Car GPS trackers are commonly used as an anti-theft measure, as well as a way to keep tabs on elderly relatives and newly-licensed teenagers. Regardless of your reason for using one, these small devices can be extremely helpful.
The basic approach is simple: just place it inside a vehicle or attach it somewhere inconspicuous, and you’ll be able to track the vehicle’s location via a website or mobile app. The trackers regularly send out automated signals (generally every 5-30 seconds, depending on the model) to alert the owner of the vehicle’s whereabouts.
GPS trackers for cars are all relatively similar in their basic functions, although some offer more features than others. Most are quite compact, making them easy to hide out of sight. Some attach to the outside of the car via magnets, while others are designed to be stashed away inside.
Some are battery powered and need to be recharged, while others are installed to draw power from your vehicle’s OBD -II port and can provide more information about the vehicle than simply its location and speed.
GPS trackers come with SIM cards and the technology needed to broadcast their location. In a way they are like a very basic cell phone, and just like a cell phone, they require a monthly subscription in order to use. Most cost between $5 and $25 per month, depending on the features you want.
If you’re looking for the best car GPS tracker with no monthly fee, unfortunately, it doesn’t really exist. Some advertise “no monthly fee”, but simply force you to buy 12-month subscriptions ahead of time instead. Because of the cell data requirements, you’re unlikely to find a quality GPS tracker that truly doesn’t have any monthly costs.
There are many competing models on the market, which can make the search for the perfect tracker feel intimidating. Fortunately, we’ve spent the time evaluating the top models on the market, and come up with a comprehensive buying guide for the best car GPS trackers available today.
- Dimensions: 1.8 x 1.9 x 1.0 inches
- Battery Life: n/a (powered from vehicle)
- Monthly subscription: $8/month
- Dimensions: 2.7 x 1.5 x 0.9 inches
- Battery Life: up to two weeks depending on settings
- Monthly subscription: $19-25/month
- Dimensions: 3 x 1 x 1.5 inches
- Battery Life: up to 2.5 weeks depending on settings
- Monthly subscription: $20-25/month
- Dimensions: 2.6 x 2.0 x 4.7 inches
- Battery Life: up to two months
- Monthly subscription: $18-24/month
- Dimensions: 1.7 x 1.0 x 2.2 inches
- Battery Life: powered from vehicle, plus a few hours of backup battery
- Monthly subscription: $8.95/month
What to Look For
As we mentioned, while the basic function of a GPS tracker doesn’t change much between models, some offer extra features or offer other benefits. Which one you should buy, and to some extent how much you spend on it, depends largely on which of those features and benefits are important to you.
Key things to look for include:
As the name suggests, real-time tracking lets you see the location of your vehicle on a map in something approaching real time. Typically, this is done via an app or website provided by the manufacturer.
It lets you see the current location of your vehicle, along with where it’s been, the direction it’s headed, and the speed at which it’s moving. The accuracy of the tracking depends on the device to some extent, but the quality of the GPS signal and cellular network coverage will also have an impact. In areas with poor signal, you may receive updates less frequently, and/or they may be less accurate than usual.
Real-time tracking is useful for many reasons, from knowing where family members are while they’re driving to tracking how employees use company vehicles. It can also be invaluable in the event of vehicle theft, although you should always report the theft to law enforcement rather than taking action yourself.
Some trackers provide updates every few seconds, while others update less often. The more frequent the updates, the greater the battery drain, so it’s a bit of a balancing act. Depending on the device, you may have the option of choosing your own update frequency if the default setting doesn’t work for you.
Battery Life and Power
Speaking of battery life, it’s an important aspect of any GPS tracker, and can vary greatly depending on both the device itself and how often it’s driven. Some only last a few days on a single charge, while you’ll get several weeks or more from others.
There’s a direct correlation between the size of the tracker and its battery life, which is something to bear in mind if you’re trying to keep it inconspicuous. As mentioned earlier, sending a position update more frequently also uses more battery, so don’t just go for the shortest interval if you don’t need to.
Charging the tracker can be a frustration, especially if you need to do it regularly. Not only do you need to be in the same place as the vehicle, but in most cases you’ll need to retrieve it from wherever it’s stored and plug it into a wall charger or power bank until it’s back to full capacity.
To get around the charging issue, some trackers give the option of (or indeed require) being hard-wired into the vehicle’s electrical system instead. Connecting the tracker like this eliminates the need for a separate battery, or lets it be used only when the ignition is turned off.
