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"The widespread adoption of mobile phones must be one of the worst things to ever happen to horror movies, since now every movie now has to include a bullshit explanation for why they can't use their phone, like losing their battery or their signal. It's become a laughable cliche."
With the advent of the computer age, writers still don't quite know how to work Cell Phones into a story. It used to be all you had to do for a survival adventure story was plop a bunch of people away from electricity to completely strand them at the mercy of wild animals/serial killers/zombies—but cell phones are making that harder and harder for writers to do believably. Even in comedy situations, there are some plotlines (such as Locked in a Room) that only work if the characters don't have cellphones. This means that cellphones are lost, broken, stolen, and run out of power far more than they should . The range of cellphones are also ridiculously reduced from what they are in real life—maybe writers are confusing them with two-way radios, or don't realise that most modern phones allow long-distance and international calls. Or, you know, maybe they're deliberately using Artistic License to artificially preserve the drama.
Note that, during widespread disasters such as the London bombings or 9/11, cell networks often fail, for several reasons: Overload due to everyone trying to reach each other, cell towers being damaged, and civilian phones being locked out to let emergency personnel have all the capacity. However, in many situations where this trope takes place, the problem is far more localized; being lost in the werewolf-infested woods isn't a national emergency.
Some writers go to the other extreme, using cell phones in place of crazy James Bond-esque communication devices. Except when the plot demands, they work in places that no cellphone should—such as in a sewer, a cave system, or Antarctica (unless it's a very expensive and very large satellite phone), and come equipped with flawless webcams.
The trope name comes from the advertisements for Verizon Wireless, where some employee is Walking the Earth constantly saying the trope name into his cell phone in order to confirm he could be heard over it. (Such people exist in Real Life, but the test phrases they use are far more improbable.)
Often watching older sitcoms, from the early days of cellphone use (80s-90s), the time of the cellphone's primitive ancestor, the car phone (60s-70s) and the days when mobile phones were not available (50s and before — early mobile phones existed as far back as the 40s, but were not available for civilian use) you may suffer many a facepalm as you count how many situations could have been prevented with just having a cellphone (Larry David and others have commented on how prevalent this is in Seinfeld — the plots of almost half of the episodes in the series simply wouldn't work if the characters had cell phones). You can even make a Drinking Game out of it. Note that sometimes it was justified, as in the early days, cell phones were hideously expensive to own and to use, had next to no battery life (and those batteries were nickel-cadmium, a type of rechargeable that gets screwed up if it isn't charged and discharged all the way), very little coverage, and were very bulky (if they existed at all).
Cell Phone Failure
- One justification for not using a cellphone was shown in an old campaign from the early 2000s by T-Mobile for their unlimited plan. This was before all companies even had unlimited plans, and had a set amount of "minutes" that you could talk on the phone for free. After that, you'd have to pay-per-minute. In these commercials, with Jamie Lee Curtis as the spokesperson, some sort of emergency would be presented and a group of people would argue over whether or not to risk wasting their minutes. This would make it a Justified Trope if the party in question isn't using their cellphone because they're out of minutes.
- Many people are still using pay-per-minute plans, as they generally don't have contracts with high early termination fees and they can work out to be cheaper than unlimited plans if you don't make many phone calls. But even on a phone with no SIM card or any minutes, as long as it has power and a signal, you can dial 911.
Anime & Manga
Yuuichi: Kanzaki-senpai!!! (draws out cell phone) Cell phones won't work either? Seriously?
- Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children uses phones as a metaphor for emotional contact. The result of this is that Cloud and Vincent's reluctance to use phones (Cloud only uses his voicemail, and Vincent doesn't own one at all) is a symbol of their inability to integrate themselves into normal life, and so when Cloud refuses to call for back-up it's all right, because it's all a metaphor. Tifa lectures Cloud about how not getting rid of his cell phone shows he still cares about people deep down, and Vincent later announcing his surprise arrival to help the heroes out after all with the line "where can I buy a phone?" At the end, Vincent buys a phone and Cloud starts using his again properly.
- Made funnier when Vincent tells Cloud to pass on a message telling Yuffie to stop calling his number.
- Of course, the fact that they're symbolic doesn't mean they aren't also Product Placement.
- Also, the funniest moment in the entire film: after a long fight, Tifa defeats Loz, and the Final Fantasy victory music is faintly heard. It's Loz's ringtone!
- Cell phones are only used once in Shakugan no Shana II, by an odd pair of villains, with the normal-looking one trying to coordinate activities over it and complaining about the terrible signal, only to find out the the problem was that his partner had turned its phone off. (Well, can't expect a centipede with a flaming skull on top to have much appreciation for modern technology, anyway.) The good guys use spell charms to communicate, but the one dangerous occasion where everyone thinks to carry one before hand, they all get disabled in their enemy's first attack.
- In Hayate the Combat Butler, Izumi gets her cell phone stolen in a scene that doesn't seem to have any effect on the overall storyline. She ends up getting lost on a class hiking trip and unable to call anyone because of it, which then leads to her own arc.
- It seems Higurashi no Naku Koro ni was specifically set in 1983 to avoid this trope. If any of the kids had cell phones (as most all Japanese schoolkids do) then there would have been no way for the Yamainu to isolate Hinamizawa and sterilize the village without someone from the outside finding out.
- However, one arc of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (Yoigoshi) did need to mess around with cellphones, being set a couple of decades into a Bad Future. It's a pretty typical case of no reception followed by broken cell phone. It's messed around with a bit, however. The character who had the cell phone only pretended that he didn't have coverage and then broke his own cell phone because he was afraid of someone finding him (He'd gone to Hinamizawa in a suicide attempt that he'd chickened out of).
- Likewise, its Spiritual Sequel, Umineko no Naku Koro ni, is set in 1986 for pretty much the same reason, because getting trapped on the island without communication for their Closed Circle murder mystery would be impossible with cell phones.
