What is iMessage?

19 September 2014

New to the iOS operating system? Although there's a lot to take in, one of the coolest and simplest features is Apple's iMessage, which works as an alternative to old-school text messages.

iMessage works between Apple devices - iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch running iOS 5 or higher, and Apple Macs running Mountain Lion software - and is pretty similar to regular text messaging. The big difference is that it uses your device’s data connection to send and receive messages (so through Wi-Fi or cellular data such as 3G or 4G), rather than using your carrier’s network service.

What does it do?

Unlike standard text messaging, iMessage doesn’t cost anything to use, even when sending messages overseas. It does, however, use your data connection, so messages sent and received will come out of your data allowance when not using Wi-Fi (but we stress that text messages don’t use much data at all, so if you pay for your texts iMessage is definitely the cheaper option).

You can use iMessage to send texts, photos, videos, contact and locations to other Apple users, and it can be synced across all your Apple devices if you own more than one. So even if you don’t own an iPhone, you can still send and receive messages from your iPad or iPod Touch if it’s running iOS 5 or higher.

Users can also nominate whether they would like iMessage to automatically revert back to sending an SMS in case of message failure, or toggle between the two options. It’s obvious whether you’ve sent a standard text or an iMessage, as SMS messages are in a green bubble while iMessages are blue.

How to set it up:

All you need to have to set up iMessages is an Apple ID, which most people will set up when they first purchase their iDevice and install iTunes. If you’re already using iO5 or higher, you were probably prompted to turn iMessages on when you first updated or bought your Apple product. But if you need some guidance:

  • Go to Settings and select Messages (this applies to iPads and iPods as well as the iPhone).
  • You may be prompted to enter your Apple ID, or create one if you haven’t already.
  • Slide the iMessage option to On.
  • If you only own an iPhone, you can leave it there. If you want people to send messages to your Apple ID and not just your phone number, or you’re using an iPod or iPad, go to Send and Receive or Received At, depending what operating system you’re running, and enter your Apple ID and any additional address you’d like to be reached at.
  • You can select whether you’d like to enable other options, such as SMS messaging and group messaging (depending on your OS) and if you’d like to show a subject field or the character count.
  • You can also elect if you’d like to enable Read Receipts, meaning whomever you’re messaging will be able to see when you’ve read their last message.

Once you’re all set up, just compose your message as you would normally. If your contact also uses iMessage, your device will figure this out all by itself and switch from an SMS to an iMessage without your prompting. If they don’t, your message will go through as a regular text.

If you’re using an iPad or iPod and enter an address or phone number of someone who doesn’t use iMessage, the name will be highlighted red with an exclamation point and you won’t be able to send them anything (as you can’t send SMS through these devices).


Even for consumers with unlimited texting as part of their plan, iMessage features several benefits. The fact that is automatic and fully integrated into Apple’s OS means that a lot of people who would never download a separate messaging app will use the feature, often without even realising it.

You can add extra email so contacts can use these to reach you via iMessage; messages will all go to your phone and any linked devices, but people won’t need to know your phone number or Apple ID.

This also makes life easier if you’re headed overseas and plan to swap your SIM to an international one to avoid roaming fees - although you’ll have a different phone number, you’ll still receive iMessages sent to your email or Apple ID. And of course, you’ll obviously save on the cost of text messaging back home (assuming you’ve got a good deal on data use, or are using free Wi-Fi).

Small quirks, such as the ability to see if someone has read your message and at what time, and the appearance of a grey ‘thought bubble’ letting you know when someone is composing a reply, are a nice touch when carrying on a long conversation.


If you’re using a jail broken phone (meaning you’ve downloaded software to modify your phone, so that you can install applications that are not released through Apple or the App Store), you may have issues trying to activate iMessage or send messages. There are various solutions to this problem floating around the Internet, although it looks like you may have to try a few different methods to find one that will resolve the issue.

A potential security risk is reports of iMessages going astray between users sharing iTunes accounts, or when moving SIM cards from one phone to another - owners of pre-loved iPhones are finding themselves receiving messages intended for the previous owner.

However, Apple addressed this error back in its iOS 6 update, now forcing users to enter their Apple ID password to use iMessage if any of their ID details change – meaning unless thieves or new owners know your Apple password, they won’t be able to access your messages.

So if your Apple device changes hands, with or without your knowledge or permission, simply change your Apple ID password and the new owner won’t receive any of your iMessages.

What if my friends don't use Apple?

Unlike external third party apps, iMessage is built into Apple’s iPhone normal texting application and can be turned on by default , so it’s easy enough to use even for the less technologically savvy among us.

But if you’re looking for an easy, free way to stay in touch with contacts across all platforms, there are several great messaging apps available that will work across all operating systems.

WhatsApp is probably the most popular – it’s similar to iMessage in that it utilizes your phone’s Wi-Fi or data connection to send and receive messages, but is compatible with iPhones, Android and Windows Phone operated devices, Nokia/Symbian phones and BlackBerrys.

So if you’ve got a lot of contacts who don’t use Apple, it could be a worthwhile download for you and your friends and family – it’s currently free to download and run for the first year, after which a US $0.99 one-time fee will be charged.

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