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How can I backup and restore SMS message history, and restore on a later Android version — using only the SD card storage?

I am upgrading from one device to another:

Both devices have full root access in the operating system.

I have no Google account, and no non-free software. This means no Google Play, no GMail, etc.

The devices have existing means to transfer data, so Google should not need to be involved in this process at all. I'm looking for a solution that doesn't involve Google Play nor any proprietary services.

Apps which have failed so far:

  • The built-in Messaging app. There appears to be no “export” and “import” feature. Kind of an obvious omission, a great shame the Android basic apps don't have this.

  • Slight Backup easily backs up the messages, and I can restore them on CyanogenMod 11. But then the Messaging app shows “No conversations”.

  • SMS Backup+ has the same problem: it can backup and restore (via my choice of IMAP host), but after restoring all the messages it reports “1 item restored (NNN dups removed)”. The Messaging app shows “No conversations”.

How can I transfer the message history from the old device and have it imported to the new device's message history of conversations?

UPDATE: The new restrictions on SMS data access in Android KitKat is likely a major hurdle to this goal.

How can this be done?

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  • Is using ADB an option? Such as here or this one
    – RossC
    Oct 31, 2014 at 9:56
  • @RossC the first link probably not; backing up/restoring the database file directly is dangerous (backing up not of course, but restoring) especially when not done on the very same device+ROM+Android-version (see my answer for details). Second link is fine, especially concerning things like Myphone Explorer ;)
    – Izzy
    Oct 31, 2014 at 10:17
  • @Izzy thanks, that's good to know! I tend to do things the dangerous way to be honest, HOWEVER, I don't really care what gets deleted off my phone anyway, and if I really needed an app I'd use the Amazon store if I really had to avoid google services.
    – RossC
    Oct 31, 2014 at 10:25
  • "Get deleted" is not the issue in this case. App crashes is more like what happens then. And as for avoiding Google services: I'm currently running "Google-free phones" only (CM with NOGAPPS) while still using the Playstore (via "BlankStore") – but that's got nothing to do with SMS ;)
    – Izzy
    Oct 31, 2014 at 10:35

6 Answers 6

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There are several apps supporting to Backup SMS/MMS (and of course also to restore them), running locally in "user-mode" (if you prefer cloud storage, which by the question you do not, there are also ways to Backup SMS into the Cloud).

As your devices have support, you might consider using Titanium Backup – which allows you a.o. to export your SMS/MMS as XML files (and also to restore that, of course). This solution should definitely work with CyanogenMod (while above mentioned apps should as well).

A note on the "backups via ADB" RossC referred to in his comment on your question:

  • Can adb be used to recover SMS messages while in permanent “Safe Mode”? deals with backing up the corresponding database file. When chosing that approach, you should make sure to only restore that on the very same device, ROM and Android version (e.g. after a , but never after a ROM/Android upgrade or on a different device). Otherwise you might run into trouble (says one who had that issue in the past, so you can believe it ;))
  • How do I backup data (SMS/contacts) from a device with a broken screen? has answers with the same approach (to which the same warning applies), but some answers also mention tools simply utilizing ADB to access the device. I've never used any of those (as most seem to be Windows-only – like Moborobo, Myphone Explorer (most famous solution for Windows-people, offering a lot more than just SMS), Mobogenie, DroidExplorer (the dev is active here!) – and I'm on Linux – my only windows are for light and fresh air), but I'd assume they do more than simply "copy the database file", so they might fit your requirements. Still, for above reasons, read their instructions carefully.
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  • These answers don't take into account the need to use only free software and open protocols. Can you make a new, single answer with just the advice that's relevant to the question?
    – bignose
    Nov 1, 2014 at 1:17
  • Sorry, but with the added difficulty (Kitkat restrictions), the only working solution I could name is Titanium Backup. "No Google Play" is not a deal-breaker for that, as the free version is also available at Aptoide, as the linked app-list shows. Being a "root app", it should be able to circumvent those Kitkat-restrictions – and Aptoide requires no account to install apps from. Not having a KK device, I cannot test, sorry.
    – Izzy
    Nov 1, 2014 at 12:53
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QKSMS (free software, available on F-Droid) does the job. It is a messaging app that has a Backup and Restore feature. Backup exports messages to a JSON file, and Restore inserts messages from that file into the Android SMS database. You can use the stock AOSP messaging app later on with the restored messages.

MMS are not supported by Backup and Restore.

Be sure that the messages you are importing aren't already into your database, because there is no detection of duplicates.

Android 5.0 or newer is required, which shouldn't be an issue now.

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The best method to backup/export sms(and others like contacts) is using Titanium Backup app.

Note: While importing use setting "Let me choose myself." This is recommended for inter-version import/export.

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  • Thanks for the suggestion, but I'm explicitly looking for solutions using only free software and open protocols.
    – bignose
    Oct 31, 2014 at 21:46
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There is a branch of slight backup which has the Fix for Android 4.4, but it seems like there are not prebuilt apks for it (yet):

https://github.com/handschuh/Slight-backup/tree/smsrestore_4.4

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SMS Backup and Restore did the job for me when I migrated from my Atrix to Nexus 4. The app is free but the developer accepts donations if you like his software. The app backs up messages as an XML file.

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  • Is that free software? (The question specifies this.) If so, please give a URL to install it without a Google account. (The question specifies this too.)
    – bignose
    Apr 20, 2015 at 5:57
  • Yes, it is. The developer accepts donations if you like his software. Here's a link (you'll find more if you Google it): apk4fun.com/apk/25923 The app backs up messages as XML files.
    – JamieJag
    Apr 20, 2015 at 23:13
  • This actually does not appear to be "free" in the sense that @bignose is talking about (libre/open source), or if it is I cannot find the source code anywhere. It is only "free" in the sense that you need not pay for it. Apr 21, 2015 at 14:40
  • @eldarerathis, you're right - it isn't. My bad that I didn't notice that he had linked "free software" to the GNU definition of free. Sorry about that!
    – JamieJag
    Apr 21, 2015 at 22:04
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I successfully used SMS Backup+, version 1.5.7 installed via F-Droid package.

That version addresses an issue (#460) for SMS Backup+ to account for the sudden changes in SMS data handling in Android 4.4 KitKat.

(Update, 2021: Six years later and SMS Backup+ – now version 1.5.11 – is still the SMS restore app I use any time I need to transfer identity between devices.)

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