chrome and firefox logos

Modern versions of Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox prevent you from installing unapproved add-ons. This is a good thing, and helps block malware from your browser. But you may sometimes need to install an unapproved add-on from a CRX or XPI file.

This is for experienced users only. It’s particularly useful if you’re developing your own extension and need to test it. If you’re installing an extension someone else created, be sure you know exactly what you’re doing.

Google Chrome

Google Chrome only allows you to install extensions from the Chrome Web Store. Other websites can direct you to install extensions, but they must be hosted in the Chrome Web Store.

This limitation currently only seems to apply to Chrome on Windows and Mac OS X, so Chrome users on Linux and Chrome OS can continue to install extensions from outside the Web Store. Just drag-and-drop the CRX file onto the Extensions page.

If you’re developing your own extension, you can load an unpacked extension via developer mode. This doesn’t allow you to load an extension in .crx format.

To do this, open the Extensions page — click the menu button, point to “More tools”, and select “Extensions”. Click the “Developer mode” checkbox to activate it, and then click the “Load unpacked extension” button. Navigate to the extension’s directory and open it.

You can do this with the existing version of Chrome you have. However, Chrome will remind you you’re using such an unpacked extension every time you launch it. This message is designed to prevent developer mode from being used for malware.

Google previously allowed you to switch to the unstable “Developer” channel of Chrome and install extensions from outside the Web Store on that build. However, malicious programs were forcing Chrome to switch to the developer channel on users’ computers, so the developer channel now also has this restriction. The same appears to be true for the Chrome Canary builds — they don’t allow you to install non-Web-Store extensions.

You could instead install another browser based on Chromium, which is the open-source project that’s the basis for Chrome. Chromium itself does appear to have this restriction, so you can’t just install Chromium.

Opera is based on Chromium and supports Chrome extensions. Install Opera and you can load Chrome extensions from wherever you like. To do this in Opera, open the extensions page and drag-and-drop a .CRX file onto it. You’ll be informed that the extension was installed from outside the official extension store and asked to confirm the installation.

For enterprise deployments, Google Chrome allows you to install non-Web-Store extensions via Group Policy. However, Chrome only allows this on computers connected to a Windows domain.

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla doesn’t actually limit you to extensions from the Mozilla Add-ons Gallery. However, Mozilla does prevent you from installing extensions that haven’t been signed by Mozilla. This means that you can only install Firefox add-ons Mozilla has received and signed-off on. As with Chrome, this helps protect against malware. (This change takes effect in Firefox 44.)

Mozilla’s solution to this is Firefox Developer Edition. This special edition of Firefox comes with built-in developer tools, and it also allows you to install unsigned Firefox add-ons.

You could also use Firefox Nightly — a very unstable testing version of Firefox equivalent to Chrome’s Canary releases. It allows you to install unsigned extensions, too.

There will also be special “unbranded” versions of the stable and beta releases of FIrefox that allow you to disable signature checks. These won’t have Firefox’s normal logo, which will help prevent malware authors from swapping them for the protected versions of Firefox.

After installing a special release of Firefox, you will have to change a setting to allow the installation of unsigned add-ons. By default, even these versions of Firefox will block that.

To do so, type about:config into Firefox’s address bar and press Enter. Search for “xpinstall.signatures.required”, double-click the “xpinstall.signatures.required” setting. It will now be set it to “False”.

Remember, this only works if you’re using a special release of Firefox, not the normal version.

As with Chrome, you could also consider using another browser based on the Firefox code instead of Firefox itself.

The slower-moving “Extended Support Release” — or ESR version — of Firefox also doesn’t yet support add-on signing. However, signing may eventually be enforced on these versions of Firefox, too. This isn’t a long-term solution.

Try User Scripts

“User scripts” can also be helpful. Rather than looking for an add-on for something, you can install the Tampermonkey extension for Chrome or GreaseMonkey add-on for Firefox. You can then search for small “user scripts” — bits of JavaScript — that the extension will automatically run on certain web pages. These are essentially bookmarklets that automatically run on certain websites.

These scripts don’t have to go through the Chrome Web Store or Mozilla, so you can download them from the web or write them on your own and easily install them.

Beware: Like anything that runs in your browser, you could install a malicious user script that spies on your web browsing and captures your personal data or just inserts more advertisements. Be careful what you install.

Again, we don’t encourage bypassing this protection unless you really know what you’re doing and have a good reason to do so. Malware — and “potentially unwanted program” — authors love this, as they can force harmful add-ons into your browser. Locking down the browser further helps fight this malware and make life difficult for people trying to infect your browser. For the average Chrome and Firefox user, these are big security improvements.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »