What is mobile phone penetration?

Mobile phone penetration is a way of measuring mobile phone usage in a particular country. It is usually expressed as the ratio of SIM cards to the total population. 

This information is expressed as a percentage and can therefore exceed 100% if the number of SIM cards in the country is higher than the actual human population. 

For example, by this measure, Hong Kong has a mobile phone penetration rate of 291% – the highest in the world in 2021. 

A more accurate way of measuring how many people in a particular country have a mobile phone is using the stat Unique Subscriber Penetration which is the total number of people in a country that own a mobile phone expressed as a percentage of the total population. This can therefore never be greater than 100%. 

Why does mobile phone penetration rate matter? 

  • Market size: High mobile penetration suggests a sizable potential customer base you can reach through mobile channels. 
  • Marketing and advertising: Mobile penetration rates guide decisions on where to allocate marketing budgets (websites optimized for mobile, SMS campaigns, mobile apps, etc.). 
  • Customer communication: Knowing how widespread mobile usage is helps you determine the best ways to communicate with your customers (text messaging, in-app communication, etc.). 
  • Product and service development: Mobile penetration rates highlight the importance of designing services that are mobile-friendly or even fully mobile-based. 

How to use mobile penetration data?

  • Target your audience: Use mobile penetration rate data alongside customer research to understand how your ideal customers use mobile devices and tailor your offerings accordingly. 
  • Choose the right channels: If a large portion of your target audience is in a region with high mobile penetration, prioritize mobile-specific marketing and communication channels. 
  • Optimize your website: Ensure your website is mobile-responsive and provides a seamless browsing experience on all mobile devices. 
  • Consider mobile apps: If your services can be adapted to a useful mobile app, and there’s high mobile penetration in your market, developing an app could open new customer engagement avenues. 

Which countries have the most mobile phone users? 

As you would expect, countries with a very large population have the most mobile phone users. According to the World Population Review in 2024 the top 10 countries in the list were: 

  • China (1.6 billion) 
  • India (1.3 billion) 
  • Indonesia (385.6 million) 
  • United States (327.6 million) 
  • Brazil (284.2 million) 
  • Russia (256.1 million) 
  • Nigeria (167.4 million) 
  • Bangladesh (165.6 million) 
  • Pakistan (165.4 million)
  • Japan (146.6 million)

Smartphone users and market penetration 

Smartphone users: This refers to the number of individuals worldwide who own and use a smartphone device.  

4.88 billion

smartphone users worldwide

Smartphone subscriptions: This represents the number of active mobile subscriptions specifically tied to smartphones. Since some users have multiple smartphones or SIM cards, this number is often higher than the number of smartphone users. 

7.21 billion

active subscriptions

All phone subscriptions: This is the broadest category, encompassing all active mobile subscriptions, including both traditional feature phones and smartphones. 

8.31 billion

phone subscriptions

Source: Bankmycell

Smartphone adoption in developed vs. developing countries  

A significant gap exists in smartphone adoption rates between developed and developing countries. Developed economies generally have much higher smartphone penetration rates. 

While the gap still exists, smartphone adoption is rising at a much faster pace within developing countries, particularly among younger generations. 

Cost remains a significant barrier, along with limited network infrastructure, literacy rates, and socioeconomic factors. 

Reasons for the difference 

  • Affordability: Smartphones are still generally more expensive in developing countries relative to average income levels. 
  • Infrastructure: Robust mobile network infrastructure (like 4G or 5G coverage) is less widespread in many developing nations. 
  • Digital literacy: Lower literacy rates and less digital literacy can be a barrier to smartphone adoption in some developing countries. 
  • Content and relevance: The availability of apps and services in local languages along with content tailored to specific cultural needs plays a role in adoption. 

The gap between developed and developing nations is expected to continue narrowing as smartphone costs decline and infrastructure advances. 

Economic growth in developing nations increases affordability and disposable income, driving up adoption rates. 

Many governments in developing countries are investing in programs and policies to expand digital access and improve digital literacy. 

Feb 27th, 2024
3 min read

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