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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)

With a recent exodus from WhatsApp, many users have been turning to other free messaging platforms to communicate with friends and strangers. Signal and Telegram are two of the most popular and reliable alternatives, and both are on our list of best encrypted messaging apps

But Signal and Telegram are not made equal, and each will likely benefit a different type of user. Let's see how they stack up. 

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" has a limited track record compared to Signal's, although the consensus seems to be that it is more secure than MTProto 1.0

An academic research paper published in December 2020 analyzed Telegram's MTProto 2.0 protocol and deemed it fundamentally sound. It 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 central operations are in Dubai.

Signal vs. Telegram: Device support

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

iOS (Signal, Telegram)

MacOS (Signal, Telegram)

Android (Signal, Telegram)

Windows (Signal, Telegram)

Linux (Debian-based distros for Signal, 32-bit and 64-bit 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. 

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 20,000 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 five 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.

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, but it's only for Secret Chats, not 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. 

  • gbcox
    Signal is just single feature version of Telegram. Telegram supports end-to-end encryption if you need it. Most people appreciate and are fine with the default, cloud based encrypted chats and all the associated advantages as automatic backups and syncing between devices and the ability to use Telegram on any device without having to be tethered to a phone. Additionally, Telegram has far more than just a "slight edge" in device support - it is basically universally supported. It has a real desktop client that works independently of a phone - and speaking of Linux, there is a download for all distributions - Signal only supports Debian.

    Speaking of phones... with Signal you MUST use your phone number to communicate. Telegram, you can communicate with others using a handle - no one need ever know your phone number. Considering the importance that phone numbers have these days, that is a big issue.

    The article also several times mentions contacts, as if it is some kind of sinister thing for a messaging application wanting to access your contacts. What it leaves out of course, is access to contacts is the first thing Signal asks when you install it. What will most people do? They'll simply click OK and move on.

    Regarding the verdict... it really depends upon whether or not you want flexibility and functionality. Telegram simply does exactly everything Signal does, and more. If you feel for some reason you need to have your options limited, Signal is the application for you.
    Reply
  • nalexcastaneda
    gbcox said:
    Signal is just single feature version of Telegram. Telegram supports end-to-end encryption if you need it. Most people appreciate and are fine with the default, cloud based encrypted chats and all the associated advantages as automatic backups and syncing between devices and the ability to use Telegram on any device without having to be tethered to a phone. Additionally, Telegram has far more than just a "slight edge" in device support - it is basically universally supported. It has a real desktop client that works independently of a phone - and speaking of Linux, there is a download for all distributions - Signal only supports Debian.

    Speaking of phones... with Signal you MUST use your phone number to communicate. Telegram, you can communicate with others using a handle - no one need ever know your phone number. Considering the importance that phone numbers have these days, that is a big issue.

    The article also several times mentions contacts, as if it is some kind of sinister thing for a messaging application wanting to access your contacts. What it leaves out of course, is access to contacts is the first thing Signal asks when you install it. What will most people do? They'll simply click OK and move on.

    Regarding the verdict... it really depends upon whether or not you want flexibility and functionality. Telegram simply does exactly everything Signal does, and more. If you feel for some reason you need to have your options limited, Signal is the application for you.
    I totally agree with you. Further more the encryption used by Signal which according to this article is the same used by WhatsApp was chosen by the US government so it is more likely to have security flaws and backdoors.
    Reply
  • ash_0m
    When sending media files, which app keeps the original; size, resolution, quality, etc.?
    Reply
  • gbcox
    ash_0m said:
    When sending media files, which app keeps the original; size, resolution, quality, etc.?
    I don't know of any messaging app that will keep the original size by default. I do know however that
    whatever default compression used by Telegram is more than adequate to display on a phone or print out
    on a printer. If you do want to send the original quality image, you simply send it as a file attachment. The
    limit on file attachments in Telegram is 2Gb.
    Telegram: https://telegram.org/blog/profile-videos-people-nearby-and-more

    Signal, the limit on file attachments is 100Mb.

    Telegram also has some additional editing capabilities and can group multiple photos into albums so the recipient
    just gets 1 message with all the photos neatly displayed rather than multiple messages.
    Reply
  • UnterBolsh
    Signal is not anonymous, it collects your data and sells it. I believe that the best alternative is the utopia ecosystem, which is decentralized and absolutely safe for communication
    Reply