I have Googled over and over and cannot get an answer to a fundamental question I have. To get an app downloaded onto an iPhone, do I need to open an apple account of some sort and pay for the account or is there a way to host the app (for free) and get it downloaded to an iPhone for free?

Thank you for helping me get started here.


Let me clarify my question.

I am starting to build my own little app. I'm a web developer looking to move into mobile app development. I want my family to be able to download it and use it on their iPhones.

So, can I host my app for download onto their iPhones? Can I host it somewhere else where people can down without cost? Or is the only way to get an app downloaded to an iPhone is through Apple by registering with them to do that? And if Apple is the only way, do they offer free accounts to do that?

  • Do you want to download an app from the App Store onto your phone or do you want to publish an app for others to download?
    – nohillside
    May 3, 2013 at 13:18
  • If you don't mind editing this, let's turn this into a canonical question - how do apps get loaded on iOS. If you want to re-ask another question on how to load web-apps, that would be excellent as well.
    – bmike
    May 3, 2013 at 15:01
  • At this point I simply want to "publish" (ie produce and host for download) an app that can go onto an iPhone. I prefer to do it for free as I dabble with mobile app devel. Is there a way or a place that I can put the app "out there" so someone can download it? Or is hosting it with Apple (somehow) on a paid-for basis the only way to do it? Thanks for helping walk me through this question @patrix. I just can't seem to find the answer to, what in my mind, is a basic starting question. May 3, 2013 at 15:03
  • Let's get into Ask Different Chat and work out what you need :-)
    – bmike
    May 3, 2013 at 15:05
  • Since you've mentioned web apps, this doesn't answer the direct question but may be useful: Matt Might discusses how to create personal-use web-apps that can be served to your family's iPhones.
    – Dan J
    May 3, 2013 at 17:00

3 Answers 3


Web apps are easy, you just need to use Apple Configurator or the iPhone configuration utility to package the URL and add it to the home screen. You can also perform this from mobile safari directly.

You only need a web server and there are plenty of free web services if you don't want to host the app on a computer you control and could run MAMP or some other tool to serve http.

Once you cross over into native apps, it gets more complicated. There is an API and it's secured by digital signatures to ensure the OS can track the application's provenance and detect if it gets modified after it has been installed.

In general, iOS supports four major ways to load native applications. The first three require Apple to be involved and all carry a financial and time cost. The fourth bypasses the code checks and allows unsigned apps and has no financial cost but carries a different time cost.

  • Through the iTunes App Store once the app is signed directly by Apple
  • As a paid developer by signing the app with a developer certificate (which itself is signed indirectly by Apple)
  • As an enterprise customer by signing the app with an enterprise certificate (which itself is signed indirectly by Apple)
  • Jailbreak the device to load apps that are not signed by Apple (directly or indirectly)

Since you mentioned free:

  • Jailbreak should cost nothing, you just spend time learning and obtaining free software to jailbreak each device.
  • Paid iOS developer requires a Mac with a recent OS X (not free), Xcode (free) and a $99 one year window to run all your apps on a limited set of iOS devices (100 at the moment) for that one year period.
  • App Store Distribution requires a delay (where Apple decides if they even want your specific version of your app to be on their store) and costs nothing during the year your paid iOS developer account is valid. If your paid developer account expires, your apps come off the store.
  • Enterprise Distribution is the most costly. You near a legitimate corporation with legal filing, corporate DUNS number to prove you have a financial record as a corporation, etc… It starts at a $300 payment and I'd guess months delay and legal/regulatory fees of $1500 in the US to be set up as an enterprise client of Apple.

Now, you can mix apps of all 5 types above as long as your device is jailbroken. If your device is not jailbroken, you can mix the three Apple approved methods with web apps on the same device on an app by app basis.

The vast majority of people load apps through the app store, so all other methods are collectively called "side-loading". As you approach your work, think more about how the OS decides to install the app as opposed to how it's actually delivered. Once you get how code signing works, the delivery issues will work themselves out.

  • Hey @bmike...thanks for your answer. Can you edit it to include what has to be paid for on the host-to-device side and what can be done for free. And, I prefer not to jailbreak my kids phones...I just want them to download my app in a legitimate, upright manner. If I need to pay for that have it done, then so be it. I simply want to know, can I do it legally somehow for free, or is Apple the only non-jailbreak method? BTW, I have my own web server as I am a web developer looking to move into mobile apps now. May 3, 2013 at 15:07
  • 1
    I would highly encourage you to sign up for one year as a paid iOS developer. It's $99 and you need a Mac that can run Xcode. You can get Xcode for free and start on tutorials and register as a free developer to get started. Once you have your first app running in the iOS Simulator and you need to send that app to the first iOS device, go pay the $99 to become an iOS developer and then you can start signing your apps and running them on a limited number (think 100) iOS devices during that one year period.
    – bmike
    May 3, 2013 at 15:19

The best way to register without introducing credit card details is trying to download a free app and when you'll be asked for user/pass word, just fill all the fields click the radio button of None on the payment method screen.

Follow this steps, it's really easy!

  • see my addendum above @marcdaywalker May 3, 2013 at 14:59

The answer is "if you do not want to jailbreak an iPhone, the only way to get an app onto an iPhone is to publish it with Apple and there is a cost involved in doing that."

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