How to sideload an app onto your Android phone or tablet

sideloading primary
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“Sideloading” an app is the common term for installing it without downloading directly from the Google Play Store. Maybe there’s an app that’s not in the Play Store but is floating around in a popular forum. Maybe you’re just trying to give your friend’s app a try before he or she publishes it. There are plenty of good reasons why you’d want to sideload an app, and we’re going to show you how easy it is. 

While the approval process in the Google Play Store is minimal, the search giant can pluck apps out for violating any of its rules. The Android L keyboard appeared in the Play Store and was taken out not long after it was introduced, because it was a repackaging of Google’s pre-release developer software. Other apps, which more than likely would be pulled from the Play Store if they were ever put there in the first place, are downloaded via the developer’s website, like Popcorn Time. The Amazon App Store is one of the most popular sideloaded apps—Google won’t let competing app stores distribute in Google play, so you need to load it straight from Amazon.

There are quite a few methods to sideload an application on your Android phone or tablet, so we’ll go over three of the most common: Manual, ADB, and AirDroid. Android apps are packaged up in "APK" files—once you've identified one you wish to install, here's what you need to do.

First, enable Unknown sources

unknownsources

Enabling unknown sources allows you install apps outside of the Google Play Store. 

Before you start, you need to make sure you have allowed your device to install apps that are found outside of the Google Play Store. 

To enable installation from these “Unknown sources,” as Google calls them, go into the system settings and scroll down to Security. Inside this menu, you’ll see the Unknown sources option. Check the box, press OK, and you’re good to go.

AirDroid Method

airdroid landing

AirDroid is the easiest method to sideload an app.

AirDroid is one of our favorite apps for managing your phone via computer. It lets you drag and drop files to your phone, and see notifications, all without wires via a web interface. There’s a lot more to AirDroid than just sideloading apps, but that is all we’ll covering today.  

When you’ve arrived at the landing page (above), there is a widget called Toolbox on the right, with four icons to choose from. The last of the four options is Apps, and this is where you want to be. 

airdroidtoolbox
The AirDroid Toolbox lets you install apps with a simple drag and drop.

From here, you’ll be able to select the APK file you’re trying to install or just drag it into the box. The file will be sent to the phone, and AirDroid will start the installation. A notification in the AirDroid window will inform you that you’ll need to confirm the installation of the app on your phone. After tapping OK on your phone, the app is installed. It really doesn’t get much easier than this.

ADB Method

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ADB looks intimidating, but it's fairly easy to use once set up.

The ADB method requires a little more legwork to get set up, but one simple command gets the job done when it comes to installing apps. If you’re new to ADB, follow this helpful guide to get started.

To make things easier, I suggest that you place the APK file inside the same folder as the ADB files, as this will alleviate the need for extra typing. With the APK in the same folder as the ADB files, type the following to install the app. In this example, the name of the app I’ll be installing is testapp.apk. Make sure to replace “testapp.apk” with the full name of the app you’re trying to install.

adb install testapp.apk

Alternatively, if the APK file is not in the same folder as ADB, you can write the full path of the app’s location in the command line to achieve the same result.

adb install C:\Android\testapp.apk

After entering the command, you’ll get another line displaying that the file was sent, where it is in the system, and a confirmation that the app was successfully installed.

pathtoapk

In short, installing an apk in ADB is as simple as: adb install <path_to_apk>

Manual method

This method is also very simple, but can be a bit more tedious than the other methods. 

If you’ve downloaded the apk from a computer, hook your phone up to it with a syncing cable (likely Micro USB) and drag and drop file into the phone’s storage. Since we’ll need to find the file again, make sure you remember where you placed the apk on your phone. Usually, it’s easiest to place the file in the root of your phone’s storage, inside no folders. This will make finding the file easier later on, but it's not a great way to keep your phone's storage organized.

Now head over to the Google Play Store and download a file manager app. For this tutorial I’ll be using Solid Explorer, but any one will do. (Your phone may even have a file manager app pre-installed.) Open the file manager, find the APK you placed in the storage, and tap on it. This should initiate the install.

solidexplorer
Tapp the app to install when you find the apk in the file manager.

If you’ve downloaded the app with your phone and not a computer, sideloading is even easier.

downloadfromphone

You don’t need a computer to sideload an app. Let your phone do the work.

After downloading the app from your phone, press home and go into tap on the All Apps icon to get to your app drawer. For most Android phones or tablets, a Downloads app should be in the list. Tap on it, and find the apk you just downloaded, and tap one more time to start the installation.

A word of caution

Sideloading apps isn't necessarily safe. Google screens apps in the Play Store for certain types of malware, but when you circumvent the store, you give up this protection. You'll want to make sure you have some sort of anti-malware scanning software running, or at least be very careful what you download.

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