Whether they’re stealing your data, using your phone to mine cryptocurrencies, or siphoning money out of your bank account, smartphone viruses can be a nightmare. Luckily, you can discover and remove malware on both iOS and Android phones.
The word “virus” technically refers to a specific kind of malware that spreads through infected files. However, most people use “virus” to mean malware in general, so we’ll use the terms interchangeably here.
In this article, you’ll get a complete picture of how malware ends up on your phone, what it does, how to remove it, and how to avoid it in the future.
To start, let’s look at how to find whether your phone is infected with malware.
How do I know if my phone has a virus?
Before taking any drastic measures to rid yourself of malware, you should verify that your phone issues are, in fact, caused by viruses. Viruses can be tricky to find because their symptoms are similar to the symptoms of other phone issues. In general, if you have multiple issues that you can’t easily explain, you might have malware.
1. Overheating or battery drain
Some kinds of malware mine Bitcoin, click on ads, or perform other nefarious tasks in the background that cause your phone to heat up. Aside from worse performance and battery life (covered in the next section), this processor-intensive malware can make your phone hot.
Not all phone overheating is malware-related, but this is a fairly common symptom that you shouldn’t ignore.
Similarly, malware such as cryptocurrency miners and worms can drain your phone’s battery.
That said, most battery drain issues aren’t caused by malware. Check Settings > Battery > Battery Health on iOS or an app like AccuBattery on Android to see if your battery has degraded. Over time, batteries start to hold less charge. This isn’t something you can reverse; it’s just how batteries work.
If your battery is quickly being drained, check which apps are using your battery, then make sure the battery hasn’t degraded. If there is no good explanation for why your battery is draining so fast, you might have malware.
2. Unexpected ads, redirects, or pop-ups
Malware generally exists to make money for its maker. Sometimes, this means inundating you with ads. If sites or apps that are normally ad-free or ad-light suddenly become filled with ads, pop-ups, and redirects to sketchy sites, here are some possibilities:
- The service has changed ownership or been compromised.
- Your network is injecting ads into insecure (HTTP) connections.
- Your phone has viruses or malware.
Although this particular symptom is somewhat rare on iOS, it used to be quite common on Android. Most of the time—especially when a trusted app is covered by an ad—the issue is caused by malware.
3. Unwanted, suspicious new apps
Finding apps you don’t remember installing is a huge red flag.
Before you start worrying about malware, check to make sure that you’re not signed into a shared iCloud or Google account. Both iOS and Android have features that can sync apps across devices, so it’s possible that you share an account with someone else and they installed the app.
To check whether you’re using Family Sharing on iPhone, go to Settings > [your name] > Family Sharing.
On Android, go to Google Play > Account > Family.
If this isn’t the case, malware is a likely explanation for the unwanted apps appearing on their own.
4. Extreme Data Usage
Unlike legitimate apps, phone malware doesn’t care about your data plan. If an app you hardly use eats up tons of data—or worse, you get a huge phone bill from data usage but can’t find the culprit—you might have a virus.
Can an iPhone get a virus?
Yes. Although Apple does a very good job protecting the security of iPhone users, you can still inadvertently install malware on your iPhone. Malware on iOS generally comes from one of a few places:
- Jailbreaking. When you jailbreak your phone to install apps and tweaks that aren’t approved by Apple, you can mistakenly install malicious software as well. Jailbreaking inherently involves bypassing the iPhone’s security restrictions.
- Compromised networks. Although this issue isn’t technically malware, it presents similar symptoms. Pop-ups and unexpected ads on insecure sites (HTTP, not HTTPS) are symptoms of a compromised network.
- Stolen iCloud credentials. Again, this issue is not necessarily malware. However, if a hacker steals your Apple ID credentials, they can do all sorts of things to your devices and accounts, so it’s just as dangerous as actual malware.
- Security bypasses due to old software. New iOS versions nearly always include fixes for critical security issues. Historically, many iOS devices have been compromised through known vulnerabilities that were already patched in newer iOS updates.
- Nation-state-level hacking. Human rights activists, journalists, and other high-value targets are frequently attacked by governments and other powerful adversaries. One extremely advanced example was likely government-commissioned and could not be stopped until Apple patched the vulnerabilities.
Can an Android phone get a virus?
Yes. Even though Google has greatly improved Android security, plenty of viruses are still out there. Here are a few of the most common places where viruses come from on Android:
- Third-party app stores. Users occasionally choose to get apps outside of the Google Play Store. Doing this can be dangerous, as these alternative stores aren’t subject to Google’s malware screening.
