Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

What is WhatsApp?

Launched in 2009, WhatsApp is a free, multi-platform messaging app that lets users make video and voice calls, send text messages, share their status, and more with just a Wi-Fi connection. Part of what makes this app appealing is that it works on various phone and computer operating systems, so you can continue your conversation anytime, anywhere. It can also take advantage of Wi-Fi and cellular data to make one-on-one or group calls, reducing the need for expensive calling charges. If this sounds exciting so far, keep reading to find out everything you need to know about WhatsApp.

Free international calls

WhatsApp uses your phone’s cellular or Wi-Fi connection to facilitate messaging and voice calling to nearly anyone on the planet, alone or in a group, and is especially nice for families and small collaborative workgroups. The app lets you make calls, send and receive messages, and share documents, photos, and videos. WhatsApp is completely free — with no fees or subscriptions — because it uses your phone’s 5G, 4G, 3G, 2G, EDGE, or Wi-Fi connection instead of your cell plan’s voice minutes or text plan. If you’re connected via Wi-Fi, it won’t eat into your data plan, either.

Easy chatting and calling over most platforms

WhatsApp is platform agnostic. You do not need to own the same brand of the phone as your call recipient or be on a specific platform — the app works with iPhone and Android phones and Mac or Windows desktop or laptop computers, which you can use to send and receive messages, but not make calls. Like any other SMS messenger, you can initiate a conversation with an individual or a group and video chat with up to eight people. The iOS version also has in-app support for video playback from both Instagram and Facebook. You can also share your location, broadcast your status to your contacts, share contacts, set customized wallpapers and notification alerts, email chat history, use the camera to shoot photos and videos from within the app, and simultaneously broadcast messages to multiple contacts. You are always logged in so you never miss messages, but even if you miss notifications while your phone is off, the app saves recent messages for when you re-open the app.

Like iMessage for the iPhone, WhatsApp has a simple interface that showcases your chats in text bubbles complete with a timestamp and notifies you when your recipient has viewed your text.

WhatsApp can identify people in your contact list who currently use the app, so you typically don’t have to add them manually. You can also invite people who don’t have WhatsApp or connect with other users you know but who aren’t on your contact list. WhatsApp lets you create work, friends, or family groups to communicate with up to 256 participants. The app also lets you change your background and send your GPS location to the group through an interactive map. Additionally, you can type in a status message or upload a photo in your status that will last up to 24 hours. It’s also quite adaptable, as you can block contacts from within the app or send a friend’s information to another user within the app.

The app has a search function that lets you search by keyword, group, contact name, or phone number. You can also search for keywords in a conversation. WhatsApp is interoperable with Google so that you can save a copy of your message history to Google Drive or, if you are not on Google, to your phone’s memory. Should you lose critical messages, you can redownload and reinstall the app to find your lost messages.

Security

WhatsApp has a number of advanced security features. It has end-to-end encryption, just like Apple’s iMessage and Signal. All messages flowing through the platform are secured so that only the sender and the recipient can view them. This means WhatsApp couldn’t read your message even if it wanted to. The app doesn’t store your personal information, and only people you approve as contacts can message you. As with an increasing number of internet services like Google and Facebook, WhatsApp uses two-factor authentication, which has you type in a second passcode sent to your phone via text message to access your account. Group messages can conflict with some privacy settings, however, in that if you have blocked someone, they can still appear in a group message that you can see.

Global reach versus the competition

Hootsuite chart showing the world's most used social media platforms.

WhatsApp says it serves more than 2 billion people in over 180 countries, with over a billion daily active users. WhatsApp Messenger is now the leading mobile messaging app in 169 countries — although perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t as popular in the U.S., where Messenger was more frequently used. This seems to be changing now, as recent data shows WhatsApp topped the list of the most popular global mobile messaging apps in 2021. Currently, more than 100 billion messages are sent each day on WhatsApp, making it the most active messaging app in the world.

WhatsApp generally takes a broad approach to reach as many people as possible around the world. The app continues to dominate in India, Germany, Russia, and the U.K. However, despite its impressive stats, WhatsApp isn’t the only game in town. Among the app’s competitors are Signal, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Skype, and even Twitter DMs.

WhatsApp Mobile updates

WhatsApp instituted new privacy settings in 2020 that gave users more control over group messages, particularly when it comes to who can add you to groups. Admins can send you a private invite via Settings > Account > Privacy > Groups. The app also added more privacy options for the status function. Now, there are three options available: Everyone, My Contacts, and My Contacts Except. My Contacts are restricted to people you have in your address book, and My Contacts Except offers even more control over which contacts can see your status. You can add or remove users from this My Contacts Except list for every status you update, thus giving you more privacy and control over the information you share on the app.

