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How many Apple IDs should your family have?

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If your family owns multiple Apple devices and you have several different Apple IDs among you, it can become overwhelming or confusing or just plain maddening to figure out where your content is. It doesn’t have to be that way: To manage your media and app purchases more effectively, you may want to consider having a single family iTunes(s AAPL) account.

What you would do is take one of your Apple IDs — the single username to manage all your Apple accounts — associate it with a single iTunes account and a credit card, and assign it to all of your iOS devices.  From here on out, you can continue to make all of your family’s purchases for all of their devices from that one iTunes account.

However, there’s one exception: iCloud. It may seem like you would want a separate iCloud account for each device because each iCloud account comes with a mere 5 GB of free storage.  This hardly seems enough to back up even one 64 GB iPhone 4S or iPad.  Each member of your family may own multiple Apple devices and want to have all of their data equally accessible from each device. But having a separate account for each device does not make much sense either.

So what can an Apple ID do?

Some of the confusion over how to handle multiple Apple IDs comes from not knowing exactly what is possible.  For instance, every Apple ID is not automatically enrolled with all of Apple’s services.  You can create your AppleID and enroll it in each Apple service individually as you need to.  You do this by logging into that service with your Apple ID.  Additionally, each device can utilize multiple Apple IDs at the same time.  Some of Apple’s services can be configured once per device, others multiple times per device.  For example, each device can only be backed up to one iCloud account whereas each device can have multiple iCloud email accounts configured.

It can be hard to figure out how to do this. Some Apple IDs are set in the device settings, other are set separately per an individual app setting.  The chart below illustrates how many Apple IDs you can have associated with each device, and where the ID associated with that service is configured:

AppleID Settings Options

We’ve narrowed down your options and here are some suggestions for best organizing your family’s devices and Apple accounts:

One iTunes Apple ID for apps and media

Using the chart above as a sort of Apple ID map, you can plan which services you want to use, and just how you want to configure them on each family member’s device.  To start, take one Apple ID and associate it with an iTunes account for all of the app and media purchases your family makes. This is the account that is linked to a credit card.  With each Apple device, the purchased apps, music, books, magazines, TV Shows and movies account will be accessible by all of the devices registered with this account.

iTunes Store Account

Keep in mind that the rules are changing.  Whe the iPad first came out, it used to be that you could authorize up to five OS X computers with the same iTunes account.  And in turn each OS X computer could sync its locally stored library of purchased apps and media (via a USB cable) to an unlimited number of  iOS devices.  With Apple moving away from physical access, cable-based direct syncing and online music storage in the cloud through add on services like iTunes Match, the opportunity exists for more than a household of devices being configured to access a single iTunes account’s media files.

This now means that a single account that access its music via the cloud can only have up to 10 devices and computers combined.  Ten sounds like a lot for an individual, but not a family. Think of a family of four having a Mac, an iPhone and an iPad each.  That’s 12 computers and devices, not including any Apple TVs and additional iPods scattered throughout the house.

One primary iCloud Apple ID on each device

The Apple ID that you use to create your iTunes account does not need to have an iCloud account associated with it.  In fact you do not need an iCloud account in order to use your iOS or OS X device.  But to take full advantage of all of the iCloud based features of iOS 5 listed in the above chart, you will need an iCloud account.  For some of these features there can be only one iCloud setting per device.

iCloud Primary Settings

When configuring your family’s Apple devices, these settings are part of each device’s primary iCloud account.  While each device can have multiple iCloud accounts associated with it, only one of these iCloud accounts can enable a select set of features.  These features include Bookmarks, Photo Stream, Documents & Data and Storage & Backup.

Unfortunately, since these features are configured only via the iCloud settings on the device, they must all be associated with the same iCloud account.  This fact is really disappointing since it would be nice to configure all of your family’s devices on one iCloud account for iCloud Backup, and a separate one for app-based Documents & Data.  This would allow a user to have to pay once for additional storage on that one shared family-sized backup iCloud account.

One Apple ID to keep track of all of your family’s devices

With your family’s iTunes purchases under control, and the core features of iCloud storage taken care of, there is one particular feature of iOS 5 that can be set separately from a device’s primary iCloud account.  When it comes to locating each of your family’s devices, do not rely solely on the Find My Friends app to locate their position.  Create a common family iCloud account and configure each device to use this account in the Mail, Contacts, Calendars settings.  In fact, you can even create this iCloud account without creating a new Apple email address.  This family iCloud account’s sole purpose will be to keep track of all of your Apple devices.

Find My iPhone

Configuring each device in such a manner does not interfere with the use of a different app, Find My Friends. You only need to have one account on the device enable the Find my iPhone service.  Then the Find My Friends app will use that enabled service to share your location with whatever account is used to log on with the app.  That means each family member can still individually manage who knows their whereabouts via the Find My Friends app.

