How to set up and start using Snapchat

Snapchat is an incredibly popular way to share photos and videos that disappear right after being viewed.

Chances are, if you’ve heard of Snapchat but aren’t already using it, you’re a bit curious to learn more. Well, that’s exactly what we aim to show you. Although it’s different than the built-in Messages app, and can seem confusing at first, we think you’ll find Snapchat is simple to understand once you get going. So, consider this a jumping off point. This is how you set up and start using Snapchat.

How to sign up for Snapchat

Before you can get to snapping endless disappearing selfies, you need to download Snapchat and sign up for the service.

  1. Download Snapchat from the App Store.
  2. Launch Snapchat once you’ve downloaded it.
  3. Tap on Sign Up.
  4. Hand over your email address, enter a (hard to guess) password, and dial in your birthday (no cheating!).
  5. Pick a username. (Unfortunately, there are a lot of selfie lovers on Snapchat so I had to get clever.)

  6. Verify that you’re human and not a spambot trying to set up fake accounts. You can either type in your phone number and get a code sent to your phone or hunt for ghosts in a grid of nine images. (Hint: The second one is a bit more fun.)
  7. Add your contacts. (Snapchat uses your contacts to help you find any friends already using the service.
  8. Tap the + button (looks like +) add as few or as many friends as you like.
  9. Tap Continue when you’re done.

How Snapchat’s main screen works

Alright, you’ve signed up for Snapchat and proven you’re not a robot — great work! You should now be seeing a live camera view with a bit of instruction on how to take a photo or record a video, and several icons surrounding the frame.

Top toolbar

Let’s start with the toolbar at the top. It includes three buttons: flash, menu, and the camera switch.

  • Flash: Tapping this button turns on or off the flash, whether that be from your phone screen (for a selfie) or the actual flash on the back of your phone. (Hint: If a crescent moon appears next to the flash, that means you’re taking a photo in a particularly low-light situation. Tap the moon to turn on low-light mode — it’ll brighten up your photo.)
  • Menu: Tapping this button takes you to the main menu in Snapchat where you can add new friends, adjust settings, and share your Snapcode (more on that later).
  • Camera switch: Tapping this button toggles between the front-facing camera and the back-facing, iSight camera.

Bottom toolbar

At the bottom there are two buttons with a giant shutter button between them.

  • Left button: Tapping this button takes you to a list of your Snapchat messages.
  • Shutter button: Tapping this button takes a photo.
  • Right button: Tapping this button takes you to a list of Snapchat Stories and Snapchat’s Discover feature (more on both of these later).

And that sums things up. Snapchat’s main screen is essentially a hub for all your snapping activities, with a focus on, well, snapping photos. You open up the app, and it’s ready to take a photo. It only requires a few taps or swipes to access other menus and settings within the app.

How to Take Photos (Mostly Selfies) on Snapchat

When it comes to taking and sending photos, you can keep things simple, or you can get creative.

Keeping It Simple

  1. Tap the camera switch to toggle between selfie and photo mode.
  2. Line up your photo (you look great, by the way!), tap to set exposure and focus, and then tap the shutter button. (If you don’t like your final product, just tap the “X” in the top left corner of the screen to discard the photo.)
  3. Tap anywhere in the middle of the screen to add a caption — throw in some emojis if you’d like. (You can tap and drag the caption box to change its position on screen.)
  4. Tap the stopwatch icon at the bottom of the screen to choose how long it takes for your photo to disappear, from one to 10 seconds. (You can tap the downward arrow to the left of the stopwatch to save your photo to your camera roll.)

  5. Tap the arrow in the bottom right corner of the screen and choose to whom you’ll be sending your photo. Tap on the names to select one person, or multiple people.
  6. Tap that arrow one more time and your photo’s on its way.

Adding emoji

We’re going to assume at this point — whether it be a selfie or a shot of the food you’re eating — you know how to snap a photo. Now you’re looking to add some emojis, play around with filters, adjust the text, and draw sketches. Here’s how you do that.

You can add emojis in the caption box by switching to the emoji keyboard. But you can also add resizable emoji “stickers” by tapping the sticker icon in the top right corner of the screen. Tapping this button brings up an emoji palette. Tap the emoji you want to add, and tap and drag it to move it around the photo. You can even pinch to make it bigger or smaller, and turn your fingers to rotate it. (Hint: If you decide you want to remove an emoji from your photo, just tap and drag it up to the trash.)

