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What is an APK File?


What exactly is this mysterious APK file? If you have an Android device, you may have heard of it before. But you may also be in a situation where you’ve had an Android device for years and NEVER heard of it until recently (totally me). In this post, we’ll give you all the basics of what you need to know about APK files.

APK Files 101

The letters “APK” are an acronym for “Android Package Kit.” People also call APKs the “Android Application Package.” APK is the file format that the Android operating system (OS) uses to transfer/distribute and install applications. An APK contains everything that an app needs to get the app loaded up and functioning in the right way on the device you want the app to be on. Generally, if you get an app through the Play Store, you never see the APK, it works entirely in the background.

Confused? No worries. If you have used a desktop PC in the past, do you remember ever downloading anything, and having to install what you downloaded with the “.exe” file? Think of an APK file like the .exe file. It does the same job. You download the APK, and then when the APK runs, it unpacks the app, installs it, and gets it ready to go, all while you just sit there and wait.


The difference between an APK and an .exe file is that when you download something onto your desktop PC, there is a pause where your computer asks you if you want to “run” that .exe file and go ahead with the installation. On your smartphone or tablet, this step is usually skipped, and once you click “download” on the app you want to install from Google Play Store, the APK gets downloaded and then goes straight into installation and readiness.

Basically, every time you select an app from the Play Store, you are actually just selecting the APK. And, you should know, that the Play Store is not the only place that you can download APKs for your Android device.

SO what’s the difference between an APK and an APP?

Don’t worry if you feel silly asking this question. As we talked about above, an APK is the download file that you get when you click on the awesome looking phone application in Play Store. The APK does all the work  to get the APP ready for you to use. The APP is the application that you ultimately get to use, such as Slack, Facebook Messenger, Trello, your car racing games, FaceApp, etc.

“APP” is just a shortened way of saying “application.” An “APP” can be installed on any platform, while an APK can only be installed on an Android system (unless you are using an Android Emulator).


Why would anyone want to get APKs from any place other than the Google Play Store?

There are plenty of reasons, though I can’t imagine that I would recommend many of them for you. In some instances, Google Pay Store pulls apps from its store for download, for violations of the Store Terms of Service (TOS), for problems with the app, just about anything you can imagine. People may still want to get access to the app, which is no longer available through the store, but may be available still through the developers website or a third-party website.

Another great (and legitimate reason) is that Play Store is not the ONLY legitimate store that sells legitimate APKs. Amazon has an appstore, for example, where you can download or purchase APKs for your Android phone.

In other cases, you may have an app that you use religiously, and rely heavily upon it. When a developer released an update to the app, Play Store will get it and make it available….eventually. You may not want to wait for the APK to be made available in the Play Store. For business reasons, it might not be possible for you to wait, so you might find another way to get it, either from the developer, from a friend who already has it, from a website that has it, though I wouldn’t recommend that you just download APKs willy-nilly.

People call this “installing APKs manually.”

What is Sideloading?

Sideloading is the way to install apps on your device that are not available in the Google Play Store. It is also a term that the cool kids like to toss around to make you think they know what they are talking about. Want to impress some girls (or guys)? Casually drop that you “sideloaded a few APKs over the weekend” and they will be super impressed.

I’m kidding. Seriously. Anyway.

If you Google the term “sideloading” you will also see that it is the term that refers to transferring files between two local devices (such as the desktop computer in your office and the smartphone in your hand), using USB, Wifi, Bluetooth, or memory stick, among other ways.

Sideloading is also the term used when installing an app onto an Apple Device without going through Apple’s App Store, though the file formats are different and the method is a bit more complex.

How do you sideload an APK?

Sideloading is easy to explain, and actually fairly easy to do. Here are the basic steps (current as of right now, though they may change over time as this article ages):

  1.  Find the setting in the Applications section of your Android device that has a box you can check to “All Installation of non-Market applications.”  When you check this box, your phone might freak out and send you all kinds of warnings about how your phone is now super vulnerable.
  2. When you find an APK that you want, you download it to your device. It will not automatically open up and start running like it would in the Play Store. Instead, you open up the “file manager” application you previously downloaded (if you don’t have one). Once you find it in the file manager, you’ll click on it (which fires up the installation process from the APK), and it will begin the installation just as if you’d gotten the app from Play Store. Once the app is installed, it’ll be available to you just like any other app on your phone, assuming it hasn’t taken over your phone or isn’t holding all of your photos for ransom, or something.

Can you utilize sideloading on any Android device?

Historically, the answer to this question has been NO, you could not. Multiple wireless carriers refused to allow handsets (phones) in their network that allowed sideloading, because sideloading would allow users more freedom to do what they wanted with the phones, and to maintain the monopoly Google Play Store had on the apps.

This has been changing over time, and it is slowly becoming possible to sideload APKs.

Are APKs safe?

The key to keeping your device clean and safe is to make sure that you only get APKs from a trustworthy source. Google Play Store is trustworthy, 99.9% of the time. Most likely you will be okay if you are getting the APK for a much used and well-known app directly from the developer, like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, for example.

If you want, you can try running the APK file through a virus checker. Just be really careful.

Can I delete APK files?

Yes, absolutely. Unless the APK has done something harmful to your device, there should be no problem deleting it. Generally, the APK is just the installer, so once you have completed installation, you should be able to get rid of the file without harming the running application.

What is the difference between an IPA and APK?

An IPA is the iOS version of the APK. (iOS meaning Apple devices, such as iPhone, iPod, and iPad). The IPA stands for “iOS App Store Package.” Each .ipa file can only be installed on an iOS device, though it is not quite as simple of a process as it is with installing APKs on Android devices.


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