What is the SMS Character Limit?

Oct 18, 2021 - By Adomas Sulcas

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SMS character limit is less of a concern nowadays, especially to the common people.

A lot of our communication has moved away from SMS messages to online chat platforms and applications where the number of characters is nearly unlimited.

For marketers, however, the text message length limit is important. The SMS size is limited to 160 characters, which forces marketers to write short and compelling copy. Additionally, the 160 characters SMS limit might be reduced even further if a special script or a non-latin alphabet (e.g. ą, č, ę, š, etc.) is used.

SMS Concatenation

Most beginners might think that the character limit isn’t as important. After all, most modern (e.g. iPhone, any Android) phones offer concatenation, which combines messages over the SMS word limit in one message.

Concatenation, however, is a trap. There are several issues with it. First, it doesn’t always work as intended. Messages sometimes arrive one after the other instead of being one block. Sometimes they break apart and not arrive entirely. It might not seem like a big issue if you send only a few messages. Once bulk sending begins, however, even 0.1% failure rate will cut into profits.

Additionally, concatenation sometimes works by providing a “read more” button at the end of the SMS message. While it may not have a lot of impact, anything that inconveniences the user (in this case, the reader) is by definition bad.

Standard SMS Characters Limit (GSM)

Most carriers, as mentioned above, will allow for a standard SMS character length of 160. It is calculated, however, by basing it on the GSM character set, which is the basic keyboard provided to phones. In other terms, the GSM character set is what’s available by default on the QWERTY keyboard – one you have probably used daily.

For concatenation, the SMS max character length is slightly reduced. If your SMS goes over 160 characters, the first 7 of all messages are used to instruct the carrier to concatenate the message.

Additionally, the sender name length is also limited in a similar fashion. It can only be up to 11 characters long. Otherwise, it will be cut off at 11 characters. Finally, some phones cannot display a sender name length that is shorter than 3 characters, therefore it’s recommended to stick between 3 and 11.

Unicode Text Message Length Limit

You might have used characters other than GSM such as letters with diacritics or an emoji. These SMS special characters are more “costly”. Instead of being 1 SMS character count, they take up slightly more than twice that. As such, if even one Unicode character is used, the maximum length is reduced to 70 characters.

They do, however, cost less to concatenate. Instead of taking 7 characters to encode concatenation, only 3 are used.

Most non-latin languages are encoded in Unicode. For example, the Arabic SMS character length is limited to 70. These limits will be the same for any Cyrilic, Greek, Hebrew or any other script.

Finally, every emoji is also a Unicode character. They, however, do not have a set character cost. As a result, some emojis will take up more characters than others. You might need to experiment to find the right ones.

Escape Certain Characters To Increase SMS Length

There are several other characters that are unique in concern to the SMS character counter. So called escape characters (e.g. | ^ € [ ] { } ~) are also encoded differently. Due to the differences in encoding, they “cost” 2 characters instead of 1.

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