Hard-wiring the tracker like this has significant benefit, as it means that it’ll be able to keep reporting its location whenever the vehicle is running. There are downsides as well, though: it may require professional installation, and makes it harder to move the device from one vehicle to another.
Because all good car GPS trackers come with a cellular data connection and upload data regularly, you generally have the ability to receive various alerts in something approaching real-time.
Alerts can typically be set up to tell you when the vehicle starts moving, leaves or enters a specific area (also known as geo-fencing and discussed below), or when it exceeds a certain speed.
Some combination of text, email, and/or in-app notifications are the most common way of letting you know, but not all trackers offer all options. Make sure that the model you’re looking at supports whatever your desired approach is.
At its core, geo-fencing is a relatively simple idea. You simply define an area on a map (often by setting the distance from a certain point or simply drawing with your mouse or finger), and then receive alerts when the device enters or leaves that area.
It’s commonly used for things like drones, to define no-fly zones around airports and other sensitive places, and hire bikes and scooters to stop them going into areas they’re not meant to be. Many car GPS trackers also include the technology, letting you do things like get alerts when your vehicle leaves or arrives at home, school, or your business premises, or goes out of town.
Like other forms of monitoring and alerting, it won’t be 100% timely or accurate if the vehicle is in an area with poor GPS coverage or limited cell service.
While virtually all trackers provide some amount of historical information about their movements, the details can vary a lot. Typically, you can expect to be able to use an app or website to view the tracker’s movements for a certain period of time, with each trip overlaid on a map alongside speed and other data.
Make sure that the length of time you can pull historical data for is sufficient for your requirements. Some only store a few week’s worth, for instance, while others go back several months or more.
“Integration” can mean a number of things when it comes to car GPS trackers, from connecting into large-scale fleet management systems to having programming interfaces for the back-end data that let you query and utilize that information elsewhere.
In its simplest form, though, a tracker will plug into the OBD-II port and/or other in-car systems and report on things like fuel usage and temperature as well as the usual speed and location. If the vehicle has front or rear cameras built in, some trackers can also record that footage as well.
Installing a car GPS tracker can be very straightforward or surprisingly difficult, depending on the model, whether it needs to be hard-wired, and how hidden it needs to be.
The easiest versions to set up run off a battery and can live in a glove box, placed under a seat, or magnetically attached to somewhere on the vehicle. You’ll need to deal with some of the downsides mentioned above (regular charging and lack of integrations among them), but they’re quick to get up and running, can be hidden to at least some extent, and don’t cost anything extra to install.
Others are attached to the car cigarette lighter or plugged into the OBD-II port (typically found below the dash or in the center console). This approach is straightforward and provides vehicle integration and/or power, but means the tracker is likely to be visible with little to no effort.
At the other end of the spectrum, trackers that need to be hard-wired into the car’s electrical system often require the help of a professional. They can usually be hidden away out of sight somewhere in the engine bay, but the installation will cost you (sometimes a lot of) extra money up front. For that reason, we don’t currently recommend any of these models.
Finally, as with most things in life, price is a consideration. With car GPS trackers, there are three parts to this: the initial outlay, any installation costs, and ongoing service. As we mentioned up top, there’s little out there with no monthly fee, and certainly nothing we’re happy to recommend.
As a rule, you can expect to pay more (up front, ongoing, or in some cases, both) for devices that provide extra features, longer battery life, and/or more accurate tracking. Pay close attention to the monthly cost in particular, as over time, a high fee will outweigh any savings you might make on the physical device.
You don’t necessarily have to pay top dollar, though: depending on the features that matter to you, it’s not impossible to find well-regarded trackers that cost under $100 up front and less than $10/month.
Best GPS Tracker for Cars: Bouncie 4G LTE GPS Car Tracker
The Bouncie 4G LTE GPS Car Tracker is one of the most popular car GPS trackers on the market. Its location-tracking features are excellent, offering real-time location tracking (at 15-second intervals), as well as vehicle speed tracking, detailed trip history, and alerts when a vehicle enters or exits a predetermined “geo-zone.”
It’s also compatible with Google Maps, so you can track vehicle location in real-time via either satellite or street view. Data can be accessed via the website, or through the Bouncie app on iOS and Android.
The Bouncie also has valuable safety features that many competing devices don’t offer, like an accident detection feature that will send an alert if the vehicle is involved in a collision. For nervous parents, this is an extremely useful feature. In the United States, there’s also a roadside assistance service available from Bouncie.