- Subverted in Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. A villain had been hibernating for 20 years to run out the statute of limitations on a crime. When the heroes found out, he locks them in his hibernation vault. The fact that he hadn't considered their cell phones is taken as evidence that he really was 20 years out of touch.
- No one in Mariasama ga Miteru has a cell phone, despite it being set in the present. The author acknowledged this in Word of God, stating this was one of the reasons the show is best viewed as a fantasy story and not as a school drama.
- Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has a character who only communicates through text messaging on a cell phone. When she's intentionally moved to a seat where her cell phone is out of range, she goes berserk.
- Cell phones often aren't mentioned in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex because every member of Section 9 has radio implants (or an always-on Internet connection.) And they're used about like cell phones would be.
- However, one episode does show that Section 9 is capable of jamming at least civilian model phones on short notice.
- In Detective Conan there are numerous times where a cellphone doesn't work right as the characters found out they were locked in a creepy old house with a psycho killer.
- Conan was also almost caught by Ran when she found his "Shinichi" cell phone.
- On the other hand, Conan solves cases as Shinichi long-distance via cellphone all the time without issue.
- In a Bleach side omake, the sewing club is in panic since they can't find Orihime or Uryu, when someone asks why don't they have cell phones, they comment that Uryu is too poor and Orihime can't use technology.
- In Saitama Chainsaw Shoujo, Kirisaki Fumio disables the local cell towers around her school and cuts the phone lines to ensure that nobody can call the police while she goes on a killing spree.
- The Busou Renkin of Doktor Butterfly, Alice In Wonderland, acts as a cellphone jammer. This was done deliberately so that the school he attacks could be totally isolated.
- The author of the Glee Slash Fic Clouds Between Their Knees, in which Kurt and Dave Karofsky are lost in the woods after a plane crash, actually asks the reader to ignore the fact that Kurt would probably be able to use his phone to at least find out where they are.
- In The Cries of Haruhi Suzumiya, there's no contact between Hinamizawa and anything outside it. Whatsoever. Justified, because Hinamizawa is actually in 1983, and cell phones don't exist yet.
- The first phone call from a truly portable handset (still the size of a brick, though) to the general phone network was made on April 3, 1973, by Motorola's Martin Cooper, and by 1979 the world's first mobile network appeared in Japan, though initially only around Tokyo. So it's possible that by 1983 it reached Hinamizawa (the nationwide coverage was achieved in 1984), but it's still unlikely that modern phones (most of which are 2G systems like GSM) would work on this 1G system.
Films — Live Action
- Inverted beautifully in Phone Booth. How else could he get help?
- On a press tour, when Robert Zemeckis, the director of Cast Away, was asked what was in the parcel that Tom Hanks delivers at the end, he said it was a fully charged, activated and ready-to-use satellite phone. (He might have been just a bit tired of answering that question.) Hanks reportedly did a double-take and stared at Zemeckis for a really long time.
- A FedEx spoofing the (longer FedEx commercial that was the) film revealed the package contained a satellite phone, as well as a GPS locator, fishing rod, water purifier and some seeds.
- Averted in Jurassic Park 3. The protagonists spend a good deal of time chasing after a satellite phone instead. Any cell phones that they might have had would have been useless; they were on an island far from any towers.
- This is mixed with a Behind the Black moment, when they hear the sound of the phone but not the freaking huge dinosaur approaching in whose stomach the phone is. Clearly, the phone is quite louder than the dinosaur itself!
- Justified in the film 30 Days of Night after The Renfield steals and burns the cellphone of everyone in town. It doesn't break the Willing Suspension of Disbelief because of how it's presented: the opening scene is a pair of policemen finding a pile of melted plastic with a few recognizable cell phone bits.
- They're satellite phones, actually.
Cop: I can understand [teenagers] burning cell phones — rebellion against your parents and all that. But who the hell steals satellite phones and burns them?
- Subverted in The Strangers; the victims' cell phones work fine, it's just that the killers destroy the first, take the battery out of the second one, and the aforementioned victims are too stupid to think to check the body of their friend for the third. This creates some Fridge Logic, as you can't help but wonder what the killers would have done if they had been able to call the police.
- The Crazies: The cell phone signal goes down as the virus starts to spread. At least here there is somewhat of an explanation, seeing as the military likely cut off phone connection in the town.
- The movie Fracture. The protagonist attempts to get, and eventually receives, a court order barring the suspect's wife/victim from being removed from life support. Rather than phoning the hospital, the protagonist drives there, and by the time he arrives, the wife is dead.
- That doesn't even involve cell phones... courthouses and hospitals have normal land-line phones in them.
- The Blair Witch Project supposedly took place in 1994 because if it took place in 1998, it'd be too implausible that none of the main characters has a working cell phone.
- Reality does seem to be against them in the movie...
- In Domino, the title character is on the phone getting instructions, and thanks to poor reception she hears "remove the sleeve from his upper right arm" as "remove the right arm", with predictable results.
- In Way of the Gun, various characters have difficulty reaching each other due to their junky cell phones failing to work.
- In the remake of House on Haunted Hill, after the house has mechanically sealed itself, beginning the game of murder, Chris Kattan gives the classic line informing the guests that the phones are dead. Many simultaneously respond, "I've got a cellphone." All of them reach for their phones, but none of them can get a signal.
- Erin Brockovich. Whilst in a late-night diner Erin comes across a rather creepy man who seems to be making overtures, though it turns out he has access to crucial documents that could help the case. When Erin steps out to her car to call her boss for advice she finds her cellphone isn't working, so she makes a rush for a nearby payphone instead.
- The trope explanation above links to a montage illustrating just how fickle, fragile, and generally unreliable cell phones are on the silver screen, particularly in horror movies.
