With a free texting app you can send and receive short messages and pictures over wifi or cellular internet that won't count against your texting plan. Some apps can send text messages to phone numbers, while others will only work with other devices that have the same app installed. Some apps also have the ability to make and receive free calls. Here are some of the most popular contenders for the title of best free texting app.
The best free texting app
It's very difficult to crown a single winner. Most apps have similar functionality, so it really depends on what devices, apps, and social networks you and your contacts use. iMessage is great for Apple users, but Hangouts or Facebook Messenger may allow you to reach more people, especially for Android users.
Send messages to phones with a free texting app
These apps can be used to send (and receive) text messages to any phone number. Google Voice, Talkatone, and FreedomPop are the three best options currently available. All of these apps also offer free calling over wifi or cellular data, and we've written about them in more detail in our free calling app post.
Google Voice (when used with Google Hangouts) was our pick for best free calling app on iPhone and iPad, and it's also a good texting option. However, it's in the middle of some big changes, and it may be wise to wait for things to shake out if you're going to rely on it as a primary free texting app. See our Google Voice review here.
Talkatone and FreedomPop are both simple free options. Talkatone offers unlimited free texts per month, while FreedomPop offers 500. Talkatone is available on iPhone/iPad, Android, and Kindle Fire, FreedomPop on iPhone/iPad and Android.
Free app to app messaging
These apps can only be used to message someone that also has the app installed on their device.
The Facebook Messenger app for iPhone/iPad, Android, and Windows Phone has a ton of active users. It's a very simple way to send short messages and share pictures with your Facebook contacts, and also includes free calling. Facebook Messenger can also be accessed on the Facebook website from a computer.
Google Hangouts for iPhone/iPad and Android is similar to Facebook Messenger, but syncs with your Gmail/Google+ contacts rather than Facebook contacts. Hangouts is also the default SMS texting app on Android devices, and the Apple version can be used to make free calls. Hangouts can also be accessed on a computer from Gmail or Google+, and there is a Chrome extension with popup notifications available. It works well and is a good way to chat with your Google contacts, regardless of what device you're on. See our Google Hangouts review here.
Apple's Messages app comes preinstalled on iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Mac. When iMessage is enabled, texts will be sent over data (wifi or cellular) rather than as a standard SMS or MMS message and won't count against a texting plan. iMessage is very simple to use - it will automatically send texts as an iMessage (with the blue background) if the other user has an Apple device with iMessage enabled. Of course, the biggest downside is that it is only available on Apple devices.
Carrier considerations with a free texting app
Smartphone users seem to be calling and texting less and using wireless internet more. All four of the major US carriers have responded by bundling unlimited texting and calling into their new plans, so there's no way to reduce your bill by dropping texting. If you're on an older plan, you may have the ability to reduce or drop your texting plan, though.
There are still several advantages to using a free texting app: they have many more features than standard texting, messages will come in over wifi even if cellular reception is bad or non-existent, and some will work across devices (so you can get your messages on a tablet or computer).
Another option is to move to a data-only smartphone plan, which I've done in the past. It takes a little bit of work, but can also save you a lot of money. My bill averaged just $20-$30 per month.