How to share downloaded apps across users on a Mac

Apple lets every user on a Mac launch apps available to all users, but the licensing may trip you up.

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Apple IDs used to be two different kinds of things: one was a purchasing account, originally associated with the iTunes Music Store; the other, a sync/email account associated with MobileMe (me.com), .Mac (mac.com), and iCloud. Apple merged the two purposes, but many people possess legacy accounts they continue to use together in iOS/iPadOS and macOS in those distinct ways.

For families that share a Mac, you can leverage either Family Sharing or a purchase-based Apple ID to allow everyone to access the same apps (or a similar set) across the computer.

macOS is set up to let you create multiple accounts, and each account can be logged into one Apple ID for both iCloud sync and email and for Apple purchases or the account can use two separate accounts for iCloud and purchases.

Share apps via Family Sharing

If you don’t have Family Sharing set up, go through the steps to get it in place. It’s not for everyone, because it allows just a total of six family members in an account and has other limitations.

However, as a bonus, it lets you reduce iCloud storage costs by pooling a storage plan. (My family saved about $10 a month by switching to a pooled 2TB iCloud storage plan.)

Members of the family plan have to set up sharing purchases from their account. Any app that allows Family Sharing—most do—and is purchased in one account is available to all other members of the family set. (However, Family Sharing doesn’t allow in-app purchases or subscriptions to be shared, and many apps have transitioned to that mode.)

In each macOS account, a given user’s single Apple ID is plugged in for both iCloud and purchase purposes.

You can find shared apps to download via the Mac App Store:

  1. Launch the App Store.

  2. Click your account name at the lower-left corner.

  3. In the Account view, select another family member’s name from the Purchased By menu.

  4. If it’s available for Family Sharing, click the iCloud download icon.

If an app is already downloaded onto the machine and it’s licensed for Family Sharing, you may be able to just launch it from the Mac’s main Applications folder. 

However, you may run into a problem for apps installed before Family Sharing was enabled, where it won’t launch or demands the original buyer’s Apple ID password to use. In that case, you can try the following:

  1. Obtain the app from the App Store.

  2. Open the main Applications folder (at /Applications/).

  3. In another window open the Applications folder in your Home folder. A shortcut is, in the Finder, to choose Go > Go To Folder and paste in ~/Applications

  4. Holding down the Command key, drag the app from the main Applications folder to your account’s Application folder. Enter an administrative account and password when prompted. (Command-drag moves an app; simple dragging creates an alias in the destination.)

Now, launch that app from your own Applications folder from now on.

Share apps using a single Apple ID for purchases

Each user logs in separately to iCloud for sync and various Apple stores for purchases.

In Mojave and previous, the iCloud preference pane is where you manage the iCloud login, and each app, like iTunes and Books, can have a separate Apple ID login. In Catalina, the Apple ID preference pane centralizes both iCloud and purchase accounts in a more clearly defined and labeled way. (Some Catalina apps also have their own account login option, just to be confusing, but you can generally ignore it.)

With an Apple ID shared for purchases, you should be able to launch an app from any macOS account logged into the same Apple ID. If the app was downloaded by another macOS user on the same machine, the purchase verification should allow it to launch without a hitch.

The first time you launch an app in a new account, it’s possible you’ll be prompted for the Apple ID account password for the purchasing account. Enter it.

With this method, in-app purchases and subscriptions are available across macOS accounts. But because all purchases are entirely shared and locked to the account, this may restrict you in the future if people using that Mac get their own computers if they no longer want to be part of the same purchase group. You could then switch to Family Sharing.

Share non-Mac App Store apps

For a family that wants to share non-Mac App Store apps across macOS accounts, most apps purchased directly from a software company simply work, whatever account they’re launched from.

You may have to enter the license code in each account, and if the license is for a single computer or “seat,” you’re within the terms.

For apps that rely on an account, like Adobe Creative Cloud, you will have to log in to the software maker-specific account for each macOS user and are limited by simultaneous logins, even though you aren’t using the same app literally at the same time in two accounts.

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Tim.

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