Signal vs. WhatsApp: How Are They Different and Which Is Right For You?

Signal App logo is fighting with WhatsApp logo with audience in the background
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Signal vs. WhatsApp: Key Differences

WhatsApp has a huge user base of more than 2 billion people each month. Despite a smaller number of monthly users (40 million), Signal offers more privacy and security. More importantly, Signal doesn’t use or share your user or device data, unlike Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

Here are some other security measures Signal takes to maintain user privacy and security:

  • Safety numbers – confirm the authenticity of your chat contact
  • Screen locking at the app level – use a passcode, pin, or biometric data to open the app
  • Message notification shielding – keep the name and message information from displaying on your phone’s locked screen
  • Call relay option – hide your IP address during calls made within the app
  • Disappearing messages – choose how long a message you send is visible to the recipient

To be fair, WhatsApp has some of the same functionalities – but not all of them. Read our full article to learn more about Signal, see how the two messaging apps compare, and determine which is right for you.

WhatsApp has been the go-to instant messaging app for many years, with two billion people using it each month to exchange messages with colleagues, friends, and families. But, as people began looking for more privacy-focused alternatives, the debate between Signal vs. WhatsApp continued to heat up.

Users like WhatsApp because it is free, most of their connections already use it, and it doesn’t require you to have a social media account to use it. (Hello, Facebook Messenger, we’re talking to you.)

But WhatsApp isn’t always the perfect way to chat, as recent events have shown. It also has its share of privacy issues. Add to this the fact that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and it isn’t surprising so many WhatsApp users are considering a change to how they instantly communicate with friends and family.

Signal, a privacy-focused messaging alternative to WhatsApp, has surged in popularity dramatically over the past year or so.

But as you weigh Signal vs. WhatsApp, you need to understand what each side brings to the table (and doesn’t) to determine which messaging app is best for you. To help, we’ve put together this short Signal app review and included how WhatsApp stacks up in key areas of functionality, privacy, and security.

What is Signal?

If you’re not familiar with Signal, it is a free instant messaging app with a heavy focus on privacy. It is a product of the Signal Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The app is built on open-source software (meaning anyone can scrutinize the source code and test it for security purposes), and is entirely funded by grants and donations.

There are no ads, affiliate links, or any kind of tracking when you use the app. It is also not tied to, even indirectly, any major tech company. As such, concerns about data sharing are much less of an issue.

Signal is available on Android, iOS, Windows, and macOS. It’s one of the best encrypted messaging apps in the world right now.

What is WhatsApp?

WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging app, used by billions of people. It encrypts communication on both ends, but since it is owned by Facebook, there are quite a few privacy concerns.

WhatsApp doesn’t show any ads, and just like Signal, you don’t need to pay anything to use WhatsApp. WhatsApp also offers added features for business accounts.

Signal vs. WhatsApp – Which has the bigger user base?

Signal has more than 40 million monthly users, according to its website. Signal is most popular with privacy-focused people, including journalists, activists, governments, cybersecurity experts, and high profile tech leaders like Twitter CEO Jack Dempsey and Tesla’s Elon Musk.

How WhatsApp stacks up: With more than 2 billion monthly users, WhatsApp has a much bigger user base. It is far more likely that the people you want to chat with are already using WhatsApp. This makes it easier to adopt WhatsApp and instantly start messaging your friends and family (rather than convincing them to add another app to their life).

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Signal vs. WhatsApp – Which has more features?

Signal lets you send text or voice messages, photos, files, contacts, locations, and make voice and video calls to other Signal users, all using Wi-Fi or cellular data. You can add stickers and GIFs to chats, too.

You can also customize Signal’s appearance with a variety of themes, chat colors, and wallpaper, and add a status to your description that is visible to anyone chatting with you.

How WhatsApp stacks up: WhatsApp has long provided all these options, so both are on an even keel.