- Realistically treated in The Host, where Hyun-seo is trapped in the sewer without a recharger and with terrible reception. She's able to get one call through, which is what starts off much of the plot.
- In Panic Room, the heroine and her daughter are trapped in the panic room while the house is being robbed. They immediately go for the land line, only to remember that she never hooked it up, thinking it was unnecessary. In a suspenseful trip outside the room, she manages to get a cellphone, only to find there's no reception in the steel-plated walls.
- In Shrooms, a bunch of teenagers go into the wilderness to eat shrooms and do wacky teen stuff. Then people start dying and they want to call the cops. And all of a sudden all their phones are missing. Turns out the killer hid all of them right before starting the killing spree.
- Drag Me to Hell had the protagonist pull out her cell phone during a haunting. The demon performing said haunting responds by draining her cell phone battery and making a scary zombie face appear on the phone's screen. Oh Lamia, you are such a card.
- The heroine of While She Was Out chose exactly the wrong time not to keep her phone charged.
- In the first Saw movie, Jigsaw leaves a cell phone in order to inform Dr. Gordon that his wife and daughter are hostages. Naturally, the first thing Gordon does when he finds the phone is to attempt to call the police, but it turns out that the phone is somehow modified to only recieve calls, and not even dialing 911 works.
- In Funny Games, the killers "accidentally" knock the cell phone into a sink full of water thereby killing it, very much truth in television.
- Parodied in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, where one of the Wrong Genre Savvy characters smashes a cell phone because he knows it won't work in a horror movie — before even checking if it works.
Live Action TV
- Drake and Josh are forever losing their cellphones to trap them in odd situations.
Drake: Why don't Craig and Eric have cell phones?
- In an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Sarah tries to track a truck by using John's cell phone as a beacon. This works perfectly until the truck hits a bump, and the phone breaks irreparably after falling 3 feet. Apparently, the future leader of the human race decided to buy the most fragile phone on the face of the Earth.
- On The X-Files, Mulder and Scully often drive significant distances to speak in person rather than using their cell phones even when phoning would be perfectly safe.
- Of course, living in a Crapsack World run by a shadow government with alien technology and no accountability, Mulder really is completely justified in being paranoid enough to doubt that the person who answers when he calls Scully is, in fact, Scully if he can't see her face. Heck, there are episodes where he'd be advised to doubt it's Scully when he can see her face. For that matter, is it ever "perfectly safe" to use a phone to discuss a government conspiracy when elements of the FBI, NSA, and CIA are actively trying to monitor and/or block your investigation?
- Either mobile phones weren't all that popular in the USA before 2004 or the writers of Friends chose to ignore their existence, because a good deal of the plots of many episodes would not have worked with mobile phones present. For example, the premise of the story of Joey missing the audition for Mac and Cheese. Chandler would have easily found Joey had he had a phone.
- In Lost, Boone is shown trying to use his phone just after the crash, but he can't get reception on an island in the middle of the South Pacific.
- Ironically, people with functional satellite phones arrive in the fourth season, but they can only call each other.
- The people currently off the island seem unwilling to call each other, preferring instead to show up in person, usually with a dramatic reveal. However, they do call each other when it's urgent, like when someone's life is in danger.
- Also, the Island travels through time, which can't be good for reception.
- An episode of The Dead Zone had the main character lost in the woods somewhere; he tried calling for help on his cell phone, but its display showed "NO SIGNAL".
- Maxwell Smart and the wireless rotary-dial telephone concealed in the sole of a shoe is often cast as an unreliable weakest link; for instance, it would work quite well until Max steps into a puddle.
- LexCorp tracks down the Justice League by using their cell phones as GPS locators in Smallville. Apparently they all carry their phones around all the time, which in Aquaman's case, doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
- Angel is really bad at using phones, and there were several occasions in the series where he had let the charge run down, just forgot he had one with him, or couldn't work out the intercom.
Angel: These things were definitely cooked up by a bored warlock.
- A very silly plotline on Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip called for Danny and Jordan to get locked on the studio's roof so that they'd be forced to discuss their relationship. Aaron Sorkin does find it within himself to pay lip service to the idea that they could just call someone to unlock the door... by having them wander around holding their phones aloft, complaining that they can't get a signal. On a roof. In the middle of L.A. For no reason.
- Babylon 5: In one episode a character loses his communicator. He finds another person's communicator, but can't use it to call for help, because the communicator will only work for its owner. Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, all mobile phones can be used to call the emergency number, even without SIM cards.
- Burn Notice loves this, though it's good about justifying it; anyone meant to be incommunicado will have their cell phone jammed, taken away, or secretly sabotaged. The villains are usually portrayed as pretty Genre Savvy about this as well, further justifying the trope.
- In the NCIS episode "Boxed In", Tony and Ziva are trapped in a shipping container and try desperately to get signal on their cell phone — justified here, as the container would act as a Faraday Cage.
- Once the murders start in Harper's Island, both the landlines and cell phones all stop working. In the associated web series Harper's Globe, we find that the internet isn't working properly either.
- An episode of Community had the group trapped in an 'spacecraft simulator' which was actually an old RV fully covered in metal. They are sealed in, the RV is being towed and they can't get cellphone reception from inside (Faraday Cage?). However, there is a short wave radio connected to an outside antenna so they can communicate with 'mission control' once they get it working.
- In Smallville, Lois' phone runs out of batteries when something nasty is going down and she needs to make a call. She even says "Really?!" when it happens, as if disbelieving that such a cliche could happen to her.
- Invoked in Psych. Mr. Yang leaves a cell phone for Shawn as a clue. Shawn promptly throws it into a river to change the rules of Mr. Yang's game.
- Cell phone jammers (see Real Life below) were part of the mid-Season 10 crackdown at Degrassi that also brought in metal detectors and school uniforms. Interestingly, here the writers seem to be unable to write without them; one scene showed Sav on a pay phone in the school, calling another character who was also inside the school building at the time.