Multiple secondary iCloud Apple IDs on each device

Most of the iOS features that require an iCloud account have been taken care of, except the ones that really matter most.  At this point you can decide if you want a email address or not.  Each family member can create their own account (or accounts) for Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, and Notes.

iCloud Secondary Settings

When it comes to mail, not every third-party service out there supports all of these features.  Hotmail(s MSFT), for instance, will support Reminders, but not Notes.  Some Microsoft Exchange Servers will support Reminders, some Notes and some both Reminders and Notes.  If you happen to configure your Google Mail(s GOOG) as an Exchange service, you will not get Reminders or Notes.  Yahoo(s YHOO) on the other hand actually supports them all and AOL(s AOL), well, just Notes.  So be sure to pick a mail provider that will support all of the services you need.

Several independent Apple IDs for everything else

So what’s left?  Quite a bit actually.  FaceTime, GameCenter, Messaging, HomeSharing and even the Apple Store app.  The default account used by each of these independent apps is the Apple ID configured to be used with the iTunes account on a particular device.  But you can use any Apple ID you like.

Independent Apps

These apps support features that are independent from both the iTunes account as well as the iCloud account that are configured on the device.  They are managed separately, configured in separate settings and even stored in separate apps.  You can sign out of each of these particular features and sign back in using a different Apple ID.  And this will have no effect on the aforementioned iTunes and iCloud account settings on the device.

A good strategy

The idea here is that you can use multiple Apple IDs on each device, and at the same time each Apple ID does not need to be enrolled in every Apple product, feature and service.  Decide what products and services you want to use first and determine how each device will be used.  If you don’t, before you know it you could end up with a real rats nest of accounts.

Do consider using one master family account on all devices to manage iTunes purchases, and use that same shared account to track the location of all of your devices.  As an added bonus, you could use the calendar, contacts and reminders with this shared family iCloud account as well.  Once you have each device configured with these basics, let each family member decide which third-party email service they want.  This may well be the best strategy to employ, until Apple sees fit to enable multiple users per device.

25 Responses to “How many Apple IDs should your family have?”

  1. I have an itouch and an iphone, both on seperate apple id accounts.
    What would happen if I added the itouch email to the

    “receive at” on my iphone (in addition to the seperate email already in place) and confirmed that email address? Would only my iphone get both (itouch and iphone) messages? or will my itouch then also get my iphone messages as well?? Or how would that work…?

  2. Apple has screwed up the login and IDs for their devices.
    Heck, you need to be able to associate your devices any account you want.
    Also, you need more than one login for each device. Need to have several guest account to be able to log in to without getting into my account on the same device.
    Look at the iPad… it needs to be set up to have kids log into without the master login.
    Apple is behind on this part of their program. They are just into CONTROLLING you, period.

  3. Thierry

    Thanks for the summary, very useful.

    Today I decided to leave MobileMe, once and for all, and move to iCloud.
    (we just changed the old “non compatible” iPhone3G to a 4S)

    We have 2 iPhones and 1 iPad. (my wife and me)

    We share our contacts, agenda, and photostream. Also a single iTunes account for all the Apps. I guess I will put all these functions under the same single iCloud account (the AppleID that we use for purchase). Correct?

    But it means we can’t do the iCloud Backup? (different devices on the same iCloud account.)

    And what about FaceTime and iMessage. Will I be able to set a different account for each device?


  4. WillyWonka

    Some commenters are mistaking this extremely detailed explanation for it being complicated. It isn’t. Our family (including children) naturally settled into this exact type of approach by simply making intuitive decisions along the way.

    All our iDevices share one iTunes account (to share paid apps). FaceTime IDs obviously have to be distinct for it to work between family members. Etc.

    It’s all perfectly natural, supported by good system design decisions and rational policies (e.g. ten devices per iTunes account) by Apple.

    We hadn’t noticed that the device count policy was up to ten. I was wondering about that, since we’re up to eight iDevices and iTunes PCs.

    Thanks for documenting the exact details.

  5. As much as I appreciate the effort in explaining what is already so confusing to most of my podcast (Moxie Mo Show) viewers, this still makes it so difficult. Seems like most of my married viewers have the biggest complaints in regards to Apple IDs and their iDevices. Thanks, though, for a good point of reference! -Moxie M0

  6. Its all way too confusing. Why my wife and I cant have both accounts on a gifted iPad, thus *either one of us* to enjoy the apps and music we’ve purchased is beyond me. Either one or the other ID can be associated. Otherwise, they want us to buy a second one. Sorry, but thats not going to happen.

