How to Use the iPhone Messages App: The Ultimate Guide

Learn how to master the Messages app on iOS

By Abigail Shilets - Staff Writer
10 Min Read

Text-messaging apps are the most-used apps on smartphones worldwide—and they’re getting more powerful all the time. And no wonder: Besides texts, you can send photos, videos, animations, stickers, music, and more. Apple’s text messaging app is called Messages, and it’s built into every iOS device and every Mac. In this guide, we’ll show you several tips and tricks that can help you unlock the full potential of Messages app on your iPhone. Here’s what you need to know.

Understand Core Messages Concepts

SMS stands for Short Message Service, which is the formal name for the technology used for text messaging. It’s a way to send short messages from one phone to another.

MMS stands for Multimedia Messaging Service. Whenever you send a text with an attached file, like a picture, video, emoji, or a website link, you’re sending an MMS.

Both SMS and MMS messages are sent over cellular network. SMS and MMS messages aren’t encrypted and appear in green text bubbles on your device.

iMessages are texts, photos, or videos that you send to another iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac over Wi-Fi or cellular-data networks. These messages are always encrypted and appear in blue text bubbles. It also supports features like editing and unsending messages, Apple Pay, tapback responses, and stickers.

iMessage isn’t just tied to your phone number—you can associate it with other phone numbers and even email addresses. The downside is that it works only with other iMessage users—when you send a message to someone who doesn’t use iMessage, it falls back to SMS and MMS.

Here are the fundamentals of using Messages:

  • Turn iMessage on or off: Go to Settings > Messages and toggle on the switch next to iMessage.
  • Set send and receive addresses: Go to Settings > Messages > Send & Receive, then choose from the available options below “You can receive iMessages to and reply from.”

  • Share your name and photo: You can choose to share a specific name and avatar photo with contacts in Settings > Messages > Share Name and Photo. This changes how you appear to other iMessage users.

  • Turn Enable or disable Send read receipts: When you receive a text message on your iPhone, you can let the sender know you’ve looked at it by enabling read receipts. These can be helpful when you don’t want to keep the other person in suspense wondering if you’ve seen their text. Otherwise, senders see “Delivered.” Go to Settings > Messages and turn the switch for Send Read Receipts On or Off.

  • Consider Messages in the Cloud: The iMessage to iCloud setting stores all your iMessages in iCloud. The downside is that messages take up space in your iCloud quota. The upside is that since they’re no longer included in iCloud backups, this feature will probably save you iCloud space. Also, your messages sync more reliably and if you delete a message on one device, it disappears from all of them. You can turn on syncing iMessage to iCloud in Settings > Your Name > iCloud > Show All > Messages. You can track your available iCloud storage space in Settings > Your Name > iCloud.

Send a Message

Messages offers you numerous ways to send messages, all the way from simple text messages to voice messages, video messages, hand-drawn messages—you name it.

Start a Simple Message

Let’s start with the basics. To create a message on your iPhone:

  • Open the Messages app, then tap the Compose button.
  • Start typing a contact name, email address, or phone number in the To field. You can keep typing or tap to accept a suggestion.

  • Type in your note in the message field and hit the Send button.

Once a message thread is created, tap it in Messages to open it, tap the message field, and type your message as described above.

Undo Send in Messages

Accidental messages happen way too often. Maybe you tapped the send button when you meant to select an emoji. Or perhaps you messaged the wrong person entirely. In either case, you can unsend a message within two minutes of sending it. But there’s a catch: it only works if the recipient is running at least iOS 16, iPadOS 16, or macOS 13 Ventura. It also only works with iMessage, not “green bubble” SMS messages.

To unsend an iMessage, touch and hold it in the chat window and tap Undo Send. The text then disappears on the recipient’s end with a notice that you unsent a message.

Edit Messages

Instead of unsending a message entirely, you can edit a text that you’ve already sent in case you need to fix a typo. You can edit the message for up to 15 minutes after sending it, so don’t delay if you spot an error,. You can edit a message up to five times. To edit a message, press down on the sent text and select Edit from the menu. Fix the mistake and then tap the checkmark to send the corrected version.

After you’ve edited the message, “Edited” appears in blue text under the edited message. Your or the recipient can tap Edited to see the edit history of the message.

Use Emojis in Messages

Emojis are fun, but digging through the emoji picker isn’t. The QuickType bar suggests emojis as you type. Tap one of the suggestions to replace the current word with that emoji.