- This concept is explored here; basically, Romeo and Juliet would have had a much happier ending if the two of them had had cell phones.
- In the Twilight book New Moon Edward conveniently smashes his phone in grief because he thinks Bella is dead, thus enabling a dramatic flight to Italy solely to demonstrate that she is, in fact, still alive.
- Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!, deals with this problem on a regular basis. However, it's justified: due to his origin  he is very competent at orientation in closed spaces and thus constantly gets assigned to missions that deal with such spaces. Such as tunnels or caves. Which are, you know, underground, so it's hard to keep contact. In For the Emperor, for example, it was a major plot point, since he managed to find out the true reason behind the conflict and must find his way to the surface as soon as possible to prevent a large-scale war, since he can't just tell that over the radio.
- In Good Omens, Crowley and two Dukes of Hell describe what they have done to aid the spread of evil that day. One Duke corrupted a politician. The other tempted a priest. Crowley disabled every cell tower in Central London for 45 minutes... during lunch hour.
- The other demons don't understand. Crowley figures that spreading low-level frustration to thousands of people on a regular basis is much more efficient in the corruption of souls than the one-on-one approach—a thousand grouchy people spread a lot more misery around than one awful person.
- Justified example in The Dresden Files: magic screws up advanced technology like computers and cell phones, thus ruining cell phone reception whenever a wizard is around. The effect worsens exponentially when when a wizard (or other magic user) is actively casting magic, and that's not even taking into account "hexing", which is a direct magical attack with the intent of destroying technology. Dresden himself compares cell phones to a canary in a coal mine or "those guys in the red shirts on Star Trek" because they die the instant trouble hits.
- Cell phones in The World Ends With You have no reception. The dead can't talk to the living, after all. They can receive messages from the Reapers, and your in-game menu is supposedly the cellphone menu, but other than that they're powerless. When Joshua actually talks to someone on his, Neku instantly turns suspicious. (Joshua's talking to Hanekoma.)
- When the blackout hits in Devil Survivor, cell service goes down as well, which the characters note as odd, because the towers shouldn't be affected ("But the phone centers have their own backup power, right? This doesn't make sense!"). Later in the game, the lack of cell service is alluded to, when someone claims to have called someone outside the lockdown; which isn't possible, of course.
- And in the sequel, JP's are in control of the only still-working phone network, eventually allowing the protagonists to communicate with each other once they join.But when trying to save people from their Death Clip fate, there is always one reason or another to prevent them from contacting each other:
- When saving Daichi, the hero and Io haven't joined JP's yet.
- When saving Jungo in Nagoya, Brainwashed and Crazy Fumi had hacked the server shutting down service.
- With Makoto we have Ronaldo trashing the Osaka branch and the phone lines with it.
- As for Joe, his battery conveniently runs out just as he encounters a horde of demons.
- And in the sequel, JP's are in control of the only still-working phone network, eventually allowing the protagonists to communicate with each other once they join.But when trying to save people from their Death Clip fate, there is always one reason or another to prevent them from contacting each other:
- A Running Gag in Cogito Ergo Sum's escape-the-room games is the cat Nyan being unintentionally locked out on the porch or balcony and needing to contact the dog Wan to help him. Nyan actually learns from his first undignified imprisonment and has a cellphone or smartphone with him (don't think too hard about how a cat can use a phone in the first place) the next couple of times he becomes locked out...but naturally, he's unable to get any reception and has to resort to more traditional escape-the-room puzzles to contact Wan.
- Justified in the Sluggy Freelance story "That Which Redeems", thanks to the demons having a very poor understanding of cell phone technology.
Tryka: What's it roaming for? Shouldn't it stay here?
- Justified again in the "bROKEN" story, when the Fate Spider's Apprentice intentionally makes Torg forget to charge his cell phone, forcing him to leave it off when communication would have been vitally important.
- In El Goonish Shive, Nanase is unable to call for help during a wizard attack on a school in this strip. As for why, A Wizard Did It, literally
- In Silent Hill: Promise, Vanessa's cell phone hasn't worked correctly yet.
- Discussed by The Distressed Watcher
Horror movies were better before they always had to figure out a reason to explain why the main character can’t just use their cell phone to call for outside help. Now every movie has to come up with some clever excuse: "Oh, the vampires stole all the phones in the night!" Or,” this is a dead zone”, or “the government blocked all the cell signals to cover this whole event up”. Or, “we’re all Amish!”
- Played with in a Danny Phantom episode where Danny and his mother gets stranded in the middle of a forest. Off ALL the techno gizmo she has with her, the only thing she doesn't have: a cellphone—because you can't fight ghosts with a cellphone, silly. Danny doesn't have his cellphone with him either (for no apparent reason), so he and his mother have to survive alone against the big, spooky forest (and Vlad).
- Danny obviously forgot his phone. Like he forgot his wallet in Masters of All Time, and that ring from Flirting With Disaster.
- In Code Lyoko, the main characters all have cell phones, and never have any problem with reception or anything. Usually their phones would be broken while fighting on Earth. (Strangely, they always have a new cell phone by the next episode, even if no one pressed the reset button. They never seem to complain about having to buy new cell phones so frequently, though...)
- Averted in a Daria episode, "The Teachings of Don Jake". Daria and her family nearly meet their demises in the middle of the forest on a camping trip. Jake, Helen and Quinn trust Jake's excellent woodsman skills and eat some berries from a bush, causing them all to go humorously insane. Daria, the only sane one, just as she is beginning to panic, relied "on mother's hypocrisy to see them through the crisis", when she hears her mother's cell phone go off in the backpack. Her parents' plan for the weekend was to be cut off completely from the outside world- Helen cheated.
- An episode of Jimmy Two-Shoes had Lucius getting swallowed by a sea creature. While in its mouth he attempts to use his cell phone, to no avail.
