When you’re feeling stressed, the best advice typically isn’t to pull out your phone. (The FOMO! The doomscrolling!) But this could change if you open your phone… to access a meditation app.
Meditation is often touted as a method for better sleep and a way to manage stress and anxiety. But starting isn’t always easy—especially if you want to use an app, but don’t know which one to try. That’s where we come in. We tried five of the best meditation apps for a week each. By the end, Calm emerged as the best premium pick due to its tranquil design, extensive library of guided meditations that offer new sessions every day, and a suite of bonus features.
Still, an app with this level of quality comes at a cost that might not be in everyone’s budget. But there are other great meditation apps that might offer everything you need for little (or no!) cost. (Including Healthy Minds Program, one of the best free apps for meditation.) Read on to learn more about our favorite meditation apps and how to find the best one for you.
If you’ve already got your mind set on using one of the two most famous meditation apps—Calm or Headspace—check out our detailed comparison to figure out which is best for you.
Here’s the TL;DR on how the best meditation apps stack up:
- Calm (Best Meditation App)
- Headspace (Best Meditation App for Beginners)
- Healthy Minds Program (Best Free Meditation App)
- Insight Timer
- Ten Percent Happier
The Best Meditation Apps
- Award-winning meditation app that’s been around for 10 years
- 4.8-star rating out of 1.4 million reviews in the App Store
- 4.3-star rating out of 480,000 reviews on Google Play
- Beautiful design sets the mood for meditation
- Huge library of meditations and other content, including stretching classes, bedtime stories, music and soundscape, breathwork lessons, and more
- New meditations added daily
- Content library feels disorganized
Using the Calm app felt like stepping into a boutique meditation studio. Its striking design with gently moving scenery and birdsong that played softly in the background felt both inspired and soothing. Light a candle or some incense, and you’ve practically got the dream meditation station. But it’s more than just aesthetics. Calm excelled in tests with its vast library of content and new meditations added every day. The app seemed to have a meditation for every scenario, whether you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, anxious about an upcoming flight, or wish to start the day off on the right foot. This is an app you can turn to again and again.
Setting up the app was simple. It asks a few questions about how you’re feeling, how stress shows up in your life, and experience with meditation. Even the home screen evokes its titular sense of calm, featuring an image of Jasper Lake at night, complete with a crescent moon, rippling water, and snow-capped peaks. The background sounds of chirping crickets set a pleasant mood right off the bat. Calm offers around 40 home screen scenes and background sounds to choose from. If crashing waves, rain on leaves, or a crackling fireplace feels more soothing to you, Calm’s got you covered.
Calm offers a 30-day course that can teach beginners how to meditate. However, there’s no reason a newcomer to meditation must start there. Calm’s 10-minute daily meditations felt accessible to everyone, whether you’ve never meditated or you already have a dedicated practice in place. I loved that the background sound that accompanies the home screen continues to play during the meditation sessions, which helped me tune into the practice without feeling like the noise surrounding me took me out of it. It was the only meditation app in this test that offered this feature.
The Calm meditations I tried each followed a similar structure of a short introduction, brief unguided periods alternating with narration and helpful technique tips, and a short lesson relating meditation to an aspect of life toward the end of the practice. The consistency helped provide expectations for each session, which were typically between 3 and 30 minutes long. The library’s organization could use more structure, but the search tool proved helpful in serving what I was looking for.
Guided meditation is at the core of Calm, but it’s far from the only wellness experience it offers. You can also find soothing bedtime stories (some narrated by celebrities, including Kate Winslet and Harry Styles), poetry readings, music and playlists, stretching videos, and breathwork lessons taught with the help of soothing graphics.
Is Calm better than Headspace?
Calm’s 4.8-star rating in the App Store puts it just behind Headspace’s 4.9-star rating. Ultimately, Calm’s downright beautiful design helped it eke out superiority in this test, but it was a tough call. Other professional reviewers are just as divided, with Calm and Headspace each taking top spots in other reviews, so it may just come down to personal preference. Our pro tip: Take advantage of Calm’s weeklong free trial to experience this inspired app yourself. If you find that it isn’t quite your cup of tea, check out Headspace as an alternative. If you don’t feel like doing all that work, refer to our Calm vs Headspace article, where we did the work for you.
The Best Free Meditation App
Healthy Minds Program
- Free meditation app created by researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- 4.9-star rating out of 1,900 reviews on the App Store
- 4.8-star rating out of 2,260 reviews on Google Play
- Totally free
- Lots of podcast-stye lessons and meditations for beginners
- Developed by university researchers
- Not updated frequently
- Limited library
- Little to no extra features outside of meditations and lessons
The Healthy Minds program app made a good impression from its first download. It was developed by researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is dedicated to conducting research on ways to improve wellbeing. After trying the app, it’s clear that it’s great option for someone looking for a free way to test out meditation.
Setting up the Healthy Minds Program app starts by taking an (optional) assessment to find your baseline in “the four pillars of science and training the mind.” This includes awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. You can see these areas strengthen and fill bar charts as you work through the program. This assessment includes around 20 questions, which feels like a lot at first. But it only took about 5 minutes to work through it.
After the assessment, the app puts users on the “My Path” journey. It’s divided into five sections (foundations, awareness, connection, insight, and purpose), each of which contains 10-22 lessons and 14-27 meditations. Its intuitive layout makes it clear where you’re expected to start and understand how everything fits together. Plus, its watercolor-like illustrations and soft blue, green, and purple palette provides a soothing effect. You can also access around 35 other meditations outside of the core program.
The foundations section is particularly suited to meditation newbies. It teaches a variety of techniques right away and explains the benefits of meditation on the brain and overall wellbeing. The sessions also hit the bullseye in meeting users where they’re at—I was able to use the app to meditate while folding the laundry. I also appreciated that it served up a screen after a session saying that missing a day of meditation is not a failure. This kind of gentleness and understanding will no doubt help new meditators stave off frustration and stay patient with practice.
With all that said, the app isn’t perfect. It would occasionally fail to log the meditations after I completed them. The app also didn’t offer any new content during our testing period. And the library was more limited than the ones found in other meditation apps—including other free ones.
However, the quality of the instruction, intuitive user experience, research-backed approach, and no-cost content make this app a winner. If in doubt—or simply a newcomer to the world of meditation—consider starting with Healthy Minds Program to learn the basics.
Other Great Meditation Apps
The Best Meditation App for Beginners
- Top-rated meditation app that’s been around for 10 years
- 4.9-star rating out of 888,000 reviews on the App Store
- 4.4-star rating out of 269,000 reviews on Google Play
- Easy to navigate library
- Limitless sessions
- Some classes feel mislabeled
Looking for a premium meditation app with a robust library of content that grows larger by the day, and will get you meditating the moment you open the app? Headspace is a great choice. After trying it, its 4.9-star rating from hundreds of thousands of reviewers in the App Store feels like a given.
Setting up Headspace involves creating an account and answering a few simple questions about your concerns and goals. Then, it immediately starts with a brief guided audio-visual breathing exercise that uses clouds to symbolize emotions and passing thoughts in your mind. It’s a charming way to introduce users to Headspace’s unique style and interface.
Headspace’s frequently updated content library feels limitless. It offers three beginner-friendly 10-session courses on the basics, and users can choose between four different teachers for each session. There are also animated sessions that use a mix of audio and cartoon-like visuals to teach users different meditation techniques.
The app’s library is easy to navigate and chock-full of courses and one-off sessions on common challenges most people will face. These include dealing with regret, healing after a breakup, and finding time for joy. You can also watch workout videos, listen to bedtime stories, and turn on music for focus.
Occasionally, the labels on content didn’t line up with the offering itself. For example, one labeled as a meditation was much more like breathwork. Despite this flaw, Headspace’s offerings showed how the app and meditation in general can be a tool for wellness in one’s everyday life.