Adding filters

Snapchat has two different types of filters — the first change the appearance of your photo à la Instagram, and the second add information. You can access the information filters by swiping to the right. Swipe left to access the photo filters. (Hint: If you give Snapchat your location, you can access special filters called Geofilters that feature artwork related to a specific location — you swipe right to get to the Geofilters)

Adjusting text

If you find the caption box is too small to really convey the message you’re sending, tap the text icon in the top right corner of the screen. Tapping once left-aligns your text, tapping twice centers it. If you tap once more, it will default to the plain ol’ text bar. Just like with emoji stickers, you can move, scale, and rotate the text to your heart’s content.

Drawing sketches

To draw sketches on your photo, tap the pencil icon in the top right corner of the screen. Tap and drag your finger along the colorful bar to change the color of your sketch tool. Then, just use your finger or a stylus to doodle away. (Hint: If you make a mistake, you can tap the undo button to the left of the pencil icon.)

Nice work! You’ve created a Snapchat masterpiece chock-full of emojis, sketches, text, and the perfect photo filter. All that’s left now is to send it off to somebody who can truly appreciate your magnum opus.

How to take videos on Snapchat

Capturing video on Snapchat works a lot like taking photos. Instead of tapping the shutter button, however, you hold it down. You’ve got ten seconds to shoot your footage. You can monitor your time limit by keeping an eye on the shutter button — the circle fills up as time runs out.

Snapchat will play your video on loop so you can see if you like what you shot. Tapping the “X” in the top left corner of the screen lets you start over.

Much like photos, you can add emojis, text, and sketches to your video. You can also choose whether you want to send along the audio in the clip by tapping the speaker icon in the bottom left corner of the screen.

Sending works the same, too. Just tap the arrow, choose the recipient(s), and tap the arrow again. Videos disappear at the end of their duration, though videos (and photos) can be replayed at least once by a recipient.

Using Snapchat lenses

Snapchat Lenses are a recent addition to the app. They’re live effects that actually track your face as you move — it can add a fun, dynamic look to a video or photo. Best of all, Snapchat updates them regularly so there are almost always a few new Lenses to try out.

Lenses only work for selfies, so you’ll need to make sure the front-facing camera is enabled.

  1. Tap and hold down in the middle of the screen until you see a series of white lines appear over your face — this is the face-tracking software at work.
  2. If Snapchat was able to recognize your face, you should see a row of circles appear at the bottom of the screen — these are lenses. Swipe left to switch between them. (Tap the “X” below the shutter button to turn off lenses.)
  3. Lenses have certain movements tied to them (raise your eyebrows, open your mouth, etc.). Performing these movements will trigger an animation or sound.
  4. Tap the shutter button to snap a photo or hold it down to record a video — either way, you’ve got a hilarious (or frightening) image to send to a friend.

Now that we’ve covered how to take and send snaps, it’s time to go spelunking throughout the rest of the app.

How Snapchat’s Feed screen works

From the main Snapchat menu (the one with the live photo view), tapping the button in the bottom left corner of the screen — or swiping to the right — brings up your Snapchat feed. This screen contains all of your recent conversations.

The icons to the left of each name show the current status of your conversation. (Hint: Colors correspond to media types: red = photo, purple = video, blue = chat)

  • Sent: A closed arrow means you’ve successfully sent a photo, video, or chat (more on this later).
  • Opened: An open arrow means your recipient opened the photo, video, or chat.
  • Received: A closed box means you’ve received a photo, video, or chat.

  • Viewed: An open box means you’ve opened a photo, video, or chat.
  • Screenshot: Lest you forget, snaps can be captured — they’re not 100 percent ephemeral. But the app can detect when someone’s nabbed one of your photos with a screenshot. This icon lets you know so you can hunt ’em down and get your photo back — well, deleted.
  • Replay: Snapchat lets every user replay one snap per day. This icon shows you your snap was so irresistible that your recipient just had to watch or view it again! (Snapchat also lets you pay to get more replays.)

Reading Snaps From the Feed Screen

If you see a closed box next to a name, that means you have a snap — how exciting! To view the snap, just tap on the name. The photo or video will immediately fill the screen. You’ll see a timer in the top right corner of the screen — it tells you how long you’ve got until the image or video disappears.