Add Bubble and Screen Effects

Messages lets you add bubble and screen effects, which are fun little animations to pep up the conversation and draw attention. Bubble effects affect just the message bubble while screen effects are displayed all over the conversation.

  • To view effects, touch and hold the Send button.
  • To preview bubble effects: Tap the gray dot.

  • Use Screen Effects: Swipe left or right to switch between screen effect previews. Tap the Send button.

Reply with Tapback

With Tapback, you can quickly reply to messages with expressions, like a thumbs up or a heart.

  • Open a conversation in Messages.
  • Double-tap the message bubble or photo that you want to respond to.

  • Select the Tapback that you want to send.

You can also use Tapback in group messages. To see who replied with a Tapback, tap it.

Reply to a Specific Message

Sometimes your Messages conversations go all over the place, and it’s helpful to reply to a specific message in the thread to clarify which message you’re responding to.

To respond to a specific message, press down on it and tap Reply. More easily, just swipe the message to the right.

You can then type your response in the Reply field and send the text. The other person will then see your direct reply.

Delete and Recover Messages

You can delete individual messages in a conversation:

  • Touch and hold a message bubble in a conversation until the contextual menu appears.
  • Tap More.

  • Select the messages you want to delete.

  • Tap the delete button.

  • Tap Delete x Messages.

To delete an entire conversation, tap the Back button to return to the conversation list, then do one of the following:

  • Swipe left on the conversation, then tap the Delete button.
  • Touch and hold the conversation, then tap Delete.

After deleting a Messages thread, you can recover it by tapping Edit in the Messages conversation list and then Show Recently Deleted. Select the deleted thread and then tap Recover. You can also tap Recover All to restore all deleted message threads. You have 30 days to recover deleted messages.

Search Messages

To search messages:

  • Swipe down from the list of conversations in the Messages app to reveal the search field.

Tapping the Search field reveals many things, like:

  • Recent contacts
  • Pinned messages

  • Files and folders you’re collaborating on

  • Shared links

  • Photos

  • Locations

  • Documents

You can tap See All next to an entry to view all attachments of that type.

Likewise, searching in Messages brings up messages with your search term, along with matching attachments. Messages also searches for text in your photos. Tap a message in the search results to open that conversation to that particular message.

Make Your Contact Poster

Contact Posters are a new feature of iOS 17 consisting of:

  • Your photo
  • Your name

  • Text styled to your preference

Contact Posters are primarily used for phone calls between iOS users. When the other person’s phone rings, they’ll see your Contact Poster. It’s also used for AirDrop and Messages.

You may have been prompted to set up a Contact Poster when installing iOS 17, but if not, here’s how to set it up or change it later. It’s a little hidden:

  • Go to Settings > Messages > Share Name and Photo.
  • Tap the first button, which is called either Choose Photo or Edit (which one you see depends on whether or not you have a Contact Poster set up with a photo). This takes you into the Contact Poster editor.

  • In the Contact Poster editor, you can do one of three things:

    • Tap the add button.
    • Tap an entry to set it as your Contact Poster. Swipe left or right to swipe between them.

    • Tap Customize under an existing Contact Poster to edit it.

Here’s how to create a Contact Poster after tapping the add button:

  • Choose an image for your Contact Photo. This is not necessarily part of your Contact Poster, but is used as your personal icon for iMessage and other apps. Your Contact Photo can be one of:
    • A photo from the Camera
    • An existing photo from your library

    • A Memoji

    • A monogram of your initials

    • An emoji

  • Tap Choose to set your selected image as your Contact Photo.

  • Choose an optional filter for your Contact Photo and tap Next or just tap Next.

  • iOS displays a Contact Poster it automatically generated. If you’re happy with it, tap Skip to move on. Otherwise, you have two options to change it:

    • Update: Keep your Contact Poster photo the same as your Contact Photo, but edit text and effects.
    • Choose a Different Poster: Choose another image for your Contact Poster before editing text and effects.

  • After choosing a photo, you can select from different filters. Tap Next.

  • Once you’re on the screen to edit your Contact Poster, you’re given various options to play with. Here are some things you can do:

    • Tap your name to reveal a panel that shows a panel that lets you choose font, thickness, and color.
    • For a photo, swipe left and right to change photo filters.

    • For a Memoji Contact Poster, tap the Memoji icon.

  • After choosing your image, you’re shown a preview of the Contact Poster.

  • When you’re satisfied with your Contact Poster, tap Done and then Continue to set it as your default Contact Poster.

Contact Posters in iOS 17  

Use iMessage Apps

Developers can create apps for iMessage—it even has its own App Store.