- The Freaky Friday Flip of Justice League Unlimited had Flash (in Lex's body) attempting to contact the rest of the League through a cell phone, only to find that there's no service.
- Parodied in Dan Vs. "Technology." Chris attempts to call for help after crashing in the woods, only for his cell phone to explode in his hand as he dials.
- In What's New Scooby Doo episode "There's no Business Like Snow Business", a journalist was having trouble with her cell phone while ranting about audience, which made the gang regard her as a suspect while all Fred pointed out was that he thought cell phones worked well in that area. At first, it seemed he was Completely Missing the Point, but it turned out to be a Chekhov's Gun, as the Monster of the Week was a machine radio-controlled by the Villain of the Week, whose radio signs were causing interference on the cell phones.
- In Batman the Animated Series, when Batman wants to call the mayor and warn him of a plot, he is told there is no phone, and Bat's won't work either — the host is a scientist who chose a dead zone for his experiments so as not to be disturbed.
- British comedienne Jocelyn Jee Esien plays a "chav" schoolgirl who in every sketch is shown sitting on a bus screaming "CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?" into her phone, despite no one making noise near her and no obvious reason for communication failure.
- That's eerily similar to a recurring gag from the British series Trigger Happy TV, where a cell phone ring would be heard before a man with a comically large phone (something the size of an old boombox) stood up and started screaming into it, usually while in a movie theatre or a restaurant.
- The central idea here is much older, and generally expressed with the phrase, "I'M ON THE TRAIN!"
- Despite what any communications company might say to the contrary, there are still plenty of coverage blind spots in the twenty-first century, in suburbia, California let alone rural areas, virgin wilderness or exotic locales. Hence faulty cells and cheap networks remain available plot devices alongside:
- Old lithium batteries that don't hold a charge.
- Small phones that get lost in sofas or down storm-drains along with keys.
- Weather effects like Midwestern US thunderstorms that blot out reception
- Really buggy, poorly tested interfaces, especially for multi-purpose phones.
- Poorly written applications (Java, Flash Lite, iOS, Android, etc.) that interfere with normal phone operation.
- Badly designed antennas that weaken the signal when you hold your iPhone 4 wrong.
- Phone batteries that are so sensitive to moisture that walking through a rainstorm with a phone in your pocket can fry them, let alone if they actually get immersed in water.
- Since cell phones rely on radio, some pieces of the trope are Older Than They Think. One of the first bits of information that amateur (and many professional) radio operators exchange is a signal report, or RST, Readability, Signal, and Tone. This is very important information in poor radio conditions; skilled operators can still get the message through if they know what they're up against. "Bars" are a way to abstract this for mass-market phones.
- Also, since cell phones rely on radio, they can be jammed and blocked, by both natural (see above about thunderstorms) and artificial means. In fact, in many countries (though not the USA), cell phone jammers can be legally purchased and used; some churches and movie theaters use them to prevent interruptions. A villain who doesn't want his victims to be able to call for help could arrange to jam his victims' phones.
- Jamming is often set up by bomb-squads (though it's illegal in some countries), since bombs may be radio-triggered (no word on whether anyone's ever set off a bomb by the jamming interrupting a signal, but it'd be a hell of a nasty Xanatos Gambit).
- A later form of jamming can still allow emergency calls through (operating at the level of the call-out call-in signals, rather than just jamming the frequencies), so allowing this sort of jamming would not have some of the disadvantages that jamming all signals brings, hence calls to allow it.
- A lot of schools put up cell phone jammers in an attempt to stop kids texting during class.
- A Faraday cage can severely hamper or eliminate radio (and thus cellular) communications. These doesn't have to be sophisticated or even deliberate — a metal building such as a warehouse can act like one.
- A tinfoil hat actually can form a Faraday cage, which means crazy conspiracy theorists are slightly less delusional than they seem. About the tinfoil. The transmitters in their heads still aren't real. Or are they?
- Zona del Silencio in Durango. It's not the only one, and such areas are called "skip zones".
- In the UK, there are still rural areas that have patchy coverage at best. The construction of new masts tends to be opposed in anyone's back yard, especially when near a site of natural beauty, or a school. Even in more populated areas, it's possible to have to walk to the other side of a building in order to get a reception.
- The Meteor network was notorious for this when they first started providing their service. If you lived outside of Dublin, you could generally expect to get only one bar of signal if you were lucky and this tended to go if you happened to move four inches to the left. Thankfully, this has been remedied.
- In Australia the major mobile phone providers claim to provide coverage to 97% of the population, not 97% of the country. Beyond the highy populated south east corner (Between Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne-Adelaide) coverage is very sparse indeed. As  this map proves
Super Cell Phones
Anime & Manga
- In the anime series Gate Keepers 21, many characters use specially designed cell phones to activate "Gates", the source of the series' magic-like abilities.
- The Pixies of The Fairly Odd Parents also use cell phones to make magic.
- Vision of Escaflowne has a pager (remember those?) that works on an invisible moon orbiting the Earth. This is debatably justified via Your Mind Makes It Real (or that could just be Fan Wank), but this still resulted in a lot of jokes.
- In the To Love Ru anime, Lala uses what looks like a cellphone to summon various useful items from somewhere, even items like a tree-sized stylized octopus robot that sucks up the Mooks that have been chasing her.
- The phone also appears in the manga, with the same uses. Her two sisters also have cell phones they can use to summon plants and animals.
- Voices of a Distant Star is all about a mecha pilot and her boyfriend keeping in touch via SMS messages, which take longer and longer to reach the farther from Earth she travels. She eventually travels outside our solar system, and is still able to send the messages. That's some pretty amazing reception.