If a friend has sent you multiple images or videos, or some mixture of both, they will show in consecutive order. If you want to skip over a particularly uninteresting video or a so-good-it-makes-you-jealous selfie, just tap anywhere on the screen and it will skip to the next photo or video.

Sending Snaps From the Feed Screen

You don’t have to be in the main screen to send snaps and chats. With a couple taps (and a few gestures), you can actually do most of your communicating from the Feed screen.

There are two ways to send a snap from this screen: You can either tap the camera icon in the top right corner of the screen, or you can swipe to the right on one of the conversations in your feed to open up an individual chat screen. This screen shows your recent activity with a specific contact. Tapping the yellow button in the text box opens up the camera — snap and send.

Hitting the button in the bottom right corner of this camera screen lets you send photos from your camera roll.

Understanding Chat

Snapchat isn’t just photos and videos — the app also lets you send off good ol’ fashioned text. Just swipe right on any conversation in the Feed screen to open the chat screen and type in whatever message you want to send. However, you should know there’s a catch: You can send as many chats as you want while you’re in the chat screen, but if you leave, the chats will disappear. Snapchat is serious about its ephemerality.

You can also video chat within the chat screen. If you and the person on the other end of your chat are both viewing the chat screen, the yellow button will turn blue. Hold down on the blue button to launch a video chat.

Tapping the “hamburger button” in the top left corner of the chat screen displays your friend’s Snapcode, username, and score. You can also change your friend’s display name, block them, or remove them from your friends list. You can learn more about chat — both text and video — here.

And that sums things up for the Feed screen. It’s nothing more than a list of conversations with your friends and an easy way to quickly communicate with an individual person.

How Snapchat Stories and Discover work

You can get to Snapchat Stories and Snapchat Discover by swiping left from the main screen. Here you’ll find loads of colorful, tappable circles. Let’s dig in!

Snapchat Stories

Snapchat stories are a collection of Snaps (photos and videos) that you and your friends publish over the course of a 24-hour period. It’s essentially a glimpse of your day. We say 24-hour period, because stories will disappear after 24 hours.

You can view your friends’ stories by tapping on any of the names in either the “Recent Updates” or “All Stories” list. Just like a normal snap, you can tap to skip a photo or video. But unlike snaps, these don’t disappear after you watch them; as long as you watch within the 24-hour period, you can replay as many times as you like.

Adding Snaps to Your Story

If you’d like to craft a Snapchat Story of your own, you’ll be happy to know it’s rather simple. When you take a photo or video, there’s a button in the bottom left corner of the screen with a plus sign. Just tap that button to add snaps to your story. (Hint: You can change who can see your Snapchat Story in the settings menu.)

Live Stories

You may have seen a section called “Live” in the Stories screen. Live Stories are curated snaps surrounding a particular event. Snapchat pulls user-submitted photos and videos from Snapchatters around the world to craft these Live Stories. So, a Live Story about Paris, for example, would include snaps from people in Paris.

Snapchat Discover

Snapchat Discover is unlike any other part of Snapchat in that the content posted here comes from editorial entities — CNN, Mashable, Vice, etc. — not Snapchatters. Each “channel,” as they’re called, contains loads of interactive content — tapping a circle launches that channel. From there you can swipe, tap, scroll, read, and share all the goodies. (Hint: To leave a channel, simply swipe down from anywhere on the screen.)

Channels — like Stories — are refreshed every 24 hours. Snapchat says each channel typically includes 5-10 pieces of content.

Snapchat Stories and Snapchat Discover are an entertaining addition to the core messaging experience. You can get a quick, entertaining rundown of your friend’s day and you can read the latest headlines from CNN, Mashable, and more — all within one app. Make no mistake, Snapchat likes it that way.

How the Snapchat menu works

Accessing the Snapchat menu is as simple as tapping the tiny ghost at the top of the main screen. Here you can view your Snapcode, your username, and your [score][]. You can see who recently sent you a friend request, send friend requests, and view your friends list. And you can also keep track of your Snapchat Trophy Case and adjust settings. (Hint: That question mark at the top of the screen shows you how to use Snapcodes.)


A Snapcode is a lot like a QR code. It’s a unique image that represents your individual Snapchat account. If you’re talking to a friend and they ask to add you on Snapchat, you just launch Snapchat, tap the ghost, and let your friend scan your code with their Snapchat app. In theory, it’s faster than just searching for your username in the app. (Hint: If you tap on your Snapcode, you can take an animated selfie to replace the ghost in the middle of your Snapcode.)

