Historically the only way to share app, book, music, and video purchases across iOS devices was to log onto every device with the same Apple account (an insecure and undesirable solution). Now you can easily share everything between family members with the Apple Family Sharing system.

Read on as we show you how to set it up and enjoy secure  app and media sharing across your devices.

Why Do I Want To Do This?

For individuals who are the sole users of iOS devices in their households there’s really no need for any kind of sharing as the default system works brilliantly: sign into your Apple account on every device and all your App Store, iTunes, and iBook purchases are shared across all the devices.

If you wanted to share your purchases across devices used by multiple family members, however, it was a bit of a hot mess. Historically the only way to do so was to authorize each device under the same central account. This meant that every device you wanted to share your apps with (so, let’s say, everyone in your family could play great digital board games like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne) ended up configured as if it was a secondary device of the primary account holder.

RELATED: How to Share Your iTunes Library with Your iPhone or iPad

You had to specify not to automatically download content to the devices (so little Timmy didn’t automatically get your horror movie iTunes purchase) and you also had to carefully configure each device with an additional separate Apple ID to ensure all the personal stuff like contacts, email, and so on were all kept separate. Further, it was a painful way to do things because you were unable to authorize other people to make purchases without giving them full access to your account. If you wanted to use the same account/credit card for everything Apple-related, for example, you couldn’t easily allow your wife and oldest child to make purchases but disallow your preschooler from going crazy in a freemium app. Under that model there was also no way to configure age/content restrictions as every user was treated as the primary account holder on each device.

It worked because you had to make it work (we certainly did it this way for years to avoid purchasing apps multiple times for each iPad/iPhone user in our household) but it was kludgy and less than ideal.

The introduction of the Apple Family Sharing plan changed things from sort-of-working to working very well and efficiently. Under the Apple Family Sharing system you can very easily invite the other members of your family to share purchases made by the primary account (without giving them access to that account), you can share their purchases, and you can authorize them to make purchases or have all purchase requests passed back to a parent for authorization.

Although the focus of this tutorial is on easy purchase sharing across the App Store, iTunes, and iBook markets, Family Sharing also includes options for shared family photo albums, shared family calendars, location tracking, and device-recovery tracking all in one neat dashboard.

What Do I Need?

To follow along with the tutorial you’ll need at least two iOS devices running iOS 8 or higher. Unfortunately this means that Family Sharing is unavailable on the iPad 1, the iPhone 4 and older model iPhones, and 4th Generation iPod Touches and older models (the iPad Mini is new enough that all generations support iOS 8).

While all those excluded models are definitely quite long in the tooth by now, they’re exactly the kind of models that typically get handed down in a family for the younger children to use, so it’s a bit disappointing they can’t use the Family Sharing feature.

RELATED: How to Use iTunes to Quickly Organize Apps on iPhone and iPad

In addition to the hardware/operating system requirements you’ll need one primary account (which if you’re reading this tutorial will likely your account) that has an authorized credit card on it. This account will serve as the Family Sharing “organizer” account. In addition, you need to create a unique Apple ID for each member of your household (if they already have an existing Apple ID that will work just fine). Don’t worry about age restrictions, Apple now allows for Apple ID accounts for children under 13 specifically for this purpose.

Once you’ve confirmed that all the devices that will be used by your family members support iOS 8 (and have been upgraded to iOS 8 if necessary) all you need is your main iOS device, the Apple ID and login of the primary account holder (which, as the organizing member, is your account/password) and then the Apple IDs of the up-to-five additional family members you wish to add to your Family Sharing plan. You don’t need to have all the devices on hand to set up Family Sharing but it certainly helps to confirm the steps and ensure everything went off without a hitch.

Configuring Apple Family Sharing

There are two stages to configuring Apple Family Sharing, the initial setup on the organizer’s iOS device and then the subsequent confirmations on all the devices added to the Family Sharing plan.

One thing we’d like to emphasize before we proceed is that the sharing goes two ways. Not only does the organizer share all their apps and music with the family members, but the family members on the plan in turn share all their content too. This makes Family Sharing a very simple and direct way to immediately merge the content of two Apple IDS (such as you would have if two spouses had a long purchase history).

To start, let’s take a look at how to initiate the process on the organizer’s app by turning Family Sharing on, adding in a Parent/Guardian account (like a spouse) and then a child account.

Becoming the Organizer and Adding Family Members

When you first access the App Store, iTunes, or iBook from your iOS device after first setting it up (or against after upgrading to iOS 8) you’ll be prompted to set up Family Sharing. If you ignore that prompt and tap out with the “Not Now” button, you’ll need to navigate to the Family Sharing section in the Settings menu.

You’ll find the Family Sharing menu under Settings -> iCloud -> Set Up Family Sharing; tap the last item to initiate the setup process.

You’ll be prompted to go through a series of confirmations including confirming that you you wish to be the family organizer, that you confirm you are the party responsible for their purchases, and confirming which credit card you use for your Apple account. In addition to confirming settings related to the sharing/purchasing side of things you will also allow or disallow the location-sharing feature.

Once you’ve virtually accepted the various settings you’ll be dumped into the Family Sharing dashboard, as seen above. Should you need to return to this location in the future you’ll find it under the iCloud -> Family settings in the Settings menu.

