If you’re like most iPhone users, when you upgraded to the newest version of iOS, Apple automatically migrated your settings, apps, and text messages. While there are benefits to wiping your phone and starting over—c’mon, you don’t really need all those apps—there’s also the possibility that you might lose valuable info hidden within your text messages. All those short missives you’ve written are mostly ephemeral, but some of them can be important, especially if you need them as proof in a dispute. Even if you just want to save your priceless nuggets of wit, you should be able to. Apple—frustratingly—offers no easy way to export your texts and iMessages, and it should. Here are the best workarounds currently available.
The File Is in the Computer
Apple saves your text messages in its iPhone backups, whether they’re saved locally on your PC or they’re part of an iCloud backup—which you should have. That’s good! Unfortunately, they’re not separated out. However, you can access them through the filesystem. If you back up locally on an Apple machine, you can find the file under Library > Application Support > MobileSync > Backup. There should be multiple folders there, each with a different backup image of your phone. Each of the folders should have a file named:
Those are your texts, in SQLite database form.
On a Windows machine, you can find that file in C:\Users\[USERNAME]\AppData\Roaming.
Unfortunately, you can’t open up that file in a text editor—you’ll either need a SQLite editor or a special third-party tool. But at the very least, if you copy that file and keep it somewhere safe, you’ve got an archive of your text messages. Here’s an online service where you can upload that file and download the content and metadata in either PDF or CSV form. Of course, it’s totally up to you whether you want to give some old website access to your private messages.
There’s an App for That
Many different programs can not only decipher the SQLite file Apple uses to store SMS messages but can also simplify finding and archiving them. PhoneView is commonly recommended for Mac, and CopyTrans seems to be the application of choice among Windows users. There’s a variety of similar utilities. Most of them cost between $15 and $30, and there doesn’t seem to be a free, open source option that’s “good enough” to have popular appeal.
I favor iExplorer, which we’ve covered in the past. It costs money, but the demo version will allow you to read through the .mddata file and copy/paste the text. If you want to export the messages into a PDF or text file, you’ll have to pay.
Quick n’ Dirty
If you’re using the texts to actually settle a dispute, you’ll probably want to just take screenshots. (That’s holding down the sleep/wake and home buttons at the same time.) Scroll down to the most recent messages in the conversation in question. Screenshot. Scroll up. Repeat about a thousand times. Sure, it will take time, but it’s the only solution you can do completely on your iPhone without a computer, and it’s most likely what a lawyer will want to see. Don’t forget—if you want timestamps for each message, swipe from the right side of the screen to expose the delivery times. You can also select multiple messages by tapping and holding a message bubbles to select more than one, and forwarding those to your email address. However, you’ll lose all the metadata, and as the NSA has shown us, sometimes the metadata is more important than the content of the messages itself.
To this point, we’ve been treating SMS and iMessage as the same protocol, because the aforementioned methods cover both. But if you sync iMessage on your Mac and your iPhone, your computer should get the same iMessages your phone does and save them in the Messages chat logs. You can print a complete conversation in the Messages app or find the chat logs in Library > Messages > Archive. Of course, this requires that the person you’re corresponding with also uses Apple products.
Score One for Android
This is one of the many circumstances where the openness of the Android ecosystem results in increased functionality on the device. Because Android allows a wide selection of non-system apps to send and receive SMS messages, there are a variety of easy archival apps that run on your phone itself. SMS Backup & Restore is simple, well-reviewed, and most importantly, free. Start there.
This post was updated on September 15, 2017. It was originally published on November 5, 2013 by Kif Leswing.