Four new macrocyclic-phthalimide ligands were synthesised via the coupling of N-(3-bromopropyl)phthalimide either to cyclen (1,4,7,10-tetraazacyclododecane) itself or its carboxylate-functionalized analogues, and photophysical studies were carried out on their corresponding Tb(III) complexes in aqueous media as a function of pH. Luminescence intensities of Tb·L1a–Tb·L3a were in ‘switched off’ mode under acidic conditions (pH < 4), and were activated on progression to basic conditions as the phthalimido functions therein were hydrolysed to their corresponding phthalamates Tb·L1b–Tb·L3b. Emission of phthalamate-based macrocyclic Tb(III) complexes Tb·L1b–Tb·L3b was in ‘switched on’ mode between pH 4 and 11, exhibiting high quantum yields (Φ) and long lifetimes (τ) of the order of milliseconds at pH [similar] 6. Tb(III) emissions were found to decline with increasing number of chromophores. The values of Φ and τ were 46% and 2.4 ms respectively for Tb·L1b at pH [similar] 6 when activated. This is the best pH-dependent sensor based on a Tb(III) complex reported to date, benefiting from the macrocyclic architecture of the ligand.