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How Secure Is Signal? 6 Important Security Features

Signal is widely regarded as a very secure platform for exchanging information. There are a number of security features worth noting.

1. Signal data encryption

Signal uses an end-to-end encryption protocol for all messages sent on the platform and was the first instant messaging app to offer this level of security. With this type of encryption in place, only the person you are chatting with can view the information you send.

How WhatsApp stacks up: When Signal introduced end-to-end encryption, all other major chat apps quickly followed suit. WhatsApp was no exception.

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2. Signal safety numbers

Signal has incorporated safety numbers as an additional layer of security. Each user has a set of safety numbers and a QR code that act as unique identifiers for that person and their contact with you. When you start a Signal conversation with a new contact, you can use this information to verify the contact’s identity. You will each have an identical copy of this information.

How to verify a Signal contact on Android or iPhone

  1. Start a chat with the contact you wish to verify.Screenshot of Signal with a specific chat highlighted
  2. Tap on the chat header.Screenshot of Signal's "Chat" screen on iPhone where another person's profile is highlighted
  3. Choose View Safety Number.Screenshot of Signal's "Profile" screen on iPhone with "View Safety Number" highlighted
  4. You will see a popup screen with a QR code and a series of numbers, like the one below.Screenshot of Signal's "Verify Safety Number" screen on iPhone
  5. Validate the data with your contact. You can do this several ways:
    • Ask the contact to send you a screenshot of their security numbers (send it to you via an alternate communications channel), then scan the QR code or visually confirm the numbers, or
    • Verbally have the contact confirm their numbers with you.

Once a contact is verified, you will see a checkmark and the word Verified under their name in the chat header. Signal automatically notifies you anytime a contact’s safety numbers change. They might change if the contact gets a new phone or re-installs Signal, but the safety numbers can also change for more dubious reasons, like a man-in-the-middle attack. By verifying this, you will at least know that you are talking to the right person.

How WhatsApp stacks up: WhatsApp offers similar functionality with its Verify Security Code functionality. However, it doesn’t add a verified status to your contacts once you verify their code. Also, when your or a contact’s security code changes, you won’t be notified unless you manually turn on that notification feature in WhatsApp settings.

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3. Signal screen lock

You can choose to turn on screen lock for additional security on Signal. With this feature on, Signal will require your device’s passphrase, pin, or biometric authentication (FaceID, TouchID, or fingerprint) to open.

This security feature is not available on the Signal messenger desktop app, however. You can only use this feature on your smartphone, and you’ll need to have screen lock enabled on your device first.

Enable Signal screen lock on Android or iPhone

  1. Tap your User Image in the upper left corner of the main Signal screen.Screenshot of Signal's homescreen on Android and iPhone with "Profile Picture" highlighted
  2. Tap Privacy.Screenshot of Signal's "Settings" screen on Android and iPhone with "Privacy" highlighted
  3. Toggle Screen Lock ON.Screenshot of Signal's "Privacy" screen on Android and iPhone with "Screen Lock" highlighted
  4. Select Screen lock inactivity timeout (Android) or Screen Lock Timeout (iPhone). On Android, you can set a custom timeout duration. On iPhone, you can choose between instant, 1 minute, 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and 1 hour.Screenshot of Signal's "Screen Lock Timeout" screen on Android and iPhone

How WhatsApp stacks up: WhatsApp also offers an identical security feature, although it has fewer time interval options.

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4. Signal message notifications

If your phone is often within view of third parties, the notifications you receive on your phone’s locked screen might be problematic. Perhaps you don’t want anyone else seeing who is sending you Signal messages or what the message says.

It is easy to modify how you receive Signal notifications on your phone. Open the Signal app, and then follow these steps.

