I'll level with you. There's no one best texting app. Unless you need one or two specific features, the best text message app will be the one that the people you want to text also use. Depending on where you are in the world, that can be iMessage, WhatsApp, Viber, LINE, or even SMS.
But if, for whatever reason, you do have a choice of which messaging app you can use—or you can convince the people you want to message to switch—these are the five best texting apps to choose from.
The 5 best texting apps
WhatsApp for most people
Viber for an alternative to WhatsApp
Telegram for logging in from multiple devices
Signal for security
Facebook Messenger for contacting anyone
What makes a great texting app?
How we evaluate and test apps
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As a child of the '90s, I've been sending text messages as long as wide-spread, affordable cell phones have been a thing (and, if I'm honest, a year or two before then). I've also used text messaging apps for professional reasons—both to communicate with my remote colleagues and to review the apps themselves.
I still believe the best texting app is normally the one people will actually reply to you with. If that's SMS or smoke signals, you have my full permission to use it. So when it came to putting together this list, that freed me up to be pretty strict about the requirements for inclusion. Neither iMessage, SMS, nor Android Messages made this list. Nor did whatever Google is calling its latest messaging foray. The big reason to use any of those apps is that your friends do.
If, however, you're starting a friend group, desert island colony, or fan club from scratch and you get to pick the tools you use, this is what you should be looking for in messaging apps:
Availability on both iPhone and Android. And ideally on desktop too. We don't want any green bubble/blue bubble drama here. Text messaging should be about the person, not the device.
Privacy and security. Do you know who can read your SMS messages? Pretty much everyone. The best chat apps all have end-to-end encryption enabled by default, or at a stretch, allow you to quickly turn it on. There are a handful of circumstances where end-to-end encryption isn't appropriate, like with public group messaging and some kinds of business communications; but across the board, I favored services that cared about security and privacy.
No price tag. The best text apps are all free to use. Part of this is because most people aren't prepared to pay for them, but it's also because large corporations actually make surprisingly decent apps sometimes. It also helps that it's easier to convince your friends to sign up for a new service if they don't have to pay.
Support for pictures, video, and other multimedia. Text messages are no longer 140 characters long (at least if you're not using SMS). They can be long essays, but also photos, GIFs, voice notes, YouTube links, documents, and lots of other forms of multimedia. If you want to send something over text message, you should be able to—at least as long as it's digital.
Support for group chat. A lot of text messaging doesn't happen one-to-one. For a free chat app to make this list, it had to be able to support group messaging. To be honest, this requirement didn't exclude many apps as it's a very common feature, but I still felt it needed to be stated.
Texting apps use an internet connection to send and receive messages. This is different from SMS, which uses your carrier's own protocols to send and receive messages anywhere with a cellular connection (even a weak one, with no data). While SMS messages cost money—either on a per-message basis or included with your cellular plan—the messages sent through data-only texting apps will all be free (even if the app itself is not).
To put together this list, I tested more than 30 different apps. A lot fell short because they didn't meet the criteria above or because they were just unpleasant to use. I spent time testing and texting in any app that looked like it could be a candidate for inclusion—plus, as I've already said, this is a category I have a lot of experience with, so I'd already spent a lot of time in each of these apps in the past.
And now, on to the apps.
Best texting app for most people
WhatsApp (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web)
WhatsApp is the undisputed ruler of free mobile messaging in much of the world. Launched in 2009 as a way to send messages over a data connection rather than SMS, WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014. Since then, the service has grown both its feature set and user base. As of 2022, it has around two billion daily users, and it's easy to see why: it's a shockingly decent service.
The app is a fully-featured messaging client that supports text chats, as well as photos, short videos, and voice messaging. There's a status feature that allows you to share an Instagram-like story with your contacts. You can also send files (up to 2GB in size) to other users on WhatsApp. Chats take the form of one-on-one interactions with other WhatsApp users or group chats of up to 512 participants.
