TiPb Answers: How iMessage works [FAQ]

We're getting tons and tons of questions about iOS 5's new iMessage, how it works, where it sends to, and how to avoid sending to the wrong person or device. Apple hasn't given out a lot of details about it yet, but based on what they showed on the keynote and how they've previously handled user and device ID, we can make some guesses. Now if it looks a little complex... wellafter the break!

So here's how iMessage works, as best as we can figure out at the moment.

How do you enable iMessage?

You can enable iMessage in Settings on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. It's similar to how FaceTime is setup.

  1. Launch Settings
  2. Tap on Messages

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  1. Tap on Use Your Apple ID for iMessage
  2. Sign In with an Apple ID (MobileMe, iTunes, etc.) or Create New Account
  3. Enter the email address you want to use for iMessage
  4. Apple will verify the address, if it's not already registered, you'll get an email asking you to verify it.
  5. You can Add Another Email address, or several, if you want.

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If you're on an iPhone, once you're logged into iMessage your iPhone phone number will also be registered with iMessage and anything sent to it from another iOS 5 device will prioritize iMessage over SMS.

Does iMessage count as text or data?

  1. Messages SMS still count against your total number of SMS/MMS in your package (if you have a limit)
  2. iMessages are sent over data, not SMS/MMS so they count against your data cap (if you have one).

How does Message decide between sending SMS and iMessages?

When you enter a contact into Messages, you'll see all the available phone number and email accounts for that contact.

  1. If they have an iMessage-registered email address, you'll see a little blue word bubble to the right of the address.

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  1. If they have an iMessage-registered iPhone phone number (their iPhone is logged into iMessage), you'll see a little blue word bubble to the right of the address.

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  1. If they have a non-iMessage phone number (for example, they're logged out or they're using a BlackBerry), you won't see any bubble.

When you pick a contact, it starts off gray and Messages will process it for a second.

  1. If it determines it can send via iMessage, the contact turns blue and the text entry box says "iMessage".
  2. If it determines it can send via SMS/MMS, the contact turns green and the text entry box says "Text Message".
  3. If it determine it can't send via either iMessage or SMS/MMS, the contact turns red and shows an exclamation mark.

So which device sends what type of message then?

  1. If you're on an iPhone and all you have is the other person's mobile number, Messages will send via SMS
  2. If you're on an iPad or iPod touch and all you have is the other person's mobile number, Messages will not be able to send (you'll get a red exclamation mark in the contact name), because iPod touch and iPad can't do SMS.
  3. If you're on an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad and all you have the other person's iMessages ID, Messages will send via iMessage

What if I have an iPod touch or iPad, but my phone is non-Apple? (Feature, BlackBerry, Android, etc.) Will my iOS device intercept my SMS?

No. Remember, when you enter in a contact, you can see all their associated numbers and email addresses.

  1. If the person sends to your iMessage email address, it will show up on your iPod touch or iPad.
  2. If the person sends to your mobile phone number, it will show up on your mobile phone.

If we share the same iTunes account, how do I make sure my husband/wife/kids don't get my iMessages

Luckily, Apple's fragmented ID system works in your favor. Just like FaceTime, iMessage email addresses are separate and independent from iTunes logins.

  1. Choose the same address for multiple devices if they're all yours and you want to get your iMessages on all of them.
  2. Choose different addresses for multiple devices if they belong to different members of the family and you want them each to get their own iMessages.

You can use any email account you validate with Apple (we even know some people using @crackberry.com accounts. Shh. No names.)

How do I see/change the address associated with iMessage?

  1. Launch Settings
  2. Tap Messages
  3. Scroll down and tap on Receive At
  4. Tap Add Another Email to add an addition email account
  5. Tap an existing email account, the tap Remove This Email to remove an account

Just go through each of your devices and assign them the same email, or different emails, as suits your individual or family needs.

Any other questions?

Again, we won't know for sure until iOS 5 ships this fall and Apple officially explains how iMessage works, but this is our best guesses based on available information. If you have any corrections, or other questions, let us know!