Snapchat Score

We’ve mentioned the Snapchat Score a few times in this article. So, what is it? Snapchat does some math based on your use of the app and spits out a number. Think of it this way: The higher the score, the more active the Snapchatter.

V iewing and Accepting Friend Requests

Tap “Added Me” to see a list of people who recently added you as a friend. If you want to add them back, just tap the plus sign.

Adding Friends

If you prefer things the old-fashioned way (i.e. Snapcodes aren’t your thing), you can tap “Add Friends” to see a list of other ways to add friends.

  • Add by Username: If your friend gives you their username, you can search for them with this option.

  • Add from Address Book: If you let Snapchat take a peek at your contacts when you first signed up, you can see all of your contacts who are on Snapchat by tapping this option.

  • Add by Snapcode: This isn’t like the aforementioned Snapcode feature; you use this option if your friend sends you a screenshot of their Snapcode. Snapchat will show you your camera roll with images it thinks might be a Snapcode at the top. Just tap the Snapcode screenshot to add your friend.

  • Add Nearby: If you and your friend(s) have “Add Nearby” open, you’ll be able to see their username and add them to your friends list. This is a particularly handy feature if you’ve got a big group of friends you’d like to add.

Your Friends List

Tap “My Friends” to view your friends list. The list is organized alphabetically, with a section at the top for your most-contacted friends. From here, you can tap on individual names to view their information or send a snap or chat. You can also use this menu to quickly change a contact’s display name or remove or block them. (Hint: You can tap “Contacts” at the top of the screen to add your contacts who are using Snapchat.)

  • Removing a friend: Removing a friend means different things depending on your privacy settings. In general, if you remove a friend they won’t be able to see your Snapchat Stories and you won’t see theirs. If your privacy settings are such that you only get snaps from friends, then you also won’t see any snaps they send.

  • Blocking a friend or user: A person doesn’t have to be your friend for you to block them. A blocked user won’t be able to find you in search results and — no matter your privacy settings — won’t be able to see your Snapchat Stories.

You may have noticed how some of your friends have emoji(s) next to them. This is Snapchat’s way of giving you a little more information about your friends. For example, an emoji with sunglasses means you and your friend have a friend in common. You can look at Snapchat’s full list of friend emojis for more.

Trophy Case

Snapchat loves it when you use Snapchat. To encourage you to keep using the app, it recently introduced the Trophy Case. To smile proudly at your trophies, just tap the trophy icon at the top of the menu.

It’s a lot like those achievement badges in video games and in Apple’s Activity app. As you use Snapchat, trying out different features and racking up loads of snaps, you’ll unlock more trophies. I clearly need to work on my Snapchat game.


You can access the settings menu by tapping the gear icon in the upper right corner of the menu screen. There are quite a few settings you can adjust, so we’ll focus on the less-than-obvious settings.

  • My account: You can change your name, Snapchat username, phone number, email, and password. You can also set up two-factor authentication, toggle notification sounds and set up Snapcash. Snapcash lets you send money through Snapchat.

  • Additional services: Use this section to toggle filters (no more moody, black and white photos), enable travel mode (it cuts back on using your mobile data), edit friend emojis, and adjust Snapchat’s permission to access different services (location, microphone, photos, etc.).

  • Who can…: These are your privacy settings. Tapping either of these settings lets you choose who can send you snaps and who can view your Snapchat Stories.

  • More information: All the corporate speak you could ever desire. Well, aside from the Support section — Support gives you loads of info on how to use Snapchat. (Hint: You don’t really need to read that section. That’s why you read this, remember?)

  • Account actions: Use this section to erase conversations (in the Feed screen), manage users you’ve blocked, and log out of the app.

Job Well Done!

We’ve peered into all the menus, swiped through all the screens, tried out all the lenses, and captured a few good selfies along the way. I’d call that a success.

If you think of Snapchat’s main screen as the central hub of the app, navigating the menus and screens becomes rather simple. Swipe right to see your conversations, swipe left to view Stories and Discover channels, and tap the ghost to access all your settings.

A word of advice before I send you on your merry, Snapchatting way: When it comes to the Internet, there’s no such thing as ephemeral. Don’t send anything you may later regret. In other words, maybe just stick to selfies and pictures of your lunch, OK?

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