It's useful to know how to back up text messages, and transfer them from one iPhone to another, or to a Mac or PC. The obvious application is when setting up a new iPhone: when you open Messages for the first time it may be empty, and your old conversations can be important for work or hold sentimental value.
This article looks at the best ways to transfer SMS and iMessage texts from one iPhone to another.
Since Apple updated iOS and MacOS at the end of May 2018 it has been possible to store all your messages in iCloud, so that you can access every message you have ever recevied on all your devices (including your Mac) - and, crucially, gain easy access to all your messages on a new iPhone or iPad.
With this new feature - known as Messages in iCloud - turned on you will be able to keep all your Messages in sync across all your devices, back up the photos and attachments that are sent to you via iMessage, plus save space on your iPhone, iPad and Mac, and access your entire message history on any device anywhere.
If you’d like to know how to implement Messages in iCloud read on…
But, first, a little background:
How Messages used to sync
Before, if you were signed into the same Apple ID on your iPhone, iPad or Mac, then the Messages apps on each device would show incoming messages at the same time. If you replied to a message, the conversation would be updated on each device. Except it didn’t always work like that.
If, for example, all your devices weren’t powered on or connected to the internet, the messages wouldn’t arrive there. And if you deleted a message on one device - say some spam from some random iCloud address - it would still be on all your other devices until you deleted it there too.
What does Messages in iCloud do?
If you turn on Messages in iCloud (we’ll show you how below), this is what you can expect:
Backed up to iCloud All your Messages (that’s iMessages and SMS texts sent from other types of phone) will be stored in iCloud rather than on your devices.
Attachments and images That will include all the attachments and images that are sent to you via Messages - they are often the reason why Messages takes up so much room on your iPhone, for example. (We have a section on seeing what’s in your attachments here).
On any device Because all your text messages are stored in the cloud, you can access them on any of your devices - as long as you are signed into your iMessage account.
Always in sync One of the annoyances about the way Messages used to work was that Messages weren’t always in sync. It depended on whether your device was online during a conversation, for example, and if you deleted a message on one device it would still be left on another device. Now, because everything happens in the cloud everything is mirrored across all your devices.
New device, old messages If you register a new device it will have your entire Message history, without having to restore from an old iPhone back up which would be the only way to do that previously.
Don't delete We feel that this is a better option for saving space than the current “Auto Delete Old Conversations” which would volunteer to delete old messages that were received over a year ago. This didn’t allow for the fact that you might have messages you wanted to keep, from deceased relatives, for example. It was an all or nothing option. (Want to hide a messages instead? Here's how to hide a text messages on iPhone.)
Save space It could save valuable space on your iPhone. Before we turned the feature on our Messages took up 5.7GB of space on our iPhone. Plus, because it stores photos and attachments in the cloud this frees up local space on your iPhone and Mac.
Faster backup And since every device you owned backed up its entire Message library, you could be wasting iCloud storage space. Plus, your usual iPhone back up should happen quickly because your Messages file will be smaller since only your newest messages are stored locally.
Sound like a good feature to you? Here’s how to set up Messages in iCloud.
A few things that might hold you back:
Deleted forever If you delete a message it will be deleted from the back up - so bear that in mind when deleting a message on your iPhone.
Online only You need an internet connection to view messages that are stored in iCloud - so if you are off line you might not be able to access all your messages.
Storage requirement It is likely that you will require more than the 5GB storage if you turn on Messages in the Cloud. Prices start from 79p a month for 50GB (you can see the UK iCloud prices here). The good news is Apple is offering the first month free, so you can decide if you really need the extra space and then cancel after a month without having paid a penny.
How to set up Messages in iCloud
If you have decided that you want all your Messages to be in sync across all your devices, so that if you delete a message it will delete on all your devices, so that you have your entire Messages history accessible on any device and via the cloud, here’s how to turn on Messages in iCloud.
On iPhone and iPad:
You will need two factor authentication enabled and you will need to be running iOS 11.4 or later on your iPhone or iPad.
- Go to Settings > Apple ID > iCloud
- Turn on Messages
You’ll also need to be plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi in order for your Messages history to sync up the first time. Since there may be a lot of data Apple won’t allow you to update without being plugged in and online - that’s in case the sync would be interrupted if your phone ran out of battery and shut down, and so that you don’t use up your data allowance.
After the initial sync, everything should always stay up to date - as long as you are connected to the internet.
On the Mac:
Messages in iCloud arrived on macOS in the 10.13.5 update. This is how to set it up:
- Open the Messages app.
