Archiving Cell Phone Text Messages

“Waiting to Fly” on army.mil. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Seth Laughter, 2SFAB PAO NCOIC

As choppy and terse as cell-phone texting is, it still qualifies as correspondence. And since we value and save other text correspondence — such as letters and email — it seems natural that we might want to save text messages too. The problem is that saving text messages off a cell phone is not quite easy or convenient.

Cell – or mobile – phones could be loosely divided into two types: “basic” and “smart.” Both types store text, contacts and other information either on a drive or a detachable SIM card. If you want to save text/SMS messages, you have to transfer them off the phone and onto whatever storage medium you put your personal digital stuff.

Saving text messages is more difficult for basic phones. You have to open the phone, remove its SIM card and display the card’s contents through a SIM card reader. A reader is an inexpensive device that plugs into a computer. You pop the SIM card into the reader, display the card contents and copy the text messages to the computer.

The “Text” — or TXT — format of the text messages is one of the least complex of all file formats, so you can display the contents of a text message file with a basic text editor. You can even display it through a browser; text files get along well with several different programs.

“SIM Card Reader” on Flickr by busy.pochi

Smart phones give you more control over text messages. You can either transfer the files off your phone via a cable into a computer or transfer the files wirelessly via Bluetooth. There are many software resources available to access, view and manipulate the files. I have a nice $1.99 app for my smartphone that displays the text messages from my phone and gives me the option to save them all off the phone as a single file (with a choice from a few different file formats) on my computer.

The app displays the contents of the SMS file organized into four categories: ADDRESS (the screen name of the person with whom I am exchanging texts), DIR (the direction the text in the conversation is going, whether it was sent in to me or I sent it out to the ADDRESS), DATE (the date and time the text was sent) and TEXT (the body of the text itself).

Some cell phone text message software enable you to recover texts you thought were deleted from your cell phone. This is possible because when you delete a text message, it doesn’t actually get erased. Though the phone tells you that the text is deleted, in reality the phone keeps the text for awhile in a ghost-like state and makes the space that the text inhabits vacant and available to new text.

“Motorola C168i” on Flickr by craig1black

If new text comes along and it needs the space that your so-called “deleted” text inhabits, the new text will overwrite the old text (which is still squatting in the “available” space). If new text comes along and finds a space to park and doesn’t need the “deleted” message’s available space, the deleted message will continue to exist, out of sight, until something new eventually comes along, overwrites the “deleted” text and takes over its space.

Which means that some deleted text may still be recoverable. There is a big market for text recovery and text recovery software, especially for snooping. That is why, if you search online for cell phone text message recovery software, you will see many listings for commercial data-recovery products whose target audience is law enforcement, security, private investigation and other legal work.

If you are considering approaching your cell phone service provider to request a copy of your cell phone messages, expect to encounter legal obstacles; your provider will not just turn over your text message files to you, no matter how much ID you provide. For privacy purposes, there are strict laws governing access to your phone files, including the 2006 Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act, and the laws vary in complexity and severity from state to state. You can ask your local law enforcement agency for advice but ultimately you will probably need a court order to get the files.

“SMS” on Flickr by pouwerkerk

It’s better, going forward, to plan for archiving your text messages. If you want to preserve texts, get in the habit of not deleting them from your phone, especially if a particular conversation is precious to you. And back them up frequently once you archive them.

It would be ideal if, every time I connect my cell phone to the computer to recharge it, software checks my cell phone for text messages that are new since I last plugged in, then automatically transfers the new files to my computer and archives them. Even better, it would be nice if the software simultaneously uploaded a copy to a cloud backup service. But until affordable, easy-to-use autosave software comes along, save your texts every time you recharge your phone.

Smart phone users, look into the appropriate text-message-saving apps or software for your phone. Those of you that have simple phones, look into SIM card readers but be sure before you make a purchase that this method works for your particular phone. You might want to ask for a demonstration in the electronics store, using the SIM card from your phone.

As a temporary solution, you can always email text messages to yourself and save them, one by one, on your computer. That method can quickly get tedious though. Ideally, technology should take care of text-message archiving in the background without bothering you to perform petty tasks.

22 Comments

  1. Alex
    April 27, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I’m embarrassed to say that I had never thought of archiving text messages. Well maybe once…when my father was overseas and I thought to myself “What if this is the last message I ever receive from him?…it would be nice to be able to keep it.” but I had no idea how to do that and so eventually it was deleted. My father returned safe and sound.

    This week a patron came into our local library the other day and was printing out what seemed to be photos of text messages which I guess is another way of archiving them :)

  2. Mike Ashenfelder
    May 4, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Thanks for the comment, Alex. I understand your thoughts about your father completely. Some correspondence is precious and it’s natural to want to save it and treasure it. I think that archiving text messages will become an easy, standardized option in time. The technology is available and it’d be simple to automate.