  • To access apps in Messages, open a conversation and tap the plus button to the left of the text field.
  • Swipe up on the iMessage app list to reveal more apps.

Apple has a number of built-in iMessage apps you should know about:

  • Camera: This lets you take a photo or video and insert it directly into a message.
  • Photos: Use this to insert photos from your Photos library into a message.

  • Stickers: This lets you drag and drop stickers directly into Messages conversations. Many App Store apps include stickers; see Create Custom Stickers to learn how to make them from your photos.

  • Cash: If you have an Apple Pay-compatible credit or debit card enrolled in the Wallet app, you can use this to send and request money in the United States.

  • Audio: The capability to send audio messages used to be baked into the Messages interface, but has now been moved into an app.

  • Location: Tap Share to quickly share your current location or Request to ask for someone else’s location.

  • Store: Here you can search the App Store for more Messages apps.

  • #images: This lets you look up animated GIFs to insert into messages.

  • Check In: You can use this to notify a contact of your destination and let them know when you arrive. (See Check In for details.)

  • Digital Touch: You may remember this from the original Apple Watch. Touch and tap to send vague expressions of fondness to loved ones.

  • Music: This app lets you embed songs from Apple Music.

Share or Request Location

The Location iMessage app makes it simple to share your location:

  • Open an iMessage conversation.
  • Tap the plus button.

  • Choose Location.

  • Tap Send.

ios 17 messages check in messages

If you open the Location iMessage app in a conversation with someone who isn’t already sharing their location with you, you can tap Request to ask for their current whereabouts.

This sends a specially-formatted request message to the other party. On their end, there is a Share button in the message they can tap to share their location with you.

If they approve, you’ll receive a reply with a map of their current whereabouts that you can tap to expand. There is also a button with a travel time estimate that you can tap to bring up directions in Maps.

Manage Message Details

While viewing a Messages chat, tap the recipient’s name at the top of the screen to uncover the Details view, which contains a host of capabilities that apply to both group and individual chats.

Share Your Location

If the contact is sharing their location with you through Family Sharing or the Find My app, the first thing you see is a map with their current location. Likewise, you can share your location with them to make finding each other easy. Here’s how:

  • Share your location once: Go back and use the Location app mentioned above.
  • Share your location over time: Tap Share My Location to let message participants monitor your location for one hour, until the end of the day, or indefinitely. If you’re already sharing your location, you can tap Stop Sharing My Location to stop.

  • Request your location over time: Tap Request Location to send a request to continually track the other person.

Message participants can view a map of your location in the Details view. They can tap the map for more location-related options.

Sharing your location over time shares it with the people in the chat, not just within the chat itself. Chat members can see your location in the Find My app and in any other chats you have with them.

Deal with Groups

Certain options are displayed only in a group message:

  • Rename a group: Group messages are automatically named based on the participant names, but if you tap Change Name and Photo, you can enter a custom group name and choose another icon for the chat: a new photo, an existing photo, an emoji, or text.
  • Leave a group chat: You can leave a group chat that just won’t end. Tap Leave this Conversation; you may have to scroll down to find it. If it’s dimmed, it’s probably because it’s a chat you started, so you’ll have to delete the message thread by swiping it from right to left.

  • Add a contact to a chat: Not only can you leave an ongoing conversation, but you can also invite someone else to it. Tap X People (where X is the number of participants) to reveal the participant list, and tap Add Contact.

  • Mute a chat: To remain in the chat but stop receiving a notification each time a new message arrives, enable Hide Alerts.

Manage Shared Content

These days, text messages are often more than just text. We share web links, photos, and files through Messages, so the Details view offers some tools to help manage those:

  • Pins: You can touch and hold a web link in a Messages conversation and choose Pin from the menu to save it for later. It then appears under the Pins header in the Details view.
  • Collaboration: This section corrals anything you may be working on with the other person. It includes shared web links, any shared documents, and Safari tab groups.

  • Photos, Links, Wallet, and Documents: Attachments are split into these four categories. Tap an attachment to open it, or touch and hold to see options to share or delete it.

At the bottom of the Details screen is an option to download all of the images in the thread. Note that this may be a lot of images and take up a considerable deal of storage.

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By Abigail Shilets Staff Writer
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Abigail is a staff writer for GeeksChalk based in Pennsylvania. She covers news, how-tos, and user guides for iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch. Before becoming a writer Abigail studied computer science at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. When not creating masterpiece for GeeksChalk, you can usually find Abigail hiking, climbing, or otherwise unplugged.
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