Mobile phone users who send a smiley or sad face, or any type of picture icon in a text, could be stung with massive charges – one MoneySaver told us her son racked up a £209 bill.
We revealed in December that many Samsung handsets automatically convert text messages to pricier picture messages. It can happen when someone inserts a pictographic emoji , but sometimes plain text emoticons, such as :), are converted into emojis (see the Beware texting sad or smiley faces – you could pay £100s MSE News story).
But new research shows the problem could be even more widespread, as anyone who has downloaded a special 'emoji keyboard' on any Android or Apple handset could be hit.
This can bump up the cost to 40p per message from what many thought was a free text service. See a full list of charges below.
There is also a suspicion the same thing happens on iPhones, as many users have contacted us to report problems, but Apple has refused to comment.
Which handsets convert texts into picture messages?
A text may convert into a costly picture message on certain handsets when users send an emoji, group message or even business contact. Here's what the phone manufacturers have told us:
Apple: It refuses to tell us when a text will be converted into a picture message.
- Pre-April 2014 handsets, including the Samsung Galaxy S1, S2, S3, S4, the Galaxy Note 1, 2, 3 and Galaxy Ace automatically convert a text message into a picture message when an emoji is added
- After three pages of text, a message switches into an MMS (Samsung says a warning is displayed)
- When you send a contact as an attachment
- A message goes beyond seven segments of text (roughly 67-153 characters each depending on which character encodings are used)
- A file is attached
- A group chat is enabled for multiple participants
- An email address is used for operator-based email-via-MMS service
- When you attach a vCard (contact)
- Sharing a location via Maps
- Attaching a picture
- Sharing a music file
- If you go over 1,500 characters in a text
- A picture is attached to a text
- Group chat
- A picture is attached to a text
Watch out for Emoji keyboards too
Another problem to watch out for is downloading emoji keyboards from external app companies, as these may also send picture icons as MMS' rather than as normal texts.
MSE Megan has an iPhone 6 with the latest software, but last month she was charged 40p for each text message she sent with an emoji in after downloading the free RuPaul's Drag Race keyboard, which is also available on Android devices.
When we got in touch, the app developer confirmed emojis and stickers are images, so sending them via messaging is considered an MMS.
MSE Megan was able to avoid this charge by turning off her MMS settings on her handset (see below for how to do this). Once off, it would not allow her to send an emoji via the RuPaul keyboard in a text message. However, she is still able to send the picture from the emoji keyboard via Whatsapp.
The app developer, US-based Snaps, says it's not an issue in the States as most users have data plans that include MMS.
We are not trying to pick on Snaps as it is one of many such keyboards, so you should watch out for any such keyboard.
'I got a £200 bill wiped as I had no warning'
Here are some of the emoji problems reported to us:
- Tracy emailed: "I received our son's Samsung Galaxy S4 mobile phone bill for £209 on a £30 a month all inclusive contract! I phoned up the provider to be informed that as he has been including emojis in his messages, they are charged as picture messages, and not included in his contract. I would like to warn any other computer/smartphone-illiterate parents of the pitfalls!"
- Susanthunt wrote in our forum: "We have an iPhone 4 and earlier this year, we were charged more than £40 for picture messages – hadn't sent any, don't use emojis but do use bracket and colon for smiley face. My mobile company said there was nothing it could do – it is a manufacturer problem. Disgraceful – but be warned, it can and does happen on iPhones."
- Diamonds also wrote in our forum: "This was an iPhone issue, I got a £200 bill wiped as I had no warning or way of knowing about the 'conversion'."
How to reduce or prevent charges
- Check your bill: First go through your bill to find out if you've been charged extra for sending picture messages.
- Use free apps to send 'free' texts: If you have been charged, consider using free apps that use the internet rather than your network to send messages. Of course, it's only free if you're not charged for data which will only happen for certain in a wifi zone or if you've unlimited data. Here are the top apps which allow you to send smileys and other images for free:
- Facebook chat: It's free and you can chat to one friend or have conversations with multiple friends at the same time. Select "Turn On Chat" to start a conversation and "Turn Off Chat" to go offline.
- Whatsapp: The Instant Message service works on iPhones, BlackBerrys, Nokias and phones with Android. You can message friends who have the app installed, regardless of which smartphone they own. It's free to use for the first year, and about 58p/year after that. In addition to texting, users can send each other unlimited images, video and audio messages.
- iMessage: If you want to message someone who's also using an apple device, eg iPhones, iPad, iPod, then the message is sent via the free iMessage.
- Turn off MMS: Samsung users can do the following to switch off MMS messaging: Go to Messaging > Settings > Text messages > Input mode and select 'UniCode' instead of 'automatic'. For iPhone, go to Settings > Messages > MMS Messaging > Toggle to Off. This worked for MSE Megan with the RuPaul emoji keyboard, but may not work for other apps.
- Check before using external emoji keyboards. Check with the developer exactly how the emoji is sent before using it, as it may be sent via a chargeable picture message.
- Complain: If you weren't aware that your text was being sent as a picture message and you've experienced high bills as a result, complain to your network provider. In some cases we've seen, bill payers were able to get some money back.
What does a text or picture message cost?
The table below shows just how much picture messages can cost. What's more, few bundles include any picture messages.
What providers charge for sending an SMS/MMS
|Mobile phone provider
|Pay as you go SMS
|Pay as you go MMS
|Pay monthly SMS
|Pay monthly MMS
|MMS bundles available
|50 – £6
|50 – £5.11
|50 – £5
|23 – £3.58
|100 – £2.50
|All confirmed contracts do not include MMS as standard. Prices correct as of 8 Dec 2015.