Insights & Resources6 min read

SMS vs. MMS: key differences explained

From pricing to messaging restrictions, we break down the differences between SMS and MMS.

Risa Takenaka
SMS vs MMS message comparison
At first glance, SMS and MMS messages might seem similar when they appear on your phone screen. However, each of these message types has unique properties. As a business, it’s important to choose the messaging service that best suits your use case. Here’s what you need to know.

What are SMS messages?

SMS (Short Message Service) messages are simple, plain text messages that can be transmitted over traditional cellular phone networks. You don’t need an internet connection to send or receive an SMS message; standard cell service will suffice. SMS is a simple, affordable way to send messages to any mobile phone, anywhere in the world.

What are MMS messages?

MMS (Multimedia Message Service) messages are able to transmit images, videos and audio to most mobile devices. In order for a device to receive a multimedia file, it must have an internet connection; cellular service alone isn’t enough to transmit visual and audio media. The internet connection needed to support MMS is usually achieved through cellular data networks. Of course, you can send text in an MMS message. However—in most cases—MMS is not as efficient for sending text-only messages as SMS.

SMS vs. MMS

The biggest difference between SMS and MMS is that SMS is only capable of sending plain text—meaning messages can only contain alphanumeric characters (i.e. numbers and letters). MMS on the other hand supports multimedia content (i.e. image, video and audio files) in addition to alphanumeric characters. However, the added capabilities of MMS come with some limitations.
Sending multimedia content requires additional network infrastructure and device compatibility, since images, videos and audio consume more data than plain text. It’s that added infrastructure that leads to differences in cost and sending limits between SMS and MMS.

A2P vs. P2P messaging

The SMS and MMS messages a business sends fall into two main categories: Person to Person (P2P) and Application to Person (A2P).
P2P messaging occurs when two individuals use phone numbers to exchange messages. Some examples of P2P include:
  • 1-on-1 customer support
  • Lead qualification by a sales representative
  • Internal employee correspondence
  • Messages between a delivery driver and customer
A2P messaging occurs when an application sends a message to a human end user’s mobile phone. A2P is most often used for one-way communication. Some examples of A2P include:
  • Appointment reminders
  • Alerts
  • Authentication codes
  • Order confirmations
  • Promotional messages
  • Customer loyalty rewards
  • Account balance notifications

6 key differences between SMS and MMS

There are six key differences between SMS and MMS:
SMSMMS
How messages are sentSent through standard cellular service without internet connectionRequires cellular data (internet)
What message content is supportedAlphanumeric characters only (no images, video or audio)Alphanumeric characters, images, video and audio
Length and character limitations160 character limit—longer texts will be broken into multiple messages—and high throughput rate1,600 character limit (most carriers limit MMS to 3.75MB)
Throughput rateHighLow
CostTypically between $0.01 and $0.05 per messageTypically between $0.04 and $0.20 per message
Device compatibilityAll mobile phones can receive SMS messagesOnly mobile phones with internet connectivity, like smartphones, can receive MMS

How SMS and MMS messages are sent

SMS messages are sent over cellular networks, using standard cellular data packets. The SMS message is dispatched from either the sender’s mobile phone (for P2P messages) or from the application (for A2P messages) to the nearest cell tower. That message is then sent to the SMS message center, which passes the message to a cell tower near the recipient and on to the recipient.
MMS messages use some of this sending infrastructure, but the process is slightly more complex. When an MMS message is sent, it gets submitted to a multimedia messaging service center (MMSC).
The MMSC sends an SMS notification to the SMSC (Short Message Service Center), which notifies the recipient’s device that there’s an MMS message waiting on the MMSC. Finally, the recipient’s phone retrieves the MMS message from the MMSC.
This might seem inconsequential. However, since sending an MMS message requires two service centers and sending an SMS message to prompt the recipient’s phone to retrieve the MMS message from the MMSC, MMS messages are more expensive to send.