Despite being the most popular messaging service in the world and being owned by Facebook parent company Meta, WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption enabled for all conversations. Everything you send, including file transfers, is fully encrypted. Encrypted messages are even removed from WhatsApp's servers once they're delivered.
WhatsApp has a distinctive look and feel. Its signature double tick next to each message indicates that a message has been sent (one checkmark) and delivered (two checkmarks). When the two ticks turn blue, you know that the recipient has read your message too. You can further customize your experience by changing the chat wallpaper under the app's settings, renaming groups, and setting custom alerts on a per-chat basis.
WhatsApp users can place free voice and video calls to other users of the service. Group calls can be made with up to 32 people, and all communication is secured with the same end-to-end encryption. You can also download WhatsApp desktop apps for Windows and Mac, or access the service via a browser at web.whatsapp.com, although in all cases, your smartphone still needs to be on.
All in all, WhatsApp ticks pretty much every box.
WhatsApp price: Free
Best WhatsApp alternative
Viber (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)
Talk to individuals or create a group chat with up to 250 participants, where you can share instant voice and video messages without having to make a call. It's perfect for when you're too busy to talk and too lazy to type. While many other apps include voice messaging (like WhatsApp, above), Viber makes it just as easy to send a video message for a more personal touch. Plus, GIFs and stickers are built into your chats to help liven up conversations.
End-to-end encryption is standard in all Viber one-on-one and group chats. Channels and Communities, however, aren't end-to-end encrypted (as it would then be impossible for new members to see the chat history). It's a small security sacrifice in the name of offering a better service. In addition to free voice and video calling to other Viber users, a service called Viber Out enables you to call any mobile or landline in the world as much as you like for $5.99 per month. It's like Skype, except with better security practices and a nicer smartphone app.
Viber uses an understated, minimal design with an optional dark mode available under the app's Appearance menu. Chats and calls are delegated to separate tabs, with Viber's non-essential features (like the Sticker Market) placed on a separate third tab. If a chat gets too rowdy, you can swipe left and choose to mute or snooze it. If you have an important conversation you'd like to keep handy, you can pin it.
Viber also offers Communities—essentially large group chats with strangers that you can join or start. These public chats can have an unlimited number of members and feature robust controls for admins to moderate their chats: manage who's in the group and who can post, or change the Community's look and feel with a new background and group description. You can find Communities based on things like location, hobbies, and favorite teams. Think Reddit, but more like a group chat.
Where Viber falls a touch short is in the busyness of the whole app. With sticker stores, all the different kinds of chats, and even the occasional ad, it's a less fulfilling experience than WhatsApp—especially if you aren't making use of its unique features like Viber Out.
Viber price: Free
The best texting app for logging in from multiple devices
Telegram (iOS, Android, Web, Mac, Windows, Linux)
Telegram was one of the original messaging apps that emphasized the importance of security, although it takes a slightly different approach to end-to-end encryption so that it can store your conversations on its servers. This allows you to log in from multiple devices, which you can't do with either WhatsApp or Viber. Although both of those services offer a desktop app, they're still sending and receiving all your messages through your phone. If it's off or not around, you can't log in, whereas with Telegram, you can.
You can use Telegram to make voice and video calls, and send text messages, photos, videos, and files to other Telegram users. You can even create group chats with a whopping 200,000 participants or channels with an unlimited number of subscribers.
If you want end-to-end encryption, you can enable it with Telegram's Secret Chats feature: start a new message, then choose New secret chat from the menu. (Alternatively, make a voice call.) For texts, you can also set self-destruct timers for any secret messages you send so that they won't hang around once they've served their purpose. Secret chats aren't stored in the cloud like regular chats. But even your regular chats in Telegram are encrypted, stored on the server, then decrypted when they're downloaded. This gives you the option of choosing between highly secure messaging and a more convenient, slightly less secure option. You can use both interchangeably, as you see fit.
