Apple Family Sharing: Remember, in-app purchases can’t be shared

While upgrading a free app to paid and purchasing a paid app might seem like the same thing, Apple says you can’t share in-app purchases.

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With Apple's Family Sharing program, you can share iTunes, iBooks, and App Store purchases, an Apple Music family plan, and an iCloud storage plan with up to five people. I am not a fan of Apple’s Family Sharing option, and I’m not alone among technology writers. Family Sharing remains poorly implemented for most users years after its introduction, seemingly because Apple’s back-end systems that manage iTunes, the App Store, and other purchases and ownership is so woefully out of date. (For instance, you can’t migrate purchases among accounts you control or merge multiple accounts.)

This bites users on a regular basis, because seemingly intuitive and obvious behavior isn’t supported with Family Sharing. The most galling one is that if one person purchases an app that supports Family Sharing—not all apps do—then you’d think anyone else in the Family Sharing group would simply go to the App Store page for that app and click to download it? Incorrect, sorry. If you try to use the app’s page, you see the retail price, and if you click the price, you’ll be charged.

Instead, you follow these steps:

  1. Open the App Store.
  2. Tap the account icon, which may be your avatar, in the upper-right corner.
  3. Tap Purchased.
  4. Scroll or search to find the app.
  5. Tap the cloud download icon to download it.

Macworld reader Dan encountered a different problem with Family Sharing. He downloaded some free apps to test them out, and then decided to upgrade to the paid version of the app via in-app purchases. He assumed that his wife, part of the same Family Sharing group, would also be able to activate those in-app purchases. Nope.

Apple does make clear on what’s sharable with Family Sharing, so it’s not misleading. But it’s not the kind of page people visit and memorize, and the lack of in-app purchase sharing makes sense only in some cases, like purchasing game coins or certain per-app upgrade features, such as a subscription. Other in-app purchases, like unlocking features to make a free app effectively like the same app that’s purchased outright at that price, should be sharable. This might be intent, but I attribute it to Apple’s rigid and outdated backend.

Besides in-app purchases, Apple notes you can’t share songs that you added to iTunes Match from sources other than the iTunes Store. That’s fine, because ostensibly you have the original versions of those files and, if you have the appropriate license or permission, you can copy to other machines. All subscriptions are excluded, including Apple Music and magazines and newspapers.

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