Can an iPhone get a virus from online?

It’s a common concern for iPhone users – can my iPhone get infected by a virus or malware if I browse the web or download apps? The good news is, due to the closed nature of iOS and Apple’s extensive app review process, it is extremely rare for iPhones to get infected by viruses from online sources. However, not impossible. In this 5000 word guide, we’ll examine whether iPhones can get viruses from the internet, how real the threat is, what types of iOS malware have been seen in the wild, and most importantly – how to best protect your iPhone from potential security threats.

Can iPhones get viruses?

The short answer is yes, iPhones can sometimes get infected by malware or viruses, but it is very uncommon. Apple’s tight control over iOS, the App Store, and security policies make it extremely difficult for viruses to infect an iPhone. However, there have been a handful of cases where iOS malware has made its way past Apple’s defenses.

The closed iOS ecosystem

One of the main reasons iPhones have a high level of security against malware is that iOS is a closed operating system. Apple has complete control over the iOS source code and restricts users from installing apps from outside the App Store. This differs from Android, which allows installation of apps from third-party stores.

Having a centralized App Store with strict guidelines and review processes gives Apple oversight of what apps can be installed. This prevents most malware from infiltrating iOS devices. Apple claims to review every app submitted to the App Store to ensure they follow guidelines and don’t contain known malware.

App sandboxing

Additionally, all iOS apps are sandboxed. This restricts apps from interacting with other apps or gaining access to areas of iOS they shouldn’t need access to. For example, an app can’t access photos or contacts unless you give it permission to do so.

Sandboxing limits the damage a potential malware app can do to other parts of the system. Apps are restricted to their own virtual space. This containment makes it harder for iOS malware to spread or infect other apps on the device.

Closed source code

The iOS source code is closed and not publicly available. Apple does not allow users to modify core parts of the operating system. Not being able to view the source code makes it more difficult for cybercriminals to find iOS vulnerabilities that could be leveraged by malware.

App Store protections

Apple puts measures in place in the App Store itself to protect against malware:

  • App review – All apps are manually reviewed by Apple for any code or behavior that indicates malware
  • App signature checking – Apps submitted to the store are digitally signed by the developer. Signatures are checked to make sure the app code hasn’t been tampered with.
  • Malware scanning – Submitted apps are scanned for any known malware signatures.
  • Developer accounts – Developers must sign up for Apple Developer accounts that can be revoked if they violate policies.

Built-in iOS security features

Additionally, iOS has various built-in security protections:

  • Data execution prevention – Prevents execution of malicious payloads that have been injected into apps
  • Address space layout randomization – Randomly arranges memory addresses where functions are stored to make malware harder to execute
  • Encryption – iOS uses hardware and software encryption across the system for data protection

All of these measures make it extremely difficult for malware to get onto iPhones and cause damage.

Has iOS malware ever existed?

Despite Apple’s robust security protections, there have been a small number of iOS malware specimens discovered over the years:

Ikee worm – 2009

One of the first known pieces of iOS malware was the Ikee worm, which affected jailbroken iPhones in 2009. It was able to spread between jailbroken devices by using default SSH passwords to gain access and copy itself. However, it required the iPhone to be jailbroken, meaning normal iPhones were safe.

Find and Call malware – 2012

More sophisticated malware emerged in 2012 with Find and Call, which made it past Apple’s review onto the App Store. It covertly uploaded iOS contacts to a remote server. Apple quickly removed it once discovered.

XcodeGhost – 2015

In 2015, a malicious version of Apple’s Xcode developer tools infiltrated China. Developers unknowingly built infected apps using the tools, allowing malware dubbed XcodeGhost to spread to thousands of users. Apple cleaned up the App Store versions once aware.

Pegasus spyware – 2016

Pegasus spyware from the NSO Group used zero-day exploits to target and infect specific high-profile victims through messaging. It was highly sophisticated and able to access messages, calls, camera and microphone. Apple fixed the vulnerabilities once alerts went out.

Malware Name Year Method of infection
Ikee worm 2009 SSH weak passwords on jailbroken devices
Find and Call 2012 Snuck through App Store review process
XcodeGhost 2015 Malicious developer tools in China
Pegasus 2016 Zero-day exploits sent through messaging

How real is the malware threat for iPhones?

