Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features homepage

Navigating the stock photo world can be daunting. But with iStock's straightforward licensing terms, your journey can be much easier. 

Whether you are a small business, freelancer, or large marketing firm, the iStock license offers a flexible solution for commercial use that you will want to take advantage of. 

From global campaigns to smaller projects, iStock simplifies the usage of stock images across varying projects. If you're interested in taking advantage of these benefits, it's essential to purchase a license for iStock stock images.

Join us in this comprehensive guide as we unpack all the details, including do’s and don’ts, prices, and how to obtain an iStock license.

iStock License: Key Takeaways

  • iStock's straightforward and uncomplicated stock photo licensing terms are easy to understand and follow. 
  • The iStock Standard agreement offers an incredibly flexible solution for commercial use, with unique terms that benefit everyone from small businesses and freelancers to professional marketing firms and big brands. 
  • Whether you're looking to design an extensive global campaign or a small one (which you may need to scale up later on), iStock's licensing terms make using the same visual assets across multiple projects easy.
What is iStock? 
If you don’t know much about this top stock photo agency parented by the prestigious Getty Images (and previously known as iStockphoto), you can learn all about its service, history, and more features of its offer in our iStock review.

Ground Rules of Our iStock License Breakdown

Before we dive into iStock licensing, a few important considerations: 

  1. We are not iStock representatives or lawyers. This guide is for orientation only, and it’s based on our knowledge of the iStock license contracts and our many years of experience in the image licensing industry paired with our long-standing, close collaboration with iStock.
  2. iStock is a Royalty-Free license model, meaning once you acquire a license for an image on their website, you can use that image –according to the license’s terms– for as long as you want without ever having to pay for it again.
  3. We are focusing on the terms of the commercial use license for images (stock photos, vector illustrations, graphic templates, etc.) as they’re the most popular and sought-after assets. However, iStock also offers other digital asset license options for video clips and music, with a few terms specific to those media types and editorial-use-only licenses for editorial imagery.

Learn about iStock’s video and music service.

How to Obtain a License for iStock Images

The process of licensing images from iStock is straightforward. The first step is creating a user account on the iStock website. Once logged in, you can browse their vast catalog of images online. When you find an image that suits your needs, simply hit the ‘Download' button. 

At the moment of download, iStock automatically issues a license under the name of the user account holder. This agreement is legally binding. 

Licensing options for iStock images

By default, iStock provides a Standard license (which you’ll learn all about next). However, if your needs exceed the standard license coverage, select an extended license on the image page before hitting the download button. The relevant contract will be issued upon download. In both cases, we are talking about Royalty Free images.

It's critically important to note that using the ‘Download' button is the only legal way to obtain an iStock royalty free license without a watermark and cleared for commercial use. Unlicensed use of iStock images is a violation of copyright law. 

How Much is an iStock License

iStock’s standard licenses are among the lowest-priced in the market. There are two ways of buying a standard license: on demand (paying as you go) using iStock credits a system in which you buy packs of credits upfront and then use those credits to redeem image downloads at your discretion– or with a monthly or annual subscription – subscriptions are memberships that give you a fixed number of image downloads per month for an equally fixed monthly fee.

While this legal agreement is always the same, the price varies depending if you purchase from the budget-friendly Essentials collection –which are still high-quality photos– or the exclusive and higher-quality Signature selection. 

On-demand, using credit packs, the price is lower when you buy bigger credit packs. Essential image licenses a la carte go for $8 to $12 each; Signature licenses on demand sell for between $24 and $33

Prices drop significantly with subscriptions, though. There are multiple plans with different volumes of downloads, and prices for Essential-only plans give you standard licenses for between $0.22 and $4 apiece; plans with access to the entire library, including Signature exclusive content, put the price at $0.44 to $9.90 per standard license. 

Extended licenses are available on demand, costing between $144 and $170. While significantly higher, these price points are still very reasonable considering the added usage rights in extended licenses. 

Type of LicenseOn-Demand Minimum Price per ImageOn-Demand Maximum Price per ImageSubscription Minimum Price per ImageSubscription Maximum Price per Image
Standard-License for an Essential image$8$12$0.22$4
Standard-License for a Signature image$24$33$0.44$9.90
Extended-License for a Signature image$144$170N/AN/A

The lower prices with subscriptions are achievable with the larger plans, and the subscription service requires a longer-term commitment. The extended licenses are not included in subscription plans and need to be purchased on demand.

For more information, you can read our detailed iStock pricing breakdown

Obtain up to 10 free images from iStock unlocking the iStock free trial.
Get a 25% discount on iStock large credit packs.
Enjoy 15% off on iStock subscription plans and credit packs of all sizes.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get started. 

