Private app distribution through the App Store

“You download the app and it doesn’t work – that’s not what we want on the store.”

Phil Schiller, June 2020

App Review sometimes rejects apps for providing insufficient functionality to users before requiring them to create an account. One reason they list under their most common app rejection issues is not enough lasting value: “If your app […] only applies to a small niche market, it may not be approved.”

However, some use cases call for an iOS app that only serves a very niche purpose. What do you do then?

Many developers still choose to distribute their app through the App Store, because it’s the most intuitive way for typical users to get an app. It’s still worth considering other options for those use cases when the general public might not be your ideal audience. Aside from the risk of being rejected for being too niche, you might also not want to have your app publicly available for anyone to download.

This is why you might also consider the following alternatives to distributing your app through the public iOS App Store.

TestFlightAdHocEnterprise (In-House)Private Distribution (Custom Apps)
How to install Install TestFlight app, then open invite linkProvide UDID and wait for signed build, then install via SafariInstall via Safari and accept developer profile in Settings.app before app will be able to launchClick on a redemption link and install the app in the App Store
Build Expiration 90 days1 year1 yearNever
Automatic UpdatesYesNoNoYes
Install Limit 10,000 testers100 of each device typeUnlimited employeesUnlimited partners, clients, franchisees, and employees
Annual Cost $99$99$299$99
App Review Less StrictNoneNoneLess Strict

Private Distribution (Custom Apps)

With private distribution, your app doesn’t appear on the public iOS App Store. Instead, you get an unlimited number of redemption links that you can give your users. These links allow them to download your app through the App Store.

That’s it. There are no additional steps for your user. They can immediately use your app, and they’ll get automatic updates as you publish new versions. Read on if you’d like to learn how to privately distribute your app through the App Store.

Submitting an App for Private Distribution

Private distribution is only available for apps that haven’t already been released on the App Store. You’ll need to create a new bundle identifier if you want to publish an existing app through private distribution.

  1. Go to App Store Connect and create a new app.
  2. Upload a build as you normally would.
  3. On your app’s page in App Store Connect, select Pricing and Availability from the left sidebar.
  4. Scroll down to Distribution for Business and Education and select “Available for private distribution to specific organizations on Apple Business Manager or Apple School Manager”.
  5. Enter the Organization ID for at least one organization – you can always add more later. You can find the Organization ID for your organization in Apple Business Manager under Organization Info.
  6. When you’re ready, submit your app for review. The app must still go through App Review, but like TestFlight Review it’s a less strict review.

After it’s approved and once it’s Ready for Sale, your app will show up in Apple Business Manager for the organization(s) you specified – but it won’t be on the public iOS App Store!

Distributing the App to End Users

Each organization that will distribute your app will need to create an Apple Business Manager account. If you’re distributing an app to your company’s employees, you’ll only create one account. If you have multiple clients that each want to distribute to users in their organization, then they’ll each need to create their own Apple Business Manager account.

You can create an account by clicking “Enroll now” at https://business.apple.com. You’ll need to fill out a few pages of straightforward forms about your company and your employee’s contact information. The trickiest piece of information you need to have before you can start is your company’s D-U-N-S number.

Once you’ve submitted the form, you’ll have to wait a few days until you get a call from Apple. The caller will ask you a few questions about your business and get verbal confirmation that you are able to agree to the Apple Business Manager terms on behalf of your company. After the call, you’ll receive an email with the subject line, “Thank you for verifying your organization”. You can follow the instructions linked from that email to setup your account – make sure you use an email address that’s not already linked to another Apple ID.

Getting the redemption links

Once you have an Apple Business Manager account, it’s very easy to get redemption codes.

  1. Enable Custom Apps by going to Enrollment Information.
  2. Go to the Custom Apps page to find your app listed.
  3. Select your app, then select a license type of “Redemption Codes”.
  4. Enter the number of redemption codes you want and click “Get”.
  5. Click Download under Redemption Codes to download a spreadsheet with redemption codes and corresponding redemption links you can send to users.

Send each user a link and tell them to open the link on their iPhone to download your app without it every being available to the general public!

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