How to Watch Movies on an iPhone

By J.T. Barett

On an iPhone, you can watch a wide variety of movies and video, including classic films, recent blockbusters and your own homemade productions. Thousands of titles are available for download, rental or by streaming media. Play movies on the iPhone using either the iPhone's native apps or apps from third-party developers.

Purchasing Movies From iTunes

Apple’s iTunes store offers a large library of movies for rent or purchase; when you buy through iTunes, the iPhone downloads the movie to your phone where it is stored along with your music, podcasts and other media.

Using the Videos App

Apple ships all iPhones with the Videos app. Tap the Videos app to display a list of movies currently stored on your iPhone. Navigate through the list to select a movie to watch. The app provides standard controls for volume, pause and play. Go to any moment in the movie using the "scrub" slider. You can delete videos in the Videos app when you are finished watching to free up memory.

Watching With Content-Provider Apps

You can watch movies with third-party apps offered by content providers such as Netflix, Xfinity and U-verse. These apps download movies over a wireless data connection, so you must have a clear Wi-Fi or 3G/4G cellular signal for the movie to load on your iPhone. If you watch movies using 3G/4G, keep in mind that each film can consume several hundred megabytes of data, possibly surpassing your monthly service allowance. Movies viewed over Wi-Fi do not affect your wireless data plan. In most cases, the movies watched using these services are streamed, not downloaded. The iPhone doesn’t save a permanent copy of the movie; it disappears from memory after you have finished watching. To see the movie again, use the app to request another viewing.

Ripping Movies

Although the practice is common, obtaining movies by ripping DVDs to your iPhone is illegal in the U.S. at the time of publication. Some fair-use exemptions exist for educators, but for nearly everyone else, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act forbids the decoding of commercial DVDs into computer files, a necessary step if you want to watch them on an iPhone. In a similar way, it is illegal to download torrent versions of movies. Downloading movies from iTunes is both convenient and legal, as is watching them using a content provider’s app.

Managing Memory

Although iPhones have gigabytes of storage and easily hold several movies, the phone might not have enough room to store all your movies at the same time. This is not a problem; the iTunes program on your PC has a copy of all the movies on the hard drive. Because iTunes keeps a master movie library, you can manage the iPhone’s memory by keeping only those movies that you know you’ll be watching soon. When you’ve watched them, you can remove them from the iPhone and add others from your iTunes library.

Converting Nonstandard Formats

The iPhone plays movies in the MOV, MP4 and M4V formats. The MOV format comes from Apple’s QuickTime video standard, and the MP4 and M4V formats follow the MPEG standards. If you own a non-commercial movie file that’s not in these formats, software vendors offer many utility programs to convert nearly any format to those supported by the iPhone. Free or open-source examples include Handbrake, AVC and Miro (see Resources).

Storing in the Cloud

Movies you purchase in iTunes on your iPhone can be shared with your other devices, such as an iPad or Apple TV, using Apple’s iCloud service. The rules for sharing can be complicated, however, and might not apply for movies produced by certain studios or content providers. Although the service works in the U.S., the rules for iCloud downloads vary by country.