Telegram's supergroups (the ones with up to 200,000 members) and channels, where you can broadcast one-way messages to an unlimited audience, are, in my experience, a touch more popular than Viber's alternatives. Some channels have millions of members—although I can't speak to the quality of the crypto-content in lots of them.
Finally, Telegram has an open API, which means users are free to build their own unofficial apps for use with the service. This has given birth to projects like Unigram, a Windows 10-optimized third-party client, and a command line version of Telegram for Linux users.
Telegram price: Free
Best texting app for security
Signal (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux)
Signal is one of the cleanest-looking texting apps—almost everything is kept to a single screen. Other than selecting from one of three themes or choosing a background, there's little in the way of customization available. It's frequently recommended as a WhatsApp alternative; while chatting, you'll even notice WhatsApp-style double ticks to denote message status. Signal also includes free one-on-one voice and video calling to other Signal users. These chats are end-to-end encrypted just like other messages sent via the app.
You can send text, photos, videos, documents, and voice messages to individual or group conversations, but unlike with WhatsApp, you can have up to 1,000 people in a group. The app uses end-to-end encryption to secure all messages sent via the service, with the option of setting expiration dates for each conversation. Once your messages expire, they're no longer recoverable. There's also a handy "Note to Self" contact for you to store your thoughts.
You can download a desktop app for Windows, Mac, and Linux to bring the full suite of Signal features to your computer too. And on Android, Signal can even replace your stock SMS app. This allows you to send Signal messages and regular SMS messages to non-Signal users from a single interface. (This doesn't work for iOS users on account of how messaging works in the Apple ecosystem.)
Signal is great if you want security and simplicity. There are no bells and whistles—it's just encrypted texting and calling.
Signal price: Free
Best texting app for contacting anyone
Facebook Messenger (iOS, Android, Web)
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need a Facebook account to use Facebook Messenger. The company only requires you to sign up with a phone number to talk to anyone else using the service. If you do already have a Facebook account, you can jump straight in and message any of your Facebook friends (and other Facebook users) who've signed up for Messenger.
The app includes all the basic messaging and calling features you'd expect—and some you probably won't. Send texts to individuals or groups of up to 250 people, and react to messages with stickers, GIFs, and emoji. Make voice and video calls to your friends and family. You can send voice messages, photos, and videos, or capture your own media using Messenger Camera and its fun Snapchat-like filters. You can post photos to your Messenger Story (or crosspost them from your Instagram Story). You can even create Zoom-like group video chats called Rooms for up to 50 people. There's a lot there, and this is actually a leaner, more stripped-down version of Messenger than it was a few years ago.
Facebook has no end-to-end encryption by default (and almost didn't make this list because of it). But if you tap on your contact's name in any conversation and select Go to Secret Conversation, you'll enable encryption on both ends. You probably won't do this for every conversation, but if there are some chats you want to keep particularly protected, it's an option.
Because your regular conversations aren't private, Facebook is able to scan all the images sent through Messenger to see if they've been flagged as child abuse materials, and Facebook has used message scanning in the past to quell sensationalist messages designed to incite harm or unrest. The company claims they do not scan your private conversations for advertising purposes.
What Messenger lacks in security and privacy, it makes up for with its ubiquity. More than a third of the world's population uses Facebook every month. That's wild. If you want to contact an old school friend, a local business, or your partner's parents, you can probably do it using Messenger. It's a serious feature that no other texting app can match.
Facebook Messenger Price: Free
Which texting app should you choose?
Text message apps aren't really about the app—they're about the people you're connecting with. If you can convince your friends and family to use one of our top picks like WhatsApp or Signal, go right for it. Lay out the reasons that you—and I—feel it's safer, more secure, or more convenient than whatever they're already using, and see if they'll make the switch.
But if they insist on only using iMessage, I'd suggest you park your interoperability concerns and stay in contact.
This article was originally published in June 2019 by Timothy Brookes.