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What Is Whatsapp, how does it work and how do I use it?

Amanda Angus / 04 July 2016 ( 03 March 2021 )

Ever heard anyone say “I’ll WhatsApp you” and wondered what it meant? Find out exactly what WhatsApp is, and how you can make the most of it.

An older lady talks to her friends on her smartphone via WhatsApp

Gone are the days where we used to have to keep track how many text messages we’d sent in order to avoid depleting our mobile phone credit; phone contracts with thousands of free minutes and texts have put an end to that. App and website-based messenger services have replaced text messages for many people.

If you want to send a picture message over text, you’ll still have to pay around 40p per image, as most mobile phone contracts don’t include picture messaging in their pricing packages.

That’s where WhatsApp comes in. Instead of using up your messaging allowance, WhatsApp allows you to send an infinite number of text messages, photos and videos by using your phone’s internet connection. 

That might be as part of your phone’s mobile data package or by connecting to Wi-Fi; either way, it works out much cheaper – but it only works if the person you’re trying to connect with has also downloaded WhatsApp.

The rise in popularity of WhatsApp

Luckily, the likelihood of the person on the other end of the phone also having WhatsApp is getting bigger each day; in February 2016 WhatsApp announced it had hit one billion users – a few weeks after it announced it was going to provide a totally free service. As of 2020 1.6 billion users access WhatsApp each month from around the world - it's available in more than 180 countries and 60 languages, and is now the most popular messaging app in the UK.

Uses of WhatsApp

WhatsApp is used for messaging - either one-on-one or as groups, and can also be used to make video calls and telephone calls using your data (or WiFi) instead of your minutes. It can also be used to send photos and videos to people in your contacts list.

Is WhatsApp free?

WhatsApp has been free since 2016. Before this is required a nominal annual fee of $1 a year. It's even free to send photo and video messages as it is internet-based, using your data or WiFi.

How to get WhatsApp

It couldn’t be simpler to download WhatsApp Messenger on to your smartphone. 

Simply open the Google Play Store (for Android phones) or Apple’s App Store (for iPhones) and search for the WhatsApp Messenger application. It’s easily identifiable by the green speech bubble outlined in white, with a white phone handset in the middle.

It will then sync your contacts and automatically show you who else in your mobile’s phone book also has WhatsApp.

How does WhatsApp work?

Once WhatsApp is on your phone it'll have access to the contacts in your address book and you'll be able to message them by clicking on the text icon in the lower right hand corner. This will bring up a list of contacts alphabetically, with a search option to easily find your friends and family. If you search for a friend who doesn't have WhatsApp a button to invite them will appear.

To start a group message click the message icon and select 'New group' from the top of the list. This will again take you to your list of contacts, and you can simply highlight the people you would like to invite and then press the arrow in the bottom right hand corner.

When you're composing a message you'll also have options to record audio, start a video chat, attach an image or send a GIF or emoticon.

Making a phonecall works in much the same way as composing a text, but you select the 'Calls' tab in the top left corner and go through the same process of selecting contact to reach.

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Using WhatsApp abroad

WhatsApp is ideal if you want to send photos or videos, but you’ll find you appreciate it most abroad, when you want to stay in touch with friends and family back home but you don’t want to rack up a massive phone bill. 

Although you’ll probably need to turn your phone’s data roaming off in order to avoid incurring extra costs, if you can connect to a Wi-Fi signal in a café or in the hotel, you’ll be able to phone home, and even video chat if the connection is good enough.

Tips on using your mobile phone abroad

Send messages to a WhatsApp group

However, WhatsApp really comes into its own when you have to organise something with a big group of people.

With just a few short clicks, you can have an on-going conversation that you simply pick up as and when. I have one with my sister and mother, where we regularly keep each other updated – no one is left out of the conversation, and it’s cut down significantly on any ‘I’m sure I told you this’ moments.

I also have several chats going with various groups of friends, and plans that would once have taken hours to hash out are now organised within minutes. Plus, if you grow weary of constant notifications, or if a group chat is of no interest to you, you can choose to mute it for eight hours, a week or a year, or until you decide to return to the conversation.

Benefits of using WhatsApp

WhatsApp also has a handy system of telling you the status of your message. One tick means it’s left your phone; two means it’s reached the recipient. When both ticks go blue, it means the message has been read. But don't worry, if you would rather avoid people knowing when you've seen (and potentially ignored!) a message you can turn the read status notification off. This will also mean you can't see when someone has read your message, though.

One more advantage to consider is that if you ever find yourself out of phone range, you may still be able to connect to the internet, either via your mobile data or by connecting to nearby Wi-Fi, making yourself much less likely to endure the frustration of not being able to get through in order to ask the other half to check you turned the oven off, or to send an emergency Happy Birthday message.

When WhatsApp gets hacked 

One of WhatsApp's major selling point is the end-to-end encryption, which should mean that no one except the people it was meant to be seen by can intercept and read your messages.

However, in May 2019 hackers managed to remotely install surveillance software on a select number of phones and other devices via a major vulnerability in the code. WhatsApp hurriedly responded to the attack with an update that prevents your phone being a target - here's how to stay ahead of the hackers by making sure your WhatsApp is up to date:

How to check your WhatsApp is updated

• If you're on Android, open the Google Play store and search for Whatsapp, or click this link; for iPhones, open the App Store or and search for Whatsapp, or click this link.

• If Whatsapp needs to be updated, it will have a button that says 'Update' - if so, click it and let it get on with things. If it has already updated, the button will instead say 'Open', in which case you don't need to do anything further.

Download WhatsApp on Android

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.