- This is even played with in the Anime short as the cell-phone displays the time it will take for the message to reach earth (8 years) and little note indicating she's in super-duper long distance mode. The manga fills in saying that she's really piggybacking on the fleet's communication grid, and thus her non-vital message takes a back seat to official communiques. And at the very end of the story, a newspaper article revels in the discovery of FTL communications. Too little too late for our heroine.
- Hunter X Hunter has Shalnark, who can use his cell phone's antenna to control other people.
- Whether or not that counts is debatable, since that's a property of his special ability, not the phone. Hunter X Hunter is more remarkable in relation to this trope by the fact that pretty much everyone, from the 12-year-old protagonists, to the gang of bandits that Shalnark's a member of, to the Biological Mashup Chimera Ant commanders have and use cellphones to communicate with each other over distances. Gon and Killua's beetle-shaped phones, in particular, are described as being able to get service nearly anywhere in the world.
- Played with in Pretty Cure. The protective forms that Mipple and Mepple have to take on during their stay on earth resemble girly cellphones, resulting in everyone assuming that Nagisa and Honoka already had cells and didn't need new ones. However, Mipple and Mepple only look like cellphones, and can't be used to communicate.
- Astarotte no Omocha: Naoya manages to receive a text message and picture from his sister... after he's been taken to the Youkai Realm. More bars in more places, indeed.
- I Can't Believe it's not the Justice League! has the Super Buddies sent by Booster Gold to 'the deepest, darkest pits of Hell! (muahahaha!)' and are able to call their headquarters. It's Lampshaded when Max Lord immediately demands to know what service they have.
- Operatives on the Global Frequency had really cool phones that appeared to use their own satellite network and give users access to any electronic resource Aleph could hack into. They also had audio/video capabilities that were terribly advanced when the graphic novels came out, but in late 2009 seem roughly on par with high-end iPhones and the like.
- Which proves that writers don't need to bypass cell phones to create tension; these geeks kick ass, but they still get into trouble the phones can't gimmick them out of.
- In Planetary, the Drummer receives a cell call while on the Authority's extradimensional spaceship/headquarters. Possibly justified in that the Drummer's superpower is control over information and information transmission.
- This trope is just barely Older Than Television considering that Dick Tracy's first and most famous gadget is his Two-Way Wrist Radio, first used in the 1940s. Thus, the detective had a wrist communicator that was incredibly small and powerful for its day and the strip took maximum advantage of it for the heroes to get themselves out of sticky situations.
- Turnabout Storm: Phoenix recieves a cellphone call from a "concerned friend" in the middle of his investigation. The kicker? He's in the middle of Equestria, a complete other world, which doesn't have cellphones of any kind, let alone cell towers. If this was accomplished with magic or something else entirely is unknown.
Films — Animation
- Lampshaded in the Curious George movie. Ted's phone go off in the depths of Africa and he comments about the "strong signal" before answering it. Then again, the movie seems to enjoy lampshading and breaking the fourth wall every so often.
Films — Live Action
- In the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, Bond is issued a super-awesome Sony Ericsson phone that could make calls from the most isolated places in the world, browse the Internet like it was plugged in with a 1024 kbps data link, with a GPS map that could follow tracker bugs. It follows in the tradition of Bond's obscenely advanced gadgets.
- In the sequel Quantum of Solace, the phone is able to transmit tons of high-res, multi-angle headshots from the Austrian Opera theatre to London MI:5 almost instantaneously.
- Jurassic Park III has a satellite phone working perfectly quite some time after being eaten by a dino.
- The Lost World novel has sat phones that are explicitly extra-durable and specifically made for the island.
- Early in the film Dr. Ian Malcolm is trying to contact some one with a satellite phone, he can't and several reason are suggest why it won't work ending with "or she could have turned it off"
- The Lost World novel has sat phones that are explicitly extra-durable and specifically made for the island.
- Most people took issue with how one of the main characters could use his cell phone in the subway station in Cloverfield. This, however, was a savvy case of Truth in Television, since the MTA is actively wiring subway platforms for cell service, specifically so riders can use their phones during emergencies.
- After much of Manhattan had been smashed into oblivion, the subway station might be the only place where you can still get cellphone service.
- The 2008 film Journey to the Center of the Earth had a cellphone that works at the center of the Earth. Worse yet, not only is it just a joke that's not essential to the plot, but there was a scene in the same movie where a cell phone won't work inside of a normal cave.
- In Enchanted, Nancy gets cellphone reception in a magical fairytale kingdom, the bizarreness of this is lampshaded right before she destroys the cell phone.
- The Dark Knight has sonar emitting phones.
- It also has a cell phone that works inside a guy. Inside a prison cell. It arms a bomb. Boom.
- The 2008 Iron Man movie has the title's hero's cell wired through his armor. Maybe the armor is Bluetooth compatible.
- Then there's the video chat on the non-armor-based cell phone in the middle of Afghanistan at the start of the movie.
- In the sequel, the phone gets an upgrade to be able to instantaneously access projection screens. It also appears to be as big and transparent as a piece of plexiglass.
- The Jami Gertz character in Twister had a cell phone which was immune to atmospheric conditions, such as giant tornadoes.
- In Three Kings, one character manages to make a phone call to his wife, on a cell phone, in the middle of Iraq just after the First Gulf War, from inside a fortified bunker.
- In the 2009 film Moon, Sam is able to make video cell-phone calls from the Moon to Earth once he gets past the signal jammers, at least
- Empire Magazine's review of 2012 includes this response to Emmerich's "wilfully ignoring science to keep the plot boiling": "For future reference, sudden continental drift probably will affect your cellphone reception." And even if it doesn't, good luck getting through when literally the whole world is trying to call someone.
- During the finale of the 4th season of Lost Keamy is wearing a heart rate monitor set to transmit a signal to detonate C4 back on his ship should he die. When he dies far undrground at the Orchid station, somehow the transmitter is capable of transmitting through dozens of feet of earth and out to sea to trigger the detonator.
