Why Is There a Delay in iTunes Store Billing?

If you've ever bought something from the iTunes Store or the App Store, you may have noticed that Apple doesn't always email your receipt right away. In fact, if you look closely at your bank statement, you'll probably see that your iTunes purchase wasn't actually charged until a day or two after you bought something.

It's a little unusual that a store doesn't actually take your money at the time of purchase. What gives? Why is there a delay in iTunes Store billing?

Why iTunes Bills You Days After Your Purchase: Fees 

There are two reasons: credit card fees and consumer psychology.

Most credit card processors charge their customers (in this case, Apple) a per-transaction or monthly fee, and a percentage of the purchase. On a higher-priced item—an iPhone X or new laptop, for example—these fees are such a small percentage of the total price that they're a non-issue for the retailer. But for a very low-cost item—a US$0.99 song at iTunes, for instance—getting charged for every transaction would cause the iTunes Store's profits to drown in a sea of fees and one-off charges.

Let's say—just for example; these are not the real figures—that Apple's profit on a $1000 iPhone is 50% and its profit on a $0.99 song is 2%. If it loses 2% of the $1000 iPhone to credit card fees, it's still made a lot of money. However, if it loses 2% of the $0.99 song, all of its profit is wiped out.

To save on fees, Apple often groups transactions together. Apple knows that if you've bought one thing, you're likely to buy another—often pretty soon after. So, Apple waits to bill your card for a day or two in case you make more purchases that it can group together. It's cheaper and more efficient to bill you once for buying 10 items than to bill you 10 times for 10 individual purchases.

You can see how Apple groups your purchases together in iTunes by doing this:

  1. Open iTunes on a computer.

  2. Click the Account menu.

  3. Click View My Account.

    Screenshot of View My Account... menu item in Account menu in iTunes via macOS dark mode
  4. Log into your Apple ID.

    Screenshot of Sign-In dialog for iTunes account with AppleID
  5. Scroll down to Purchase History and click See All.

    Screenshot of See All link in Purchase History section of iTunes via macOS dark mode
  6. Click the Order ID link to the right of an order to see its contents. You may not have purchased these items at the same time, but they're grouped together here as if you did.

    Screenshot of order link in iTunes macOS dark mode

If Apple doesn't charge your card right away, how does it know the card will work when they try later? When you make the initial purchase, the iTunes Store gets a pre-authorization for the transaction amount on your card. That ensures that the money will be there; actually charging it comes later.

The Psychological Reason for Delayed iTunes Billing

Saving money isn't the only reason for the delay in billing. There's another, more subtle, aspect of customer behavior at play here, according to Wired. This article discusses the ways that companies try to influence consumer behavior. It suggests that by charging you hours or days after you make your purchase, the acts of buying and paying start to feel like separate things. Because they feel different, buying can almost seem free. Who doesn't like getting something for nothing (or at least ​feeling like they are)?

These techniques don't always work—many people only buy occasionally or keep close track of what they're spending—but, apparently, they work often enough that they help Apple save money and increase sales.

How iTunes Charges You: Credits, Then Gift Cards, Then Debit/Credit Cards

Let's dig even deeper into the mysteries of how iTunes charges you for your purchases. What forms of payment get billed in which order depends on what's in your account.

If you have any credits in your account, those are the first things that get used when you buy (assuming that the credit applies to the purchase, that is).

If you don't have credits, or after they're used, any money in your account from an iTunes Gift Card is billed next. That way, the money from your gift card is used before money from your bank account. Only after those two sources are used up is actual money charged to your debit or credit card.

There are a few exceptions, though:

  • Sending a gift: When you gift music, movies, books, etc. at iTunes, that is always charged to your debit or credit card, even if you have a gift card balance.

  • Family Sharing: If you use Family Sharing, purchases are charged to individual family members' gift cards or credits first. They only get charged to the Family Organizer's debit or credit card after those sources are used up. This way, every family member gets to hold onto the money added to their accounts with a gift card and spend it however they want.