What You Can Do with an iStock Standard License

One of the first things you’ll notice when you read the iStock license agreement is that, unlike many competitors like Shutterstock or Adobe Stock, they don’t use strictly legal language in a formal, contract-styled text. With other licenses, we need to interpret and break down what each point means; here, the agency explains what rights they give you in lay terms. 

The iStock agreement is easy to read and understand, even if you’ve never licensed photos. 

The second thing you’ll soon realize is just how flexible and extensive are the ways in which you can use the image.

istock licensing terms 1 > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features
istock licensing terms 2 > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features

You can use a stock image from iStock for as long as you wish, anywhere in the world, in as many designs and placements as you need, for commercial purposes (also personal projects), all with one license. Just know that you may not be the only person using one particular image from iStock at any given time. 

Plus, there are so many ways in which you can use the pictures. Copy, reproduce, or display them, edit them in multiple ways –cropping, resizing, altering colors, etc.- and, importantly, use them in commercial designs without having to credit either the author or the agency. 

For transforming stock images in your final vision, iStock adds a built-in image editor that performs basic but useful edits to photos from its library, like changing backgrounds or altering colors, to create simple but beautiful and effective graphics easily.

There is no limitation in the number of uses for digital uses. You can use iStock photos on multiple placements:

  • Websites (hero image, background, secondary images, etc.)
  • Social media (Profile picture, banner picture, posts, stories, adverts)
  • Apps
  • Email marketing (newsletters, etc.)
  • eBooks
  • Blog posts
  • Presentations

And so much more. 

You may also use iStock content in physical designs, including but not limited to:

  • Flyers
  • Brochures
  • Leaflets
  • Stationery
  • Signage
  • Product packaging
  • Books & magazines

And similar uses.

For print materials, iStock offers a print run limited to 500,000 copies, which is enough for most graphic design needs – Ask yourself, do you envision needing more than 500,000 flyers? 

When you factor in that this is a one-time pay license, the image usage rights you get with this license are very valuable compared to their meager cost—making them the perfect resource for small businesses and budget-conscious projects. 

See a comparative table of the usage rights you get with an iStock standard license versus other agencies:

Unlimited Digital Useswith a Standard License
Adobe Stock
Websites& web ads
Social MediaPosts, stories, ads
YouTube and TV& other broadcast projects
Sensitive Topicswith a Disclaimer
Print Useswith a Standard License
Adobe Stock
Marketing MaterialsFlyers, brochures, billboards, product packaging
Up to 500,000 units
Up to 500,000 units
Up to 500,000 units

Unique iStock Offer: Unrestricted Use in YouTube, TV and Broadcast 

One aspect to highlight in the standard license from iStock is that it doesn’t put any limitation on using images on YouTube or similar video-based websites, nor in projects for TV or Broadcast. 

This is a crucial benefit of their offer because most other agencies restrict this type of use. Shutterstock’s standard license only covers YouTube or TV use in projects whose budget is up to $10,000 (See how iStock compares to Shutterstock). Adobe Stock’s agreement limits YouTube and Broadcast usage (as well as email marketing and mobile advertising) to 500,000 viewers.

While these restrictions don’t appear to be that terrible, they are a pain to comply with: you have to be constantly calculating your total costs or monitoring your video’s viewer count. In both cases, removing those restrictions requires an extended license, which means more money spent. 

The unlimited use of YouTube and TV from the iStock license is an excellent benefit for small companies and rising brands. Not only does it simplify your workflow when using photos this way, but it also means you can buy images to use in scalable campaigns and projects without worrying about coverage. You can have your videos go viral without spending extra on licensing!

What You Can’t Do with iStock Photos

Of course, the agreement has some restrictions, mainly to protect the integrity and rights of the photographer or visual artist, the models featured in the pictures, and the agency itself. 

istock licensing terms restricted uses > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features
iStock licensing term restricted uses cont > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features

So, they forbid you from using the content in ways that could be illegal or promote illegal or morally questionable activities, from breaching the universal terms of editorial use or openly violating intellectual property rights by letting others use content that you don’t own or try to claim it as your own. 

One point to remark on is a recently added one that forbids using iStock content (not only the photos but also the metadata associated with them) for machine learning, AI, or biometric technology use… unless you get permission from the agency. So, if you were thinking that iStock could be your free dataset provider for a generative AI model… think again.

istock licensing terms restriction AI > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features

Finally, a list of limitations applies to the standard license but can be lifted by acquiring an extended license. 

istock licensing terms restrictions of standard license > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features

So, you may not use the images as part of products to commercialize –physical or electronic– or in more than 500,000 units of print marketing materials.