- Artemis Fowl once received a text message in the Arctic. Sent from a laptop inside the Earth. One could speculate that the fairies have set up underground Internet and cell phone service providers... but it was Artemis' own laptop, so it probably ran on a plain old human-run ISP. Then again, it was Gadgeteer Genius Foaly at the keyboard.
- Artemis himself notes that it should have been impossible for him to receive the message. The story adheres more to actual physics when, asked if they can send a reply, Artemis nonchalantly quips, "Certainly. Just give me six months, some specialized equipment and three miles of steel girder." Foaly himself mentions how hard it was to patch into the human networks.
Live Action TV
- In one episode of The X-Files, Mulder makes a cell phone call, while stranded in the middle of a desert inside a boxcar buried underground.
- 24's cell phones can do anything. Anything.
- Subverted for humor in a parody video that claimed to be the "lost pilot" of 24 from 1994:
Jack: Chloe, can you send the schematic to my cell phone?
- In Charmed, cellphones work in the underworld, which is a different dimension. Good reception.
- The Mighty Boosh had one character receiving a phone call on an expedition somewhere in the arctic. We can safely suspend our belief to include it, considering that at the time the expedition, comprised of two zoo-keepers, was trying to defrost the frozen last words of an explorer killed by Jack Frost.
- Some Super Sentai (and, by extension, Power Rangers) series have had cell phones as the Transformation Trinket, and it seems handheld devices with keypads are being used instead of the more wristwatch-like devices of the past more and more. (If you wanna get technical, we've explicitly had phones in Gaoranger/Wild Force and Magiranger/Mystic Force and phone-like devices in Dekaranger/SPD, Boukenger/Operation Overdrive and Go-onger/RPM)
- Note that on Go-onger/RPM, "an Engine Cell" is not the morpher, it's the small card-thingy that goes in the morpher and half of the other gadgets the team uses.
- Kamen Rider Faiz also has cell phones as Transformation Trinkets, but with the additional function of energy guns.
- Naturally, the communicators in Star Trek: The Original Series came before cell phones, but they look much like them (having arguably inspired their modern look), and were often subject to both ends of this trope.
- The writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer purposefully avoided using cell phones, as it would ruin too many of the plots. For the first episode of season 7, they broke down and let Buffy get herself and Dawn cell phones, which work in the school basement (Dawn at least makes an enthusiastic comment). It seems Sunnydale finally got a tower (which nobody complained about before). The phones are rarely seen again.
- The school basement is clearly established as a place where the laws of reality don't quite work right.
- Cordelia had a cell phone in the very first episode (which we never saw again), and Buffy had a pager in one other first season episode.
- The Initiative used pagers to alert their agents; shortly after Buffy joins, she brings a bunch of soldiers to the Bronze, and all their pagers go off at once.
- In the first Story Arc of the second season of Read All About It, the characters have a portable communicator created by an eccentric inventor that's bulky and transmits only text, but has an astounding range that can transmit not only over vast distances, but also into different time periods. It's a handy function to have when you've been whisked to 1812 and you are desperate to contact the coach house in 1983.
- The students, crew, and passengers about the S.S. Tipton in The Suite Life on Deck all seem to have phones that get reception anywhere in the world (including remote locations in developing countries and at sea), are standard models that aren't at all bulky or complex (as one would expect from a satellite phone with such capabilities), and never incur any sort of roaming charges.
- Doctor Who occasionally used the Sonic Screwdriver or other alien tech to give a phone Universal Roaming, allowing them to make a call from anywhere, anywhen to anywhere, anywhen. Without any special dialling code or anything. Possibly justified if they were modified to relay from the TARDIS, which is a sentient, telepathic time machine... in a phone box. Only interference either from Satan or the nearby black hole in "The Impossible Planet" was able to put it out of range.
- Any cell phone can be used to summon The Devil in Reaper, provided that you know his personal cell number. Justified though, as a magic ritual is involved in this procedure. The phone is merely the conduit.
- One of the Relics in the Scion Companion book is the iGjallahar, based on the ancient horn that can summons allies or something. It's a special cell phone that get a signal anywhere because it transmits to a tower in the Overworld.
- Final Fantasy VII had a PHS (Party Hensei System, a pun on Personal Handiphone System) which allowed you to summon your comrades from anywhere—in the middle of the desert, on a mountain, in a cave or underneath a giant metal plate. However, it didn't seem so much cellular as Save Point-ular, and only worked when on one.
- This was also used occasionally as part of the plot: When a character who had lines was not in your party during a scene, you'd hear a ringtone, and then they'd literally phone it in to Cloud.
- In Crisis Core, Zack has access to a far better phone as a member of SOLDIER which allows him to recieve e-mail and shop online and — apparently — fuse materia. And it even continues to work as if the game's four year Time Skip never happened even though Zack himself was out of commission.
- Before Crisis, the other Final Fantasy VII prequel which seems to be mired somewhere between No Export for You and Development Hell as far as an international release is concerned, lets you use your own cellphone to make materia in the game via snapping pictures. The dominant color determines the element and grade of the materia — for example, a majority yellow picture produces Thunder materia.
- City of Heroes cuts both ways. On the one hand, you can get a signal in the sewers, or alternate dimensions, or ancient Rome (this one's Handwaved as being something the Midnight Squad set up). Inside a mission — even one in an outside area of Paragon City — your phone is useless. And there are plenty of times where you have to go talk to someone whose phone number you have, but nooooo, you have to go see them in person — which is sometimes justified as needing to deliver something to them or the person being paranoid and wanting to meet face to face, sometimes not. Conversely, sometimes a McGuffin is given to you over your cellphone.
- In Super Paper Mario, the Queen of the Underworld makes a phone call to the King of Mario's-equivalent-to-Heaven. That's not a normal phone whichever way you look at it.