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • What is the definition of "iMessage-registered". For email addy's is it the address you select to receive messages? How do you go about registering a phone number?
  • This doesn't make sense.
    If they have an iMessage-registered iPhone phone number, you’ll see a little blue word bubble to the right of the address.
    That means iMessage will work if neither party has their e-mail associated with the contact?
    But then, you conflict yourself:
    If you’re on an iPhone and all you have is the other person’s mobile number, Messages will send via SMS
  • Their phone number will be registered with their iMessage account/appleId so you don't need to have the email address in the contact.
  • Screenshots to illustrate this text would be very helpful, thanks!
  • So if I have an iPhone and an iPad, how do I go about making sure all my iMessages appear on both devices?
  • You bring up an interesting point. If someone is close to going over their data limit but has unlimited texting on their plan, they might prefer to send texts rather than iMessages. Can you opt out of sending an iMessage and send a text instead even though you are sending the message to someone with an iPhone? Will they be upset with you if they don't have unlimited texts and they receive a text from you instead of an iMessage?
    Hmmm...Thorny issues.
  • You can turn iMessages off.
  • Thanks, Rene, I didn't know that. But I still wonder about the etiquette because some people will want to use texts because of unlimited texting on their plans and others will want to use iMessage because they have unlimited data.
  • It would just be the same as life before iMessages. The people with limited texts will spend texts messages and unlimited won't. same goes for data. as far as wanting one or the other because it benefits you, well that's life haha. Hope that helps. My guess is most people will use iMessage because it doesn't really use all that much data and being on WiFi to save data is an option while you have no alternative for sms conservation.
  • I agree, Rene, there are those who don't have texting plans who don't want any texts sent to them. And you're also right that iMessages won't use much data (unless you're attaching a document, photo or video to the message). It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
  • Apple still fails here.. i'm sorry! You still have to use your apple ID. With BBM is PIN so your not giving any personal details.. with this you are.
    I'm sticking with Liveprofile. Sorry Apple!
  • I'd rather give email address than pin. Way easier, and most of the time I already have someone's email address that is associated with their apple ID. I'm not going to give out my personal details to randoms I don't know.
  • My take is you want to talk with 50 million people. The whole point of iMessage is to have personal messages with your friends and family. Not strangers. Thats what myspace was for and thats why its dead.
  • Ah, OK. I have a question: Does my iPad have a separate ID from my iPhone, so I can send from (and receive on) each separately via iMessage -- or will an iMessage sent to me arrive on both devices simultaneously?
  • Looks like you can either associate both with the same email address, or with different email addresses.
  • How does it handle multiple reciprocates in the same message? Lets say a mix of iOS devices and non-iOS devices? Do the iOS devices get an iMessage and the non-iOS devices get an SMS version?
  • Probably just as you would think. Sends an iMessage to those with it, and an SMS to to those without it.
  • What, read the article?! Oh, OK, thanks. And I like that answer.
  • Does it somehow associate the phone#-registered address with the e-mail-registered address so that a conversation begun on the iPhone can continue seamlessly on the iPad.
  • does this work like bbm, can i send messages to people who are out of country who have an iphone/iDevice without getting charged any extra??
  • Yes, since it used data it does not matter where the recipient is. But if you are the sender, watch out for the extra charges when roaming.
  • Do you think there will be proper group chats for iMessage the same way it is handled in BBM or Whatsapp? Is this something that might be improved before beta period is over?
  • No there will not be, at least it's not in the beta. Rene and Crackberry Kevin did a video on it.
  • Correct
  • Thank you! Finally understand this. All this iMessage and iCloud stuff just confused me more and more...
  • How does group messaging work? Can you add other people in a ongoing groupchat chat? whats the limit?
  • Yes.
    The sky.
  • This is probably yet to be seen, but if I am logged into iMessages with the same address on both iPhone and iPad, when I read it on one, will it mark it as read on the other? Will the new notification system acknowledge it such?
