How Instacart Works, What It Costs, and What You Should Know About Using It for Grocery Delivery

updated Sep 5, 2023
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Paper grocery bags full of groceries and a plastic carton of milk on a front doorstep
Credit: Grace Elkus

Whether you’ve been getting your groceries delivered since 2020 (or earlier!) or are just now starting to consider it, it’s worth learning about all the options on the market. Instacart is one of the biggest, most widely available grocery delivery services in the United States. It also happens to be my personal favorite service.

As a recipe developer and home cook who often needs brand-name snacks and farm-fresh produce all in the same day, the variety of store options is invaluable. Plus, the easy-to-use app lets me add last-minute items, communicate with my shopper about substitutions, and track my order’s status. So let’s dig into how it works and all the key things that you should know.

Quick Overview

What is Instacart?

Instacart is an online delivery service that lets you shop at nearby grocery stores, wine shops, bulk warehouses, convenience and pet stores, and other retailers. Sign up for a free account or a paid membership (Instacart+) with your email address to shop stores in your area. Costs will vary depending on retailer, order size, and membership status.

How Instacart Works

Instacart lets you shop at nearby grocery stores online (as well as pharmacies, office supply stores, pet stores, and more), then sends a “personal shopper” to fulfill and deliver your order to you the same day. Unlike other grocery delivery services, the company doesn’t stockpile fresh produce in a massive warehouse. Instead, this shopper (a part-time Instacart employee) goes to the store (as a Pittsburgh resident, I’m often ordering from Fresh Thyme Market, Shop ‘n Save, or Aldi), picks up everything on your list, and then drives it to you in their own car. Think of it as the Uber of grocery delivery!

Need your order ASAP? Instacart offers extra-quick delivery (as fast as 30 minutes) from convenience stores, pharmacies, and convenience versions of grocery stores. You can find these stores via the Convenience icon at the top of the website or app homepage.

Where Is Instacart Available?

Instacart serves zip codes all around the country. It’s up there as one of the most widely available grocery delivery options, operating in all 50 states and more than 13,000 cities in North America. You can check to see if they’re in your area and even sign up to be notified when there are updates.

Credit: Tada Images/Shutterstock

How to Sign Up for Instacart

Signing up is easy: You’ll enter your email address (or sign up via your Google or Facebook account), choose a password, then verify your zip code. You’ll then be shown all the stores available to shop in your area. If you’re traveling (or split time between two locations), simply enter a new zip code. You aren’t limited to one delivery address. (Personally, this has come in handy for many bachelorette parties).

You’ll automatically be signed up for a basic account (which doesn’t have an annual fee), but you can opt into Instacart+ at any time, which I did last year once I realized it would ultimately save me money. (More on that below.)

What Stores Can You Shop Via Instacart?

Instacart works with local and national grocery stores, wine shops, wholesale stores, convenience stores, pet stores, and other retailers in the beauty, sporting goods, and electronics industries in your area. So the shops that are available to you will depend on what’s within driving distance (there are about 35 available to me). Fun fact: If there’s a Costco in your area, chances are that you can shop Costco through Instacart, even if you’re not a member. 

How Much Does It Cost to Have Instacart Deliver Groceries?

Delivery costs: Delivery is free for your first order (although there may be a minimum basket size required). You do not need to be a member to shop with Instacart. However, if you sign up for Instacart+ (previously Instacart Express) you’ll get free delivery for orders that are more than $35 and reduced service fees, among other perks. Same-day delivery for non-Instacart+ members starts at $3.99 for orders more than $35. Instacart+ costs $99 per year (or $9.99 per month) after a two-week free trial. 

As someone who averages about one order per week, I quickly realized the Instacart+ membership made the most sense. Since joining in September 2022, I’ve saved more than $300 from free delivery, lower service fees, and other member-only offers. (Plus, I got the first three months free through Instacart’s partnership with Chase). 

Grocery costs: Instacart has nothing to do with how the prices are set. That means that it’s up to the individual stores (you can look at each store’s Instacart home page to learn more about their pricing policy). Typically, you might have to pay a little more for most items through Instacart than if you were shopping in real life. Additionally, you won’t always get to take advantage of all the in-store sales. That said, there are still sales available to you on Instacart (buy one pack of English muffins, get two free!) and your store of choice might also have a special section of coupons, which you can easily browse and shop.

Tipping costs: Tips are strongly encouraged. We usually say $5 or 20 percent of the total bill (whichever is higher).

Does Instacart Deliver Alcohol?

Instacart delivers alcohol in select markets, with certain legal restrictions. Customers must be 21 or older (and provide an approved photo ID at delivery), and alcohol cannot be delivered to a retail business or college campus. Some states also require a signature upon delivery, although that’s not required in Pennsylvania.

You can check to see whether alcohol is available in your area on the Instacart app or website (if it is, you’ll see a wine bottle icon labeled “alcohol”).

The Pros and Cons of Ordering Through Instacart


  • Very convenient, particularly if you have little kids and can’t get out of the house.
  • Thorough online selection; close to what you’d find in-store.
  • Ability to order from stores beyond supermarkets.
  • Access to Costco even without a membership.
  • Friendly personal shoppers and an easy ordering experience; shoppers are communicative if there are any issues or substitutions.


  • Can’t be choosy about the produce.
  • Prices vary from actual in-store prices, which means you could pay a premium (but not always). The markup varies from store to store, and it’s not clear why some items are more expensive and others less.
  • Doesn’t take store sales, coupons, or rewards into account.

Have you ordered Instacart lately? Tell us about your experience below!