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Is Visual Studio Free? Do You Need to Pay to Use Visual Studio in 2020?

If you’ve ever wondered why you should use a full development environment over a text editor like Notepad++, then using Visual Studio will definitely put any questions to bed. Maybe you’ve learned how to create basic programs after reading our guide to becoming a software developer using tools outlined in our essential tools guide.

Now you’re ready to step up your game. Or maybe you have a friend that won’t stop talking about Visual Studio.

But you’ve heard Visual Studio is expensive, so how will you ever learn how to use it if you’re a new developer?

Good news! Microsoft has Visual Studio plans and options for every type of developer and team.

The only problem? Microsoft has made understanding the feature and licensing differences between the many versions of Visual Studio as confusing as possible. Even worse, the feature documentation and product names seem to change every six months.

Instead of fishing through multiple pages of charts and tables, let us guide you through the maze that is Visual Studio’s pricing options in this single, straight forward article.

When we first researched Visual Studio pricing, licensing, and use cases, the differences between the pricing plans wasn’t immediately clear.

Cloud subscriptions, Standard Subscriptions, Standalone purchases, Community, Professional, and Enterprise licenses. Just hearing about it is enough to make your head explode. But you need your head to be a software developer, so we’ll try to help you understand the product and licensing differences in an attempt to save your head and your career.

Further Reading
Be sure to check out our huge guide to becoming a software developer and see how to effectively use Visual Studio to up your developer game.

Cloud Subscription Pricing

Microsoft seems to be pushing their Cloud Subscription option as “the most convenient purchase plan” for developers. We suspect the main reason behind this marketing push is because they can make more money from subscriptions as opposed to standalone purchases (describes more below). Subscriptions additionally introduce people to basic tiers of Azure to hook people into the full Microsoft stack.

Billing for Cloud Subscriptions is tied to an Azure account and its billing preferences. This seems like a weird decision at first, but it does make sense when you consider that some teams have services in Azure and want to start using Visual Studio to support those services without having to set up entirely different billing information.

Be warned: according to Microsoft, under this payment plan, you are merely “renting” Visual Studio for the duration of the subscription. We hope that this doesn’t imply that your software can be revoked whenever Microsoft feels like it. If you’re worried about subscriptions and cloud-based software, check out the standalone purchase options below.

With our new cloud subscriptions, you can rent Visual Studio, Azure DevOps, and the subscriber benefits you need without a long-term contract. Billing is handled through your Microsoft Azure subscription, supporting credit card payment, purchases through the Enterprise Agreement contract, and Cloud Solution Provider partners.

Microsoft

See the pricing options below and check out the full subscription benefits at the pricing details page.

Community

$ 0 / month
  • Open source projects
  • Individual developers
  • Partial CodeLens
  • Unlimited open source users
  • Unlimited extension users
  • Unlimited device driver users
  • Up to 5 individual users

Professional

$ 45 / month
  • Commercial team projects
  • Professional developers
  • Full CodeLens
  • Azure DevOps Basic
  • Single developer license
  • Commercial development
  •  

Enterprise

$ 250 / month
  • Enterprise scale projects
  • Professional developers
  • Full CodeLens
  • Azure DevOps + CI/CD
  • Single developer license
  • Enterprise development
  •  

Note that Visual Studio Community isn’t a subscription. Instead, it’s a standalone product that caters to open source, hobbyist, and tiny team developers. There are a lot of caveats to the Community edition, so make sure to read through the fine print on the licensing pages.

In a nutshell, Community edition has the following major caveats:

  • Unlimited users for open source developers sand projects
  • Unlimited users to develop and test extensions
  • Unlimited users to develop and test device drivers for Windows
  • Unlimited users for SQL Server development through SQL Server Data Tools and similar extensions
  • Unlimited users to develop and test for classroom training or research
  • Cannot be used for enterprise purposes (more than 250 employees or $1,000,000 in annual revenue)
  • All other use cases only allow up to 5 developers

When learning how to program and use Visual Studio, we suggest starting with the Community edition because it gives you everything you need to get started. You won’t need to worry about the licensing restrictions and upper end features of the higher tiers when you’re just starting out. Plus, there’s not many feature differences between the Community and Professional editions, so you won’t be missing out on anything critical by staying on a free product.

Standard Subscription and Standalone Pricing

The Standard Subscription options are the same plans that have been offered by Microsoft for years. These plans were previously named something like “Visual Studio with MSDN,” but Microsoft dropped the “MSDN” part of the title. This aligns with the across-the-board rebranding of MSDN into the “Visual Studio” and “Microsoft Docs” monikers.