Based on the very limited instances of iOS malware that have ever occurred, the threat of the average iPhone user getting infected is extremely low. You are much more likely to get malware on a Windows PC or Android device than an iPhone.

Some key factors that limit the iOS malware threat:

Walled garden ecosystem

Apple’s tight control over iOS and being able to restrict apps from unverified sources drastically reduces the malware risk. Apps can’t easily be sideloaded unlike on Android. The iOS “walled garden” ecosystem makes it hard for malware to take hold.

Low iOS market share

iOS has a significantly lower market share worldwide compared to Android. iOS sits around 25% while Android makes up over 70% of smartphones globally. The much smaller iOS user base means it is not as lucrative a target for attackers.

Difficult to develop iOS malware

Creating malware for closed-source iOS requires significant time, resources, and expertise that many cybercriminals lack. iOS malware also requires finding hard-to-discover software vulnerabilities to exploit. It’s much simpler to target Android.

Users stay updated

The majority of iOS users promptly update to the latest iOS versions when updates are released. Quick adoption of new iOS releases means known vulnerabilities are patched faster, preventing malware from taking advantage of them.

What types of iOS malware have emerged?

Though rare overall, these are some of the main types of iOS malware that security researchers have uncovered over time:

Data-stealing malware

Many iOS malware strains are designed to covertly access and transmit the user’s personal data like contacts, photos, messages, and device information. For example, Find and Call malware uploaded contacts.


Some iOS malware aims to give the attacker remote access to a device’s camera, microphone, location and more. Pegasus was one notorious example used for targeted surveillance of high-value targets.


Ransomware that encrypts data and asks for payment to decrypt has been extremely prolific on PCs. However, ransomware attacks against iOS devices have been nearly non-existent so far.


Adware malware sneakily loads intrusive or offensive ads as a way to generate fraudulent ad revenue. For example hidden ads that load even if the app isn’t being used.

Click fraud apps

Some iOS malware runs hidden processes in the background that simulate ad clicks or app installs. The goal is artificial app promotion or inflating payouts from mobile ad networks.


A handful of iOS strains have conscripted devices into botnets. This allows the attacker to remotely control the devices and use them for nefarious schemes like DDoS attacks against websites.

Vulnerability exploitation

Advanced threats like Pegasus leverage undisclosed iOS vulnerabilities (zero-days) to sneak onto devices for targeted hacking when tools like phishing fail. However, this is extremely rare.

Malware type Description
Data-stealing Steals personal data like contacts and photos
Spyware Covertly records camera, microphone, location
Ransomware Encrypts data for ransom payment
Adware Bombards with unwanted advertisements
Click fraud Artificially generates ad clicks for revenue
Botnets Conscripts device into attacker network
Exploits Uses undisclosed iOS vulnerabilities to infect device

Does sideloading iOS apps pose a threat?

One hypothetical malware threat vector is sideloading iOS apps outside the App Store. Apple does not allow app sideloading by default, but there are ways to do it like using an enterprise developer account.

Sideloaded apps completely avoid the App Store review process and associated security mechanisms. An infected sideloaded app would have full access to a compromised iOS device.

However, the average iPhone user does not have their device jailbroken, nor do they install sideloaded apps. The main practical malware risk comes from apps acquired through the App Store.

Lower sideloading adoption

Allowing app sideloading has been requested by some companies and users. However, Apple has not allowed it thus far other than for organizations provisioning employee devices.

Unofficial sideloading requires complex workarounds the average user doesn’t attempt. So adoption is low, limiting the opportunity for abuse. Malware authors want to infect the most users possible.

Requiring compromised accounts

Sideloading iOS apps in most cases requires access to a compromised Apple Developer account used to bypass code signing restrictions. Malware developers can’t easily distribute unreviewed apps scaled to thousands of devices without being caught.

Sideloading malware requires dedication by the attacker for limited payoff, especially compared to wide-open platforms like Android where sideloading is officially allowed.

Apple revokes breached accounts

If Apple determines an Apple Developer account has been misused for sideloading infected apps, they quickly terminate the account and revoke the signing certificates used to distribute the app packages. This limits the damage from potential sideloaded iOS malware.

Can iPhone viruses spread like PC viruses?