- Malicious Play Store apps. Although both Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store occasionally contain malware, the Play Store contains more total apps and less human screening. Google quickly removes any malicious apps from the Play Store as soon as they’re discovered, but millions of people have already installed malicious apps.
- Rooting. Like jailbreaking on iOS, rooting an Android device gives the user more control—at the expense of security features. The same is true for custom ROMs, which give users even more complete control.
- Google account compromise, security bypass due to old software, and nation-state-level hacking all work just the same on Android as they do on iOS.
How to remove a virus from an iPhone
As a result of the security features baked into iPhones, effective antivirus solutions for iOS practically do not exist. Antivirus software requires deep, unfettered access to the operating system’s internals, something that Apple is not keen to allow.
So, how do you get rid of a virus on your phone? Here are some steps you can take to remove different kinds of malware:
1. Reboot your iPhone
Simple, unsophisticated viruses can be removed with a reboot. This kind of malware is known as non-persistent malware.
2. Connect to a different network
Network-related issues can be solved by connecting to another network or using LTE instead of Wi-Fi. This might stop additional pop-ups and ads on HTTP sites. If doing this does not fix the issue, you’ll need to try more drastic measures.
3. Change your iCloud password and add 2FA
Changing your iCloud password and adding two-factor authentication stops account takeovers. Be sure to also remove any unrecognized devices from your Apple ID.
4. Perform a complete wipe of your iPhone
If all else fails, wiping your device completely should remove any trace of malicious software from the phone itself.
Performing a complete wipe
The most effective way to clean an iPhone of malware is to wipe it completely. However, using Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings is not enough when dealing with malware. Smart viruses may be able to survive that sort of wipe since it does not completely remove and reinstall the operating system.
To guarantee that every piece of software on your iPhone is set up anew, perform a complete wipe like this:
- Make a complete backup of your important data. Copy your photos, text messages, and other important data onto a trusted computer or another device.
- iCloud Backup is normally a great way to back up your phone, but it won’t work this time. Restoring a backup from iCloud could bring back the malware as well. Instead, manually copy all the data you want to keep.
- Put your device into recovery mode following Apple’s official instructions. The process differs slightly depending on which generation of iPhone you have.
- Plug your phone into a trusted Mac or Windows PC. Make sure you have iTunes installed if you’re using Windows.
- Choose Restore in the window that pops up. This will erase all the data on your device.
- Wait until your iPhone finishes installing iOS and set it up. Don’t restore from an iCloud backup—if you do, you might inadvertently bring back the virus.
- Install your apps and bring back your data. Be on the lookout for anything suspicious to avoid reinstalling malware.
How to remove a virus from an Android phone
Android works a little differently from iOS in a variety of ways. Apps have more access to the operating system, which is a double-edged sword. Android antivirus software can be legitimately effective, unlike iOS antivirus software. However, viruses can do more damage as well.
Try these steps to fix your malware problem. Start with less destructive strategies:
1. Remove unrecognized apps
Remove any apps you don’t recognize or use regularly, especially if they have high permission levels. Unrecognized apps will often be the culprit of your malware problems.
2. Try a different network or connection method
Sometimes, your malware-like symptoms will be caused by the network you’re connected to. If your problem is pop-ups and other similar issues, trying a different network may help to remedy them. You may also try switching between Wi-Fi and mobile data to see if that provides the fix you’re looking for.
3. Change your Google account password and add 2FA
Use a strong password and two-factor authentication on your Google account. This will neutralize possible account takeovers, stopping attackers in their tracks.
4. Perform a complete wipe of your Android device
Wiping your phone should be taken as a last resort, but it will fix the overwhelming majority of malware issues.
Here’s how to wipe your phone effectively:
- Make a backup of your data onto a trusted computer. Don’t rely on Google’s backup features.
- Remove your Google account, lock screen passcode, and manufacturer’s account like a Samsung account (depending on your phone brand).
- Factory reset your phone. This setting will be in a different location depending on your phone manufacturer.
How to protect your phone from viruses
Phone malware is just like your physical health: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Protecting yourself against malware is not too difficult for most people who aren’t high-value targets, but it takes some forethought:
- Don’t install apps from third-party app stores.
- Don’t jailbreak or root your phone.
- Keep your phone updated. If you no longer receive timely software updates, purchase a new phone.
- Be careful and exercise caution when installing apps, browsing the web, and following instructions.
- Lastly, consider installing a strong antivirus on your phone.