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In-app purchasing

In-app purchasing gives you the chance to add new features to your online experiences, but it could also make you spend more money than you realise. 

Being aware of the benefits and risks when using this feature can help you stay safe online.

On this page:

What is in-app purchasing?

An in-app purchase lets you buy extra features from within an app, game or online service so that you can access added functionality to what you’re already using. This includes subscriptions, ad-free versions, in-game currency, extra lives in a game, special costumes or the ability to skip a difficult level. Sometimes in-app purchasing can also allow you to send a gift to another user.

There are different types of in-app purchases you can make:

  • Auto-renewable subscriptions: you are automatically charged every payment period until a subscription is cancelled – for example, a monthly subscription to a streaming platform.
  • Non-renewing subscriptions: you are buying access to features for a limited time, and you will need to buy a new subscription when the current one ends – for example, an annual online news subscription.
  • Consumable: you buy an item for one-time use, and when you run out of that item, you need to buy more to have access to the same feature – for example, extra lives in a game.
  • Non-consumable: you buy an item that you get to keep and is always available to you in the app, which doesn’t expire – for example, a new costume for your avatar.

Many apps are available to download for free but then offer in-app purchases to get the ‘full’ or ‘premium’ experience of the app – this is known as ‘freemium’. Buying a subscription can also give you access to extra features or content such as having unlimited likes in an online dating service or removing third-party advertising from an app. These features are available as long as the subscription is up to date.

You can pay for an in-app purchase by linking credit card details to your account on the app or by using a gift card. 

The benefits of in-app purchasing

Transactions are quick and easy

You don’t need to fill out credit card details with each purchase – you can access more features and content quickly and easily with in-app purchasing. The billing is managed by the online service or platform where you bought the new feature.

New content and features are available immediately

When making an in-app purchase, the content or features you have paid for are available as soon as the transaction is complete. This means that the benefit you were looking for, like skipping a level or sending additional messages on a social platform, is ready straight away.

You may be able to limit spending

All online services with in-app purchasing should offer control settings, including the option to turn purchasing off completely. Details on how to do this are usually in the help or support pages. Take a look at the links to manage in-app purchasing on some of these popular platforms:

The risks of in-app purchasing

Easy to spend money

Not all apps clearly tell you when you are making an in-app purchase. You can spend a lot of money within a game or app without realising because you don’t have to submit credit card details each time you buy something.

Sometimes you might be so excited to have the new feature or content that you may not notice you have paid for it. Some games and apps may even be purposely designed in a way that makes it unclear that you are buying something, and you may not get a purchase confirmation.

If kids are using an adult’s account – or the family or child settings haven’t been changed – they may complete in-app purchases without knowing or fully thinking it through. 

Small purchases may not be noticed at first but can be a shock when you see all of them on the invoice or statement.

Learn more about gaming memberships in our Gift Guide, as well as advice on setting up parental controls.

Unfair advantage and pressure to fit in

Sometimes you might feel like you have to buy extra features in an app or online services so that you fit in with a certain online community. For example, there may be photo filters that give your account a certain look, or you need access to exclusive content on one streaming platform that isn’t available on others.

When it comes to gaming. some items in virtual stores can give players more powers or the chance to skip difficult levels – this is known as ‘pay to win’. Passing different levels can boost the social status of a player in a game or online service. It can then be unclear if they have this social status because of their skill or an in-app purchase.

In some games, having items like special clothing or weapons, also provides social status. Some players may feel anxious or even be bullied for using avatars that look like the default. This could lead to someone buying an in-game item simply because it looks good or there is a social pressure. If an online service features gifting, players or users may also feel like they need to buy items for other users – even for people they don’t know, such as popular streamers.

Gambling-like behaviour

Video game loot boxes can have virtual items that have been randomly selected. The function and value of these items is usually only known after buying the loot box to add some mystery to the experience. The items are sometimes rare and valuable, but usually they are common, unimportant or of little value in a particular game.

Online safety advocates relate this ‘game of chance’ structure to gambling and have criticised the behaviours it may encourage. The way an item is revealed often has flashy lights and sound effects similar in style to poker machines. These types of purchases are banned in some locations because of known experiences where players, including children, have spent huge amounts of money on loot boxes to try to geta certain item.

More information

Visit The eSafety Guide to find out more about specific online services, platforms and games using in-app purchasing.

Last updated: 26/03/2024