  • yes.
  • Reading these comments and you guys don't read at ALL.
  • will imessage work with international phone numbers?
  • Yes, just make sure you use the entire phone number including the country code.
  • Suppose someone uses your email address for imessage will they text your messages Thats not good if someone can get your imessages?????
  • That's what passwords are for.
  • Funny thing, I received a reply from someone I don't have their contact info from, he was replying to my ex. I replied right away asking who it was and what was going on ... my ex was able to reply as well as if he were me!!! This has happened twice, last Sunday and Tuesday, 2 different people.
    I was hooked via his iTunes account, not sure if that has anything to do with it!!??
    I have unabled the imessage option!!
    Can anybody tell me why this happened?
    Not impressed!!
  • Can somone use your email address to get your imessages?
  • Ok , but how I can send my location ??
  • What happens while you are roaming and you turned off data and someone sents you an imesssage? I guess the otherone will just see that you did not receive the message? What happens if you turned off imessage does the bubble disappear on the the senders iphone and therefore he knows that he has to send an sms?
  • If you're data is off it will simply send as an SMS.
  • what if my ipad is on, and i'm on roaming with the iphone... i will receive the message on ipad, but never read it on the iphone (until i come back from my trip)...
  • But let's say I turned of message while travelling will I receive an SMS or will I never receive the message till I am bak home and turn it back on again?
  • dtuula on January 21, 2011 Omg r u guys seriously gonna get technical with the word HULA??? I'm Tongan and I know it's not HULA but for obvious MARKETING PURPOSES they used HOT HULA because it's catchy and non-polys would be able to recognize the kind of fitness program this is . geez!
  • I got the same question about people sharing itunes account and icloud..
  • Hey, what's with the stupid purple iCloud icon in the settings? Shouldn't it be the fantastic brushed aluminum? Disappointed!
  • one word: BETA
  • Will we be able to create @me accounts to use for this if we don't want to use our current e-mail, for example?
  • Yes.
  • It's not that I'm questioning you, but, how do you know?
  • Well if you don;t want to use your current e-mail you shouldnt be giving it out to 50 million people
  • I wonder if finally apple will allow us to receive Facetime calls on a iphone use a email address like on the ipod. Sometimes i don't want to give my phone number to certain people.
  • using*
  • Yup. That's it!
  • Why didn't they just call this iChat?
  • Rene doesn;t want to be murdered by Steve Jobs maffia
  • Is there going to be a pin or something or just email addresses?
  • Hey Rene. Do you know if I will be able to add a alternate number instead of my iphone number.
  • No.
  • In the screen for a contact, is there a separate iMessage button, or is it just folded into the same Text Message button>
  • Excellent post TiPB! Thanks!
  • Excellent post TiPB! Thanks!
  • the big problem of imessage:
    If i have an iphone with an ended data plan (means i will have no data on iphone over 3g), but i have my ipad at home, this will happen:
    when someone sends me a message on another iphone, they will see my blue bubble, so they will send an imessage... but i will never receive an imessage on my iphone because i don't have a data plan (or at least until i got an wifi hotspot).
    So people will send me imessages, they will see i have received them, but i will have nothing on my iphone... i will only see them on my ipad when i get home!
  • what happens if i run out of data on my iphone (and not being able to receive imessages)?
    Will the blue bubble disappear from my contact on my friends iphones? Or will it be there, because i have registered my iphone with imessage? If so, i won't be able to receive imessage, and my friends will not know that.. and so i won't receive the message at all (no imessage and no sms)
  • what happens if i run out of data on my iphone (and not being able to receive imessages)?
    Will the blue bubble disappear from my contact on my friends iphones? Or will it be there, because i have registered my iphone with imessage? If so, i won't be able to receive imessage, and my friends will not know that.. and so i won't receive the message at all (no imessage and no sms)
  • the iphone is not smart enough to understand that if a user is "offline", without a data connection, wont receive imessages, and turn it off automatically?
  • Damn, so unless ppl have opted to put their e-mail in iMessages, we'll be stuck with SMS. Out of the box, this is only useful for the tech-minded. The rest don't know 50% of the iPhone's capability :/.