Additionally, now new call-waiting features let you choose to accept an incoming WhatsApp call while you’re on another call.

However, WhatsApp made a lot of headlines as it updated its privacy policy and terms of use after being acquired by Facebook. It was assumed this update would give WhatsApp the right to read user messages, but Niamh Sweeney, WhatsApp’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, confirmed there were no changes to the app’s data-sharing policy.

Web version

WhatsApp Web is a desktop version of the mobile app that operates within standard Mac or Windows browsers (except Internet Explorer). But unfortunately, it doesn’t offer all the services available in the mobile app. Everything you do on the web will sync and show up on the iPhone or Android app so all of your chats get synced — and the web version now lets you make video calls, too. A business version lets companies access WhatsApp to interact with customers.

Downsides of WhatsApp

WhatsApp is a deeply useful service for people worldwide. We’ve found that one of the only issues that app users face is that they cannot communicate with friends and family who haven’t downloaded the app yet. WhatsApp only allows users with an account to chat with others within the platform. To fully benefit from the host of positives this app provides, you’ll have to convince the people in your life to join the WhatsApp circle. Once you’ve convinced everyone to join, you’ll find there are very few problems with the app.

It can be tough to convince others to join, especially if they already prefer messaging through other apps or platforms. If that’s the case, you may need to win them over with some of the other promising features from WhatsApp, like their “stories” and universal messaging. Unfortunately, the app doesn’t have any of the face or photo filters that are popular on competitor apps; that could be a downside for users who like mainstream messaging services.

WhatsApp doesn’t have a designated virtual assistant, either. The app also restricts users to a maximum file limit while messaging — you can’t send files, photos, or videos larger than 100MB and 16MB respectively. Fortunately, you can call other users for free, but if you are not on Wi-Fi, it can suck up data quickly. To stop those data charges from racking up, try to use WhatsApp only while on Wi-Fi. Finally, WhatsApp is not able to call 911 or any other emergency services. You will need a real cell phone plan for those emergency services.

Top WhatsApp updates

Certain WhatsApp features were finally introduced in other parts of the world in 2021. For instance, flash calls were made available in India. These calls allow users to verify their phone numbers via an automated call, as opposed to using the SMS facility while setting up or reinstalling WhatsApp. WhatsApp made these changes since they believe that it is a much safer option as all the actions are performed from the app itself.

Meanwhile, multidevice support was also introduced to WhatsApp. It essentially permits the usage of WhatsApp on up to four linked devices without linking them to a smartphone. Personal calls and messages will be linked across all devices, and messages can be sent using the WhatsApp desktop app or the web-based app. The disappearing messages feature has also been updated. The duration for disappearing messages now comes in three options — 24 hours, seven days, and 90 days. Users can turn on this feature for both individual and group chats on WhatsApp. They simply need to turn on the relevant chat, tap on the chat info, and then select Disappearing Messages. After these actions, they can switch on the feature and choose the necessary duration. However, the new feature is optional and does not delete any existing chats.

Downloading WhatsApp. Credits: WhatsApp.

On August 16, 2021, WhatsApp rolled out a feature that allowed users to migrate their chat history from iOS to Android. Just a day later, another welcome change was introduced by the company on all its platforms. They began testing a large link feature that allows users to view a video preview or a page without clicking on the link. For example, when a friend sends us a YouTube video link, we can simply click on the link, and the video appears in the same WhatsApp chat section instead of taking users to another window. Additionally, a photo editing option for WhatsApp desktop was also introduced in November by the Meta-owned company. The option is also available for WhatsApp Web. Users are permitted to add text and stickers or crop and rotate their photos from any WhatsApp screen. Sticker suggestions also now appear in the chat, just like emoji suggestions. It encourages users to be more creative in their interactions.

Major redesigns were also introduced to two other aspects of the chat feature — voice notes and chat bubbles. The Meta-owned company was working on a feature that allowed users to see their voice waveforms in chat bubbles. Moreover, in October 2021, they released an updated version for beta users on the iOS platform that allowed users to view redesigned chat bubbles. The users could see rounder and larger chat bubbles when compared to the previous version. Additionally, one can preview their WhatsApp voice recordings. Previously, users could only cancel the recording without any option to preview it. This change is rather useful, as it can allow users to rehearse and improve their notes rather than testing the quality of their recorded notes but having no evidence to make rectifications. 

Besides these changes, WhatsApp has also increased the user limit for video and voice calls from four to eight. These calls would be end-to-end encrypted. The platform is expected to introduce several major updates in 2022, including the introduction of Instagram reels, as well as a Read Later option that could replace the archived chats feature. More details would be shared once these changes are widely available.

Editors' Recommendations