What is Sideloading?

Learn whether you can use it and why you might want to

what is sideloading?
Sideloading is a process that lets you install apps on a mobile device like your phone without going through the official store. Prathan Chorruangsak / EyeEm / Getty

Sideloading is a term that refers to transferring a file between two local devices without the use of the internet. Since the internet isn't involved, transferring a file via side loading typically requires the use of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or a physical memory card.

Sideloading can be used to copy MP3s from a computer to a mobile device, install apps, or transfer any other file from one local device to another local device.

What Does Sideloading Mean?

The term "sideloading" is very similar to the more common terms "downloading" and "uploading," and it's much easier to understand what sideloading means if you're already familiar with those terms.

Downloading involves transferring a file from a remote location, like the internet, to a local device like your computer. Uploading is the opposite, since it involves transferring a file from a local device, like your computer, to a remote location like a file hosting service on the internet.

If someone were to say they had downloaded songs to their iPhone from their computer, the meaning of the statement would be clear. However, since the songs were transferred from a local computer, probably via a lightning cable, they were actually sideloaded onto the phone.

How Does Sideloading Work?

Since sideloading doesn't make use of the internet, it requires you to use some other method to transfer files. This can be accomplished with a physical connection between the two devices, like a USB or lightning cable, or via a wireless method like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. If the mobile device has a memory card slot, sideloading can also involve copying files from a computer to an SD card and then inserting the card into the mobile device.

The basic process involves establishing a physical or wireless connection between the two devices, and then transferring the files. This works a lot like copying files from your computer to an external hard drive, and if you've ever copied songs from your computer to your phone, you're actually already familiar with the process.

Why Would You Need to Sideload?

While you can sideload just about any type of file that you can think of, most sideloading involves transferring media files like MP3s and digital videos from a computer to a mobile device, or installing apps from a computer to a phone.

The benefit of sideloading large media files is that it doesn't incur data charges. For instance, if you wanted to download your whole iTunes library directly from Apple to your phone, you could end up eating through your phone's data cap very quickly. If those songs are already on your computer, sideloading them allows you to skip the download and save your data cap.

When it comes to sideloading apps, the biggest benefit is that it allows you to bypass the official app store. This requires you to jailbreak your device if you have an iPhone, but Android users only have to change a few settings. This makes sideloading apps much easier, and more common, for Android users than iOS users.

Who Needs to Sideload Apps?

Most people won't ever have to worry about sideloading apps. The only real reason to sideload an app is to bypass the official app store, which is only required if you want to install an app that isn't available through official channels.

If you want to install a modded version of Android, like CyanogenMod, then you need to sideload it. You'll also need to sideload an app if you really want, or need, to use it, and it isn't available from the official store. Sideloading is also useful if you want to install an app that isn't available through official sources in the geographical location where you live.

Is Sideloading Safe?

Sideloading files like MP3s is perfectly safe, since it just involves transferring files you own from your computer to a mobile device. Sideloading apps, on the other hand, can be dangerous.

The issue is that you need to jailbreak an iPhone to allow sideloading, and sideloading on an Android device involves changing permissions to allow the installation of apps from unknown sources.

In either case, sideloading an app presents a security risk that you need to be aware of, and it's important to make sure that the app you want to install comes from a source that you personally trust not to provide you with malware.