Using Accents in SMS Text Messages


Mobile Commons works with some of the most inspiring Hispanic organizations in the country, including Reform Immigration 4 America,, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and many others. But if you join the Spanish-language version of any of their mobile lists, you’ll notice something surprising. None of the characters have the appropriate accent marks. For example, “alertas móviles” is spelled “alertas moviles”.

As everyone knows, text messages are limited to 160 characters. But it’s not just *any* 160 characters. Text messages are so small, the way that they can pack even that many characters in is by using a restricted alphabet. You can only choose from a select number of characters, which includes all upper case and lower case English letters, numbers, and punctuation. Unfortunately, doesn’t include all the accented characters (or Cyrillic, Kanji, Hebrew, etc.)

Accents in International Text Messages

So what about countries outside the United States? How do they send text messages? Well, they make a trade-off. If you want a larger alphabet of characters to choose from, that comes at a price: fewer characters in your text messages. So if you want to send a text message in Arabic or Chinese, you can do it. But it’s going to be limited to just 70 characters.

SMS in the US

“Great!” you think. I’ll just write really short messages and then I can get accents. Well, it’s not that simple. You see, there are two competing mobile phone technologies in the United States: GSM and CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. This is the reason you have to choose either an AT&T iPhone or a Verizon iPhone — the technologies just aren’t compatible with one another.

And unfortunately, CDMA does not support characters outside the default alphabet. That means if you are texting in the United States, you are limited to just the English characters.

As a side note, you may notice that when you text your friends, say, with your iPhone, that you CAN use accents, even on Verizon. The reasoning for that is a little trickier and subtle. When you text your friends, you may not be using SMS! Maybe you both have iPhones and you are using iMessage. Or maybe you are using Blackberry Messenger. Or maybe you’re using something called EMS or MMS. All of these protocols support larger alphabets. But it totally depends on the handset. You may *think* you sent an accented character to your friend, but it might show up blank, depending on her handset.

Since Mobile Commons is the best way to reach everyone, everywhere, and we place a huge emphasis on user experience (e.g. not sending a message that won’t show up on someone’s phone), we insist on using the most universal and ubiquitous technology everywhere, even if there are some tradeoffs.

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