What you need to know about waterproof phones

Alex Kidman 7 October 2016


Water is a mobile phone’s arch enemy, but not every phone is waterproof. Here is what you need to know to keep your phone running even if it does get overly moist.

Taking your smartphone with you everywhere is kind of the point; they’re pocket-sized computers that keep you informed and in touch. The problem with having a pocket sized computer everywhere is that sometimes it rains. Sometimes you drop your smartphone in the bath, or the pool, or (gasp) in the toilet. We won’t judge, but the reality is that electronics and water don’t often mix well.

What if I've just dropped my phone into water?

If you're facing that particular stressful scenario, there are a few key things you can try to coax your phone back to life, but there are very few guarantees, because water and electronics do not mix well together.

The first step is to power down your phone if it's not already off. If you have a phone with a removable battery, pull it as fast as you can to be sure.

The next step is to allow time for as much water to exit the phone body as possible before trying to use it again. While there are commercially available products that attract water into a sleeve or pocket around a phone, the old low-tech way is to drop it into a small bag of rice and leave it for a period of at least 48 hours before trying to switch your phone back on. As noted, there are no guarantees at all, but given that, it's worth the price of a small bag of rice to try.

Ouch! That was expensive and stressful! What can I do in the future about my phone and water?

Not dropping your phone in water is a good start. A few light drops of rain shouldn’t be a problem, but an outright soaking, and especially immersion is very problematic.

There have been a few notable runs of premium smartphones that came with inbuilt waterproofing measures, so you've got some choices to make. The latest iPhone model, the iPhone 7 is called "water resistant" by Apple, but it's IP67 rated, so should stand accidental immersion. The same is true for Samsung's Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, the LG G6Sony's Xperia XZ Premium and even Alcatel's low-cost Go Play smartphone.

What is an IP rating?

IP ratings (or fully expanded, Ingress Protection) ratings quantify to what extent electrical devices are enclosed against material ingress; specifically intrusion for the first number and water for the second.

The rundown of how water ingress is treated for its IP rating breaks down as follows:

LevelProtected againstEffective againstDetails
0Not protected
1Dripping waterDripping water (vertically falling drops) shall have no harmful effect.Test duration: 10 minutes Water equivalent to 1 mm rainfall per minute
2Dripping water when tilted up to 15°Vertically dripping water shall have no harmful effect when the enclosure is tilted at an angle up to 15° from its normal position.Test duration: 10 minutes
Water equivalent to 3 mm rainfall per minute
3Spraying waterWater falling as a spray at any angle up to 60° from the vertical shall have no harmful effect.Test duration: 5 minutes
Water volume: 0.7 litres per minute
Pressure: 50–150 kPa
4Splashing of waterWater splashing against the enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effect.Test duration: 5 minutes
Water volume: 10 litres per minute
Pressure: 50–150 kPa
5Water jetsWater projected by a nozzle (6.3 mm) against enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effects.Test duration: at least 3 minutes
Water volume: 12.5 litres per minute
Pressure: 30 kPa at distance of 3 m
6Powerful water jetsWater projected in powerful jets (12.5 mm nozzle) against the enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effects.Test duration: at least 3 minutes
Water volume: 100 litres per minute
Pressure: 100 kPa at distance of 3 m
6KPowerful water jets with increased pressureWater projected in powerful jets (6.3 mm nozzle) against the enclosure from any direction, under elevated pressure, shall have no harmful effects.Test duration: at least 3 minutes
Water volume: 75 litres per minute
Pressure: 1000 kPa at distance of 3 m
7Immersion up to 1 mIngress of water in harmful quantity shall not be possible when the enclosure is immersed in water under defined conditions of pressure and time (up to 1 m of submersion).Test duration: 30 minutes
Tested with the lowest point of the enclosure 1000 mm below the surface of the water, or the highest point 150 mm below the surface, whichever is deeper.
8Immersion beyond 1 mThe equipment is suitable for continuous immersion in water under conditions which shall be specified by the manufacturer. However, with certain types of equipment, it can mean that water can enter but only in such a manner that it produces no harmful effects.Test duration: continuous immersion in water
Depth specified by manufacturer, generally up to 3 m
9KPowerful high temperature water jetsProtected against close-range high pressure, high temperature spray downs.Test duration: -
Water volume: 14–16 litres per minute
Pressure: [8000–10000 kPa / 80–100 Bar] at distance of 0.1–0.15 m
Water temperature: 80 °C

So using the Sony Xperia Z5 as an example, it is rated as IP68. That 6 is its solid object rating (in this case, 6 meaning that it is dust tight) and its rating of 8 in the second IP column means that it can survive continuous immersion in water.

Understanding IP limitations

Many folk presume that once they’ve got a "waterproof" phone they can do what they like with it, whether it’s a bit of bathtime Twitter or taking your phone for a quick surf.

That can be a fatal error for one simple reason. IP ratings are based on immersion in clean water in laboratory conditions.

They don't cover hot water, or soap, or chlorine, or salt water, or anything else you might find polluting your water supply.

The addition of those elements can entirely void any waterproofing measures on a given device, and if they’re detected as having been present if you make a warranty claim on a device that’s failed while immersed, the vendor may be able to knock back your warranty claim.

What about waterproofing treatments?

There are a number of treatments available that offer waterproofing style treatments, but we’d suggest treading very carefully where they’re concerned. Most will simply add a layer of water resistance to a phone rather than full on waterproofing, and if anything goes wrong with the treatment you may find yourself in the difficult position where the manufacturer of the treatment won’t or can’t offer warranty support and neither does the vendor due to the treatment affecting internal components in some unknown way.

This could be the case even if you hit a problem that’s not related to immersion in water depending on how your phone reacts to the coating.

What about waterproof phone cases?

There are a number of available cases for popular models -- predominantly iPhones or devices in the Samsung Galaxy family -- that offer both water and drop resistance features. These typically involve heavily sealing your phone within the confines of a rigid case that locks down tight around every possible entry point for water.

They’re a good match if you know you’re going to regularly have your phone in harsh environments including water-heavy places, although again their warranties will only cover you for the cost of the case in the event of a failure, rather than the whole phone itself in most cases.

Most of these cases also make it harder to use some features such as 3.5mm headphone jacks or fingerprint sensors depending on the way that the case has been constructed.

If you're looking for a good waterproof phone, here are plans for some of the most popular waterproof models on plans.

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