- Donation-based meditation app that’s been around for 13 years
- 4.9-star rating out of 355,000 reviews n the App Store
- 4.8-star rating out of 180,000 reviews on Google Play
- 80+ new guided meditations added every day
- Library includes more than 750,00 meditations, 132,000+ of which are free
- Offers live classes, workshops, and mentorship (for a cost, though)
- Inconsistent quality
- Library of content can feel overwhelming
- Some content locked behind paywalls
There’s a lot to like about Insight Timer. For one, its setup process was the most straightforward of all the apps tested. In it, it focuses on your main goals for meditation and types of content you prefer or want to avoid. It’s also free, with the opportunity to make donations after each class. This practice is may be inspired by Dāna, the Sanskrit word for gift, gift-giving, or generosity. It’s a practice in Hinduism and Buddhism that encourages giving without expecting anything in return.
Insight Timer has a downright massive library with at least 130,000 free meditation sessions. A whopping 80 or more new meditations are added every day. The app also features the voices of around 3,000 teachers, increasing the chances of finding an instructor you’ll love. No wonder the app has an average of 4.9 stars from hundreds of thousands of reviews in the App Store.
On the other hand, the multitudinous content library felt overwhelming. I sometimes spent more time browsing the library than actually meditating. The quality of the sessions and instructors was inconsistent, too. Some were excellent, while others were a bit too woo-woo with affirmations that bordered on Right as Rain by UW Medicine “What You Need to Know About Toxic Positivity” View Source . The volume of at least one session also changed halfway through, which was distracting.
After each class, a notification pops up to rate the session and donate $1.99, $4.99, or $19.99 to the teacher. On one hand, this is a nice way to express gratitude after a class. You also don’t have to pay anything at all. Plus, Insight Timer is transparent about exactly how much teachers can expect to get from each donation—about 56%, after the cuts the app distributors and Insight Timer take—where other apps are murkier. But the donation push can also feel disruptive. To me, it’s simpler to pay a fixed membership fee every month or year rather than getting hit up for cash with every meditation.
That said, you can also pay a $60 annual membership, which provides access to premium courses and sessions. (Teachers also get a cut.) And the more unique, personalized offerings, like mentorship and online group workshops, understandably come at an additional (varied) cost. But considering the app its large library of legitimately no-cost sessions, Insight Timer could be a compelling option for someone who wants to spend nothing but their time.
What Is Meditation?
Most seasoned meditation practitioners will tell you that your understanding of meditation will change over time. But in its most basic definition, Cornell Health “Meditation” View Source is the practice of developing the ability to focus one’s attention on a chosen subject, emotion, or sensation while allowing others to move through your consciousness. You can choose from “relaxation” or “mindfulness” meditation. Relaxation meditation often provides better short-term results and mindful meditation helps with long-term outcomes. Don’t think of meditating as zoning out, though. Instead, consider it a way to achieve a grounded sense of presence, no matter where you are. You can meditate at any time (including while walking, running, doing yoga, or practicing tai chi, a practice known as “moving meditation”) but it often involves sitting in a quiet, comfortable spot and closing your eyes.
Health Benefits of Meditation
The practice of meditation itself is very healthy for most people. It’s long been used to relax the body, calm the mind, and keep stress under control—one study found that mindfulness meditation may Brain, Behavior, and Immunity “A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation” View Source caused by stress hormones. According to the NCCIH “Meditation: In Depth” View Source , practicing meditation may also help:
- reduce blood pressure
- ease some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- treat anxiety and depression and increase emotional regulation
- address insomnia
Some studies also suggest that meditation can help some people quit smoking and reduce pain. More research is needed to make firm conclusions about those benefits. It’s also worth noting that some people with psychotic disorders, extreme anxiety, or PTSD may experience Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine “Meditation-induced psychosis: a narrative review and individual patient data analysis” View Source from meditation. Speak with a healthcare professional before starting a meditation practice if you’re concerned about this being a factor.
