Don’t make a costly mistake: Know Apple’s in-app purchase rules

After restoring my iPhone from a recent backup, I made the unfortunate discovery that not all in-app purchases are created equal.  It turns out there are limits to what you can and cannot do with certain types of them.  Did you know that you can lose points, virtual weapons, virtual currencies and other gifts you’ve bought in an app or game if you buy a new iPhone or even back up and restore your device? I learned this the hard way.

Disable In-App Purchases

So you don’t make the same error, here’s a primer on what you should expect from the in-app purchases you make on your Apple devices. First thing to know, there are four types: non-replenishable, replenishable, subscriptions and auto-renewing subscriptions.

Non-replenishable in-app purchases

The most common type of in-app purchase that I have encountered in non-game apps are the non-replenishable kind.This includes purchases that enable features within an application.  Some developers opt to distribute one app for free, then enable more features for a price. These only need to be purchased once and can be transfered to multiple devices, provided they all are authorized with the same iTunes account. This type of in-app purchase will survive a new iPhone purchase and will be there for you when you restore a device from a backup of your OS.

Non-replenishable in-app purchases

The one drawback is that this in-app purchase category does not transfer between app stores.  If you buy an app on both the iOS and Mac app stores — say, ByWord, like I did — and pay to unlock a new feature on one platform, that in-app purchase will not transfer over to the other platform. I have ByWord on my Mac and on iOS. I just recently noticed that the premium publishing upgrade I paid for in the iOS version on my iPhone, it does not transfer to the OS X version of the app on my Mac the way it did for my iPad.

Replenishable in-app purchases

Then there are the replenishable in-app purchases. These are most commonly found in games and can be purchased multiple times. One popular example is smurfberries, a replenishible in-app purchase that caused some controversy with parents when they first arrived in the App Store via the Smurfs Village game. With this type of item you pay for in a game, you may think that it is a non-replenishible in-app purchase and it would transfer between devices, but you never know for sure. (Smurfberries don’t.) Most of the time you find out when it is too late too: after you have already transfered over to a new device you just bought, or you have already reset the device and restored from a backup.

This happened to me recently when installing Dude Perfect on a second device.  I thought that the in-app purchase that enabled the level editor was the kind of in-app purchase you only have to buy once, so I was shocked to discover after purchasing it first on my iPhone, that I had to pay for it again when I tried to access the feature on my iPad. Not cool, dudes.

Replenishable in-app purchases

One-time subscriptions

There is a similar distinction when it comes to subscriptions purchased through Apple. There are basic subscriptions that expire after a period of time, like purchasing a single issue of a magazine, which is really just a one-month subscription. And then there are auto-renewing subscriptions that keep on going until you cancel them.  I now manage many of my magazine subscriptions via my iTunes account. Individual one-time subscriptions cannot be transfered or synced to another device, whereas auto-renewing subscriptions can. With subscriptions you tend to know ahead of time what you are getting into, though. Especially when it is an auto-renewing subscription.


Auto-renewing subscriptions

The one type of in-app purchase that really stands out from the rest is the auto-renewing subscription. If you are using an iOS device, open the App Store, go to the Featured tab, and scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page. Tap on the Apple ID button to view your account information. Here you will see a button that will allow you to manage all of the auto-renewing subscriptions that you have already purchased. This is also how you cancel your subscription. You can also access and manage your auto-renewing subscriptions from your Mac by using iTunes. Just choose the Store menu and click on the View My Account menu item.

Auto-renewing subscriptions

Keeping track of in-app purchases

Like auto-renewing subscriptions, it would be convenient to see a listing of all of my non-replenishable in-app purchases. Apple already allows me to see my complete purchase history for music, videos, books and apps. Why not add non-replenishable in-app purchases to the list as well? Only then would one be able to truly know what they are getting themselves into when making an in-app purchase.