What Does In-App Purchase Mean?

Learn about in-app purchases and how to get them

An in-app purchase is a piece of content or a feature that you purchase inside an app you download to your mobile device or computer. Whether you use the Mac App Store, iOS App Store, Google Play, or another app provider to acquire an app, eventually, you are presented with opportunities to buy something inside many apps. You may be tempted to unlock additional features in a game app, pay for the opportunity to use an app without ads, or buy an electronic book in another.

Different Types of In-App Purchases

In-app purchases have proliferated over the past few years. The gaming industry has gone through significant changes as in-app purchases are pervasive in almost all areas of the industry.

Happy young woman using tablet
Public Domain / Pixabay

While in-app purchases have always gone hand-in-hand with free apps and games, they are now prevalent in all types of apps, including those you pay to download. There are several different types of in-app purchases, including:

  • Unlockables. In-app purchases that unlock content or features are permanent. Once you buy them, you don't need to buy them again. Unlockables can include content such as e-books, an expansion to a game, or features such as the ability to print in a word processor.
  • Expendables. This type of in-app purchase mainly applies to free-to-play games, which (despite the name) aren't always free. The free-to-play model establishes an in-game currency, such as gold coins or magic potions, that can be used to unlock features or extend playtime. Most of these games allow you to accrue this currency by playing the game, but the rate at which it is acquired can be slow. This leads some players to buy the in-app currency so that they don't have to wait. This is only one type of expendable, but it is by far the most popular.
  • Subscriptions. Subscriptions go beyond magazines and premium cable stations. Apple and Google have opened up in-app subscriptions to developers at large, so more apps offer subscription services to use an app or to use advanced features in an app.

Where to Find In-App Purchases and How to Buy Them

In-app purchases are controlled entirely by the app, so there is not one single place you go to find them. Some apps and games have an in-app store that lists the different purchases available. Other apps prompt you when you attempt to use a restricted feature. For example, an app that uses your smartphone's camera might have an in-app purchase for printing that is offered when you attempt to print a document.

Screenshot of Temple Run
Games often have a store for making in-app purchases. A popular in-app purchase is for in-game currency.

While the purchase is offered by the app, it is the app store that handles the billing for the purchase. The in-app purchases that unlock content are permanent. If you need to reinstall the app or you change phones, the in-app purchase is still there just as are all the apps you bought, ready to move to your new device.

How to Spot Apps With In-App Purchases on the iPhone and iPad

All apps that contain in-app purchases in the App Store on the iPhone and other iOS devices have a disclaimer next to the purchase button. You buy apps that are not free by tapping the price tag. Free apps are downloaded when you tap the Get button. The in-app purchase disclaimer is just to the right of these buttons.

Screenshot of App Store

The app's detail page lists the in-app purchase. This is a great place to check to make sure the app does everything you need it to do without any additional in-app purchases.

On the app's detail page on the App Store, scroll down to the Information section. Tap In-App Purchases to see the list of individual in-app purchases.

You can disable in-app purchases on iPhones or iPads your children use to prohibit then from buying indiscriminately in the Settings app by going to General -> Restrictions or Screentime, depending on your iOS version.

How to Spot Apps With In-App Purchases in the Google Play Store

Every app in the Google Play store that offers in-app purchases is marked with an Offers in-app purchases disclaimer at the top of the listing below the app's name, the developer, and the app's age-based rating.

Screenshot of Google Play

The Google Play store does not offer a detailed listing of all in-app purchases, but the price range of in-app products is under Additional Information on the detail page.

If you want to childproof your Android device, you can see your options by selecting Parent Guide in the left pane of the Google Play web page.

Sharing Not Allowed

You cannot share in-app purchases across family libraries, including both Apple's Family Sharing program and Google Play's Family Library. This matters when you are trying to decide between a free app with an in-app purchase to unlock premium features and the pro app with those features already unlocked. If you participate in family sharing, it's often best to buy the pro app rather than make the in-app purchase in the free app. Remember, you can still download the free app to see if it fits your needs!