Understanding WhatsApp: A Guide to the Global Messaging Giant for Americans

Synopsis

  • WhatsApp is the most-utilized messaging app in the world, with over two billion users.
  • WhatsApp’s current prevalence is mostly driven by its extensive install base in numerous countries.
  • WhatsApp provides a straightforward user experience, encryption, and a wide range of features that exceed many other messaging apps.


WhatsApp has been around for a while, but has only fairly recently began making inroads into the US. If you reside in the States, you may not know many people who use the little green messaging app — but don’t be deceived. Practically everyone uses WhatsApp, even if you don’t. The app is more or less interchangeable with modern life in Europe, Africa, South America, and most of Asia. Want to know what’s up with WhatsApp? You’ve come to the right place.

Global control

A lot of people use WhatsApp

WhatsApp is the most-used messaging app in the world with more than two billion users as of 2023. Nothing else comes close. For comparison, WeChat, the do-everything app that is a must-have in China, is the second most-used messaging app in the world, with just over half as many users as WhatsApp.


The app is very well-liked in India, where nearly half a billion people use it daily. South America has the second most users, with over 100 million in Brazil alone. Europe also has 100 million daily users. WhatsApp is popular across Africa and Southeast Asia, as well. If you live in one of these places or even know anyone who does, then you know that WhatsApp is one of the default ways you can get ahold of others. Even businesses use the app as their primary contact method!


However, if you live in the United States, Canada, or Australia, then you may not get the appeal. That’s because carrier-based texting — long built on SMS and MMS, but gradually transitioning to RCS messaging — continues to be popular in these countries, as does the iPhone-exclusive, Apple-managed iMessage.

A smartphone showing WhatsApp stories on the screen


We can thank SMS prices in many countries in Europe, and India in particular, for WhatsApp’s meteoric rise. SMS used to cost up to €0.15 per message in Europe. Many plans in the early 2010s were pay-per-use, which meant every text message whittled away your remaining balance. WhatsApp, meanwhile, was practically free.


In many countries where WhatsApp flourishes, Android is the norm, whereas iPhones tend to dominate large segments of the US, Canadian, and Australian phone markets. The results are obvious: iMessage gets a foothold in some markets, and for folks in those markets not using iPhones, SMS texting has historically been pretty affordable.


For people outside those markets for whom carrier texting may be surprisingly pricey (or once was), WhatsApp is an appealing alternative. Even as markets shift, it’s a system that’s become self-perpetuating: WhatsApp continues to be popular precisely because WhatsApp has been popular. For people who live in places where SMS, RCS, and iMessage aren’t as widely used, WhatsApp is the most practical way to communicate via text.

WhatsApp basics

A quick primer

The WhatsApp app on a smartphone showing a list of WhatsApp Channels.


Privacy concerns

WhatsApp is now owned by Meta

whatsapp-linked-devices-hero

Numerous privacy concerns surround anything Meta touches, and for good reason — the company is notorious for peering into every aspect of our lives through its apps. The WhatsApp purchase by Meta (at the time, Facebook) raised howls of protest from the service’s fans over privacy.


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