How to use different iTunes accounts for different languages

A reader would like access to media in different languages in iTunes, but worries about losing access to her accounts.

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Sarah Amundsen has a very reasonable query about movies:

I want to download French language movies on iTunes, but will be forced to create another Apple ID for this. I am concerned that I will potentially lose my previous iTunes (music and movies) bought under my original ID, or will have other problems. Can you advise how people do this? It is completely inflexible that Apple seem to assume that people don’t travel and don’t want content in >1 language!

This is one of those peculiar situations in which we live in a fully interlinked global economy with a worldwide super-fast computer network, and yet old-fashioned licensing agreements, cartels, and other rules prevent such simple things as offering easy and legitimate payment for media created or sold outside our home country.

Apple policies generally arise from how media is licensed, which is often country by country or as a package of countries. There’s a cartel aspect of this because it’s used to prevent cross-border price differences or even government regulatory limitations from allowing consumers to arbitrage costs across borders to choose the best price. This was common with DVDs: A DVD for a series made in England and locked to the UK’s DVD region might cost a fraction of the price for the same DVD encrypted to work only in the US region. (Region-free players bypassed that particular limitation.)

We’re stuck with these same rules for most digital content that’s produced by studios and record labels, too. As a result, you typically need a separate iTunes Store account and either a credit card with a billing address in the country for which the account is registered or a gift card purchased with such a credit card.

You can log in and out of iTunes with different iTunes accounts without losing access to media you purchased with any given account, though that is a pain. If you’re using OS X to handle playback of movies, you can set up an additional OS X user and log in to iTunes in one or more OS X accounts with different iTunes Store accounts for different countries.

A warning about following this strategy: Kirk McElhearn, our iTunes Guy, writes in to note after this column originally ran that Apple limits how often you can change an Apple ID on a given computer. You can’t just switch back and forth, as it might impose a 90-day lockout. While Kirk hasn’t had this occur on his Mac, and I have two U.S.-based accounts I sometimes switch between without trauma, I’ve seen reports of it. However, it’s apparently common for Apple to invoke this in iOS.

If you set up multiple-country iTunes Store accounts, you may need to dedicate devices (at least for extended periods) to each account. Kirk also warns that Apple could change this policy without warning, locking you out of some of your purchases for longer or, perhaps, forever.

Sadly, this problem isn’t about to be solved any time soon. For streaming media, it’s created a huge opportunity for VPN (Virtual Private Network) offerings that let you fool servers about the country in which you’re accessing a service, like Netflix. With iTunes, there’s just a lot of extra overhead that Apple requires to make sure it’s not violating the media licenses it agreed to.

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Update: This article was updated to include a warning about Apple’s lock-out policy.

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