How many Apple IDs should your family have?

iTunes Store Account

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 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 me.com 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, 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 as an Exchange service, you will not get Reminders or Notes.  Yahoo on the other hand actually supports them all and 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.

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