- Scarface the World Is Yours. Having one of the very first sattelite phones ever, stolen from a rival crimelord, is vital to the plot and many of the gameplay mechanics. It always works, from inside any building to remote island dirt roads. Possibly handwaved in that if you're a millionaire drug kingpin, you can afford the best.
- In Pokemon Heartgold and Soulsilver, the Pokegear's phone can receive or make calls anywhere. Including deep inside Mount Silver, an area so remote that there are only three people in it and the route leading to it, one of whom is the nurse in the Pokemon Center.
- God forbid you enter a battle, conversatio or even a building while your phone is ringing though. Your signal will be instantly cut. It's also seems to cut if you look in your bag, at your Pokemon or Pokedex or save your game.
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja has featured the doctor getting phone reception while traveling through space. He didn't lose his connection until he started atmospheric re-entry.
worsebetter (as commented by the author in alt text) that the other end of the call was in a submarine.
- The Last Days of Foxhound: "I oversee military technology development for the United States. I can get cellphone reception on a submarine."
- Kim Possible's Kimmunicator has never once failed due to signal interference, unless it was deliberately jammed. It works anywhere on Earth or in near-orbit space, even deep underground. According to Wade, it has its own satellite. She has, however, lost it a few times, and when the writers got sick of that plot, they gave her a compact wrist-mounted version.
- At one point, the Kimmunicator sprouts wheels in order to get Kim.
- At another, the Kimmunicator was entered in a robot fighting competition.
- In the Christmas Episode, Drakken's cell phone was able to make calls from the North Pole.
- At one point, the Kimmunicator sprouts wheels in order to get Kim.
- In Phineas and Ferb; the title characters use Candace's cell phone in prehistoric times and on Mars. Candace lampshades this in "Unfair Science Fair Redux" by asking "How is it we have bars here?" on Mars.
- In "Candace Disconnected", Candace's new cell phone is broken and her mother wouldn't buy her a new one because she's already lost so many of them. The last one bought couldn't be used for anything other than making and receiving calls. Phineas and Ferb then built one that could even be used as a teleporting device.
- Double subverted in Transformers Prime. When the kids are stranded in another dimension, they try using a cell phone to call for help, and while the call reaches the Autobots, there's too much interference for it to be legible. They try to get around this problem by sending a text message, which works.
- The candlestick phone Dick Dastardly used to communicate with the General had to be cellular. It appeared in the air sans landline and even as far as Arabia.
- There are special systems for miners which allow to them make calls from deep mines; however they consist of not only the phone itself, but also a set of "picocells", or routing relays placed all over the mine. Many cities have installed similar devices in metro systems and traffic tunnels to ensure continuous cell phone coverage during their citizens' commutes.
- Normal-looking phones communicating with a mobile satellite relay (e.g. on a van).
- External mobile phone antennas and modded internal antennas may extend range significantly.
- There are satellite phones small enough to almost pass for ordinary cellphones these days. Of course they are expensive and their sound quality isn't very good compared to an ordinary cellphone, but you can use them practically anywhere out of doors.
- In Code Geass, the use of cell phones is somewhat prevalent, which makes sense since many characters are High School students. There were several instances in which Shirley was unable to call Lelouch. However, rather than being a technical problem, Lelouch was hiding from the Britannian Army, and thus his ringing phone gave his position away. Naturally, he hangs up his phone as soon as he can (during that incident and when Rivalz tried to call him during the hotel jacking). Suzaku also tries to call Lelouch once (on Shirley's behalf). Cell phones pop up occasionally throughout the series afterwards. One memorable incident, right after the Euphinator incident, had Lelouch answer his phone only to find Euphie's number on the caller ID. Suzaku had used the phone to call Lelouch, suspecting him to be Zero. And the effect was chilling. In season call phones made other occasional appearances, such as when Nunnally talked to Lelouch before she became viceroy. The trope is played with in episode 13. But, instead of the phone not working, Shirley was already beyond saving due to blood loss, with Lelouch having attempted to use her phone to call 911. In the episode following F.L.E.I.J.A., Rivalz calls Lelouch one last time, before Lelouch attempts to "drag the Emperor into Hell with him".
- In Arkham Asylum Living Hell, the asylum's guards have barricaded themselves in a security room. They try to call for backup and begin to panic as "The phone lines have been cut!" The warden calmly asks if any of them have a cellphone. When one of the guards hands him one: "Idiots."
- The movie Cellular is all about the advantages and limitations of a cell phone as it is used to track down a hostage victim.
- In Dead Snow, the characters are stuck high in the mountains in Norway, and when they DO manage to get reception, the emergency dispatcher thinks they're kidding.
- In The Hills Run Red(2009), not only does the cell phone work, but one of the characters mentions that it gets better reception than in the city (makes sense since there are no metal buildings). This unfortunately ends up backfiring when the villain gets a hold of a cell phone and uses it to call one of the other characters.
- In Buried, Ryan Reynolds character manages to make calls to the USA with a mobile phone, while buried in a wooden coffin. In Iraq! He only loses one or two calls to a bad signal, and the battery manages to last the entirety of the film. Of course, since the action never leaves the coffin, he has to be able to call people, otherwise we'd be treated to an hour and half of him gibbering to himself in a pine box.
- Published well into the mobile phone era, Geoph Essex's Lovely Assistant manages to avoid losing, breaking, or generally disabling the cell phones of any characters, who use them for regular communication (and texting, naturally!) like any of us on a daily basis. The lack of non-functionality even puts them into the familiar position of avoiding phone calls from people they don't want to talk to as long as they can, then claiming not to be able to talk. The only instance in the story of a cell phone being "out of commission" is a deliberate choice by the main character, who's seen too many Law & Order episodes and gets paranoid about the police tracking her call. Of course, Jenny's phone is later confiscated by The Dragon, but what else would you do when you capture the hero?
- A hive world, aka an extremely overcrowded planet