How to Permanently Delete Text Messages on iPhone

Messages on an iPhone 5
 William Hook / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Whether it's because you want to keep your Messages app tidy or because you want to keep a message private by deleting it, a simple swipe usually takes care of things.

Except that in some cases it actually doesn't. It turns out that deleting text messages from your iPhone isn't so simple.

Instructions in this article apply to iPhones running iOS 12 or iOS 11.

Check for Deleted Text Messages

Try this: delete an SMS message from your iPhone and then go to Spotlight and search for the text of the message you just deleted. In many cases, the text message appears in the search results. Tapping the search result for the deleted text lets you read it. This behavior also occurs in some cases when you search within the Messages app.

Those text messages you thought were gone when you deleted them are still hanging around your iPhone.

Why Text Messages Aren't Truly Deleted

Text messages hang around after you delete them because of how the iPhone deletes data. When you delete some kinds of items from the iPhone, they aren't removed. Instead, they're marked for deletion by the operating system and hidden so they appear to be gone, but they're still on the phone.

Marked-for-deletion files, like text messages, aren't truly deleted until you sync your iPhone with iTunes or iCloud.

How to Permanently Delete iPhone Text Messages

To permanently delete text messages from your iPhone, there are a few things you can do to either get rid of them or make them harder to find:

Sync Regularly: When you sync with iTunes or iCloud the items you've marked for deletion are erased. Sync regularly. when you delete a text and then sync your iPhone, the message is gone for good.​

Remove the Messages App From Spotlight Search: Your deleted messages can't appear in a Spotlight search if Spotlight isn't looking for them. You control the apps Spotlight searches and which it ignores:

  1. From your home screen, tap Settings.

  2. Tap Siri & Search. (In older versions of the iOS, tap General and then Spotlight Search).

  3. Scroll down and tap Messages.

  4. Move the slider next to Search & Siri Suggestions to the Off/white position.

    Three iOS screens showing Siri & Search, Messages and Siri & Suggestions toggle to OFF
    Sam Costello 

Now, when you run a Spotlight search on your phone, text messages won't be included in the results.

Erase All Data or Restore to Factory Settings: These are pretty extreme steps, so we don't recommend using them as your first choice, but they do solve the problem. Erasing all data on your iPhone does just what it sounds like: it erases everything stored in your iPhone's memory, including your text messages marked for deletion. Of course, it deletes your music, email, apps, and everything else, too.

The same is true of restoring the iPhone to factory settings. This procedure returns the iPhone to the state it arrived in when it came from the factory. Again, it deletes everything, but your deleted text messages will definitely be gone.

Use a Passcode: One way to prevent nosy people from reading your deleted text messages is to keep them from accessing your iPhone in the first place. A good way to do that is to put a passcode on your iPhone that they have to enter before unlocking it. The standard iPhone passcode is four digits, but for extra-strength protection, try the more secure passcode you get by turning the Simple Passcode option off. Thanks to the Touch ID fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 5S and up, and the Face ID facial recognition system on the iPhone X series, you can have even more powerful security.

Apps: Your deleted text messages can't be found if they're not saved at all. If you want to make sure not to leave a record, use messaging apps that automatically delete your messages after a specified period of time. Snapchat works this way, but it's not the only option. 

Why Texts May Never Truly Be Gone

Even if you remove a text message from your phone, it may not be truly gone. That's because it could be stored on your phone company's servers. Normal text messages go from your phone to your phone company to the recipient. In most cases, that means the phone company retains a copy of messages. These can be subpoenaed by law enforcement in criminal cases, for example.

That's not true for all iPhone users, though. If you use Apple's iMessage, messages are encrypted from end to end and cannot be decrypted by anyone, not even by law enforcement.