Change Signal message notifications on Android or iPhone

  1. Tap your User Image in the upper left corner of the screen.Screenshot of Signal's homescreen on Android and iPhone with "Profile Picture" highlighted
  2. Choose Notifications.Screenshot of Signal's "Settings" screen on Android and iPhone with "Notifications" highlighted
  3. Under Messages (Android) or Notification Content (iPhone), tap Show.Screenshot of Signal's "Notifications" screen on Android and iPhone with "Show" highlighted
  4. Select how you want your Signal notifications to appear. If you choose No Name or Content, you’ll receive generic Signal notifications anytime you receive a message.Screenshot of Signal's "Notification Content" screen on Android and iPhone

How WhatsApp stacks up: WhatsApp also lets you modify your locked screen message notifications. However, you can only choose to turn notifications on/off and include or omit a preview of the message. You cannot hide the sender’s name.

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5. Signal call relay option

If you are concerned about your IP address being tracked when you use the app to make a call to another Signal user, this feature addresses those concerns. With this feature enabled, all calls you place are routed through Signal’s servers and your contact cannot detect your actual IP address.

To turn on this feature, open the Signal app on your device and follow these steps.

Turn on Signal call relay on Android or iPhone

  1. Tap your User Image in the upper left corner of the screen.Screenshot of Signal's homescreen on Android and iPhone with "Profile Picture" highlighted
  2. Choose Privacy.Screenshot of Signal's "Settings" screen on Android and iPhone with "Privacy" highlighted
  3. Tap Advanced.Screenshot of Signal's "Privacy" screen on Android and iPhone with "Advanced" highlighted
  4. Toggle Always Relay Calls to ON.Screenshot of Signal's "Advanced" screen on Android and iPhone with "Always relay calls" highlighted

How WhatsApp stacks up: WhatsApp does not offer this functionality.

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6. Signal message retention

Even with end-to-end encryption in place, the messages you send to someone else on Signal are still viewable in two places – your device and the recipient’s device. This means if either device is stolen or hacked, your messages are potentially at risk. To avoid this, it is a good security practice to delete old messages when you no longer need them. However, that doesn’t ensure your recipient will do the same.

To keep your messages from lingering in their inbox indefinitely, you can enable Signal’s Disappearing Messages feature. You can set this feature for all chats, or for an individual contact.

To turn it on for an individual chat, tap the chat header and turn disappearing messages on. You’ll be prompted to set a time interval.

Open the Signal app and follow these steps to turn the feature on by default for all your chats.

Turn on Signal disappearing messages on Android or iPhone

  1. Tap your User Image in the upper left corner of the screen.Screenshot of Signal's homescreen on Android and iPhone with "Profile Picture" highlighted
  2. Choose Privacy.Screenshot of Signal's "Settings" screen on Android and iPhone with "Privacy" highlighted
  3. In the Disappearing Messages section, tap Default Timer for New Chats.Screenshot of Signal's "Privacy" screen on Android and iPhone with "Disappearing Messages" highlighted
  4. Select the time duration for messages before they are automatically deleted after being read. You can choose from preset options or set a custom time.Screenshot of Signal's "Disappearing Messages" screen on Android and iPhone

Even when you use this feature, it’s important to understand that the recipient has other ways of maintaining the message, like taking a screenshot before your message disappears.

How WhatsApp stacks up: WhatsApp offers a similar disappearing messages feature, although it is only available at the individual chat level. Also, it does not offer options for the duration or make it contingent on a message being read. With the feature on, all messages disappear after seven days, whether a message is read or not. Also, anyone in the chat can change this option at any time. You can check out your WhatsApp privacy settings to turn it on.

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Is Signal Really Private?

Signal has staked its reputation on being a privacy-focused instant communications application. Signal’s end-to-end encryption is the gold standard for protecting such communications and has been adopted by every other major messaging application. To date, Signal has never experienced a security breach. From a security of data standpoint, it is a very private and secure messaging app.

The bigger privacy concern comes when you consider what any messaging app does with your user data and device information.