  • nice, but I wish Apple would allow users to pick a 'screen name' instead of having their e-mail address all out there...alot of people want to keep their e-mail address private. Thats still an advantage BBM has, a PIN is very private and somewhat obscure, you cant really identify somebody if the only thing you knew about them was their BBM pin, now if you knew somebody's e-mail address, thats a different story.
  • going through the comments, I see that iMessage is 'supposed' to be for chatting with only people you know, and that if need be you could create a separate e-mail for the purpose of iMessage, but still...
  • This is the silliest thing ive seeen, seriously u can just send imessages to persons who have the imessage!!! this is a fail!!! WHATSAPP IS MUCH MUCH MUCH BETTER!!!!
  • And you can only send Whatsapp messages to people who have whatsapp! "this is a fail!!!"
  • Awesome, but the slight advantage still goes to BBM because it works with or without a data plan as long as you have the BBM option in your plan and doesn't count as roaming data when you're abroad
  • what ur sayin is BS ....... it only works on 3g and u need the data plan neways for it nad theres big ass roaming fees if ur using outside ur own area ......
  • want iOS 5?
    follow this link to participate in the beta
  • Has anyone tried to send a video via iMessage? does it compress it heavily like with MMS, to the point its pixelated and blocky. Or does it not compress it as much and it's decent quality, like email?
  • I want to know this as well.
  • I'm using beta 7 now. It compresses a whole lot less. For the most part it looks great & I'm very impressed. It seems it's based in file size tho. For bids under 30 seconds they usually look perfect with no compression. For longer vids you get some compression like email. But either way it looks great and the vids are also full screen too. Way better than mms
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  • What If my iPhone is iOS5, and my iPad 2 is iOS5, if I start my conversation through SMS from my iPhone, can I continue it from my iPad? Have the iPad tell my iPhone to send it through SMS?
  • I wonder if you'll be able to text messages from an iPod Touch 4G to a iPhone 3G
    I hope Apple doesn't limit it to just iOS 5 running devices
  • when trying to set up imessage it just keeps saying verifying beside my phone number?
    How do i get past this point?
  • imessage on my ipad2 is not working. when I try to send a message, i get "number is not activiated in imessage." I have turned off the ipad2, restarted, etc., to no avail. help!! this was the main reason i was up installing ios5 in the early am!
  • My son's ipad keeps sending imessages with my profile pic, even though he has his own apple id and a different pic in contacts with his email. My pic shows under my contact info, but with a different email address.
    Question: anybody knows where the ipad imessage profile pic comes from and where the setting is to change that?
  • After upgrading my iPhone 4 to iOS 5, I activated iMessaging but cannot initiate iMessaging. However if another user sends me a message through iMessage the I can reply it alright.
    Please suggest a solution..
  • So in Imessage my phone number doesn't come up. It just comes up with my email. How do I fix this??
  • I'm having the same problem! Someone help!
  • settings->messages->recieve at and choose phone instead of apple ID or email. hope this helps!
  • Once download ios5 you need to restart your devices and you will be able to use FaceTime and iMessage. Remember to sign in your apple password.
  • Unfortunately, even with SMS and MMS off, Verizon is still charging iMessages as texts, even between iOS5 iPhones. Called customer service, they said "a text is a text is a text, if it comes in on that phone number and it's not a voice call, it's put against your texting plan. Apple may say unlimited, but apple doesn't provide your plan, sorry!"
  • In SMS/iMessage, if I have contacted someone with iMessage they're name that is in their contact goes away and it leaves their number. this gets very confusing and i was wondering how i might fix this... if there is a fix for it. anyone else having this problem?
  • my iphone number doesnt appear, what can i do??
  • When an iMessage is sent the person that receives mine it shows him my email address. How do I remove that?
  • Since I downloaded the new update whenever I get a text message from another iphone user it shows their name before i open it. AFTER i open the message it changes the persons name to their phone number. This is really irritating because it only shows their name when I haven't opened the text.
  • Help my daughter turn on my ipad and it will not boot up just the apple is showing , how do i reset it >>
