It’s time to finally organize your contact lists

Tips and tricks for the Apple, Google, and Microsoft contact apps.
A person wearing a white buttondown shirt tapping on their smartphone.
Bring order to the chaos of your contacts. NordWood Themes / Unsplash

This story has been updated. It was originally published on April 26, 2018.

Every time you send an email or a text, or even look up a friend’s address on Google Maps, you rely on a digital list of your contacts. But just because you use it all the time doesn’t mean you treat it well. Many of us let old numbers, needless duplicates, and unlabeled mystery addresses pile up in whatever contacts app we prefer. This makes it harder to find the information we need when we need it.

Thankfully, the apps that store contact lists—we’re focusing on those from Google, Apple, and Microsoft—can help you clean up duplicates, delete contacts with missing or outdated information, and sync those changes between apps and devices. In general, to avoid having your contacts spread across too many accounts, we recommend you pick one of these services to serve as your primary list, based on the apps and devices you rely on the most (heavy iPhone users should go through Apple, Android devotees should pick Google, and so on). Once you’ve selected a platform, use the native tools we’re about to discuss to whip your contacts in shape. Then head to the final section of this guide to make sure those cleaned-up contacts will appear across all the platforms you use.

How to organize your Apple contact list

Anyone with an iOS phone and a macOS computer should be using Apple’s built-in Contacts app, which will sync your information across both platforms. When you’re on another type of device, you can still access your contacts through your web browser by visiting the iCloud site. If you’re looking for advanced organization options, unfortunately, you won’t find them in this app. However, it does have basic management tools.

On an iPhone, you can edit an entry by selecting it and choosing Edit. The next screen lets you change your contact’s information, or remove that person entirely by tapping Delete Contact. To adjust how this information is sorted and displayed, head to the iOS Settings app and choose Contacts from the list. For example, you can tap Short Name and toggle on the Prefer Nicknames switch to make iOS show nicknames rather than more formal monikers.

The macOS version has similar options, but it does include a clever groups feature that makes it easier to organize people. Open Contacts and select File > New Smart Group. Then pick your criteria—maybe you want to group people from the same city together, or use the Note field to pool anyone with, say, a “book club” tag. To email everyone in a smart group at once, look at the left-hand navigation menu to find the group’s entry and then right-click on it. Unlike on iOS, macOS will help you find duplicate contacts. Select Card > Look for Duplicates to scour your contacts list for overlapping entries. If the app finds any, it will ask whether you want to merge them. You can also do this manually: Click on one contact, hold down Cmd and click on another, and then choose Card > Merge Selected Cards.

Because the macOS version has more options, we recommend you manage your contacts on your computer rather than your phone, and then let these changes sync to the iOS app. However, if you’d prefer a more comprehensive iPhone option, some third-party apps offer more advanced tools for removing duplicates. We recommend Simpler, which has a free trial but costs $10 per year to unlock most of its features, such as contact backups. This app lets you merge duplicate entries with a tap, remove partial contacts (like those missing phone numbers), organize contacts into groups, and more. We also like Delete Contacts+, which lets you quickly erase batches of people at once, back up your contacts, and identify cards with missing information. Again, you can enjoy a free trial, but to use the contact merge feature, you’ll need to pay a one-time fee of $4.

How to manage your Google contact list

If you opt to store your contacts with Google, you can access them online or through an official Android app

Of Google Contacts’ features, Merge & Fix is probably the most useful. To use it, visit the web interface, click Merge & Fix in the left sidebar, then choose some of the recommendations. The first and most useful is to check duplicate contacts you’d like to combine. You can go one by one, or do them all in one fell swoop by clicking on Merge all. If you find two or more items you need to combine that Google has not identified, you can manually turn them into one entry. Go to the main contacts list (click Contacts in the sidebar), select them by checking the boxes that appear when you hover over them, and hit the merge button in the top navigation bar—it looks like a skewed arrow going up. Merge & Fix will also suggest other changes, such as adding people you constantly contact to your list, or adding more information to existing entries. 

[Related: 24 hidden Android settings you should know about]

The Android app is almost equally smart at managing your contacts. Hit the menu button (three horizontal lines) on the top left, and choose Merge & fix to access all of the settings we mentioned above. Sadly, you won’t be able to deal with duplicates manually on mobile, but you can customize how to sort your contacts. In addition, the Android app lets you organize your contacts more efficiently. Tap your avatar and go to Contacts app settings—under Display and Edit contacts, you’ll be able to sort contacts by first name or last name, or to show or hide phonetic names. You can also sort your contacts according to the labels you’ve assigned them. To do this, tap the three dots on the search bar, go to Customize View, and choose Customize. There you’ll be able to put specific groups of contacts at the top of the list for easier access.

