How to Sideload Android Apps

Install custom apps from anywhere

Android mascots lined up in a row

 Rob Bulmahn / Flickr / CC by 2.0

On the Android operating system, sideloading an app refers to the process of sending an app to your Android device from your computer instead of downloading it from the Play Store.

Sideloading is the only way to install apps on some modified Android devices, but it primarily allows developers to test out their apps before publishing them. Because of this, you’re going to need Android development tools on your computer to sideload an app. The main one is the Android Debug Bridge (ADB) from Google.

Install ADB

ADB is used by developers to send data between a computer and an Android device. It allows a developer, or just someone looking to tinker with their Android device, to control their phone from a computer, sending files, installing apps, and even running a console on the device with root privileges.

Google makes the ADB available for free to anyone. You can download it straight from them and install it on your computer.

Windows

  1. Open your browser, and download the ADB from Google.

  2. Unpack the ZIP file into a convenient folder. This is the folder that you’ll run the ADB from.

  3. Right click in the directory where you unpacked the archive. In the menu that pops open, select Open a command window here.

  4.  You’re ready to enable debugging on your phone, connect it, and run ADB. Every time you want to use the ADB, you’re going to need to open a command prompt in this folder.

 Ubuntu/Debian Linux

  1.  Open up a terminal window

  2.  Install ADB with the Apt package manager.

$ sudo apt install android-tools-adb

Enable USB Debugging

In order to use ADB, you’re going to need to enable USB debugging on your Android device. It’s not that difficult, and it’s built right in to the Android settings.

  1. Open the Android Settings app.

  2. Scroll down and select System.

  3. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the list again, and press About phone.

  4. Find the Build number. Tap it seven times at a fairly regular rate. Think musical beats. As you get closer to seven, your phone will warn you that you’re about to enable the developer options.

    Android Settings about phone
  5. Go back up a level to the System settings. This time, locate and tap Developer options.

  6. Scroll until you see the Debugging heading. Find the Android debugging switch and toggle it on. If this device isn’t something like a phone or tablet that you can plug directly in to your computer, flip the ADB over network switch too. This a potential security risk, so only enable debugging over network when necessary.  

    Enable USB debugging on Android

Sideload an App

You’re all set to start sideloading apps. Turn your attention back to your computer, and get your charging cable ready, if you’re connecting your device with it.

  1. Connect your device to your computer. If you’re working over a network, find your device’s IP address and make sure that it’s connected.

  2. Open a terminal window (or command prompt) to run the ADB. If you’re on Windows, make sure that you’re in the right directory. Linux users can run it from anywhere.

  3. In the terminal window run:

    adb devices

    You should see your device listed, but not connected. At the same time, check the screen on the device. There will be a window asking you to authorize access from the computer. Accept.

    ADB device connected

    If you’re connecting over the network, you probably won’t see your device listed. Instead, run:

    adb connect 192.168.1.110

    Substitute the IP address of your device. The same authorization window will pop up for you now too.

  4. If you don’t already have an app APK file to sideload, you can go online and find one. Check APKMirror for a large library of Android APKs. Be careful installing APKs from an unknown source, as they may contain malicious software.

    APKMirror website
  5. Now that you have your APK, you can install it. Use the install option in ADB followed by the path to your package.

    Sideloading Twitch app on Android
    adb install /path/to/package.apk
  6. Your package will install and, if all goes well, be available on the Android device.