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Telegram: What it is and how to use it

The messaging platform Telegram's popularity soars whenever there's a WhatsApp outage or WhatsApp changes its privacy policies.

Fortunately, there’s social life beyond Facebook’s fishnet. Telegram's founder, Pavel Durov, claims that it now has nearly 500 million active users, although that's still well short of WhatsApp and Facebook’s alleged one-point-something billion.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Telegram is one of the best encrypted messaging apps, offering a cross-platform, cloud-based distributed messaging app that has no ads.

It’s similar to Apple’s Messages, but it’s more reliable, has dedicated apps for all platforms — PC, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS — and it also allows you to set up secret chats with messages that can self-destruct, giving you a new level of privacy.

Telegram is not as secure as you might think

However, Telegram has been widely criticized by information-security experts, who say Telegram's cryptography is untested and that it's simply not secure enough to be used by political dissidents and other people transmitting highly sensitive information. (That's despite the fact that Telegram was ISIS's favorite messaging platform.) 

Experts recommend using Signal instead, or WhatsApp, which also uses the Signal protocol. The main difference is that Telegram text chats are not end-to-end encrypted by default. Chats on Signal and WhatsApp are. 

That means Telegram can read your messages and may have to hand them over if the police come knocking. (Telegram is legally based in London but has some operations in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.)

Telegram one-to-one voice and video calls are end-to-end encrypted, but its group voice chats are not. 

How to install Telegram

Installing and using Telegram is very easy. Here’s a simple step-by-step guide:

1. Download the Telegram app

Note: Before using the desktop versions of Telegram, you have to set it up using a mobile app.

2. Register your phone number

Immediately after you do this, Telegram will send your phone an SMS text message containing a code for number verification. If you don't enter the verification code within three minutes, Telegram will call your phone.

3. Enter the SMS verification code

The Telegram app will have a field into which you input the SMS verification code.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

4. Telegram may call your phone instead

A robotic voice will read out a five-digit code, which you can then enter into the app.

5. Enter at least your first name

Telegram requires that you give it at least your first name. (It doesn't have to be your real first name.) You can also add an avatar for more personalization.

Other users can search for you by your username without needing to know your phone number.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

6. Let Telegram access your contacts

Unfortunately, you can't just type in a phone number and start messaging. You'll need to grant Telegram permission to access your contacts before you can message anyone. However, people who are not in your contacts can still invite you to Telegram chats.

Screenshots of the Telegram contacts-permission process in Android.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

7. (Optional) Let Telegram access your files and lockscreen

Telegram will ask you to let it access your photos, media and files so that you can use the app to send photos and other files. It also wants to access your lockscreen  so it can show you incoming calls. 

You can pass on both these options, but Telegram will be a lot more useful if you don't.

Telegram doesn't require you to create a password or PIN to use the app. Just unlocking your phone will be enough to gain access to the Telegram app and your account.

That's a problem if someone else gets access to your phone and can unlock it. To protect your Telegram account, set up a separate four-digit PIN. 

Go to the "hamburger" menu in the top left corner of the app and select Settings > Privacy & Security > Passcode Lock.

You'll have to enter the PIN, ahem, "passcode," periodically to keep using Telegram, but you can change the amount of time before the passcode entry is required.

But be forewarned that if you forget the PIN, you'll have to delete the Telegram app and start over again. Secret Chats will be lost; non-Secret chats that are stored on Telegram's servers should be retrievable.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

9. (Optional) Add two-step verification

You can also set up Telegram to require an alphanumeric password every time you log in on a new device. (Note: This is not the same thing as two-factor authentication and doesn't provide the same amount of protection.)

Go to the "hamburger" menu in the top left corner and select Settings > Privacy & Security > Two-Step Verification. Then set up Two-Step Verification in the same Privacy & Security section.

You'd better write down that password, because if you forget it, you'll be limited to using Telegram on only one device.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

Now that you've set up Telegram on your phone, you can also install and use it on Windows, macOS, Linux, ChromeOS or on a desktop the desktop web browser

All you need is your phone number and the phone that number's connected to in order to receive the SMS verification code.

