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Signal vs. Telegram: Which encrypted messaging app wins?

The Signal and Telegram apps grouped together on a smartphone screen.
(Image credit: Ascannio/Shutterstock)

Once WhatsApp began forcing users to share data with Facebook last year, there was a large exodus from the popular chat app with many users turning to other free messaging platforms to communicate instead. Signal and Telegram are two of the most popular alternatives and they both are featured on our list of the best encrypted messaging apps.

However, Signal and Telegram have several key differences and each will likely benefit different types of users. Let’s see how they stack up against each other.

Signal vs. Telegram: Features compared

SignalTelegram
EncryptionEnd-to-end by default using the Signal ProtocolSome end-to-end options using the MTProto 2.0 protocol
Data collectedNone except phone numberPhone number, contacts, IP address
Messaging typesIndividual, group, video, voiceIndividual, group, channels, video, voice
Self-destruct messagingYes, for all chatsYes, for Secret Chats only
CustomizationLimitedExtensive
CostFreeFree

Signal vs. Telegram: Which is more secure?

The bottom line: if security is your priority, Signal is the obvious pick. 

Signal is the clear winner when it comes to security. For starters, all Signal messages are encrypted end-to-end by default, which means that no one but you and the people you're chatting with can access your messages.

In contrast, only some of Telegram's messages and voice calls have end-to-end encryption. The rest are potentially visible to Telegram employees, law enforcement and others. We'll go into more detail on the message types below. 

Signal's open-source encryption protocol is available for all to see and anyone to examine, meaning that flaws can be found and fixed quickly. Its encryption is also used by WhatsApp.

For its encrypted Secret Chats, Telegram uses its own MTProto 2.0 protocol, which is open-source on the client side. Many information-security experts state that Telegram's "homegrown encryption technology (opens in new tab)" has a limited track record compared to Signal's, although the consensus seems to be that it is more secure than MTProto 1.0 (opens in new tab)

An academic research paper (opens in new tab) published in December 2020 analyzed Telegram's MTProto 2.0 protocol and deemed it fundamentally sound. But the paper added that "further investigation" was needed "in order to deem this protocol suite definitely secure."

Signal collects far less data on its users than Telegram does. Signal generally stores only the date on which you created your account and when you last connected. Telegram's metadata may include your IP address (and as a result, your location) as well as who you are talking to and when. That matters when the authorities show up at the service provider's facilities with a search warrant.

You can start Signal chats by typing in another person's number, but Telegram needs access to your contacts before you can message anyone.

For those who are concerned about big tech snooping on private conversations, Signal again proves to be the better choice. 

While Signal is owned by a non-profit foundation, Telegram's founders are Russian billionaires Pavel and Nikolai Durov, who also created VK, the country's most popular social network. The brothers no longer live in Russia, and while their company is based in London, many of its central operations are in Dubai.

Signal vs. Telegram: Device support

Telegram has a slight edge in this category, with support for Windows Phone (opens in new tab) as well as a Chrome browser extension (opens in new tab) and a fully web-based option (opens in new tab). Both Signal and Telegram are available on the following platforms: 

iOS (Signal (opens in new tab), Telegram (opens in new tab))

MacOS (Signal (opens in new tab), Telegram (opens in new tab))

Android (Signal (opens in new tab), Telegram (opens in new tab))

Windows (Signal (opens in new tab), Telegram (opens in new tab))

Linux (Debian-based distros for Signal (opens in new tab), 32-bit (opens in new tab) and 64-bit (opens in new tab) versions for Telegram)

Signal vs. Telegram: Installation and ease of use

The installation process for both apps is relatively simple: Download the software for your preferred platform, register using your phone number, and enter the verification code received via SMS. (In some cases, Telegram will call you with the code instead.) 

Both platforms require a first name to finalize your profile, but neither require that name to be your real name. You can use an alias or, with Signal, an emoji. You'll be asked whether you want to enable app permissions, such as access to your contacts.

Signal then requires you to create a PIN. This step is optional, but recommended, with Telegram and can be found under Settings > Privacy & Security > Passcode Lock. 