OK, But Are Meditation Apps Healthy?
A Frontiers in Public Health “Effects of Mindfulness Exercise Guided by a Smartphone App on Negative Emotions and Stress in Non-Clinical Populations: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” View Source , which looked at eight studies on mindfulness exercise guided by smartphones, found that such programs helped lower symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, findings could be limited due to the lack of available high-quality studies. Another Behavior Therapy “Can Acceptance, Mindfulness, and Self-Compassion Be Learned by Smartphone Apps? A Systematic and Meta-Analytic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials” View Source of 27 randomized controlled trials found that apps could significantly lower psychological distress and offer slight improvements in acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion. This review also notes that the evidence isn’t high quality and more research is needed.
The benefits of specific meditation apps are backed by some research as well. A JMIR Mhealth Uhealth “Efficacy of the Mindfulness Meditation Mobile App “Calm” to Reduce Stress Among College Students: Randomized Controlled Trial” View Source on the meditation app Calm found that it made a significant positive difference on users’ stress, mindfulness, and self-compassion. Participants with insomnia in a The Best Meditation Apps for Beginners “” View Source also experienced reduced depression and anxiety after using the Calm app, perhaps due to improvements in their ability to fall asleep. As for Headspace, studies have shown that this meditation app can Mindfulness “Improvements in Stress, Affect, and Irritability Following Brief Use of a Mindfulness-based Smartphone App: A Randomized Controlled Trial” View Source , Journal of Pediatric Nursing “Mindfulness for Novice Pediatric Nurses: Smartphone Application Versus Traditional Intervention” View Source , and PLOS ONE “Mindfulness and Compassion: An Examination of Mechanism and Scalability” View Source .
As promising as these results sound, the research should be taken with a grain of salt. Most of the studies were relatively small, and some article authors in were employed by the meditation apps used in the trials. This introduces a risk of bias.
The Nessie Rating: Healthy
Between the available research and the reviews from everyday users, we’re confident that meditation and meditation apps have the potential to provide real benefits. The verdict’s still out on whether they can offer guaranteed results for specific problems (like anxiety) in the general population. But because meditation apps pose little to no safety risks, we believe they can fit into a healthy lifestyle. Plus, many are free.
If you’re trying to use meditation for a specific problem, such as dealing with chronic pain, you should consult a healthcare professional to see if it’s a good option for you. But if you’re just trying to add a little more relaxation to your life? A meditation app is a healthy first step.
What Can You Expect From a Meditation App?
We’ll give it to you straight: No one needs an app to meditate. You might be able to start meditating right now by quietly noticing your body, feeling your breath, and acknowledging when your mind wanders. But for a lot of people, that’s not so easy.
This is where guided meditation, or when someone takes you through the steps of a meditation practice, could come into play. You can do this one-on-one with meditation teacher, in a group class, on YouTube—or with an app.
In addition to providing meditation frameworks, these apps claim to offer solutions to all-too-common meditation woes. Keep forgetting to make time to meditate? Meditation apps will send you daily reminders. Haven’t quite figured out how to meditate? Meditation apps can expose you to all kinds of techniques to help you find one that works for you. Struggling to deal with all the distractions? Meditation apps can help you turn them into a tool for growth, rather than an excuse to end your practice. (Case in point: A gratitude-focused meditation in the Healthy Minds app helped me actually appreciate the clamor of the garbage truck outside my apartment. Yes, really.)
So, meditation apps are legit. But it’s important to know their limitations. Meditation is just one of many, many tools—including other wellness practices, professional therapy, and medication—that can potentially address issues. Whether or not meditation works depends on you as an individual and your unique situation.
What Are The Best Free Meditation Apps?
We reviewed two totally free guided meditation apps that aren’t half bad—Healthy Minds Program and Insight Timer—and there are a bunch of others in the App Store you can try. If you try a free trial week in a premium meditation app, set a calendar reminder to cancel (or officially sign up) so it doesn’t serve you surprise charges.
