Apple Mac App Store Logo on a blue background

If you’re familiar with app stores on iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, Mac, Chromebook, and beyond, you’ll encounter the concept of in-app purchases. What are they, and what do they do? We’ll explain.

What Is an In-App Purchase?

In-app purchases are a way to add features to an app or program you’ve already downloaded or purchased. They can be things like new levels in a game, additional options in an app, or a subscription to a service. They can also be used to remove advertisements from an app.

If an app has In-App Purchases available, you'll see "In-App Purchases" written beside the price or "Get" button.

In-app purchases allow some developers to provide a free “demo” version of an app for you to try before you purchase it or unlock extra features.

In-app purchases for free apps originated in the Apple App store for iPhone OS 3.0 in 2009, and the concept soon spread to other stores such as Google Play (in 2011), the Microsoft Store for Windows, and the Mac App Store, among others.

RELATED: How to See an iPhone App's In-App Purchases Before Downloading It

Removing Advertisements

One of the most common in-app purchase options is the removal of advertisements. This is a way for app developers to make money from free apps that would otherwise be supported by ads. When you make this type of purchase, the ads will be removed from the app, and you will no longer see them.

RELATED: Don't Be Fooled: The Mac App Store Is Full of Scams

Adding Levels or Features

On the iPhone or iPad app store, you'll see a listing of In-App Purchases available for the app

Another popular type of in-app purchase is the addition of new levels or features to a game or app. For example, a game might start out with only a few levels available, but as you progress, you can purchase new levels to keep playing. This method recalls the Apogee shareware model pioneered on the PC in the 1990s.

In some cases, you might be able to purchase an entire new version of an app with new features. This is common with photo and video editing apps, where the basic app might be free, but you can pay to upgrade to a Pro version with more features.

The Rise of Free-to-Play Gaming

The phenomenon of in-app purchasing gave rise to the free-to-play (often called “F2P”) game model, which attracts players with the promise of no-cost gaming but makes money later by convincing players to put money into the game after the fact with in-app purchases.

The F2P has attracted controversy in the past because of how developers frequently engineer the games to extract money from players on a continuous basis using psychological tricks.

Subscriptions

Subscriptions are a type of in-app purchase that give you access to a service for a set period of time. This can be anything from a month to a year, and you will be charged automatically when your subscription is about to expire.

This type of in-app purchase is common with music and video streaming services, where you can pay a monthly fee to keep listening or watching. It’s also common with cloud storage services, where you can pay to keep your files stored online.

In-app purchases can be a good way to get more out of your favorite apps, but it’s important to be aware of what you’re buying and how much it costs. Make sure you understand the terms of any subscription you’re signing up for, and be careful while purchasing because in-app purchases can add up quickly. Stay safe out there!

RELATED: Too Many Subscriptions? Here's How to Start Cutting Them

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is an Associate Editor for How-To Geek. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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