Before you can enable a desktop version of either Signal or Telegram, you must set up your account via the mobile app. Signal has an in-app QR code for linking other devices. Telegram provides a similar QR code, but you can also use your phone number and an SMS verification code. 

Until earlier this year, Signal required you to create a new account if you changed your phone number. It now permits you to port your account to a new number provided you're still using the same phone. (You can also move your account to a new phone (opens in new tab) that uses the same number as the old one, as long as you're not switching from Android to iOS or vice versa.)

Changing phone numbers in Telegram (opens in new tab) is a lot easier and can be done right within the app. Changing phones isn't a problem at all, as multiple devices can be logged into a single Telegram account (opens in new tab) as long as they use the same phone number. (But you'll want to keep your Telegram password a very close secret.)

Signal vs. Telegram: Features

Both apps are similar when it comes to chat options.

Individual messages: Signal's individual messages are encrypted end-to-end by default, while Telegram's basic one-on-one chats are not. If you want to protect your communications in Telegram from Telegram itself, you'll have to start a Secret Chat. 

Group chats: Both platforms offer a group messaging option. Again, Signal's is encrypted end-to-end, while Telegram's is not. (There's no Secret Chat equivalent for groups.) Signal groups can include up to 1,000 users while Telegram allows up to 200,000 group members. 

Voice and video calls: Both platforms have voice and video calling features. Signal's encrypted calls can be made individually or contain up to 40 users in a group. 

Telegram has end-to-end encrypted, one-on-one video calling as well as a voice-chat feature that allows large groups to hold conversations in which members can come and go. Telegram's group voice chats are encrypted from the client device (i.e., a phone or desktop) to the server, but not from one end to the other. This means that someone who has access to Telegram's servers can listen in.

Disappearing messages: Signal messages in any individual or group chat can be set to disappear within anywhere from five seconds to one week. Telegram has a similar self-destruct option that is no longer only for Secret Chats, but also for regular chats. 

From there, the bonus privacy features differ slightly, and Signal has fewer of them. There's an image-blur tool that allows you to hide faces in photos and videos — handy if you're sending media from protests. There's also a screen-lock setting that requires your password or biometric access to open the app. (Telegram has one too.)

With Telegram, you can opt to delete payment or shipping information communicated in your chats, to unsend messages (which deletes them for both the sender and the recipient), and to self-destruct your account automatically if it goes unused for a set period of time. 

Telegram also operates more like a social-media network with its Channels function and a bunch of other settings we'll get into below. 

Channels allow users to broadcast messages — including text, photos, videos, files and podcasts — to an unlimited number of subscribers. The communication is one-way, like a radio station, and subscribers can't respond to channel messages. Channels can be public or private/invite-only.

Signal vs. Telegram: User experience

Telegram has a lot more options to customize your experience, so in that sense, it's the frontrunner in this category. There are a ton of settings you can adjust around font size and color themes; emojis and animations; and notifications.

The app will create playlists if you send multiple song files at once and launch them in its built-in media player. You can run polls and quizzes, edit photos and videos, and view other users who happen to be physically near you with People Nearby (not a privacy-friendly feature). 

Signal is a much simpler app in which the focus is on sending basic text, media and voice messages securely, although it recently introduced animated stickers and added to its available emojis. Overall, Signal is easy to navigate and doesn't require a lot of customization to get the most out of your experience. 

Signal vs. Telegram: Verdict

Ultimately, the choice between Signal and Telegram depends on your priorities. If security and encryption are at the top of your list, Signal is the best option no matter which other features you use.

If you want to be able to send encrypted messages only on occasion and make use of social-network-style features, then Telegram may be a better fit. Just keep in mind that you must actively select Telegram's Secret Chat option if you want your communications to be encrypted end-to-end. .

Emily Long is a Utah-based freelance writer who covers consumer technology, privacy and personal finance for Tom's Guide. She has been reporting and writing for nearly 10 years, and her work has appeared in Wirecutter, Lifehacker, NBC BETTER and CN Traveler, among others. When she's not working, you can find her trail running, teaching and practicing yoga, or studying for grad school — all fueled by coffee, obviously.