Best of all, it’s pretty affordable. The device itself is competitively priced, while the subscription fee is a very reasonable $8/month. There are no activation costs, and no contract, so you can cancel at any time.
This model plugs into a vehicle’s OBD-II port, and draws power from there. This also allows the Bouncie to alert you to certain car error codes, such as a low battery or a check engine light.
The device draws power from that port and doesn’t need to be charged. This also means it only works when the car’s ignition is on, however, which is the only real downside of this device.Buy on Amazon
The AMERICALOC GL300 is an accurate tracker that is also very compact and easy to conceal, measuring just 2.7 x 1.5 x 0.9 inches. It’s battery powered, which means you can tuck it anywhere out of sight: in the glove box, under the seat, or even attached to the bottom of a car with a magnetic case (sold separately).
This model uses CAT M1 technology, which provides longer battery life and greater coverage than competing approaches. It can be set to send updates every 10, 30, or 60 seconds, although the more frequent the updates, the faster the battery will drain. Expect 1-2 weeks between charges on the longer settings.
There’s an app you can use for tracking, or you can do so on the website, and history is stored for a full year. There are customizable alerts that you can set up, including movement, speeding, entering or leaving specified zones, low battery, and so on.
The only real downside to this model is cost. The device itself is above-average in price, and the monthly cost is $19-25 depending on how long you sign up for. If you’ve got the money and are looking for a quality GPS tracker that’s easy to hide in or on your vehicle, however, this is an excellent option.Buy on Amazon
Best Mini Car GPS Tracker: Spytec GPS GL300
The Spytec GL300 is a simple, compact tracker that’s easy to use and easy to hide. The small size of this device (under two inches wide and an inch thick) makes it well suited for hiding in vehicles.
It’s also a good option for safety tracking of your children or loved ones, for instance in a school backpack or purse. The Spytec is battery-powered, with a charge lasting up to two weeks or more depending on use patterns. An extended battery that lasts up to six months is also available.
The device itself is budget-friendly, although the monthly cost is higher than average. You don’t get all of the bells and whistles of some of the higher-end versions, but can still see when the tracker leaves or enters a predefined zone, and track its location in real time.
The GL300 comes with a lifetime warranty, assuming you keep an active subscription. The monthly cost for a subscription is $24.95, dropping to $19.95/month if you pay for a year upfront. Fleet discounts are also available.Buy on Amazon
The Global-View Magnetic GPS Tracker is a powerful tracker that can attach to any metallic surface using a built-in magnet. Unlike other devices, it doesn’t need an external case or magnet, as it’s all integrated.
The device is powered by a lithium-ion battery, which can last for up to two months depending on usage patterns. The design is compact and versatile, and a good choice for vehicles, construction equipment, trailers, and more. The tracker (including the cellular connectivity) also works in 140+ countries, making it a valuable tool for international businesses and travelers.
Users can track data via the website, or through a mobile app. Uniquely, you can also set up automatic weekly reports to be sent via email. This allows you to keep tabs on equipment, for instance, without actively monitoring it. Automated alerts can also be set up, although by default these come in via email. It’s also possible to receive SMS alerts if you’d prefer.
The monthly rate is a bit steep, however, at $23.99. If you prepay for a year, you’ll pay $219.99, bringing the monthly cost down to a more-reasonable $18.33.Buy on Amazon
Best Cheap GPS Tracker for Cars: LandAirSea Sync GPS Tracker
The LandAirSea Sync is a budget GPS tracker for vehicles and other equipment. The device itself is great value, and the monthly cost ($8.95) is also very reasonable. If you’re on a budget, this is likely the best car GPS tracker for you. Surprisingly, given the low price, this model is made in the USA.
This device plugs into your vehicle’s OBD -II port, drawing power from there. But uniquely, there’s also an internal battery, so this model can work for several hours even when the car is powered off. This offers the best of both worlds, as you won’t need to charge manually, but also don’t need to worry about your vehicle being towed or stolen and the tracker not activating.
The only real downside is accuracy. The LandAirSea GPS tends to sometimes track movement that doesn’t actually happen — for instance, small movements when the car is parked. If you can handle this minor flaw, this tracker provides impressive value both when you purchase it and ongoing.Buy on Amazon
Main image via Daniel Jedzura/Shutterstock.com, product images via Amazon