aircraft’s wifi connections and it is pretty limited as to what you can actually use it for. Being able to stream videos and other high-data usage activities is unlikely to be available. I am sure that given time that ability will come.
How to use the aircraft’s wi-fi in airplane mode
Many people seem to think that once you hit the airplane mode button then all communication with the outside world is now switched off. While that is true when you first switch to airplane mode that doesn’t mean that you cannot switch some of the communication settings back on and for it to still be in airplane mode.
The main reason we have to switch on airplane mode before take-off is to switch off the cellphone capabilities of the phone which, they say, can interfere with the aircraft’s systems. Airplane mode turns off all communications when in this mode primarily because until recently wi-fi wasn’t available on aircraft and so there was no reason for it to be on.
This isn’t the case with Bluetooth which you have been able to use with compatible headphones/earbuds etc for some time. However, Bluetooth also gets switched off when entering airplane mode so it needs to be switched back on.
Read my other post to find out more about using devices with Bluetooth headphones on a plane.
How to switch wifi on in airplane mode
How to do this may vary from phone to phone but the principle will be the same on all phones. The following are examples on a Huawei Android phone and an iPhone.
This is the normal quick settings menu, which I access by swiping down from the top of my home screen (twice to open it fully) on my Android cellphone. As you can see wifi (the first icon) is on and Airplane Mode is switched off.
Turn on Airplane mode by selecting it and you can see that not only have the cellphone functions been switched off but also so has wifi been too.
By clicking on the wi-fi icon it is now switched back on but the phone remains in Airplane Mode. The phone can now be used to access the wifi if it is available and access your Whatsapp messages if desired.
How to connect to wifi on a plane
Each airline will have a slightly different way of using their wifi connection to their onboard wi-fi. The following is British Airways‘ instructions on how to connect and pay for their wi-fi (called .air) as an example:
- If you are traveling on a Wi-Fi enabled aircraft your crew will advise you once on board.
- Once cruising above 10,000ft enable ‘flight mode’ on your device. Please decide which device you would like to use for the duration, as you will be unable to switch the connection between devices.
- Go to Wi-Fi settings on your device and join the ‘BAWi-Fi’ network.
- Open your web browser and the .air homepage will open automatically. If not, please type shop.ba.com into your web browser to register or log in.
- Select and purchase the Wi-Fi package that’s right for you. (You can choose different time periods and speed packages)
If the airline you are flying with has wifi then you will find instructions on wifi connectivity on their website, on a card in front of your seat or in their inflight magazine. If not, you can just ask a member of the cabin crew.
If you are flying with another airline these airline inflight wifi articles may help.
Can you make a WhatsApp voice or video call on a plane?
With the limited speed and data restrictions available on most aircraft at the moment you are unlikely to be able to use WhatsApp on a plane to make a voice call and almost certainly not a video call as these require much greater bandwidth. The same applies to any other messaging app such as Facebook messenger.
Generally a plane’s wi-fi is only fast enough to allow you to receive and send text messages, sending and receiving emails, perhaps accessing Facebook and other low data usage functions.
Given time I have no doubt that the speeds will increase to the point where almost all functions you use will be available, just as it is in your home or office.
Does it cost to use WhatsApp on a plane?
WhatsApp is a free app and all the services it provides are free. However, you may need to pay to access the aircraft’s in-flight wi-fi network and that can be very expensive.
Some airlines are starting to give limited use of the aircraft’s wi-fi system for free, particularly for first class and business class passengers.
Often there are quite strict data limits though so you will be limited on what you can actually use it to do. That is why WhatsApp text messages are one of the things that you will be able to use as text messages use very little data.
Can you use WhatsApp on an international flight?
Whether you are flying internationally, or domestically, actually makes no difference to your ability to access WhatsApp on a plane, or any other application, assuming that wifi is available on your flight.
WhatsApp allows you to contact others anywhere else in the world for no charge.
Can you access WhatsApp without WiFi or data on a plane?
Connecting to an aircraft’s wi-fi system is the only way you will be able to access WhatsApp on a plane.
You are not permitted to access your cellular connection while flying, which is why you must switch your phone to airplane mode before take-off which switches off access to your internet connection to your mobile network.
So if the cellular network function is off then so is the data function so messaging apps won’t work using that method.
Why can’t you make cellphone calls on a plane?
There are two reasons why you are not allowed to make cell phone calls on a plane, text on a plane or even have the cell phone capabilities of your phone switched on in flight.
- It is believed that the use of a cell phone in flight may interfere with the aircraft’s systems and cause them to malfunction. Obviously, in theory, at least, this could have catastrophic consequences for flight safety.
- The cellphone system operates using transmitters/receivers at regular intervals which produce a “cell” – hence the name.
If you are stationary then you are connected to the nearest cell.
If you are traveling in a car, and moving from one cell to another, then the phone automatically transfers to the next cell. Cells are reasonably large so this means that, as you are unlikely to be traveling faster than 60–70 miles per hour, you will only move to a different cell perhaps every few minutes or so.
If you are flying at 600mph or more then your phone will be attempting to change cells every few seconds. This could not only confuse your phone but also could lead to disruption of the cell phone system.
The FAA state the following:
Electronics on Board
- The FCC and FAA ban cell phones for airborne use because their signals could interfere with critical aircraft instruments. Devices must be used in airplane mode or with the cellular data connection disabled. You may use the Wi-Fi connection on your device if the plane has an installed Wi-Fi system and the airline allows its use.
- Visit FAA’s Portable Electronic Devices page for more information about using consumer electronics on U.S. flights.
Should voice calls be allowed on a plane?
Personally, I am quite happy that you can’t use your cell phone on a plane to make calls and, frankly, I hope that never changes.
Can you imagine being on a 12 hour flight and sitting near someone who is constantly making and receiving calls on their phone?
I have experienced this really annoying activity on trains many times and let me tell you, there are times when I have wanted to snatch the person’s phone and throw it out of the window, or put it somewhere! At least I couldn’t throw it out of the window on a plane.
To make matters worse, when people do make phone calls on a train they always seem to talk more loudly than normal, which makes it even more annoying, and I am sure the same would be true if they were making phone calls on a plane too.
If you found this article useful then you may also find the following of interest:
Can you listen to an audiobook on a plane?
Can you take a laptop on a plane?
Can you listen to music on a plane?
I have been traveling around the world by air since the early 70s and living overseas too. I worked for British Airways for a number of years and I am also a private pilot. About Me