How Long Does an iPhone Store a Deleted SMS?

By Thomas McNish

SMS (short message service) messages are more commonly known as text messages. Even though you may think that deleted text messages are gone for good, this isn't necessarily so. Deleted SMS messages are stored in the iPhone itself, as well as on the network. But this isn't permanent. Time is of the essence when retrieving deleted SMS messages on the iPhone.

What Happens to Deleted Texts

When a text message is deleted on the iPhone, it doesn't disappear permanently. First, a copy of it is sent to the network provider. Next, the copy in your phone isn't permanently deleted, but rather marked as "deleted" by the iPhone's internal database. Even though you see the message as "deleted," it has actually just been moved to a less accessible region of the phone's memory. However, not even this is permanent, and the message will be automatically deleted later. The exact length of time that the iPhone will keep a deleted SMS in its memory can't be precisely determined. However, it will vary, depending on one major factor.

How Long Texts Stay On the Network

In 2008, Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick found out the hard way that network providers keep track of deleted text messages. His flirty and explicit messages with one of his aides were used against him in a trial for obstruction of justice and misconduct in office, among other things. But his phone, as well as his aide's phone, were equipped with special devices, because Kwame and his aide were government officials. Phones used by average people on major networks like Verizon and AT&T (the carriers who support the iPhone) only keep text messages for a few days. AT&T for instance, only keeps a deleted text message for 72 hours. Verizon keeps deleted SMS messages for up to 10 days. In order to view these messages though, you must get a court order. They can't be accessed by the general public at a moment's notice.

How Long Texts Stay On the Phone

How long your deleted SMS messages will stay on your phone depends primarily on how often you use the SMS service. If, for instance, you text a lot, then the deleted SMS messages won't be around for as long. This is because the "deleted" messages that are stored in the iPhone's memory get deleted in order of oldest SMS to newest SMS. The memory that houses the "deleted" texts is finite, and it cleans itself out in order to make room for new messages. The good news for iPhone users however, is that the iPhone tends to store deleted text messages longer than other phones, according to Jesse Lindmar, Assistant Director of Computer Forensics at Sensei Enterprises. He states that messages up to two years old can be recovered, although this happens rarely. More often, the texts must be a year old or younger to be retrieved.

Recovery Methods

There are a few different recovery methods for recovering deleted iPhone text messages. The first, and simplest, is to perform a restore on your iPhone from a previous backup. This can be done in iTunes, but it will only retrieve texts that were deleted between the last time you synced your device and now. Don't sync your iPhone with iTunes when you connect it to your computer. Otherwise, all of your texts from the previous sync will be deleted. Another method is to use a SIM card spy tool. This can be used with the AT&T iPhone, because it stores its deleted SMS messages on the SIM card. However, the Verizon iPhone is incompatible with a SIM card spy tool, because Verizon doesn't use SIM cards in their iPhones. A method that works with both carriers is jailbreaking your device, and then downloading a text recovery app from Cydia, such as "Undelete SMS." However, jailbreaking your device voids your iPhone's warranty. A safer method is to pay a professional to have your iPhone text messages recovered for you. Take your iPhone in to a computer forensics lab near you, and request that your deleted SMS messages be recovered. There's often a fee for this, but it works for Verizon iPhones, as well as AT&T iPhones, and is safer than jailbreaking your device.