What is RCS messaging (and how to get it now)

Updated Dec. 16: Google says it has completed its rollout of RCS to all Android phones that it started in November. RCS works through the Android Messages app, meaning users no longer have to wait for their carrier to enable the feature on their phone.

Rich communication services, better known as RCS, has been a very long time coming. When it finally reaches your device, it will finally put conventional SMS out of its misery. But what exactly is RCS?

At its core, RCS — or more specifically, Chat, which is the Google-developed RCS Universal Profile built for interoperability between wireless networks — is merely another internet-based messaging system not unlike iMessage, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. The difference is that RCS Chat is designed to replace SMS and MMS, operating completely within your phone's standard texting app, while still granting luxuries like read receipts and live typing indicators.

However, RCS' rollout has been nebulous, to say the least. Initially, RCS was to be deployed by the carriers themselves, in partnership with Google, on a device-by-device basis. This approach didn't really work, though, as all four major carriers quickly balked at supporting new handsets with RCS features.

Instead, the Big Four networks formed a joint venture, called the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative, to deliver their own proprietary app that will be incompatible with Google's standard when it releases next year. Google then countered by flipping on the RCS switch for all Android devices through Android Messages. It was excellent news for anyone who had been waiting for some kind of iMessage-esque counterpart on Android.

When will you get RCS?

First, we have to note that some Android users already have RCS, through their particular carrier and device combination. Verizon customers using a Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL, T-Mobile customers with one of Samsung's more recent Galaxy S or Note devices and Sprint customers that purchased an Android phone through the carrier should all have RCS through either Google's Android Messages app or Samsung Messages, depending on the make and model of their device.

However, now that Google says it's completed its RCS rollout via Android Messages, everyone who didn't have it before merely has to do two things: install the latest version of Android Messages and another app, called Carrier Services. In typical Google fashion, Mountain View is enabling RCS on a server-side basis — meaning that besides installing those two pieces of software, there's no secret trick to getting RCS.

If you have those two apps, RCS should be available to you now. That said, RCS has had a funny habit of enabling and disabling itself on some users' phones in these early stages after Google released it to the masses, so you might run into some intermittent issues. Make sure you're on the latest version of both apps and be patient, and any problems should sort themselves out. (If not, the RCS subreddit is an excellent resource for guidance, because chances are someone else has encountered the same issues you may have.)

Google also says it is working to bring RCS to more phone makers' first-party texting apps. That's an important project, because unless users know to download Android Messages separately from the Play Store, they might not realize they have the ability to use RCS (let alone what RCS is to begin with).

How to enable RCS

You'll know your device is RCS ready once you receive an in-app notification within Android Messages. Simply follow the on-screen prompts to enable Chat features, and you should be online sending messages over RCS in no time. Just remember that the individual you're conversing with will also need to have RCS, otherwise the conversation will fall back to old-fashioned SMS.

If you haven't received said notification but would still like to check for your own peace of mind, you can do so within Android Messages' settings. At the top, you'll find a sub-menu labeled Chat settings. Tap it, and you'll be able to see whether or not your device is supported. If it is, you should be able to simply toggle it on and get connected. This menu also contains other settings, to enable or disable aspects like read receipts and typing indicators.

What about iPhones?

Now that RCS is making its way to all Android devices, the standard faces a very promising future. That said, there's still a pretty big thorn in its side: Apple.

Of course, iPhone users don't have much of a need for RCS, because they already have iMessage. However, iMessage only works between iPhones — and that exclusivity has made it a marquee feature in Cupertino's handsets. Until Apple comes aboard the RCS train, communications between iPhones and Android handsets will still have to happen over slow, archaic SMS.

However, Apple is reportedly turning the corner on enabling RCS. The GSMA consortium of mobile carriers has apparently begun talks with Apple to bring RCS Universal Profile to its products, according to a slide from a presentation that surfaced on Reddit in early 2019.

If Apple does ultimately support RCS, it will likely take the place of SMS within the iPhone's Messages app. At the very least, that means you won't have to wait quite as long sending and receiving messages with "green bubble" friends, and you'll be able to enjoy full resolution media as well. However, RCS will not employ end-to-end encryption as iMessage and many other internet-based communication platforms do.

To get answers to your burning tech questions, head to the Tom's Guide Forum for the latest tips from our resident experts and your fellow members. You can also comment on this article or email us directly at helpme@tomsguide.com.

Adam Ismail is a staff writer at Jalopnik and previously worked on Tom's Guide covering smartphones, car tech and gaming. His love for all things mobile began with the original Motorola Droid; since then he’s owned a variety of Android and iOS-powered handsets, refusing to stay loyal to one platform. His work has also appeared on Digital Trends and GTPlanet. When he’s not fiddling with the latest devices, he’s at an indie pop show, recording a podcast or playing Sega Dreamcast.

  • LouisDi
    Your info on Fi is wrong. All Android phones, as long as they're not dual SIM, have RCS using Google's Messages App. My wife and I use it every day on Fi between my LG V40 and her Galaxy S8+.
  • webworkings
    I don't see it replacing SMS and MMS. Kind of like saying email would be replaced, yet it is still used all the time.

    While change is good, not all changes are good. :D
  • Mjstowe1
    Your step by step for verifying RCS is incorrect. I have the PIxel 3 and Verizon. You go into settings and you do NOT go into advanced. Chat features is a stand alone section in the main settings view. From there you turn it on and have customizable settings.