What message content is supported

We’ve already mentioned that this is the key difference between SMS and MMS, and it’s what justifies the higher cost of sending MMS messages. Messages with visual or audio content are more engaging than text-only messages.
However, that doesn’t make MMS a one-size-fits-all solution. There are use cases where SMS is more efficient and effective.

Length and character limitations

Since MMS messages are sent using cellular data, they can be much larger than SMS messages. SMS messages have a 160 character limit. On the other hand, MMS messages have a 1600 character limit. MMS messages also have data limits. Many carriers limit MMS messages to 3.75MB of data.
Most carriers also have lower send limits for MMS messages, since they require more resources. However, message frequency limitations are usually measured in the number of messages per second or minute, so that limitation is only an issue if you’re sending mass messages to thousands of people.

SMS and MMS cost differences

The typical cost for sending SMS messages is between $0.01 and $0.05 per text. However, some carriers charge less (and some charge more).
With most carriers, sending an MMS message with visual content costs about the same as sending four or five SMS messages. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it to send MMS messages—it depends on your use case.

Device compatibility

Almost any mobile device can receive an SMS message, but only more advanced devices—like smartphones—can receive MMS messages. If the device is unable to display an image or video, it simply can’t show the media in an MMS message.
The number of smartphone users has increased dramatically over the past few years. In 2022, Statistica reported that 6.6 billion people (that’s 84% of the global population) use smartphones, compared to 3.6 billion in 2016.
Unless your business caters to a small subset of the population that’s unlikely to own a smartphone, you probably don’t need to worry about MMS messages going awry. However, for critical communication, like appointment reminders and accepting payments via text, businesses sometimes choose SMS to ensure their message will be received.

Should your business use SMS or MMS?

By evaluating your use case and identifying the goals of your communications, you can easily determine which message type best suits your needs.
If you’re able to communicate what your customers need to know in plain text, in under 160 characters, there’s no reason to pay the premium of sending an MMS message.
However, it’s worth noting that SMS messages longer than 160 characters will be split into multiple messages. Since MMS messages have a 1600 character limit, it can be more cost efficient to send a single MMS message rather than several SMS messages. If you plan to send lengthy messages, MMS could be cheaper and more customer-friendly (your customers won’t receive multiple message alerts every time you contact them).
If you’re sending images or video, you have to send MMS messages. But why would you need to send images and videos?
Businesses benefit from using MMS in their marketing campaigns. In fact, MMS marketing campaigns see 15% to 20% better engagement than SMS campaigns, so sending MMS messages can definitely be worth the extra cost.
Even in marketing, SMS has its place. For example, it’s wise to use SMS if you know that a large portion of your customer base do not have smartphones. It’s also more cost efficient to use SMS for simple text alerts that contain things like order confirmations, appointment reminders or delivery updates.
Ultimately, as you build and optimize your customer journey, different instances will arise where either SMS or MMS are better suited to the task at hand.

SMS use cases

SMS is a straightforward and cost-effective way to send texts like:
  • Appointment reminders
  • Order confirmations
  • Shipping and delivery updates
  • 2-factor authentication (2FA)
  • Time-sensitive alerts
  • Customer satisfaction surveys
  • Policy change notifications
  • Password resets

MMS use cases

MMS is useful for sending lengthy texts or multimedia messages like: Promotions (coupons, discounts, sales)
  • New product or service announcements
  • Video walkthroughs
  • Customer support (sending screenshots when troubleshooting, providing photos of alternate items,
  • Attention-grabbing marketing campaigns
  • Product demonstrations
  • Sharing forms or files
  • Event invites
  • Abandoned cart notifications

SMS vs. MMS infographic

Check out our infographic below to learn about the differences SMS and MMS offers and how to leverage them for your business communications.

Explore your options with Telnyx
Ready to start using SMS and MMS? Try the Telnyx Mission Control Portal for free or contact a Telnyx expert to get your questions answered.
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