Watch out—so-called free apps may have hidden costs, and they’re called in-app purchases.

By Lauren Phillips
Updated March 20, 2019
In-app purchases - phone with app on screen
Credit: Getty Images

Just because an app is free to download doesn’t mean it won’t cost you—and those in-app purchases can really add up. Apps in all categories on the App Store (for iPhone and iPad users) and Google Play (for Android users) have in-app purchases, which prompt users to spend money on game add-ons, subscriptions, premium features, and more. These extra, supposedly optional costs can go straight on credit cards, often without any alert to the card owner.

An in-app purchase is any fee (beyond the initial cost of downloading the app, if there is one) an app may ask for. Many in-app purchases are optional or give users additional features; others serve as subscriptions and require users to sign up and pay a fee to use the app, often after an initial free trial. Creating an account with the App Store or Google Play requires putting a credit or debit card on file, to cover any costs associated with downloading paid apps. Because apps are downloaded through those platforms, they can charge the card associated with the account directly, making in-app purchases dangerously easy to make, as there’s no need to enter credit card information or, often, even enter a password.

This is especially challenging for parents who allow their children to play games on their phones: If a prompt to finish a game or unlock a new character for a small fee pops up, a child can easily agree without having to enter a password (after the first purchase) or credit card number, unknowingly charging the associated credit card. These small sums and hidden costs can quickly add up, especially for anyone who doesn’t check credit card statements often.

Some apps, especially games—think Candy Crush Saga and Pokémon GO, to name two popular ones—make it easier for players to level up, win, or otherwise advance if they spend money in the app through in-app purchases. These apps are free to download, but getting high scores, reaching new levels, and earning major bragging rights can be a lot easier if players are willing (and able) to put a little money toward their goals. Essentially, they’re games that cost money, even if they don’t seem like it at first.

Other apps, including meditation apps and recipe apps, are free to download, and they allow users to access basic features for free (or if they are willing to put up with ads). Accessing premium features, though, or continuing to use the app after a trial period may require a subscription.

The good news is that the App Store and Google Play clearly state if an app has in-app purchases, so you know before you download these (often free) apps. The bad news is that almost every single app has in-app purchases, and it’s not always clear whether those purchases are required to use the app indefinitely.

How to turn off in-app purchases

Whether you’re concerned about the kids racking up those in-app purchases or you struggle to resist buying a few extra lives on your favorite game, there is a way to turn off in-app purchases.

On iPhones, follow these steps:

  1. Go to Settings
  2. Go to Screen Time (with an hour-glass icon)
  3. Go to Content & Privacy Restrictions
  4. Go to iTunes & App Store Purchases
  5. Within this page, you can adjust your settings to suit your needs. You can turn off in-app purchases completely, or require a password for every purchase, not just the first one.

With that taken care of, you should be much less likely to get surprise charges from apps.