  7. Robbiemc9

    Problem I have run into is that I no longer use the e-mail address I used to create my original Apple ID. In fact the e-mail address has been disabled due to spamming. You can’t however change it in your Apple ID! It lets you add and change new ones but the original cannot be touched. I can now no longer receive receipts for ITunes purchases. I can’t seem to come up with a reason for why they do not allow you to change this. If you start creating multiple accounts / ID’s this will add greater complexity and problems in time as more and more people eventually want to change their e-mail accounts.

  8. Vibhor Chhabra

    IMHO, this is a pretty complicated picture of how many Apple IDs you need per device. I have been managing 3 Apple MacBooks, 2 iPhones, 3 iPads, 1 iPod, and 1 Apple TV, in a much simpler and straightforward manner.

    You only need 1 Apple ID for iTunes for the entire family, and 1 iCloud ID per family member. Sharing 1 iTunes Apple ID will enable the entire family to share music, apps, movies, TV shows, and books. 1 iCloud ID will allow each person to own their email, contacts, calendar, reminders, bookmarks, photo stream, and documents.

    I have been using this model ever since iCloud was launched and I haven’t faced a single problem with this. Try it out!

  9. Amanda Pierce

    It’s a lot easier to take the time to teach people how to have multiple accounts on the machine. Windows has had this for ages, so has the Mac. But so many people are way too used to the “fire up the new HP lappy, auto-log in as “user” or “Administrator” and never sort things out.”

    Teaching people that they can have their own account where they’re responsible for their own data is easier. Shared accounts are just a kludge now.

  10. Jesse Baer

    Not completely true… a device can be associated with apps from more than one account, but it’s a pain. You have to switch accounts to update, which turns off iTunes Match. There are also sometimes annoying quirks in iTunes synching.

    • Yes, apps as well as music can be shared from different accounts on IOS devices now through iCloud. And really…..logging in to account, downloading content to your phone, then logging out is a pain?

      If worried about getting content from another account in your iTunes account on your computer, you just home share music content. All the other coordination with one account is a ten times more painful!

  11. Thanks for the article. A lot of good info, although to me separate accounts is a “no brainer”. It seems now, since the iCloud doesnt make u erase ur device to put music on it from other purchased accounts, which was the only reason to do it in first place, I am a fan of multiple accounts in a family for multiple reasons.

    Nowadays, If I am correct, if a password is shared, you may download itunes from another account by logging in, download content to music folder, then log out. Home sharing is also possible across multiple accounts to share music. Plus, who wants to have to cycle thru their Dads awesome Roger Whittaker albums and he sure doesnt want to sift thru a bunch of Beastie Boys, and so forth.

    Contacts are huge. I am sure people want no confusion of syncing ur dads contacts in with your kids. Plus if only one “head of house hold” can turn it on contact syncing…. I can see the arguments now!

    Credit card info….If I had a kid, and thank God I dont, I would NOT want him access to an account credit card. Just feed em iTunes gift cards every so often. The apple store just started carrying prepaid amounts on their gift cards.

    5GB per one device is a ton easier to manage and can be done. You can manage your storage backup to what is most important to you. For instance, who cares about a back up of Words with Friends?

    As for calenders, you can turn on sharing of certain ones u create, with others. This allows delicate calender events to be private and only share your “family” calender. Plus a family combined calender would be a mess and you would see events you dont care about.

    Last, “find my iphone” turned off….scary. I use it everyday to find my lost phone under the couch using another computer and this feature.

  12. trip1ex

    Yeah pain in the butt. I think I did the one itunes account too and then gave my son a separate Apple ID not connected to a credit card which he uses for GameCenter and has email associated with it.

  13. Thank you! This is a huge problem for me as each device is used for a different person or purpose. Apple is trying to control and manage everything, but they are creating a monster that could derail the usefulness of many of their services.

    Great to see this highlighted. Thx.

  14. Well I know I am not going to invest the time to straight out Apple’s mess. Until Apple straightens out this APPLE Id mess, I see no reason to use/buy the services.

    • Dean Blackburn

      On the other hand, there could be no higher recommendation of the same products/services than for so many to put up with such a crappy login/ID scheme. Or perhaps it’s simply even more damning that the competition’s schemes are even worse…

  15. Anonnymouse

    That it needs to be this complicated is the biggest problem for 95% of our customers at the apple store. The majority of them are still trying to get their heads around iTunes syncing, nevermind the iCloud and all of its associated services.

  16. Dean Blackburn

    Doesn’t solve the real problem: pre-existing purchases. Until there is a way to merge accounts, this guide is only really helpful to (a) the extremely affluent, or (b) new account holders without a mountain of extant iTunes/app store purchases to deal with.

    • You are correct. This is more of a strategy than a solution. If you have already started down a different path, especially where purchases are concerned, you are likely stuck continuing the way you are headed. Unless you want to start over.

    • Buck Virga-Hyatt

      The chances of Apple ever allowing anyone to merge accounts is slim. Besides the technical, and billing to work out there are legal ramifications as well.