How We Got Here
Meet Your Guinea Pig
I’m Joni Sweet. I’ve been covering health and wellness as a writer and editor for major publications for more than 10 years. My work is in SELF, Health, Prevention, Forbes, Healthline, mindbodygreen, Greatist, and dozens of other publications. I love debunking health myths and teaching people about research-backed ways to feel their best and live well. I also have a background in UX writing and content strategy, so I know what it takes to make a great app.
Our Testing Process
There are a seemingly endless amount of meditation apps out there. I created a list of options worth testing by reading reviews of the top meditation apps in mainstream publications and seeing which ones had the best ratings on iOS and Android. I then narrowed down the list of eight apps to five finalists by eliminating ones that were more focused on breathwork (another beneficial wellness practice, but not quite the same as meditation), as well as the least popular options based on low numbers of reviews or rating scores.
Then, I mapped out a five-week testing schedule, which involved using each meditation app every day for a week. On the first day of each testing week, I’d spend extra time exploring the app and documenting the set-up process before diving into a meditation (either an option the app suggested for me, or one I found when browsing the app that piqued my interest).
On the other six days, I’d try a new meditation and continue poking around the app, paying particular attention to the amount of content it offered specifically for beginners, unique features (like bedtime stories or stretching videos), and how frequently it added new meditations. I took notes on the design of the app—specifically highlighting whether it put the user into a meditative mood, and whether it was intuitive to use—and how well its library of content was organized and navigable. I also noted any tech hiccups that occurred as I used the meditation apps.
In total, I spent 249 minutes (or 4 hours and 9 minutes) actively meditating with the five apps I tested. I spent about the same amount of time setting up my accounts, watching video lessons on meditation (available in some apps, but not others), browsing the meditation app libraries, and toggling through different features and options to get a feel for each one.
I also took cost into account, judging each app’s price tag based on the size and quality of its library and how it compared to the subscription fees of other apps.
The Meditation App Buying Guide
A meditation app is by no means required to start meditating. You can learn this practice by reading guides online or in books borrowed from the library, taking a class at a local meditation or yoga studio, or watching YouTube videos, among other options.
But a meditation app can be helpful in a few ways. You can access both free meditation apps and ones that require a paid subscription. The latter often have built-out programs specifically designed to help new meditators learn about the practice, as well as specific techniques to get started. With a pair of headphones, you can use these apps to meditate just about anywhere (like, say, your dentist office waiting room to soothe some jitters before a root canal!).
You may be able to get everything you need from a meditation app without spending a dime—some of the free options are just that good. A premium meditation app like Calm provides a more sophisticated design, a more robust library of meditations, and other wellness content that can complement your meditation practice. You’ll likely spend about $70 per year, or $13 to $15 a month, on a premium subscription. But because many high-quality meditation apps are also free, don’t feel like you’re missing out on too much if you choose to go that route.
Which features matter most in meditation apps?
- Beginner-friendly sessions: If you’re brand new to meditating, you’ll want to look for an app with a course on meditation for beginners. At the very least, it should have about a week’s worth of meditation sessions for newbies. This can help you learn how to manage common hurdles and find which meditation techniques work best for you.
- Personalization: Most meditation apps come with guided audio sessions, tracking capabilities, reminders to meditate, and timers to help you meditate on your own. Beyond that, the most important meditation app features become a highly personalized decision. Want to learn ways to turn meditation into a mind-body practice? Look for a meditation app with videos on stretching and other physical techniques. Looking for an app that sets a zen-like mood? Check out the design of a few options to see which one resonates with you. Want a meditation app to help you sleep better, manage anxiety, or cope with stress? Look for ones with full-blown courses on those topics, and more.
- Cost: Meditation apps can be a bit pricey, at least by app standards. If cost is a concern, try some totally free meditation apps to see if they fit your needs. But if you want a huge variety of meditations and other bells and whistles, shell out for a paid subscription to a premium meditation app. (After taking advantage of a free trial, of course.)