How to use Telegram

Using Telegram to send a message is as easy as selecting a contact and starting to write.

Start a Telegram one-on-one chat

Click on the new message button (the pencil), select a contact, and start writing. 

By default, all communications are encrypted between your device and Telegram's servers, and then between Telegram's servers and your contact, but Telegram will be able to read your conversations.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

Start a Telegram group conversation

You can also create a new group conversation by clicking on New Group and selecting multiple contacts from your contact list. Groups can contain up to 20,000 members, but they cannot be end-to-end encrypted. Anything said in a Group chat can be read by Telegram.

Telegram also offers voice Group chats.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

Start a Telegram Secret Chat

Telegram has the ability to set up Secret Chats with your friends. 

To start a Secret Chat, tap the pencil icon, then tap New Secret Chat. Then select the contact with whom you'd like to have a Secret Chat.

A Secret Chat matches the privacy and security of WhatsApp or Signal because the communications are fully encrypted from one device to the other, and Telegram will not be able to read your conversations.

Your phone screenshot functionality will be disabled during Secret Chats, and messages send during Secret Chats cannot be forwarded to other users. You also can't access a Secret Chat on a device different from the one you started it on.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

(Optional) Set Secret Chats to self-destruct

Click on the three-dot menu on the top right corner of the Secret Chat screen to set up a self-destruct timer. 

This means that every message you send during a Secret Chat will have an expiration time before it disappears from the conversation. The timer can be set from anything from one second to one week.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

Join a Telegram channel

Channels are like radio stations, broadcasting messages from a single source to an unlimited number of Telegram subscribers to those channels. But you can't respond to channel messages the way you could to a message broadcast on Twitter or Facebook.

Channels can broadcast text, photos, videos, files and podcasts. As of March 2021, they can also host mass voice group chats, akin to Clubhouse. Channels can be public or private. 

To subscribe to a public Telegram channel, tap the magnifying-glass icon at the top of the Telegram home page, then type in the name of the channel you're looking for. 

Select the right search result, and you'll be shown a preview of the latest posts to that channel. If it looks appealing to you, tap "Join" at the bottom of the screen.

Screenshot of the Telegram channel-search function in the Android app.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

Start a Telegram channel

It's just as easy to start a Telegram channel as it is to start a chat. Just tap the pencil icon on the home screen and then tap "New Channel." 

You'll have to give your new channel a name and can provide an optional description. 

Then you decide whether your channel is private or public. If it's public, any Telegram user can search for it by name; if it's private, you'll be given a link that you can sent to people who you want to invite.

Telegram itself doesn't post lists of public Telegram channels, but you can use Google to find some. Here are a couple of lists.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

Start a Telegram voice or video call

Like WhatsApp, Telegram lets you make voice and video calls. Go to the "hamburger"  menu on the top left, tap Contacts and select someone from your contact list.

Tap that contact, then tap the three vertical dots on the top of the resulting screen and select either Call or Video Call.

If you haven't already given Telegram permission to take pictures and record audio and video, now's the time. 

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

Other cool Telegram features

The app has other privacy features. From the Settings menu you can choose to delete any payment or shipping information sent in all conversations you have.

The app also has an option to destroy your account and all associated data if you don’t use it in more than six months — in case you forget to do it yourself. You can change that to one month, three months or a year.

(Image credit: Telegram/Screenshot by Tom's Guide)

Any message, from any time, can be "unsent" by either the sender or the recipient. The message will be deleted from both the sender's and the receiver's phone.

An "anonymous forwarding" option makes sure, when enabled, that only your name is displayed if anyone forwards your messages. The name will not link back to your account.

There’s a lot more to learn, including customization of notifications for groups, channels and private chats; font size, backgrounds, list mode and color themes for chats; and night mode, emojis and animations. All of those are in the Settings menu.

There's just too much to go into here, but now that we've given you the basics, try Telegram and have fun. (Antivirus maker Kaspersky has a long list of additional Telegram privacy options.) Just be aware that it's not as private as Signal or WhatsApp until you turn on the Secret Chat mode.