What is OnStar and How Does it Work?

GM's telematics system has evolved considerably over the last 25 years.

Person about to click OnStar button in GM car on highwayGeneral Motors

Article QuickTakes:

In a time before Siri and Alexa, when cellphones were plastic bricks and only 22% of U.S. residents were users of a thing called the World Wide Web, General Motors led the way in connecting vehicles remotely with the OnStar system. More than a quarter century since its introduction, OnStar remains popular, even in the era of vehicle-connected services and infotainment systems.

Let's learn more about what OnStar is and what it offers users today.

A Brief History of OnStar

GM debuted OnStar at the 1996 Chicago Auto Show, and it would hit the market in most 1997 Cadillac models as a telematics system, a precursor to contemporary connected cars. As cell phones were still relatively rare, OnStar's primary function was to serve in case of emergencies. With a touch, the driver could have doors locked or unlocked remotely or connect with an OnStar operator in case of an accident. If a vehicle's airbags were deployed in an accident, OnStar automatically connected an operator to aid as needed.

OnStar wasn't only useful in accidents. Its constant read on a vehicle's location not only made it useful in case of theft, but it also meant operators could possibly provide navigation guidance or recommend restaurants and hotels. OnStar functioned like an app long before apps were even a concept.

As OnStar's availability in GM vehicles expanded, so did its use. By early 2002, there were more than a million OnStar members, with that number eclipsing two million by the end of that year. Today, any 2015 or newer GM vehicle offers drivers the chance to try OnStar on a trial basis, while some models recently have made an OnStar subscription standard equipment—at a cost. Also, anyone who wants OnStar can get it regardless of what they drive, thanks to the OnStar Guardian app.

How Much Does OnStar Cost?

Beyond any trial subscription, OnStar service suites start at $24.99 per month for the basic Connected Vehicle plan and range up to the $49.99 Premium tier. Options such as unlimited data cost up to $25 more per month. The more options you add, the closer you are to adding an extra $100 to your monthly bills. The OnStar Guardian app is included with some plans and runs $15 per month as a standalone subscription.

Recently, GM has moved to make a three-year OnStar subscription standard in the new Cadillac Escalade, along with some Buick and GMC models, including it as a mandatory "option" for as much as $1,675 on top of the vehicle's base price. The move has sparked some controversy, but expect similar changes to other GM models down the line, perhaps with an adjusted base price rather than a separate charge.

How Do You Cancel OnStar?

OnStar cannot be canceled online; you’ll have to call OnStar's 888 number to cancel service. You can also simply push the blue OnStar button in your vehicle to be connected with someone to help you. OnStar services auto renew every 30 days. You might be refunded on a prorated basis for any charges made to the account for the previous 30 days from your cancellation.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
author photo
James Tate
James Tate has been writing about cars professionally for 15 years and he remains obsessed with them. He enjoys digging into the incredible technology of new vehicles as much as he likes the tactility and the driving experience of yesterday’s cars. He has written for a variety of legacy automotive magazines and websites.