With the explosion of the mobile app market, a phone carrier's costly text messaging service can be replaced by free texting and messaging apps. Most allow users to send free messages only to other users of the same app, but a handful offer the capability to text any phone. The best ones also provide calling services and other expanded functionality beyond messaging. All you need is a data plan or Wi-Fi connection.
Cheapism has rounded up six of the best free messaging and texting apps. They are ranked based on criteria such as user base, reviews across app stores, and added features such as voice calling. An honorable mention goes to WhatsApp, a popular messaging service with high ratings that's free only for the first year.
1. Viber.Viber claims more than 200 million users and offers the most functionality of the messaging apps we researched. You can text, call, and send photos and video messages to other Viber users for free (even through international lines) using your existing phone number. A "push to talk" feature lets you send audio to other users and you can also create groups with up to 100 participants. There's a corresponding desktop application for device syncing. Calls to non-Viber users incur fees starting at 1.9 cents per minute. Reviews for this app from both users and experts are overwhelmingly positive. Exceptions seem to reflect user error or a slow wireless connection.
2. Pinger Textfree.Textfree offers free SMS texting and calling and, unlike the other apps on the list, does not require the other person on the line to be using the app. Texting is free to more than 35 countries and users can earn minutes for free calls to the U.S. and Canada through advertiser offers. Incoming calls are free and calls between users are free. Textfree supplies a dedicated phone number to use with the app, which may make it less convenient than Viber but provides an added layer of privacy.
Strangely enough, the company seems to release versions of this app under both the Pinger and Textfree names. They all receive more or less the same favorable ratings. Users do have a few complaints about notifications for incoming messages and calls that don't show up or take too long to come through.
3. Skype.Skype, best known for its desktop application, also offers a mobile app. The app provides its more than 250 million users with free messaging, photos, video, and calls to other Skype users. An update to the tablet version of the app features a picture-in-picture function that lets you switch to other apps. Rates to call non-users' mobile phones and landlines start at 1 cent per minute. Skype also offers monthly plans for unlimited calling to many countries, with prices that vary accordingly.
User reviews grouse about the lack of push notifications on the app; that is, if the app is not running, you're not notified of having received a message or call. However, reviewers are satisfied overall with the app's functionality.
|Viber||Free text, photo, and video messaging and calling to other users. Viber Out (also available on desktops) allows messaging and calling to non-Viber users at low rates.||200+ million users||4.5/5 stars||4.4/5 stars|
|Pinger Textfree||Free texting even if the other person isn't using the app. Free calling between users and free incoming calls. Minutes must be earned for free calling to U.S. and Canada.||N/A||4.5/5 stars||4.2/5 stars|
|Skype||Free calling, video calling, and messaging to other users. Calling to non-users (landlines and mobiles) at low rates.||250+ million users||3.5/5 stars||4/5 stars|
|Snapchat||Photo, text, and video messages are temporary (although recipients can take screenshots). Option to add drawings and captions to photos and videos.||30+ million active users (as of September 2013)||3/5 stars||4/5 stars|
|Google Hangouts||Integrated with Gmail. Allows SMS texting, but regular rates apply. Video calling with up to 10 people.||N/A||3/5 stars||3.6/5 stars|
|Kik Messenger||Video, sketch, picture, and text messaging. User ID instead of existing phone number.||100+ million users||4/5 stars||4.4/5 stars|
4. Snapchat.Relative newcomer Snapchat has shaken up the messaging apps world. Bringing a time-limited focus to messaging, Snapchat lets you send photos (with or without personal drawings) or videos (with captions) that expire after a specific period of time. While there's no guarantee that the person receiving the message will honor its ephemeral nature (recipients can still take screenshots), Snapchat presents a new way of thinking about messaging and is quickly amassing hordes of users.
Reviewers enthuse about the app's here-and-gone qualities, with some believing it to be the next iteration of communication and others relishing the freedom to be momentarily silly. We did read some reviews that critique the picture quality. Note that Snapchat recently suffered a security breach, an event that left many users grousing.
5. Google Hangouts.Among all the many free messaging apps connected to social networks (Facebook, etc.), Google Hangouts deserves a spot on our list because of the ginormous base of Gmail users and the array of functionalities available through Google. You can share photos, emojis, and GIFs; arrange group chats; and video call with up to 10 people. Hangouts syncs to your email, and conversations are saved across devices. Reviewers also like the ease of use. You can switch from Hangouts messaging with other users to sending standard SMS messages from your mobile number to any other mobile number -- but in the latter case your carrier's regular rates will apply. (Users who sign up for a Google Voice account and phone number can download the associated app to send free text messages.)
Many reviews gripe about bugs, a laggy interface, and duplicate contact entries, but recent reviews are far more favorable. Updates have vastly improved Google Hangouts' performance. Still, reviewers posting at Apple's App Store aren't wild about it; there seems to be a performance difference between the Android and iOS versions of the app.