Now that we have everything up and running let’s first add in an adult account and then flag that account as belonging to a parent or guardian. Select the entry “Add Family Member” from the Family Members list. You’ll be prompted to enter the family member’s name or email address (for our purposes in this step use the email address of their Apple ID).

In the next step, select whether you want them to enter a password or send an invitation to activate Family Sharing on their device. Given that you’re likely right down the hall from them (or their device is even sitting on the desk in front of you) a password is a bit overkill. Tap “Send an Invitation” to link them to your account.

The new family member will now appear on the list of the Family Sharing dashboard. If you wish to authorize the newly added family member in order to allow them, in turn, to authorize purchases made by children on the account then you’ll need to tap on the adult’s name and then toggle the “Parent/Guardian” switch on. Keep in mind that this has nothing to do with whether or not the adult in question can purchase items on your account (they can by default of you adding them as an adult on your family plan). This toggle merely allows them to authorize purchase requests from children also on this same Family Sharing plan.

You can add in additional members by repeating the above steps but you do need to jump through a few special hoops when adding in a child under the age of thirteen. (Note: If you already made an account for your child before Family Sharing was a thing, please jump to the last section of this tutorial to see a work around for unofficially changing an adult account into a child account Family Sharing).

The first (and most likely to annoy you) hoop is that you need a credit (not debit) card as your primary payment method on your Apple account. Despite the fact that you can use a Visa/Mastercard-backed debit card on your own account when you attempt to authorize a child’s account it prompts you to enter a credit card to verify you are an adult. Considering many of us have Apple IDs old enough to be headed off to high school at this point the whole credit/debit card thing seems a bit silly.

The second minor hoop is that you need to skip clicking on the “Add Family Member” link and instead look for the smaller link at the bottom of the screen labeled “Create an Apple ID for a child.” Click the link and follow the steps. You’re essentially creating a new Apple ID account and will need to supply a password, create security questions, and the whole bit. When you’re done the final step is simply to indicate whether or not the child needs to ask your permission to make purchases (all requested purchases will be approved by you or another authorized parent/guardian.)

Just like other adults on your Family Sharing plan have the guardian toggle, the kids all have an “Ask To Buy” toggle you can set to either allow them to purchase any age-appropriate material (as determined by Apple’s rating system and their age as you entered it) or for all requests to first be passed by an authorized adult on the Family Sharing plan.

Once you’re done adding family members it’s time to take a look at how things work on their end of the process.

 Using Family Share As a Spouse/Child

On the opposite side of things from the organizer’s account you have the end users. Let’s take a look at what things look like from the other side of the sharing plan.

After you add users to your Family Sharing plan they’ll receive notifications that they’ve been invited to the plan (or, if you used the password function, a prompt to enter the password).

After accepting the invitation nothing, on the surface, appears to change. In order for the family members to access they need to look at the purchase history menu in the respective app (App Store, iTunes, or iBook) to find the shared content.

To find shared apps, for example, you need to open the App Store app and click on the update icon in the lower navigation bar.

Next, click on the “Purchased” option and you’ll see not only your own purchase history but the purchase histories of your Family Sharing plan members too.

In this way the secondary users can all see content purchased by the Family Plan organizer and, in turn, the organizer can see content purchased by the family members in the plan. You can repeat this process in both iTunes and iBooks too and see purchases lists for your other family members.

Caveats and Clarifications

Although we’re overall impressed with the whole Family Sharing system (and like that it unifies sharing as well as family/device location services) there are a few caveats that require a little clarification just so you’re aware of how the system works and you don’t end up in worse shape than when you started.

The first thing we would like to emphasize here, because it is a tad unclear at first and even on second glance, is this: all purchases made, even though they’re made using the Family Share organizer’s credit card, are linked to the Apple ID of the user who initiated the purchase and will forever remain linked to that purchase. This means if your son buys a bunch of seasons of a Sci-Fi show you both enjoy watching, despite the fact that you paid for it, is actually linked to his account and when he grows up and later leaves the household (and Family Sharing plan in the process) then you will lose access to that TV show.  In some cases this might be fine by you, perhaps your child purchases media you have no interest in keeping or you want them to own the content. For content you want to maintain ownership of then this content must be purchased by the organizer (not a child or an adult on the Family Sharing plan). Definitely sit down and talk to your family about the implications of this and how whoever actually clicks the purchase button is the actual owner of the purchase (regardless of whether or not mom or dad foots the bill).

The second thing is that many people attempted to wrangle with this whole adult, child, sharing content business already and as such their children already have Apple IDs. There is no way to officially convert an “adult” account (which is every account created before Family Sharing was around, as far as Apple is concerned) to a “child” account. You can, however, trick the system by changing the birthdate on the account you created for your child such that they are 13 years old (the lowest age you can use when creating an Apple ID) and then adding them to Family Sharing. The purchase-approval options will be available and Family Sharing will treat them like they have a child account.

Those caveats aside, we’re really pleased with the direction Family Sharing is going as it makes sharing content between devices in the same family a complete breeze compared to the old method of running multiple Apple IDs, manually dinking around with each device, and trying to stay on top of updates and content. Now all purchases are shared, each person can pick and choose what they want from the shared list, purchasing is centralized (to the organizer’s card), and parents have easy purchase approval abilities.


Profile Photo for Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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