For apps like WhatsApp, this can be a huge red flag. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, a company with a fairly concerning reputation when it comes to how they commoditize your personal data. Facebook has made no effort to hide its intention to harvest your data from WhatsApp, going so far as to prevent you from using WhatsApp if you decline to share your data with the social media behemoth. This actually created quite a furor when the company updated its revised terms and conditions.

What to know about Signal’s parent company and founders

Signal is unaffiliated with any company that makes money with user data. In fact, its parent company is the nonprofit Signal Foundation, an organization that isn’t in the business of data collection – just the opposite. Signal’s co-founders, Brian Acton and Moxie Marlinspike, have made it a point to create a method for instant communication and user data that maintains total confidentiality. Understanding something about the co-founders helps explain Signal’s strong focus on privacy.

Acton is the co-founder of WhatsApp and sold it to Facebook in 2014. He then left Facebook in 2017 after a dispute with Mark Zuckerberg about the future monetization of WhatsApp. Acton went on to start Signal with a personal $50 million loan. Marlinspike is a cryptographer and computer security researcher, who has a well-known dislike of government agencies having access to private information. Together, Acton and Marlinspike created Signal, and have maintained the app’s independence ever since.

The fact that so many people extremely concerned with privacy, including journalists, activists, grass-roots protestors, and cybersecurity professionals, endorse and use the app to exchange potentially sensitive information, is another strong indicator of how well Signal maintains the privacy of its users.

Signal vs. WhatsApp: Key Feature Comparison at a Glance

When it comes to deciding which instant communications app is right for you, it depends on the features you find most valuable.

While both Signal and WhatsApp share many common security features, there are some key differences.

Current # of monthly users40 million2 billion
Parent CompanySignalFacebook, Inc.
Data Sharing
End-to-end encryption
Validation of encryption/user ID limited
Screen Lock
Message Notification Shielding limited
Call relay to disguise IP address
Disappearing message feature limited

Final Thoughts

When it comes to deciding which app is right for you, the decision ultimately comes down to privacy vs. convenience. In the Signal vs. WhatsApp battle, however, it’s easy to see that Signal reigns supreme privacy-wise.

Signal is the better choice for users concerned about the privacy of their data and the information they exchange on the app.

Given its huge user base, WhatsApp is the more logical choice for users more concerned with ease of connecting with friends and family (and who don’t want to try and convince their contacts to use a new messaging app).

Both apps will protect the contents of the messages you send. Only one won’t harvest your user and device data for profit. There are other encrypted apps out there too, such as Telegram.

Interested in more comparisons? We’ve also tested how well WhatsApp holds up against Telegram.

Signal vs. WhatsApp: Frequently Asked Questions

Didn’t find what you were looking for in the article? Still have questions? Read on for some of the most common questions we get about Signal and WhatsApp.

Well, anything is possible. Whether it is probable is another story. To date, Signal has never been hacked.

Signal is owned by the Signal Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on privacy and security. Signal is not in any way affiliated with any tech company. WhatsApp, on the other hand, is owned by Facebook. Read our Signal vs. WhatsApp privacy head-to-head for more information.

No. Signal is fully funded by grants and donations and does not engage in the sale of any data. It is unique among instant messaging platforms in this regard.

Whether Signal is better than WhatsApp depends on the criteria most important to you.

  • Signal is better if privacy is your top concern.
  • WhatsApp has a much bigger user base and is better if you want to quickly and easily connect with your friends, family, and contacts.

You can always download both apps and alternate between them for different purposes. In a battle between Signal vs. WhatsApp, Signal definitely wins from the privacy perspective.

Signal was built on the concept of total privacy, and its co-founders went to great lengths to create a trusted platform in this regard. Today, Signal is the messaging app of choice for activists, political dissidents, government agencies, cybersecurity experts, and the likes of Jack Dempsey (Twitter CEO) and Elon Musk (Tesla CEO).

Tech journalist
Liz is a professional writer with a special interest in online privacy and cybersecurity. As a US expat who travels and works in diverse locations around the world, keeping up with the latest internet safety best practices remains her priority.