WhatsApp vs. Signal vs. Telegram: Which One Should You Use?

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Whether you want to share something with a friend or discuss something confidentially with a colleague, there is no shortage of messaging apps. Among these apps, WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram are often considered the most popular. With each app offering something a little different, knowing which one to choose is not so black and white. Help making the right decision is here. Let’s take a look at some of the most important aspects of each app so you can make the right decision on which one is right for you. 

Popularity

When it comes to popularity, WhatsApp is the king. With over two billion users, it easily outpaces Telegram and Signal. In various parts of Europe, WhatsApp has even overtaken the use of SMS. On the other hand, WhatsApp has yet to make a dent in the U.S., where only one-third of Internet users have downloaded it.

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Telegram has more than 400 million users worldwide. Telegram excels with options like unlimited server storage so that your encrypted files are saved on the company’s cloud system. Group member capacity is another Telegram upside with a capacity of 5,000 users all at once. Whereas WhatsApp communicates using your phone number, Telegram offers a username feature to ensure continued anonymity.

Signal is less popular than WhatsApp or Telegram, but with the recent WhatsApp privacy policy incident, many people have heard of Signal and migrated over. For Signal, its popularity has grown as the most secure messaging app around.

Privacy

WhatsApp

WhatsApp’s ownership by Facebook leads to questions about its intentions with user data. Messages are sent with end-to-end encryption so that only your device and the recipient’s device can read them. The app backs up your messages, so if you switch devices, all of your data is available.

In 2016, WhatsApp amended its Privacy Policy to allow the sharing of data from WhatsApp to Facebook. It remains unclear exactly what Facebook does with WhatsApp user data. An anonymous Facebook executive in 2018 blew the whistle on Facebook’s focus on selling user data. Facebook may not abuse WhatsApp user data (yet), but the company’s track record offers plenty of reasons for skepticism.

WhatsApp is under increasing pressure to be transparent over its privacy policy thanks to a recent update that removed its opt-out of sharing data with Facebook. As of January 2021, the company had walked back some recent privacy updates around Facebook sharing to provide more time for users to understand the new changes.

Telegram

Telegram is also under the microscope with a focus on user privacy. Cloud chats, the most common message type Telegram offers, includes some data Telegram stores on its servers. This can include photos, videos, documents, etc. Telegram claims it stores this info so you can pick it up on any device “without having to rely on third-party backups.” The company says the data remains heavily encrypted, but that it can access this information at all is enough to give plenty of people pause.  “Secret chats” use end-to-end encryption, which means Telegram will not know what is said or sent in those messages without having direct access to your device. 

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The company emphasizes it will not use its data to show you ads and only stores what is necessary to keep the app secure. However, a number of security concerns have arisen over the last few years around potential hacker targets. In May 2017, MIT researchers found hackers could nail down to the second when a Telegram user went online or offline. Furthermore, Telegram’s apps collect basic device data and IP addresses for proper moderation. If you intend to use its two-factor authentication method using email, the company can see that as well.

In July 2019, Symantec discovered how “media file jacking” could be used to grab user information. Telegram updated its user privacy in March 2019 to remove a 48-hour rule for unsending any message. You can now delete any conversation, including ones that happened years ago, and deny it ever took place. This does not say that Telegram is insecure or that it uses user data improperly. However, as with WhatsApp, Telegram users should never consider anything 100 percent secure or private.

Signal

When it comes to privacy, Signal touts it above all else. As an open-source app, it offers the most transparent approach to privacy. Its underlying code can be verified by anyone with interest. Anyone can look for and attempt to identify holes and then work to have them plugged to prevent malicious use. Its guarding of user privacy is so strong, the European Commission has advised its staff to switch to Signal. It is one of the only messaging apps that doesn’t store metadata or use the cloud to back up messages.

Ultimately, Signal has been in the news more for its security features than its privacy lapses. That Signal tells you at the very top of its privacy policy page that calls and messages are end-to-end encrypted is everything you need to know about its transparency. Aside from registering your phone number initially when signing up, Signal knows almost nothing about your account after that moment. All message history is stored on local devices and not in any cloud servers. 

Compatibility

WhatsApp has the best compatibility of the bunch. Available on Android, iOS, Windows, Mac and the Web. Messages are available across all platforms, so you can start a message on your desktop app and pick it up on your phone. Support is available on more than 40 language platforms around the world.

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Telegram adds official support for Linux along with apps for Android, iOS, Windows and Mac. It lacks Web-based support, but that is hardly a reason not to use the service. Telegram adds support for well over 30 languages.

Signal also offers Android, iOS, Windows, macOS and Linux support. There is no web-based platform, and plans to support one in the future have not been announced. The app adds support for seven languages.

Features

WhatsApp offers its own strong feature-set including voice and video calling; voice messaging; group chats and video calls; support for documents like PDFs, documents, spreadsheets, slideshows and more. The group chat feature can support up to 256 people simultaneously. All conversations seamlessly sync between apps, so you can instantly pick up a conversation on your tablet from your iPhone or vice versa. 

Telegram offers a hugely popular service called “Secret Chats” that were alluded to earlier. These secret chats ensure someone cannot take a screenshot of the conversation and a message cannot be forwarded. Additionally, Telegram has a self-destruct timer for you to permanently remove messages. You can choose a time between one second and one week before a message disappears permanently. Telegram’s “bots” are one of the most unique aspects of the service and have proven to be wildly popular among users.

Sending large files along with a variety of file types up to 1.5GB in size (pictures, video, documents, audio, zip files, etc.) is another huge plus for Telegram. Comparatively, WhatsApp’s limit for file transfers is only 100MB. Customization is another Telegram-specific feature. You can choose how the app opens links, choose dominant colors and more.

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For Signal, other than the standard text and voice/video call features, it adds a fun layer of expression with encrypted stickers that are only seen by the sender and recipient. You can even create your own sticker packs.

Which One Should You Choose?

Most people will likely choose WhatsApp simply because it is the most popular and where you will find your friends and family. However, the fact that it is owned by Facebook could be a concern for those who are worried about their data privacy. That’s especially true as it seems more likely than ever that deeper integration with Facebook is on the horizon. If you are using WhatsApp, don’t forget to take these security precautions.

Choosing Telegram is best for someone who wants a more polished interface and the largest group chat size available. With a strong mix of security, privacy and “Secret Chats,” it has a solid combination. That it includes “Channels” for broadcasting to larger audiences makes it a good app for quickly disseminating news and information. However, the knowledge that Telegram’s cloud servers can store a good amount of detail from your cloud chats is worth noting.

When you decide to use Signal, you are likely doing so because you want to go all in on privacy. Signal is the most secure of the three messaging apps. It’s the app of choice for newsrooms around the world looking for a secure way to connect with anonymous sources. The biggest downside is its comparatively small audience which makes it a tough sell for groups of friends. As Telegram and WhatsApp feel the privacy pressure, Signal has reaped the rewards as word-of-mouth marketing does a lot of the heavy lifting for new users.

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David David

David is a freelance tech writer with over 15 years of experience in the tech industry. He loves all things Nintendo.

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