Everything the Apple Watch can do without an iPhone
What can your Apple Watch do without your iPhone present? Quite a lot, actually!
Whether you own a Series 0, Series 1, Series 2 Apple Watch, or Series 3 Apple Watch, you'll need an iPhone to set it up and use most of its core features. But even so, Apple's wearables are powerful little machines in their own right: If you leave your iPhone at home, you'll still be able to do quite a lot. Here's what the Series 0, Series 1, Series 2, and Series 3 Apple Watch models can do without an iPhone present!
It tells the time
Unsurprisingly, timekeeping will continue to work as advertised, and you'll be able to set alarms and timers, see downloaded calendar events, and the like.
When your Apple Watch is near your iPhone, the latter does send it an occasional update to keep the Watch in sync with the global standard, but unless you plan to be away from your smartphone for weeks at a time, your watch shouldn't suffer any degradation.
It logs your workouts
Go out on a run, attend Crossfit, or walk your dog — even without your iPhone present, your Apple Watch continues tracking your fitness. This includes your heartbeat, step counts, stand-sit ratio, breathing, and any workouts you log over that period.
As with most other fitness trackers of this era, the Apple Watch saves this data locally to its onboard storage; it can save up to 30 days of information, though we recommend being careful rather than risk your data with a 29-day hike and no iPhone present. As soon as your iPhone is within Bluetooth or Wi-Fi range again, your Apple Watch will sync the data to your iPhone, and clear its cache.
If you own a Series 0 or Series 1 Apple Watch, you'll only get heartbeat, calories, and basic workout information, as early Apple Watch models have no on-board GPS. You will get estimated distance monitoring, but Apple recommends taking a walk or run with your iPhone present for at least 30 minutes to calibrate for your stride and average pace.
If you own a Series 2 or Series 3 Apple Watch, you'll receive GPS data as well; this allows you to track distance and specific routes (if logging a workout that takes advantage of route-logging). And the Series 3 Apple Watch will even track your elevation, thanks to its built-in altimeter.
It lets you pay for items on the go with Apple Pay and the Wallet app
On a run to your local coffee shop? You don't have to worry about sticking some cash in a fanny pack: If the café takes contactless payment, you can use Apple Pay on your Apple Watch.
All Wallet features work while you're away from your iPhone: The Watch stores your Apple Pay cards as unique tokens on the device; when you activate Apple Pay near a contactless reader, the Watch uses the terminal's wireless connection to transmit and confirm your payment.
The same goes with other cards in the Wallet app: Any gift cards, boarding passes, or loyalty cards you've added on your iPhone are automatically synced with the Watch. (Including Starbucks's own barcode-based reloadable gift card.)
It plays your music
As of watchOS 4, your Apple Watch can play synced music (and podcasts or audiobooks, if you add them to your iTunes library via your Mac) offline; it'll also automatically add any albums or playlists you've listened to recently, so you always have tunes at your disposal. You will need a set of Bluetooth headphones if you want to really enjoy your music, but there are plenty of inexpensive options out there at this point. watchOS 4 also integrates the Now Playing screen next to your workout, so you can quickly adjust your music while on a run or other adventure.
If you have the Cellular Series 3 Apple Watch and are running watchOS 4.1 or later, you can also stream any of Apple Music's 40,000,000 songs on the go (though not while you're connected to your iPhone). You can also play any of Apple Music's automated radio stations via the new Radio app.
It showcases your favorite photos
The Apple Watch isn't exactly the best screen for looking at images, but if you're away from your iPhone, it may be the only photo viewer you have. You can sync an album from your iPhone's Photos library (up to 500 images); the photos within can be viewed as a teensy group collage or swipeable individual shots.
The Series 3 connects to your iPhone's cellular network
If you're considering a Cellular Apple Watch Series 3, you'll be able to have full access to all internet-connected apps on your watch even when you leave your iPhone behind. Your Series 3 uses the same carrier network as your iPhone, usually for an additional monthly fee (we've seen $5-$15/month on various carriers throughout the world), to let you place phone calls, send messages, navigate with maps, find your friends' location, stream Apple Music (in October), use Siri, and access third-party apps.
It connects to Wi-Fi hotspots — if you've been there before with your iPhone
The Series 0, Series 1, and Series 2 Apple Watch don't have a cellular antenna, which means they rely on the iPhone's data connection to use Siri, check your messages, and the like. But they (along with the Cellular-enabled Series 3) do have a Wi-Fi antenna — and if your watch is running watchOS 2 or later, any time you visit a place with a recognized Wi-Fi network, your Apple Watch will automatically hop on that network for internet access.
This feature doesn't always work, in part because many networks require secondary authorization. Take Starbucks, for instance: On your iPhone or iPad, you can tap "Accept" on the interstitial to continue browsing; the Apple Watch currently offers no such interaction, or a way to enter in passwords for a Wi-Fi network. As such, these hotspots won't work on your Apple Watch.
But general rule of thumb: If you're in an area where you've connected to Wi-Fi with your iPhone, iPad, or Mac previously, and said Wi-Fi hotspot doesn't require a secondary interstitial, your Apple Watch should connect to the internet. You can check if you're connected by swiping up from the bottom of the screen to invoke Control Center.
It runs standalone third-party apps
There are two kinds of Apple Watch apps: iPhone-based and stand-alone. The former requires an iPhone to fully function, as the watch only contains the app's interface. If you load data in the app before leaving your iPhone behind, that data will remain cached, but you'll lose out on any notifications or live updates to complications.
Stand-alone apps, however, can continue rocking long after you've left your iPhone at home. This includes third-party workout apps that use the heart sensor, games, and even internet-based apps—assuming you have access to a saved Wi-Fi hotspot or cellular data.
What the Series 0, 1, 2, and 3 Apple Watch can't do
While the Apple Watch can do a lot, there are still a few features that won't be functional if you've left your iPhone behind. This includes:
- Setting up a new Apple Watch (all still require an iPhone to set up and sync to)
- GPS tracking (Series 0 and 1 only; Series 2 and 3 can)
- Flights climbed or elevation (Series 0, 1, and 2 only; Series 3 can)
- Siri (Series 0, 1, and 2 only; Series 3 can)
- Maps, Messages, and other data-reliant apps, unless you have access to a Wi-Fi hotspot (Series 0, 1, and 2 only; Series 3 can)
- Make international phone calls (but FaceTime Audio works over Wi-Fi or Cellular for all models)
- Send SMS messages (Depends on your carrier; most U.S.-based carriers won't let your Series 3 Apple Watch send SMS messages if your iPhone isn't powered on)
- Third-party apps that are iPhone-based
- Complications that hook into apps that are iPhone-based
- More than 30 days of activity data
Any questions about how the Apple Watch works without an iPhone nearby? Drop them below.
Updated November 2017: Updated for watchOS 4.1 and the Series 3.