  • My hubby sent me an iMessage from his iPad to my iPhone which I received, but my daughter had the message on her iPhone as sent from her?? When she replied it came through to my iPhone as from my husband. Any help appreciated
  • I'm a subscriber A. I can send iMessage to subscriber B but subscriber B can't send iMessage to me, subscriber A. Why?
  • So if all we have is people's phone numbers and we have an iPod touch/iPad this app is useless?
  • I was texting with someone and we were both using imessage so it was blue, but the last 4 texts were green. Does that mean they disabled imessage?
  • I was texting with someone and we were both using imessage so it was blue, but the last 4 texts were green. Does that mean they disabled imessage?
  • Can you receive an iMessage on a non IPhone/pod/pad such as a nokia or computer
  • If I travel outside of the US, do I have to be on wifi for iMessages to work?
  • Can u make your iPod touch do iMessage because I don't have a phone and need one and I don't care if it is with wifi is there any way u can trick your iPod touch to do I message please help thanks
  • Please help me.. U said that if using an iphone.. Then the number is automatically registered to the apple for imessage.. What if i want to change the phone number?? How to get it registered???
  • my imessage just says "delivered" but on other people's iphone's it says "read". how do i set mine up where i can see read rather than delivered?
  • how do i get my fone number to show up. when i send imessage the recipent just sees my email adress?
  • I have the iPhone 4s and when using the iMessage it always says delivered and it's only said read a couple of times. I know they read it because they respond to the message
  • Is there a way to only allow others to see your email address when you iMessage them instead of your mobile number ?
  • Is it free to send to another iMessage device in another country?
  • Yes, the only thing which is in need is WLAN
  • Doesn't work yet for me? It said no registered # how register
  • Settings > message and turn it to on.
  • I'm using iphone 3gs jailbreak and unlock in ios 5.0. When i turn on the imessage something pop up "your carrier may charge for SMS messagea used to activate iMessage" option either Cancel or OK. I just click "OK". Then iMessage turn ON.
    But when I sending using iMessage to other iphone which are using it the message cannot delivered? Any problem or do I missed something to turn on in the iMessage?
  • Is there any way to just simply text someone in your contacts on the iPad? I just want to text my daughter and it says number unregistered; how does it get registered please?
  • Go to settings>Message ans Turn it on. If you havent registered yet, it will ask you. And your daughter have to be registered in iMessage too
  • So what if someone is from out of the country, and they have an iPhone as well...would it cost if we iMessage? even though we both have it????
    Someone help!! D:
  • Its Free if you Both are having WLAN
  • Glad you liked the image it made me laugh when i made it.Well said Rick: there is more than just effrot to be successful but without effrot noone will be successful.
  • Can it send to Non-Apple phones? My mom has a Droid and my dad has a blackberry.
  • No, it only Works for devices with ios5
  • i'm imessaging someone but for some reason at times it switches on me and sent it as a text so i wanna know if there's a way to prevent sending it as a text? if someone could help me out
  • it wont let me save numbers to it it keepes saying this number is not registered and i dont know how
  • If you have a registured iMessage account and you forgot the password (and frankly, all the info), can you delete the acciunt and make a new one with the original email?
  • If we want to activate iMessage on the iPod Touch, do we have to install iOS 5 first?
    - & Why doesn't iMessage accept numbers?
  • My question is this....I work off shore. the other day i recieved an iMessage out of the blue when i was neither connected to wifi nor had cell service (No Service). How did this happen?
  • Oh and i was able to hold a conversation with them too while not having service nor wifi.
  • Um I have the new 4g iPod touch and it says the number has to be registered to iMessage and it won't work I need help
  • So.. If a friend texts me and I dont have the internet on my phone, will I get Charged? Or is it kinda like getting a picture message(data)?
  • How do I add other peoples emails to my mail list on iMessage as I generally haven't got a clue ?? :/ Help please !! :)
  • What happens when we send an imessage to somebody who is unregistered, but has an Iphone?
  • my phone is sign in to my dad icloud but my itunes is sign in to my apple id, can my dad see my imassage? even in my massage setting, on send & received, i only put my email address and phone number