Sometimes you have two bars but can’t load any webpages. Sometimes you have four bars, but your friend with a different phone on the same network has only two. We’ve become reliant on signal bars to tell us how strong our cellular connection is, but in truth, the bars are bullshit.
Those signal bars are almost completely arbitrary. Yes, more bars should mean a stronger signal, but there is no standard scale. Every phone manufacturer gets to decide how much signal strength equals how many bars, and it often varies widely from model to model.
If you really want to know how strong your cell signal is, you need to look at a direct measurement of the signal strength, as measured in decibels (dB). Fortunately, there’s a hidden “Field Test” menu on your iPhone to do just that. It’s not particularly convenient, but it is interesting.
How to access the Field Test menu
The Field Test menu has changed along with iOS over the years, but this guide should work for anyone on iOS 11 or iOS 12.
Then, open the Phone app and enter in the following numbers and symbols, exactly as written (including the stars and pound signs):
Press the call button, and the Field Test menu will pop up on screen.
Using Field Test to see your cell signal strength
Now that you’re in this weird Field Test menu, how do you check your cellular signal strength?
There’s a lot of stuff in here, and it’s not very well labeled. After all, this is not a menu for regular users, but for service technicians.
Start by choosing “LTE” from the first menu.
Then look for menu labeled “Serving Cell Meas.” This will contain measurements taken from the “serving” cell—the one you’re currently connected to.
Selecting Serving Cell Meas will take you to a page of data. You’ll notice the order of the listing here changes every few seconds, as the measurements continually update.
You’re looking for “rsrp0,” which is the Reference Signal Received Power for the tower closest to you (although you may be connected to a secondary, further tower, whose power is listed under “rsrp1”).
This should be a negative number, in a range from around -40 to -140. A number closer to -40 is a really strong signal, while a number closer to -140 is a really poor signal. Anything between -40 and -80 is very good and you shouldn’t have any signal problems. Anything below -120 is very poor, and you might suffer interruptions in your connection and very poor data speeds.
There’s another useful data point on this page, labeled RSRQ0 (Reference Signal Received Quality). This is a value derived from both the signal strength and interference. This usually ranges between -3 (good) and -19.5 (bad). It’s possible to have a lower number, but to do so you have to have a really noisy, low-power signal.
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I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life - over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.