Using apps from multiple accounts on a single iOS device

Q: Could you elaborate on the statement “actually have apps from up to five different accounts installed on a single device” from your article on Transferring apps to a family member’s iPhone? How does one do this? Isn’t a device tied to a single iTunes Library for syncing and each library tied to a single iTunes Store account or Apple ID?

– John

Using apps from multiple accounts on a single iOS device

A: The one-to-one device-to-library pairing is at least partially correct in terms of traditional iTunes syncing, but actually doesn’t apply at all in relation to content from iTunes Store accounts.

Even when syncing with an iTunes library, the single library restriction only applies if you’re using automatic sync. While this has been assumed by many to be a way of preventing piracy, it’s really just the only easy way that an automatic synchronization system can work without being overly confusing. In this configuration, your iPhone, iPod, or iPad mirrors the content in your iTunes library. This is relatively simple to understand, and trying to have this kind of synchronization occur with more than one library would quickly get confusing for the average user. In essence, when using automatic synchronization, the iPhone, iPad, or iPod is an extension of the iTunes library on your computer, which essentially acts as the “master” library.

That said, however, you can easily put most devices in “manual” mode and transfer content onto them from more than one iTunes library. In this mode, the device acts as its own independent media library, rather than an extension of a main iTunes library, and you manually add and remove content directly on your device by accessing it directly via iTunes, rather than simply making changes in your main library and syncing them from there. Our Beginner’s Guide to iTunes provides more detailed information on how all of this fits together.

Note that all of the above only applies to music, movies, TV shows, and books. Photos are always synced automatically from a single library, and as of iTunes 11, Apps are not automatically synced at all, and can actually be installed from any iTunes library—if you visit the “Apps” tab in iTunes 11 you’ll notice that the traditional checkboxes that were found in prior versions have been replaced with buttons that indicate whether an app is installed or not, and toggle to “Will Install” and “Will Remove” when clicked, indicating what the status of the app will be during the next sync.

However, this library-to-device relationship actually has almost nothing at all to do with iTunes Store accounts. Although your computer must be authorized for an iTunes Store account to play or transfer protected content (apps, videos, books, etc), you can actually authorize multiple accounts on the same computer, for the same iTunes library. You can only be logged in to a single account at a time, but can very easily switch to a different account simply by clicking the button near the top-left corner when viewing the iTunes Store to access options for signing out of the current account and signing into another one.


Using apps from multiple accounts on a single iOS device

Downloading content from a given iTunes Store account will authorize your computer for that account automatically, but should you ever need to do this manually—such as when copying content in directly from another computer, for instance—you can do so by selecting Authorize This Computer from the Store menu in iTunes. Our Guide to Using the iTunes Store provides more information on this.


Using apps from multiple accounts on a single iOS device

The process for iPods and iOS devices is similar. You can log out of the current iTunes Store account in the iTunes or App Store apps by scrolling down to the bottom of the main page and tapping on the button that shows your account name, and then sign in as a different user.

Your device will automatically be authorized for any media content or apps downloaded under that account, provided you haven’t reached the five-account limit.


Using apps from multiple accounts on a single iOS device

Further, syncing content from an authorized iTunes library will automatically transfer the authorization for that content to your device, again provided you haven’t reached the five-account limit for a given device. This happens automatically when you transfer the content and doesn’t require any specific action on your part.

Note that once your computer or device is authorized, you do not need to remain logged in to any particular account in order to use any media content or apps that are on your device. The authorizations are stored and handled separately from whichever account you happen to be logged in with at any given time.

However, there are a couple of important limitations to keep in mind pertaining to Apple’s more recent cloud services. Firstly, if you are re-downloading previously purchased content from another account, or have automatic downloads enabled for new content, you will only be able to change accounts for these purposes once every 90 days. Much like the five-account limit, this is primarily in place to discourage illegal sharing of media content; it does not apply to purchasing new content, nor does it apply to re-downloading apps. It also does not apply to transferring content that is already in your iTunes library.