If an animal behaviorist saw your text messages, they'd probably classify them as contact calls. Like a chicken's cluck or a goose's honk, we use iMessage to share our immediate thoughts, make short-term plans, or just say hi to friends and family.

But what if you need to find an address a friend texted you months ago, or can’t remember the name of the coffee shop where a potential client wanted to meet?

Your first step would be scrolling through your message list. So, first, we'll look at how iPhone shows messages you've received within the past few weeks. 

Then, we'll look at your few, limited options for searching your messages. 

Finally, you'll learn about apps and programs that make finding older messages much easier. 

How Your iPhone Displays Your iMessage History

Apple's iMessage displays different information about the history of your message depending on how old the message is.

Messages Sent Earlier In The Day

For messages you've sent earlier in the day, iMessage's list view displays the time that the last message in the string was sent.  

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If you tap to view the message string, you'll see the messages listed under "Today," along with the time the first message in the string was sent. To see the time that each individual message was sent, slowly swipe left on the screen.

Messages Sent Within Seven Days

For messages sent within seven days, iMessage's list view displays the day of the week that the message was sent.

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If you tap to view the message string, you'll see the messages listed under the day of the week that they were sent—except for messages from the previous day, which are listed under "Yesterday"—along with the time the first message in that string was sent. To see the time that each individual message was sent, slowly swipe left on the screen.

Messages Sent More Than Seven Days Earlier

For messages more than seven days old, iMessage's list view displays the date that the message was sent.

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If you tap to view the message string, you'll see the messages listed under the day and date that they were sent, along with the time the first message in that string was sent. To see the time that each individual message was sent, slowly swipe left on the screen.

How To See Attachments To Any iMessage String

While you are viewing any message string, tap the i button to see images or attachments associated with that string. For group texts, you'll also see an expanded list of who is included in the string.

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Searching Your iMessage History

To search your iMessage history, scroll to the top of iMessage's list view. You'll see a search box. Start typing and you'll start to see messages appear that match your search.

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iMessage search isn't sophisticated. It's a simple text search with major limitations.

  • No "smart" search capabilities. If you search "NYC," it's going to return all messages with that specific text. It's not going to show you messages where you typed "New York City."
  • No searching within only messages you've received. You can't confine your search to messages you sent, or to messages you received. iMessage searches for the string of text in every message in your history.
  • No searching within specific text strings. For example, if you want to see all of the times you mentioned "Thanksgiving" in a text message string with your family, you'd have to search the term "Thanksgiving" and scroll through all the times you texted that word to anyone.

How Long Your iMessage History Is Saved

You can decide how long your iMessages are saved in your iPhone. You can choose to have the iPhone keep messages for 30 days, 1 year, or forever.

Go to Settings > Messages > Keep Messages to make your choice. Before you do, be aware that the setting applies retroactively. If you choose the "30 days" option, all messages you sent or received more than 30 days ago will be deleted right away.

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These settings only apply to your current iPhone. If you get a new iPhone, your old messages won't be on it. The best solution for continuous long-term iMessage storage is exclusive to folks who own another Apple product.

If you own a Mac or iPad, you can associate your phone with that device. Then, the messages are saved on that device, and are backed up on Apple's Time Machine backup system—if you have that enabled.

If you don't own a Mac or iPad, you'll have to backup the messages yourself. The easiest way is to use an app. Most cost around $5. Search "text message backup" in the App Store to find some. They'll download your messages to a file that can be opened in Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet programs.

How To Recover Deleted iMessages

Apple doesn't give you a way to recover deleted text messages by yourself. If you Google it, you'll find complicated instructions that require advanced computer expertise. We'd recommend taking your device to an Apple Store and asking for their recommendation.

Atlas Recall: A Better Way To Search Your iMessage History

If you find yourself frequently looking for information in chat or text messages, the lack of robust searching options can really slow you down. Happily, Mac/iPhone users now have an option that not only can capture iMessage data, but match it with other documents about similar topics.

Atlas Recall remembers everything you see on your Mac. It stores the contents of texts you read, Excel spreadsheets you work on, or web pages you visit. Then, when you want to find these items again, you can search—from your Mac, iPad, or iPhone. If you can remember just a single word from the document, Atlas Recall will find it for you. 

Learn more about Atlas Recall's capabilities and privacy features.