Gmail is tightly tied up with Google’s contacts management. People you have emailed but haven’t added to your contacts will appear online under the Other contacts heading on the web. To avoid having all those addresses pile up, you can change this default. Go to the Gmail website and click the cog icon on the right, followed by Settings. There, under the General tab, scroll down to Create contacts for auto-complete and choose I’ll add contacts myself.If you’d like more help, you can find third-party apps for managing your Google contacts. On Android, Cleaner (the Android version of Simpler for iOS mentioned earlier) makes the process of merging contacts and spotting duplicates a little easier, and throws in contact backups as well. Unlike Simpler, Cleaner is totally free for Android users. We also like Contacts Optimizer, which can erase duplicate entries, spot entries with missing information, and more. It’s free to try and costs $2 for some of the more advanced features, like merging multiple contacts.

How to organize your Microsoft contact list

Unlike Apple and Google, Microsoft doesn’t have a popular mobile operating system, so the changes you make to your Microsoft contacts will not affect your phone. However, contacts will sync between Windows and Outlook, whether you use the latter online or as a computer app. Like Apple, Microsoft gives you few automated cleanup options, but its basic editing interface is easy to manipulate.

Start with the People interface. On, you can select it from the master menu on the left-hand side of the page (it’s an icon that looks like two people). For any existing entry, the Edit contact button will give you access to all the fields on each card. To add or delete contacts, use the clearly labeled New contact and Delete options in the toolbar on top. The Outlook app, available for Windows and macOS, has a similar set of options. Right-click and choose Edit Contact to make changes to an individual card, or use the New Contact, New Contact Group, and Delete buttons, located in the ribbon menu at the top, to tidy your contacts list.

As far as automated clean up options, Microsoft can detect potential duplicates for you to merge, but the process is unfortunately quite convoluted. We can’t get into it here, but Microsoft has its own guide that should serve you well. Through the app, you don’t have automatic tools to merge or delete duplicate contacts, so you have to do this manually. First, select the contacts you want to merge from the master list. Then click the menu button (three horizontal dots) under whichever contacts appear on the display and pick Link Contacts.

In addition, Windows 10 has a built-in People app, which you can’t launch directly (as of January 29, 2021), but is accessible via the People icon in Mail, Calendar, and other apps. It’s simply another place where you can edit your Microsoft contacts list. Select any of the entries, then Edit to make changes or Find a contact to combine to merge the contact with any other item in the list.

The best aspect of this is the way it lets you tidy the contacts interface. Once you click on the People icon, click the three dots at the top of the window, then Settings. Here, you can choose to sort contacts by first or last name, and hide those that are cluttering up the interface. To change which contacts get to show up on screen, select Filter contact list. This won’t edit your contacts, but it can hide, say, contacts that lack an attached phone number, or those Microsoft pulled in from Skype. In fact, Windows automatically adds new contacts with whom you’ve chatted or emailed, which can add too many contacts entries to your list. To disable this setting, toggle off the Automatically add contacts that you have communicated with recently switch.

How to stay organized while using multiple contacts apps

The problem is, few of us are locked into an Apple-only, Google-only, or Microsoft-only ecosystem. It’s hard to keep your contacts list tidy when it’s spread across multiple accounts, but they can help by letting you display your entire address book on one screen.

For example, Apple lets you display your Google and Microsoft accounts on its contacts apps. On iOS, go to Settings > Contacts > Accounts > Add Account, and then hit Google or one of the other options. On macOS, open the Contacts app and on the main navigation bar go to Contacts, Add Account, and choose one of the services, which include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL. This lets you access and edit contacts you have on a different service directly from Apple devices, and have the changes sync to the original accounts. However, it doesn’t merge these contacts with your Apple account, so you might end up with duplicates that you cannot merge. Plus, if you try to access your contacts through the iCloud website, only Apple contacts will show up.

Through Microsoft, the People app for Windows 10 also supports multiple accounts. Open it from Mail, Calendar, or another app by selecting the People icon (two silhouettes), then click the three dots at the top of the window and hit Settings. Next, click Add an account, and choose one of the options. Like with Apple, the newly imported contacts will appear alongside your existing ones, but they won’t get added to your official Microsoft contact list.

Google, on the other hand, doesn’t let you manage and sync your Apple or Microsoft contacts. You can, however, import these contacts to turn them into Google ones—but any changes you make after that will not sync to the original accounts. For example, to add Apple contacts to your Google account, visit the iCloud Contacts website, click the cog icon on the lower left, and hit Select All. Click the cog icon again, followed by Export vCard. This will create a file that Google can import. In either the Google Contacts app or website, go to Import on the main sidebar, choose Select file, and pick the vCard file from your local folder. After importing a lot of contacts, we recommend you find and merge duplicates, in case you had information for the same person on multiple accounts.

While we’re on the topic of multiple accounts, one of the reasons so many contacts show up on your phone is that some of these platforms automatically display contacts from third-party apps like WhatsApp and Twitter. If you want to cut down on the number of people filling your phone, you can hide contacts from other apps. On iOS, go to Settings > Privacy > Contacts. In the Google Contacts app for Android, tap on your avatar, then Contacts app settings, and choose Settings > Accounts.

There’s no way to instantly organize your contacts across every app and gadget—you’ll have to invest some time and effort. However, knowing how these contacts platforms work will give you a smoother experience as you clean up your contacts lists.