One of the freedoms provided by Android over other mobile operating systems like iOS is the ability to install apps from outside of the Play Store. Though this does raise security and piracy concerns on the platform, it also gives several benefits: you don’t have to wait for updates to slowly roll out over the Play Store, you can install apps onto your phone that Google doesn’t want to make available in their own store, and you can use apps that have arbitrary hardware restrictions to specific devices. You can even install third-party app stores, like Amazon’s, onto any phone or tablet of your choice.
To install an app outside of the Play Store, you need a file called an “APK,” or Android Package Kit. If you’ve used a Windows PC before, think of a .apk file as Android’s version of a .exe file on your desktop or laptop. For Mac users, they’re the equivalent of a .dmg file. Just like any computer, Android will take the APK file, extract the software, and install the application to be used, just as if it had been downloaded and installed from the Play Store.
For added security, Android devices don’t ship with the ability to install apps from outside sources not offered by Google. But if you’ve found an app you’d like to install, or you don’t want to wait for an update to roll out over the Play Store, allowing Android to install APK files is simple and easy.
Step One: Enable APK Installation on Android
You won’t need root access or an unlocked bootloader to accomplish this. Turning on Android’s third-party app abilities is as easy as diving into settings, as long as you know where to look. So open your settings menu by either clicking the settings shortcut in your notification tray or opening settings through your app drawer. Once you’re inside settings, you’ll want to scroll all the way down to the bottom of your settings menu and click “Security.” If you can’t find the Security option, use the search functionality inside settings and type in “Security.” It should return you with the security menu.
The security menu might seem a bit daunting to begin with. There’s plenty of options in here that may seem a bit confusing to newer Android users. No worries—just scroll down to the “Unknown sources” selection under “Device administration.” You’ll see the switch to enable the setting is currently disabled. When you click on the option, you’ll receive a popup message, alerting that “your [device] and your personal data are more vulnerable to attack by apps from unknown sources.” We’ll address a bit more what that means below, but for now, click OK. The popup will disappear, and you’ll see that the switch has been enabled. At this point, you can return home; you’re done messing around in settings.
Step Two: Downloading APKs Online
As promised, let’s address the elephant in the room: third-party APKs can be dangerous and insecure. One of the benefits of downloading apps exclusively from the Play Store is being able to know and trust that the APK has been signed by Google. While the Play Store has been hit with malware attacks in the past, it’s far and away the most secure way of installing apps on Android. Obviously, installing random APKs online isn’t recommend. There are plenty of sites online that promise paid apps for free, and even if some of these sites are legitimate, you don’t want to run the risk. Instead, if you’re looking to install APKs from outside the Play Store, we recommend using sites that are known for being sources of quality APK uploads, like APKMirror and APKPure. These sites host unmodified APKs of free downloads, and display when each app is signed by the manufacturer. APKMirror, in particular, is used often among the XDA and modding crowd to install newer versions of apps before they hit the Play Store.
To download an APK, you can either navigate to the source of the APK itself on your device, or you can download the file on your computer and transfer it to your phone or tablet like you would any other file. Some sites, like APKMirror, offer a QR code service you can scan with your phone to automatically navigate your device to the download site. Once you’ve found the download site, click “Download APK” to save the file to your system. You’ll want to make sure the file you downloaded ends in .apk. If you’ve downloaded a .zip or any other file type, it may be dangerous and you’d be best to avoid using that download. If you’ve determined your file is safe (at your own risk), you can tap on the file either in your notification tray or wherever you saved it inside your file browser.
Step Three: Installing an APK
Opening the file will display an installation popup, showing what the app will gain access to. Pay attention to this screen. If you’re installing an app that shouldn’t or doesn’t need access to system architecture it’s asking for (like a calculator app asking for access to your contacts or camera), you should cancel the installation; you might have a malware-infested app. Other apps, like Snapchat in my example, will have to ask for dozens of permissions to work properly. If something seems suspicious, you should avoid the installation.
Once you’ve determined the APK to be safe based on the permissions required from the app, you can click “Install” to complete the installation. Most apps install in a matter of seconds, though apps that are larger in size may take a bit longer. Once the app is done installing, you’ll see a large notification that the installation process is finished, and you can click “Done.”
If you return home, you’ll see the app has appeared in your app drawer. From here, the app will work like any other application, with one exception: you won’t be receiving updates through the Google Play Store for the app you installed. If you need to update an app, you’ll want to find a newer APK version, and install it. It’ll overwrite the current variant of the app with new one. Updates install the same way as normal apps do through this process.
As we indicated, there are plenty of reasons to install third-party sourced applications onto your phone or tablet. They can be a great way of testing new apps not yet on the Play Store, or beta versions of existing apps. Some apps are slow to roll out updates to users, and some applications are limited to carrier or hardware variants. Third-party sources are a great way to get around these restrictions, to install an app that traditionally wouldn’t work on the device you’re using. Still, these apps aren’t without their own privacy and security concerns; the important part of installing APKs from online sources are to remember to use common sense. If an app is cracked, modified, or asking for permissions that seem out of the ordinary, avoid installing the app. As long as you stick to safe sources, though, you’ll find that installing APKs is a great fallback if the application you want isn’t in the Play Store yet—or worse, if it’s not available on your device. Installing APKs is one of those features that makes Android the mobile OS choice of so many—the freedom to install the apps you want on your device, unrestricted to the will of manufacturer or carrier restrictions.