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How to Retrieve Deleted Text Messages on an iPhone

Don’t panic! Those accidentally deleted messages aren’t necessarily gone forever—not if you take action quickly and follow these step-by-step instructions.

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All is not lost!

Most of us have hundreds (if not thousands) of text messages on our iPhones from the last year alone. There’s not always a reason we keep these things, other than we often don’t think to delete them. But there are usually at least a few text exchanges we want to keep—the messages between loved ones that make us smile when we look back over them, the photos sent from friends and family, and even the work text messages that contain instructions and passwords we need to do our jobs. If any of those were to be deleted, we would undoubtedly panic. Unfortunately, accidental deletions happen. But the good news is, if you’ve got an iPhone, you can probably get those messages back if you take action quickly. Once you know what to do, check out these other hidden iPhone hacks you probably never knew about.

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How is recovery possible?

Now that you’ve breathed a sigh of relief that you can get your messages back, you might be wondering how that’s even possible. After all, if something’s gone, isn’t it just gone? Not necessarily, says Mark Soto, the founder of Cybericus, a cybersecurity firm in Milwaukee that frequently performs digital forensics on phones, recovering deleted text messages and emails. “iPhone messages are stored in a database in what is called SQLite format. These messages aren’t immediately deleted from the database—they’re instead added to a type of list called freelists,” he explains. “The messages in these freelists are then stored in records that can be accessed by iTunes and in your cloud backup. This is how forensic agencies are able to recover deleted messages.”

A word of warning: Those freelists are eventually written over as you send more text messages. So, if you’ve accidentally deleted your messages, Soto says, don’t send additional messages until after you’ve recovered the ones you lost.

Here’s what else Apple insiders know about iPhones that you don’t.

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Go to the source

There are a handful of ways to retrieve lost messages, but Soto says the simplest is probably contacting your service provider. “Every now and then, you’ll get lucky and find out that they have a backup of your recent messages and calls,” he explains. “This is usually the first step we take before we start to use any digital forensics software.”

turn on icloud backupvia iPhone

Use your iCloud backup

If your service provider can’t help you, your next best bet is your iCloud backup. Bruce Hogan, the cofounder and CEO of SoftwarePundit, outlines following these step-by-step instructions:

  1. On your iPhone, turn on the iCloud backup by visiting: Settings > [your name] > iCloud > iCloud Backup.
  2. Connect your phone to the WiFi for the backup to begin.
  3. You can set your iPhone to back up on a daily basis.
  4. The backup includes the following information: app data; Apple Watch backups, device settings, home screen, and app organization; iMessage, text (SMS), and MMS messages; photos and videos on your iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch; purchase history from Apple services, like your music, movies, TV shows, apps, and books; ringtones; and visual voicemail password (which requires the SIM card that was in use during the backup).
  5. Make sure that you have enough space in your iCloud for all of the information above. Apple gives you 5 GB for free. In the United States, you can get 2 TB for $9.99 per month.
  6. To restore your iPhone from a backup, the first step is to reset the phone. You can do this by navigating to Settings > General > Reset.
  7. Once your phone is reset, navigate to the Apps & Data screen. On this screen, select Restore from iCloud Backup.
  8. Sign in to iCloud with your Apple ID and the phone will back up.

Once you’ve done that, you might want to try these hacks for freeing up space on your iPhone.

itunes iphone interfacevia iMac

Go through iTunes

Not everyone backs up through the Cloud as often as they should. If your last backup was six months ago, you won’t be able to retrieve any recently lost text messages. But if you’ve backed up your data to iTunes, you can recover it, according to Kenny Trinh, managing editor of Netbooknews. Here’s what he says you need to do:

  1. Connect your iPhone to your computer.
  2. Run iTunes, and click the iPhone icon on the iTunes interface to access your iPhone manage interface.
  3. On your device’s Summary page, choose Restore Backups.
  4. Then choose your iPhone backup by Data and Size, and click Restore.

While this certainly feels like a lifesaver, this amazing feature on your iPhone could actually save your life one day.

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Try data-recovery software

When all else fails, it’s time to look at third-party software tools, says Brett Downes, founder of the link-building company HaroHelpers. “This may cost you a fair bit of money, so you need to weigh how important the lost messages are,” he notes. “Also, there is no guarantee it will work. But if you’re desperate, this is the next—possibly last—chance.”

Downes has personally used PhoneRescue by iMobie and says that many experts also recommend Enigma Recovery. These tools each have their own set of instructions and price tags. So how do they work? It all comes down to freelists. “Even deleted messages remain on your handset until overwritten, so you should be able to recover deleted messages using this software,” Downes says. “[But] make sure you use the software as quickly as possible. The longer you leave it, the more likely it is that you’ll have written over the relevant section of memory.”

Mother holding baby and multi-tasking (texting) in kitchenMoMo Productions/Getty Images

One final option

Actually, there is one more way to get those texts back. “If there is a specific message you need or a thread of messages, get in contact with the person you sent them to/shared text exchanges with,” Downes says. “They can either forward the essential message to you or, if there are a lot, download them and send them over as a batch.”

While we’re on the subject, you might want to go through your messages and delete unnecessary ones. And if you get any of these texts, delete them immediately.

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Tips for the future

Once you’ve retrieved your lost messages, make sure you’re prepared in case this ever happens again. “Set up Messages in iCloud,” Hogan suggests. “This allows you to access and send messages from any Mac device. In the event that you lose your phone, you’ll still have your messages on your computer.”

Of course, that only helps you if you’ve lost your phone. If you accidentally delete your messages, you’ll still be in the same boat. “If you delete a message on one device, it will be deleted from all devices,” he concedes. But at least you’ll have a backup on the Cloud.

Next, find out which 15 things you’re doing to your iPhone that Apple experts wouldn’t.

Leah Campbell
Leah Campbell covers technology for Reader’s Digest as well as sites including Reviewed.com. She has a degree in developmental psychology and has written extensively on topics relating to infertility, dating, adoption and parenting. A single mother by choice after a serendipitous series of events led to the adoption of her daughter, Leah is also author of the book Single Infertile Female. She lives in Alaska. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin.