Sideloading iOS Apps

If you’re new to iOS after having recently switched from an Android device to an iPhone, one of the questions you might have is whether you can sideload iOS apps that are not available on the App Store.

If you’re here as a result of a Google Search regarding the same, you’ve landed on the right place. In this article, we’ll explain sideloading on iOS devices, and explore various options available for sideloading iOS apps on the iPhone.

What is sideloading?

Sideloading, in the context of software, usually refers to the way of installing apps (or programs) from third-party sources, rather than the official marketplace maintained by the device manufacturer or OS developer.

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All major desktop and mobile platforms have an official marketplace from where you’re recommended to download apps on your device. This is beneficial to both users and the parent company for several reasons, including:

  1. The company can moderate what apps are available on the official marketplace. This helps to ensure that the available apps are verified free from malware, and also devoid of any illegal or objectionable content.
  2. The app developers are bound by the marketplace policies, protecting users against any future malpractice from the developer’s end. If any app developer violates the marketplace policies, they can be booted out of the marketplace, with their developer certificates made invalid.
  3. The company may charge a small commission from the app developer on every purchase (apps, in-app items, and subscriptions).

For these reasons, device manufacturers and OS developers would encourage you to only install apps from the official marketplace, although most of them also provide the option to sideload apps if you’re willing to do it after knowing the risks.

Windows and macOS have the Microsoft Store and Mac App Store respectively, but they both make it easy to install apps from external websites, even directly from the app developer. Android too, lets you install apps from third-party sources and repositories by enabling an option from the Settings app.

So, what about iOS? Well, Apple makes it difficult, if not impossible to sideload apps on iOS devices. Let’s now explore the options and workarounds we have for sideloading iOS apps.

Can you sideload apps on iPhone?

It is quite evident from the recent comments of Tim Cook (CEO at Apple) that Apple does not want its users to be able to sideload apps on the iPhone and iPad. According to Apple, enabling users to sideload would irrevocably compromise the security and integrity of iOS, and introduce new attack vectors beyond Apple’s control.

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Can you sideload iOS Apps - Sideloading on iOS

But that doesn’t mean sideloading is impossible on iOS devices. There are quite a few ways to sideload iOS apps from third-party sources outside the App Store, although none of these methods are officially supported by Apple.

There are primarily two broad categories of sideloading on iOS that we’re going to explore here:

  • Sideloading via jailbreak – which is more commonly known
  • Sideloading without jailbreak – which is less known but a feasible workaround, albeit with a few caveats

Let’s now elaborate on both of these methods. After reading this, you may decide for yourself which method is more convenient for you.

Sideload iOS apps with jailbreak

The most commonly explored method of sideloading apps on iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch is by jailbreaking iOS. Jailbreaking on iOS essentially is a privilege escalation executed to remove the software restrictions imposed by Apple.

When you jailbreak an iOS device, you can customize (a.k.a. tweak) the software any way you want it (including custom app installs from third-party sources), but it may void the manufacturer’s warranty as well as compromise the integrity of the iOS system. In other words, by jailbreaking your iOS device, it’d be easy to download apps from outside the App Store (a.k.a. sideloading), however, it’d be more vulnerable to security breaches and other malicious attacks.

With that out of the way, there are four different types of known jailbreak methods available for iOS devices:

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Tethered Jailbreak

A tethered jailbreak requires a wired connection between the iOS device and the computer, with the jailbreak software installed on the computer to perform the jailbreak. This type of jailbreak only works for a single boot cycle and requires the computer to be “tethered” and running the jailbreak software to complete the booting process.

If the battery runs out or the device is restarted without being connected to a computer running the jailbreak tool, it may get stuck in a partially started state, such as the Recovery Mode. To complete the booting process, the device must be re-jailbroken by connecting it to a computer via USB and running the tethered jailbreak exploit each time it is restarted.

Tethered jailbreaks are temporary and render the device unusable on restart unless the jailbreak is executed again. Hence, due to their inconvenience and lack of proper usability, tethered jailbreaks are no longer developed or maintained. redsn0w was a popular tethered jailbreak exploit back in the day, available for A4-equipped devices, such as the iPhone 4.

Semi-tethered Jailbreak

A semi-tethered jailbreak is one that also requires a wired connection between the iOS device and a computer running the jailbreak software to perform the jailbreak. However, with this type of jailbreak, the iOS device will reboot successfully into the OS after a restart, and you may continue using the non-jailbroken features of the device through multiple reboot cycles.

If you need to use jailbreak tweaks though, you’d need to deploy the jailbreak on the device once more via a tethered USB connection to a computer running the jailbreak software.

As you may have already concluded, semi-tethered jailbreaks are also temporary, but they’re less inconvenient compared to tethered jailbreak methods, as they do not affect the normal functioning of the device across multiple boot cycles.

checkra1n is the most popular semi-tethered jailbreak exploit currently available (as of this writing) for macOS & Windows, and is compatible with iPhone 5S through iPhone X, running iOS 12 through iOS 14.

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Semi-untethered Jailbreak

A semi-untethered jailbreak is a jailbreak method that can be applied directly on the device without a wired connection to a computer (although some of these jailbreaks can also be deployed over a wired connection). This is also a temporary jailbreak method in which the jailbroken device can be rebooted successfully to resume normal usage post the restart; however, jailbreak tweaks and features won’t work unless the jailbreak is deployed once again through software installed on the device.

Compared to a semi-tethered jailbreak, a semi-untethered jailbreak is more convenient as a computer isn’t required to deploy it. unc0ver is the most popular semi-untethered jailbreak tool available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch running iOS 11 through iOS 14.3.

Untethered Jailbreak

An untethered jailbreak doesn’t require a wired connection to a computer to deploy, and the device remains jailbroken and all jailbreak tweaks work even after the OS is rebooted. It’s the most desirable form of jailbreak, but also challenging to implement because of the complex development skills required to write successful exploits that survive through the boot cycle.

It’s been a long time since iOS has had a working untethered jailbreak exploit. The most recent ones include the PanGu jailbreak, which was available for devices running iOS 9.1, and JailbreakMe, which was available for 32-bit iOS devices running iOS 9.1 through iOS 9.3.4.

Once your iPhone or iPad has been jailbroken, it’s easy to sideload iOS apps from outside the App Store. You can download the IPA file from a trusted app repository, and follow the steps as provided in the Stack Overflow forum, to install the app.

Sideload iOS apps without jailbreak

As iOS doesn’t officially support sideloading, installing apps from outside the App Store without jailbreak is a complicated affair. Apps sideloaded from outside the App Store need to be signed using a valid developer certificate to install and run on non-jailbroken devices.

To sign an IPA, you need either Xcode on your Mac or a certificate signing application (like Cydia Impactor or iOS App Signer). If you use a web-based tool such as iOS App Signer, it eliminates the need for a computer to sideload apps onto an iOS device.

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Now there are a few ways to install and run IPAs from external sources:

  • If you have an Apple Developer account (which costs $99 per year), you can sign any IPA file with your developer certificate and sideload iOS apps on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.
  • You can sign IPAs using a temporary certificate, which is available to all for free but has a validity of 7 days. Thus, every 7 days, your certificate will expire and all the apps installed using that certificate will stop working, unless you re-sign and re-install the IPAs again using a new temporary certificate. Apps like AltStore make it easier to sign IPA files using the temporary certificate and sideload them to your iOS device.
  • You can opt-in or use a third-party service that leverages the Apple Developer Enterprise Program. This certificate allows companies to remotely deploy custom apps and services to managed iOS devices. A few services, like BuildStore, offer their own app marketplaces containing iOS apps not available on the App Store. They manage and maintain the developer certificates, so that they don’t expire, and ensure a smooth sideloading experience almost similar to installing apps from the official App Store. In return, however, these services often charge a hefty subscription fee, mostly to keep the certificates and offered services active.

You can learn more about the overall process of sideloading iOS apps without jailbreak in our dedicated article.

These are essentially the common methods of sideloading iOS apps (that we know of). Unfortunately, none of these are as simple as flicking a toggle (as on Android devices) and require knowledge of either jailbreak or app signing & developer certificates. Apple has deliberately made it difficult for users to sideload iOS apps.

That being said, there are plenty of resources available online if you decide to get your hands dirty, or you can skip the complicated part and go for a service like BuildStore if you’re willing to pay the premium fee.

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