- Go to Messages > Preferences.
- Click on the box beside Enable Messages in iCloud.
If you aren't seeing the option check that you have the latest version of macOS installed on your Mac. (Click on the Apple logo > About this Mac).
If you want to learn more about texting on the iPhone read our complete guide to texting here.
Retrieving messages from an iCloud backup
If you have an older version of iOS or MacOS you may need to resort to backing up your messages as part of your iCloud backup. Make sure you backup before switching to a new iPhone.
If you have been backing up to iCloud then all your text messages should be contained within the iCloud backup, so you can use an iCloud backup to transfer and restore all your text messages from one iPhone to another.
The only caveat to bear in mind is that messages form part of the wider backup and restore, so you'll have to restore device settings and app data at the same time (which removes any new messages from your iPhone). So this technique is best to use when you're setting up a new iPhone.
This Apple Support document lists all the items that are backed up and restored by iCloud.
Follow these steps to back up and restore Messages (and other app data) from one iPhone to another:
- Connect the old iPhone to a power source and turn on Wi-Fi.
- On the old iPhone, open the Settings app and tap your name at the top of the screen, then tap iCloud. Scroll down and tap iCloud Backup. (In older versions of iOS, you will need to tap Settings > iCloud > Backup, or Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup.)
- Make sure iCloud Backup is turned on.
- Tap Back Up Now, and wait for the backup process to complete. You'll need to remain connected to Wi-Fi for the entirety of this process.
- Turn on your new iPhone. If you haven't done so already, you'll need to go through the setup process. When asked, tap Restore from iCloud Backup and Next. If you've already been through the setup process, you'll need to reset your iPhone. Open the Settings app and tap General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings.
- Enter your Apple ID and Password.
Your new iPhone will now display all your messages from the old iPhone, along with all your apps, photos, emails and other app data.
Back up to Mac
If you want to transfer text messages from one iPhone to another without using a backup and restore process, then you'll need a third-party app. A few apps allow you to access and save the data from an iPhone, but we're going to use PhoneView. (There's a free trial, while the paid-for version costs $29.95.)
Here's how to use PhoneView to access the messages on your iPhone:
- Install PhoneView.
- Open the app. Click OK when you're told that 'PhoneView would like to access your contacts'.
- Connect your iPhone to your Mac.
- Click Archive in the PhoneView alert window.
- Click Messages in the Sidebar and OK to the Now Loading Phone Data window. It takes a few minutes for the iPhone data to load into PhoneView (a blue progress bar at the bottom of the sidebar on the left shows how the data load is going).
- The names of people you have had conversations with appears in the middle column. Select one to view the text messages you've shared with them.
- You can drag the name of a person directly to the desktop to save that conversation as a PDF.
- To extract all of your messages select All and click Copy From iPhone. Choose a location and click Save.
You can change the type of file PhoneView saves from PDF File to a text file, tab delimited file, CSV or XML (this makes it easy to import into a spreadsheet such as Numbers or Excel).
What you can't do, unfortunately, is copy these messages back into the Messages app. You can, however, copy them to a compatible app on the iPhone (iBooks works, but we prefer an app like GoodReader for viewing PDF files). You can email them to yourself or use iTunes File Sharing to copy the files across.
Transfer texts to PC
If you use a Windows PC, you can also download your texts (and much more) to your computer.
As on Mac, you'll need a third-party program. In this instance we chose CopyTrans, which is free to download and has a good user interface.
Once you download the CopyTrans Control Center you'll need to install CopyTrans Contacts; this software will enable you to extract your text messages from your iPhone.
Before proceeding, you'll need to ensure you've got iTunes or the appropriate Apple drivers installed. Thankfully CopyTrans has a download for that too!
Once you've got the program installed, you can plug your iPhone into your computer. Confirm that you trust the machine when prompted.
After waiting a few minutes, you should see CopyTrans loading your messages. Depending on the amount of texts and images (including ones from third-party applications such as Viber and WhatsApp), it might take some time for CopyTrans to pick up all the details.
After it has loaded you'll see a list of contacts. From here, simply select the conversations you wish to backup or export and hit the 'Export Selected' button and you'll be presented with various ways of exporting your messages.
After selecting your method, in our case we chose to extract it to a Word document, you'll be prompted to save it to a certain location.
Once saved, make sure the backup and copy has successfully transferred over. Interestingly we found that text, images and even emojis (converted) correctly transferred over to our Word document.