iPhone Certificate Woes

Like many people before me, and I’m sure many more after, I’ve had an ungodly amount of difficulty with Apple’s iPhone certificate provisioning system. I personally think it’s a brilliant solution to a difficult problem, but unfortunately for us they made it a pain in the ass to deal with. I’ve only run up against a few basic issues with them, and thought I’d document my solutions to them here.

And before you say it, yes I know there’s already tons of people complaining about iPhone app certificates, and there’s plenty of pages describing how to fix them on the ‘net to go around. But it was like finding a needle in a haystack for me. There were too many hits on forums and mailing lists that gave bad advice, or weren’t relevant anymore due to updates in XCode and the iTunes Connect website. So I’m summarizing here what works for me, and I’ll leave it up to the reader to figure if it works for you.


These aren’t to be used for Debug builds. This file is necessary for some sort of magic when you deploy an app on the phone for either distribution or release mode. A lot of documentation will explain how you have to create it and add it to your Info.plist file.

This is great, but if you’re trying to figure out why your Debug profile isn’t working anymore, don’t attempt to add the Entitlements file to that build profile. It just makes things come to a screeching halt.

Debug vs Distribution vs Release

This one is annoying, and keeps popping its ugly head up. Say for instance I’ve got my developer certificate that I’ve been using for debug builds. Then I want to test my app on a few phones, so I go about creating a distribution certificate for it. In the project settings pane I change the drop-down to the new certificate, hit build, and *bam* I hit a certificate signing error when it tries to install the app on the phone.

As many people on the ‘net have pointed out, XCode is dumb and doesn’t assign the certificate to the correct profile. Some people manage to play around with it enough to get it to work, usually involving lots of restarts of XCode, removing and re-adding certificates, etc. I find some of that works, but when I get frustrated I just drop to VIM on the console, edit my project.pbxproj file, and change my cert settings manually.

If I’m really in a bind and I can’t get XCode to do what I want, I change my debug certificate to use the one I want for distribution and then drop into VIM. From here I can copy and paste the certificate lines it put in there to represent my distribution cert, and I copy it to my distribution or release build section. Then I change my debug cert back to my developer certificate.

Removing old certs from your system

Sometimes you just need to rebuild a cert. You might have made a mistake, or more often you have another phone you’d like to test your distribution build on. This means going into the iPhone Developer Portal and adding a device to the certificate. This means that the cert will now be different, and you’ll need to download the new provisioning profile.

Ah, but you already have that cert in XCode and, as you might have guessed, XCode isn’t smart enough to replace the old cert with the new one. You’ll just get two certs that will fight it out, and will always lose. So go into the XCode organizer and delete your old certs. You add the new cert, it compiles and signs itself, but when you try to install it on the phone it falls flat on its face.

You can go into the Organizer, select your phone, and remove provisioned apps and provisioning profiles from there. Or you can go onto the phone itself, and go to Settings -> General -> Provisioning, and you can delete your certs manually. Once that’s done, you might want to give XCode a restart for good measure and then add the new certificates from the iTunes Developer Portal.

Wildcard Certificates

I haven’t tried this myself personally, but when I started writing iPhone apps I was under the false impression that a more specific certificate was a good thing, as opposed to using wildcard certificates. But I’ve seen tons of references on the web of people recommending using them, and “You’re just asking for trouble if you create different certs for each of your apps”.

All I can say is…Whoops! I already released two apps to the appstore, and I don’t think I can change my certificates after the fact. Plus, I’m not sure if suddenly switching to wildcard certs for the rest of my apps will be a bad thing. Either way I’ll be doing this for my next app. If I only have 2 apps that will give me certificate pain when I maintain them, then so be it.

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