5 alternative (and easier) ways to unlock your Android phone

You can set your Android phone to unlock itself when it's in your pocket, while you're near a certain location, when it hears your voice, and more.

5 other (and easier) ways to unlock your Android phone
Credit: Ben Patterson

There has to be an easier way for your Android phone to know it’s you besides a passcode, a PIN, or a pattern lock, right? A fingerprint reader is a good start, but they still have a way of failing even when you swipe your fingertip perfectly on the sensor, thus returning you to the need to enter a PIN or swipe pattern to unlock your own device.

The good news is that Android boasts a series of clever ways of unlocking your device without passcodes, patterns, or fingertip swipes. For example, the latest Android handsets can keep themselves unlocked while they’re riding in your pocket. You can also set Android to recognize your face, or your voice. Last but not least, your Android phone can unlock itself whenever you’re home, at work, or near a “trusted” device, like your Bluetooth car radio or an NFC sticker.

Note: I tested the following settings on a Nexus 5X running on Android version 7.1.2; the settings on your handset may differ depending on its make and model, or the version of Android you have installed.

Keep your phone unlocked while it’s in your pocket

You were just tapping on your Android phone a minute ago, you slipped it back in your pocket or in your purse, and now you need your phone for one more thing. You pull out your handset, and ugh—you need to unlock it yet again.

Keep your phone unlocked while it’s in your pocket Ben Patterson

Android’s “on-body detection” feature will keep your phone unlocked while it’s riding in your pocket, a purse, or anytime when it’s on you.

You can save yourself the trouble of unlocking your Android phone when it’s never left your side by setting your handset to stay unlocked whenever it’s on you. Basically, that means that if your Android device (with help from its motion detectors) senses that it’s in your pocket, riding in your purse, or otherwise in your possession, it’ll leave its screen unlocked. Once you put your phone down on, say, a countertop or a side table, Android will lock down everything after a minute or so.

Here’s how you do it: Tap Settings > Security > Smart Lock, confirm your screen lock, tap On-body detection, then flip the On switch.

Note: In case you’re wondering: Yes, the on-body detection setting could leave your phone vulnerable to a thief who grabs your phone out of your hand, or a pickpocket who lifts your handset from your purse. Indeed, most of the “smart lock” settings I’m about to cover have their own pitfalls and vulnerabilities, so if you’re really paranoid about security, you might want to stick with a PIN, a passcode, or touch ID.

Keep your phone unlocked at home, at work, or near another specific place

There’s no place like home—and, hopefully, there’s no place as safe as home, either. If you’re confident your phone can remain safely unlocked while you’re inside your four walls, there’s a “smart lock” setting you should try.

Keep your phone unlocked at home, at work, or near another specific place Ben Patterson

You can set your Android phone to keep itself unlocked while you’re at home, work, or near another location.

Tap Settings > Security > Smart Lock > Trusted places, then tap Add location. You can then pick a place—like, say, your home—by swiping on the map with your finger, or tap the Search button to search for an address.

Once you’ve picked one or more “trusted” places, your Android phone will stay unlocked whenever you’re within a city block or so of the addresses you’ve selected—pretty handy if you’re living alone or you work at an office with trustworthy colleagues. Then again, if you’re sharing space with a curious toddler or your office culture is akin to Game of Thrones, Android’s “trusted places” feature might not be for you.

Bonus tip: Generally speaking, I recommend only enabling one “smart lock” setting at a time; turning them all on at once might leave your phone a tad too vulnerable for comfort.

Keep your phone unlocked near a ‘trusted’ device

If leaving your Android handset unlocked within a block of your home sounds like too big of an area, there’s a clever way to considerably narrow that range.

Keep your phone unlocked near a Ben Patterson

You can designate anything from a Bluetooth speaker to an NFC sticker as a “trusted” device for Android’s “smart lock” feature.

Android’s “trusted device” setting will leave your phone unlocked whenever it’s in range of a “trusted” Bluetooth device, like a Bluetooth speaker, headset, or car stereo. Bluetooth transmission can still have a pretty decent range—anywhere from 30 to 100 yards, depending on the device, nearby interference, and other factors—but that’s still smaller than a whole city block.

If 30 yards still sounds like too large an area in which to keep your phone unlocked, you can zoom in even further by using an NFC sticker as your “trusted” device. NFC (short for “near field communications”) signals only have a range of about 20 centimeters, meaning your phone would instantly lock itself once it wandered less than a foot from a “trusted” NFC sticker. Since NFC stickers are relatively cheap (you can get a 10-pack for about $12 or so), you could affordably put multiple stickers around the house—like, say, near your PC, on your bedside table, or anywhere else you regularly place your phone.

To set up a trusted device, tap Settings > Smart Lock > Trusted devices, then tap Add trusted device.

Unlock your phone with your face

So far, the “smart lock” methods we’ve covered only use circumstantial evidence—like proximity to your home address, or the motion of riding in a pocket—to deduce that you’re you. But here’s the first of two “smart lock” modes that actually try to identify you, in this case by looking with the camera lens and matching your face with a previously scanned-in portrait.

Unlock your phone with your face Ben Patterson

Android’s “trusted face” feature will work better if you take multiple scans of your mug.

To get started, tap Settings > Security > Smart Lock > Trusted face, then tap Set Up. Your Android phone will then scan your face, essentially taking a mugshot that it can use for comparison’s sake. A single face scan is enough to turn on the “trusted face” feature, but you can (and should) scan your face more times—ideally with different lighting, or with your glasses (if you wear them) both on and off.

Once that’s done, lock your phone, face the screen and press the “wake” button—and if all goes well, your Android phone should recognize you and unlock itself.

Unlock your phone with your voice

Another way your Android phone can recognize you is by listening rather than looking. Specifically, you can set your phone to listen for the sound of your voice.

Unlock your phone with your voice Ben Patterson

Once your Android phone knows your voice, you can say “OK Google” to unlock your handset without even touching it.

Tap Settings > Security > Smart Lock > Trusted voice, then follow the prompts to set your Android device to unlock itself when it hears you say “OK Google.” If you haven’t already, you’ll need to “train” your phone to recognize your voice by saying “OK Google” three times.

All set? Lock your phone, then say “OK Google.” A “Listening...” prompt will appear on the screen; you can either go ahead and say a voice command, or tap to dismiss the prompt and swipe up to jump to the home screen.

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