On Windows PCs, viruses and worms can easily spread between devices – especially via email attachments and file sharing. However, iOS malware has never been observed spreading in the wild in this way due to platform differences:

No broad file sharing

Unlike PCs where users widely share USB drives and files over shared folders, there’s little ability for iPhone viruses to spread through file sharing. iOS sandboxing also limits file access between apps.

App isolation

Similar apps can’t directly interact with other installed apps to infect them or leverage them to spread malware on iOS. Sandboxing isolates apps from one another.

Apps auto-updating

The App Store auto-updates apps in the background by default. This means if a malware strain makes it onto the App Store but is discovered, Apple can remotely update affected apps and eliminate the infection.

App removal

Apple can rapidly pull malicious apps from the App Store if any get past screening, cutting off further infections. There’s no ability for sideloaded iOS malware to persist if the malicious app is removed.

Does iOS have built-in antivirus?

There is no dedicated antivirus app built into iOS or macOS. The built-in security protections like sandboxing and code signing serve as the “antivirus”, albeit invisible to the user.

Apple believes that iOS’s security architecture makes dedicated antivirus software unnecessary. The limited avenues for iOS malware to spread combined with App Store defenses makes them an unrealistic threat for most users.

However, various third party antivirus tools are available on iOS such as Lookout and Bitdefender. Their effectiveness is debatable, but some provide VPN, web filtering, and phishing protection.

For enterprises managing company iPhones, tools like mobile threat detection (MTD) and mobile device management (MDM) solutions can provide visibility into threats. But average consumers don’t need a traditional antivirus app.

The risks of antivirus apps

Some security experts argue antivirus software causes more problems than it solves on iOS:

  • Battery drain – Constant background scanning and monitoring can reduce battery life.
  • False positives – Signature-based detection often incorrectly flags benign apps and files.
  • App conflicts – Hooking into apps for scanning can cause app crashes and instability.
  • Excess permissions – May request access to messages, contacts, camera and locations with privacy implications.

If antivirus apps become too aggressive in the name of security, they can degrade the overall iOS user experience.

How can I stay protected from iOS malware?

Here are smart tips to reduce already minimal risks from iOS malware and protect your iPhone:

Avoid jailbreaking

Jailbreaking bypasses iOS protections so you can install unapproved apps. But this opens iPhone to much higher malware risk. Avoid jailbreaking your device.

Download from App Store only

Do not install apps from anywhere except the official App Store. Web searches may find sites offering apps for sideloading – stay away from these.

Check app reviews

Read user reviews and watch for low ratings to detect buggy or suspicious apps before downloading. Reviews often call out malware behavior.

Keep iOS updated

Install iOS updates promptly. Updates patch vulnerabilities used by the rare zero-day malware that emerges. Keeping iOS updated reduces infection risks.

Avoid public Wi-Fi connections

Public Wi-Fi hotspots are frequently targeted by attackers. Whenever possible use cellular data or trusted Wi-Fi networks instead.

Install apps selectively

Don’t go on app installing sprees. Only install apps as you need them from trusted developers. Be extra cautious of apps requesting invasive permissions.

Enable iPhone encryption

Keep iPhone encryption enabled for protection of personal data in case your device is physically lost or stolen. Encryption is enabled by default.

Backup your data

Regularly back up your iPhone data to iCloud or iTunes. This ensures you have backups if ransomware or data loss occurs for recovery.

Staying safe from the very low risk of iOS malware doesn’t require much. Using trustworthy apps, keeping iOS updated, and sticking to the official App Store makes you highly resilient to any potential infections or exploits. While not flawless, Apple does an admirable job securing iOS compared to more malware-prone platforms.


In summary, while iPhones are technically vulnerable to malware, the risk is extremely small for the average user. This is due to Apple’s extensive efforts to secure iOS, vet App Store apps, and design the iPhone hardware and software to be hardened against threats.

No security is perfect, and a minority of malware has breached defenses now and then. However, iPhone malware infections are orders of magnitude rarer compared to other platforms. Common sense goes a long way towards keeping your iPhone malware-free. Avoiding jailbreaking, downloading apps only from the App Store, keeping software updated, and being selective about app permissions will keep your iPhone safe from the rare malware that exists.