  3. Natasha
    June 12, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Given that texts are a form of communication, like electonic or hard copy letters, and even more like tweets, will the Library of Congress be archiving text messages as well?

  4. Mike Ashenfelder
    June 12, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Good question. There are no plans at this time for the Library of Congress to focus solely on archiving cell-phone text messages. However, when the Library — or any other cultural institution that practices digital preservation — archives personal collections such as the Salman Rushdie collection at Emory University, the institution will archive anything digital. If the author saved cell-phone text messages with his or her other digital files, then the cell-phone texts would get archived with everything else.

  5. savannah
    September 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    What is the app called?

  6. Mike Ashenfelder
    September 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    We are not permitted to recommend products by name, but if you search online for “app save text messages” or search your app store for “save text messages” you can find several useful, inexpensive apps.

  7. louis
    October 27, 2012 at 9:40 am

    im trying to recover some old texted messages that i deleted on an old type cell phone can it be done

  8. Mike Ashenfelder
    October 30, 2012 at 10:16 am

    They may still reside on your SIM card. Take your phone to a consumer electronics store and ask a salesperson to test your SIM card on a SIM-card reader.

  9. Mohammad Ajmal Farahi
    November 7, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    by mistake i deleted my text messages from my cellphone Tmobile and its very imprtent for me i really need it for the court to show to the lawyer.

  10. At Ease
    December 9, 2012 at 7:02 am

    IDEA…TAKE A SCREEN SHOT!…VIEW IN GALLERY… MANY OPTIONS AFTER THAT…SEND PIC. MAKE FOLDER. SEND TO A VAULT..TO A COMPUTER..COMPRESS ZIP FILE…DONE..

  11. Jenifer
    March 19, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    The buttons on my blackberry phone quit working so I transferred all pictures and text (txt) files to my computer. The text files are there, but they are not readable, they need to be converted into plain text somehow. Can anyone help me? There are some very special conversations on there I do not want to lose. Thank you for any help :)

  12. Mike Ashenfelder
    March 20, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Jennifer,

    If they are indeed simple TXT files, you should be able to open them on either a Mac (Applications > TextEdit) or PC (Accessories > Notepad). Or you can search online for a free text editor. If you think you might need to convert them from one format to another, just search online for whatever format you’re trying to convert from.

    Mike

  13. Dee
    June 21, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Hi, thanks for the article. I am currently looking for a mobile phone that has downloadable text messages but can’t seem to find any? I used to have nokia N70, that was brilliant, although I could only print screen it. With my blackberry I have to subscribe £20 a year to be able to download my text messages to an excel file then save as PDF. Any idea?

    Dee

  14. Mike Ashenfelder
    July 1, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Dee,

    I can’t make recommendations for mobile phones or software.

    There are many useful and inexpensive apps available for smart phones. Search online for “download,” “text,” “mobile” and “phone,” and you should be able to find something.

    Regards,

    Mike

  15. Toby
    August 20, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    If you have a simple phone, but the carrier doesn’t use SIM cards, what options do you have, in order to keep the data (date, time, etc.) intact? Need messages for a court case, but so far, it looks like I’m going to have to take a picture of about 400 individual texts and print them. Any suggestions?

  16. kinzaali
    January 28, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    i m going to save my some facebook messages but unfortunately i press the button archive now how can i get archive messages.its v important for me any help can possible thanks

  17. meg
    March 14, 2014 at 8:34 am

    So all I have to do is take my phone to the provider and they can recover all delete SMS messages?

  18. Mike Ashenfelder
    March 14, 2014 at 11:27 am

    It’s possible. Call them first to confirm that they will do it for you. Otherwise visit an electronics store and ask about a card reader.

  19. jhon
    April 12, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Is there any way to get messages from other’s cellphone ? ? ? without card reader …… plz help

  20. Mike Ashenfelder
    April 16, 2014 at 11:31 am

    If it’s a smartphone, there are apps that will enable you to transfer text. Search online for your phone and how to get text or SMS from it.

  21. Pam
    July 1, 2014 at 12:10 am

    I tried forwarding my precious text messages to my computer, but it did not keep the original date of the text. Instead it simply gave me the date of sending it to my computer. I want to keep everything – the person who sent, the mesage sent, and the date it was sent. What is the best way to capture all this off my cell phone.

    I have a very old phone (LG) and my husband told me it was time to move into the future, but I really want to keep my 114 precious text messages.

  22. Mike Ashenfelder
    July 1, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Pam,

    Try taking your phone to one of the big electronics stores. They should be able to remove your memory card, on which the texts are contained, and set you up with a card reader that will display your texts. From there you can save them onto a backup drive.

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