These subscriptions are similar to the monthly plans, but offer a host of supporting services like Azure DevOps, Azure credits, Power BI, Office 365, training, support, and a lot more. You’ll probably notice that, as a result, these plans are much more expensive than the monthly Cloud Subscription options.

We think these plans make more sense for professional businesses and teams that need more of the related Microsoft services. For example, you might be developing commercial software that is hosted in Azure, utilizes CI/CD pipelines in Azure DevOps, and you collaborate through documents in Office 365. In that case, it might make sense to splurge for the higher tiers.

Professional

Standalone Edition
$ 499
  • Visual Studio IDE only
  • No subscription benefits
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

Professional

Standard Subscription
$ 1,199 / first year
  • Visual Studio IDE
  • Azure DevOps Basic
  • Azure DevOps Artifacts
  • $50 Azure credits / mo
  • Training and support credits
  •  
  •  

Enterprise

Standard Subscription
$ 5,999 / first year
  • Everything in Professional, plus
  • Azure DevOps Tests
  • $150 Azure credits / mo
  • Power BI Pro
  • Microsoft Office Professional Plus
  • Sharepoint, Exchange, Dynamics
  • Office 365 Pro Plus

Note that the Standalone Edition isn’t a subscription. Instead, it’s a standalone product that caters to team, professional, and enterprise developers. This is a relic of the past where people would go to a store and get physical copies of software. Microsoft definitely isn’t pushing this option because it took us awhile to find the page that allowed us to purchase it.

When purchasing this product standalone, you won’t get any of the “subscriber benefits” such as Azure credits, training, support, and Azure DevOps features.

If you don’t care about any of the subscription benefits and features, then this might be the best purchase for you. It’s important to know that you’re stuck with whatever version of Visual Studio you purchase as a standalone and won’t receive any of the new editions (like Visual Studio 2020 or Visual Studio 2021 if those ever release).

Edition Feature Comparison

The following table is only a brief listing of feature differences between editions. The main point that we are trying to drive with this table is that there’s not much feature difference between the Community and Professional editions. Instead, the limitations are related to users and use cases. But the Enteprise edition is in a different ballpark. It’s decked from top to bottom with shiny features meant for the most elite of enterprises.

CommunityProfessionalEnterprise
UsersUp to 5 individual11
Open source developmentXXX
Enterprise developmentXX
CodeLensPartialFullFull
IntelliTraceX
IntelliTestX
Architectural diagramsX
.NET Memory AnalysisX

This is just a sampling of features. See the full feature comparison details.

Notice that the Community edition states “up to 5 individual.” What does that actually mean? If your organization has more than 5 employees and you don’t fall into the following categories, you cannot use the Community edition. See the full restriction details.

  • Open source development
  • Visual Studio extension development
  • Windows device driver development
  • Education and research
  • SQL Server development with SQL Server Data Tools

On the other hand, the Professional edition allows a single person to use Visual Studio for all the Community use cases plus commercial development in a larger team. Our guess is that Microsoft wants to upsell businesses into higher tiers so that developers aren’t forever paying $0 for all development scenarios.

And finally there’s the Enterprise edition. It’s much more expensive but also the only feature-complete edition. The main advantage of the features provided in the Enterprise edition are related to performance profiling, advanced debugging, crash analysis, and large scale architectural visualization.

Conclusion? Yes, Visual Studio Can Be Free!

That was a lot of information to take in. Take a breather.

The bottom line is that you can use Visual Studio for free with a lot of limitations that may not necessarily affect you depending on where you work and what you want to do with Visual Studio.

Open source teams and developers are good to go forever with Community edition. This is great because most hobbyists and self-starters are involved with open source project either by creating their own or contributing to something on GitHub.

Teachers and researchers are also in the same spot. Want to show your students how to work through the software development lifecycle (SDLC) with an IDE? No problem. The Community edition is perfect for your needs.

After your work your way through our huge guide to becoming a software developer, you might find yourself in a position to upgrade to Professional edition whether you want to or not. It’s difficult to justify upgrading above the Community edition in any other case.

In conclusion, we suggest starting out with the Community edition to learn about IDEs, Visual Studio, and basic debugging in your journey to becoming a software developer. As one of the best and most used IDEs on the market, learning Visual Studio is nearly a non-negotiable boon to your skill set. Employers will be glad that you know how to use it, and you’ll be able to show off the public profile that you’ve built up on your resume.

Further Reading
In your quest to learn Visual Studio, don’t forget to download some essential extensions in our guide. These are hand selected to increase your productivity and efficiency.
Justin Skiles

Justin Skiles

Justin has been developing enterprise application software for over 10 years primarily using Microsoft stacks, Azure, and various open source tools. He has most recently been trying his best as a Manager and Director of Software Engineering in the health care industry.

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