The iStock restrictions are very reasonable and easy to abide by.

Unique iStock Permission: Sensitive Use with a Disclaimer

Perhaps you already know, but if you don’t, here it is: one universal restriction for stock photo usage is related to sensitive topics, those that are potentially controversial, and that models depicted or photographers may not want to be linked to –things like severe illnesses, mental health, political ideology.

Generally, stock photo agencies include a clause that prohibits using their pictures in designs about such topics or requires you to contact the agency directly to clear a sensitive topic before proceeding, known as the “sensitive use clause.” Here you can learn more about Sensitive Use for stock photos.

iStock, however, establishes in its agreement that the use of photos for sensitive topics is permitted, as long as you make sure to include a disclaimer indicating that the images are for illustrative purposes only and that any person portrayed is a posing model. 

istock licensing terms sensitive use > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features
While the agency still sets some topics out of bounds (pornography, promotion of violence or hatred, and other unlawful or harmful concepts), knowing you can use iStock images on sensitive themed designs without having to go through tedious authorization processes is a plus, every time your brand or business connects with any such topic, like in the case of health and wellness, mental health and psychology, awareness campaigns, etc. 

What Requires an Extended License from iStock

If you want to use iStock photos as part of items you will then serially produce and sell, you need an Extended License for Products for Resale, which adds authorization. 

istock licensing terms extended license products for resale > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features

It’s important to know that this license differentiates digital from print products, where digital items –like electronic templates– are unlimited, and physical merchandise is capped according to product type, such as paper products, publications, or t-shirts. 

If you need more than 500,000 physical copies (even if not for resale), then you can add an Unlimited Print Run license that, as the name suggests, will remove the limitation and let you print an infinite amount of copies. 

These licenses are sold separately, and customers can stack on the same image as necessary. 

This License Enables Third-Party Uses (Client Work)

If you’ve read this far wondering who besides you can use the licensed content from iStock, here’s the answer. 

While the license is untransferable, it has the provision to be used by a third party in some cases. 

iStock licensing terms client work > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features

So, if you want to let a designer you hire use the photos, or if you're a designer and want to use images you licensed in designs for a client, you can!

This agreement feature is pretty standard for the industry, but it’s still a big plus for freelancers and small businesses who may not have an in-house design or marketing team. 

Last but not least, a great added value in iStock's license agreement is that the company legally backs up the validity of its images by including an indemnification policy.

istock licensing terms indemnity > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features
istock licesing terms indemnity > Comprehensive Guide to iStock License: Pros, Cons, and Unique Features

So, if anyone formally accuses you of infringing on their intellectual property with an image you got from iStock, the company will back you up legally and financially. If your image is under a standard license, you will be insured for $10,000. If you have it under an Extended license, the amount the company will be responsible for climbs up to $250,000.

Logically, the indemnification relies on you being fully compliant with the license –all the above-detailed terms–. As long as you use the pictures following the licensing terms, you are covered.

This is a great benefit, especially compared to the Creative Commons license and other forms of use-under copyright license, which are free of charge but don't offer any indemnity against such claims.

FAQs About the iStock License

We will now answer the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) regarding iStock images and iStock licenses.

Is iStock free for commercial use?

No. The iStock license is paid, although very affordable. To use an image commercially, you need to purchase an iStock license.
The only exceptions are the images you download within the iStock free trial and the ones available in the iStock free files section. Those are free of charge and suitable for commercial use. 

How much is an iStock license?

Depending on the method you use to buy, an iStock license for an image costs between $0.22 and $33. 
With our iStock discount, you can get between 15% and 25% off that price.

How does an iStock license work?

When you download an image from iStock, a license is issued in your name. This license governs what you can and cannot do with iStock’s images, so you must always abide by its terms. 

Can I use iStock images on products?

Yes, but for this, you will need an Extended license. iStock has extended licenses available for all their images. 

iStock Licensing: Simple, Flexible and All-Encompassing 

iStock’s simplicity in license terms makes it a great fit for those with no previous knowledge of image licensing, such as small business owners, and those who may know more about the subject but want to work with stock images carefreely. 

Its flexible usage terms encompass most users’ creative needs in the standard license, which reduces costs and makes it easy to create campaigns of all sizes. 

Overall, iStock is an excellent choice in stock photos that gives you everything you need at once without adding stress to your workflow. 

FTC Disclaimer: Some links here may be affiliate links. If you purchase through them, we might earn a commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions are our own.

Ivanna Attié
Ivanna Attié

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in and Stock Photo Press and its many stock media-oriented publications. I am a passionate communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Lucky enough to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, I am happy to share my research, insights, and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers, and the stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

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