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How To Use iCloud Drive To Sync Files Between Mac, iPhone And iPad

by Enrich Coleman

iCloud is Apple’s cloud storage solution that gives you online storage space for all your photos, messages, music and other data. You can also use iCloud to back up your iPhone – which is particularly useful when you get a new iPhone as you can just sync all your data to it from the cloud. The first 5GB of space is free, but beyond that you will need to agree to a monthly fee: 50GB is 79p/99c, 200GB is £2.49/$2.99, and 2TB is £6.99/$6.99 a month. It’s a great deal made even better than the fact that you can share your iCloud storage with your family – so your 2TB could be shared with your partner and kids.

iCloud is reassuring to have and simple to use, but it can also make working from home easier, provide a backup for your files, and enable you to keep all your document in sync across all your devices.

In this article we are concerned with how you can use iCloud to sync all your documents between your different Macs, iPad and iPhone – so that the documents you are working on at work can be available on your devices at home. We have separate articles that look at the other aspects of iCloud, such as how to use iCloud to sync photos and music and how to back up your iPhone using iCloud.

What is iCloud Drive

Wondering what the purpose of iCloud Drive is and what it can do for you? iCloud Drive is your own little corner of Apple’s cloud storage service where you can store your files. It’s a bit like having a personal hard disk on the Internet. The real advantage is that you can access these files on any of your Apple devices – or even via a browser on a non-Apple device. Your iCloud Drive can be anything from 5GB to 2TB in size (depending on which storage plan you choose).

If you’re familiar with rival services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, then you’ll have an idea of what iCloud Drive does. Files you place into the iCloud Drive folder are kept on your computer, but also synced to your online space. If you have other devices, such as another Mac or iOS device, then the files will be available on those devices too.

But you don’t have to knowingly place the files in a particular location. One feature that arrived with iOS 10 and macOS Sierra back in 2016 was the ability to set your Mac Desktop and Documents folders to automatically sync to iCloud. If you are anything like us your filing system will involve saving everything to your desktop, so using this feature means that everything will be synced to iCloud without you even having to change the way you work. Similarly all the files you create in apps such as Pages and Numbers are synced automatically to iCloud Drive.

Here are some of the benefits to using iCloud Drive:

  • You can access your files (presentations, spreadsheets, PDFs, images and so on) on all your devices (any iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac signed in with your Apple ID, or a PC via iCloud in a web browser) with any changes being kept in sync.
  • Your files will be stored securely.
  • You can share files or folders with others.
  • If you lose or erase your Mac, iPad, or iPhone you won’t lose your files as they will remain in the cloud.
  • It’s so simple to use: on your Mac you can set your Desktop and Documents folders to automatically sync to iCloud, you don’t even need to think about where you save files.
  • If you are running out of storage on your Mac using iCloud Drive is a great solution as it can free up some space. For example, iCloud will only store recently accessed documents on your Mac with everything else stored online. If you need to access the older files you’ll be able to, as long as you have an internet connection.

There are a few things to keep in mind though:

  • iCloud Drive shouldn’t be relied on as a backup solutions. This isn’t because we think something could happen to Apple’s servers, it’s more that there is a chance that you could lose access to your Apple ID. Perhaps because you forgot your password or you no longer had access to the email you used to set it up. Hopefully if you did forget your password you’d be able to get back into your account using these tips – How to reset a forgotten Apple ID password – but it’s a scenario worth preparing for.
  • While Apple apps such as Pages and Numbers will automatically sync data to iCloud few third-party apps that will sync the data you create in them to iCloud Drive, so make sure your filing system that includes saving to your Desktop.

How to use iCloud Drive on the Mac

Now you know what iCloud Drive can do for you you’ll be eager to get it set up on your Mac(s) and other devices. We’ll start of with how to set up iCloud Drive on your Mac.

    1. Open System Preferences (click on the Apple logo in the top left and then System Preferences).
    2. Click on Apple ID.
    3. (Log in to your Apple ID if you aren’t already logged in).
  1. Make sure iCloud Drive is enabled (it should have a tick next to it).
  2. Click on Options… beside iCloud Drive.
  3. Make sure that the box beside Desktop & Documents Folders is checked.
  4. Scroll down to check that any apps that you want to store files in iCloud will do so (e.g. make sure the box is ticked beside Pages, TextEdit and so on).
  5. Click on Done.
  6. You can also check the box beside Optimise Mac Storage so that you only store the files you need on your Mac, rather than storing everything and rapidly running out of space.
  7. Below that option you will see how much of your iCloud Storage is being used. Click on Manage… to see how much storage is being used by each app, and also to change your storage plan (to buy more storage or to reduce the amount of storage you are paying for.)

Now that you have set up iCloud Drive on your Mac you’ll be able to do the following:

  • Create a filing system with folders on your Mac Desktop that will be synced to another Macs you own.
  • Access any files saved onto your Desktop on any of your devices.
  • Save storage space on your Mac by having some files stored in the cloud rather than your Mac.

How to access iCloud Drive on your Mac

Because your Desktop and Documents folders are automatically synced often you won’t even realise you are accessing iCloud Drive, but sometimes you will need to find something you have saved to your iCloud Drive from your iPhone or iPad, or an iCloud Drive folder that someone else has shared with you.

Alternatively you might want to copy something to your iCloud Drive to access on another device. If that’s the case here’s what you need to do to access your iCloud Drive.

The simplest way to locate your iCloud Drive on your Mac is to use Spotlight:

  1. Press Command + Space Bar.
  2. Start to type iCloud Drive.
  3. Click on iCloud Drive and a Finder window will open displaying your iCloud Drive folder.

Alternatively open the Finder and you should see iCloud Drive in the column on the left.

If when you open the Finder you don’t see iCloud Drive in the left-hand column follow these steps:

  1. With a Finder window open click on Finder > Preferences.
  2. Select the Sidebar heading.
  3. Ensure there’s a tick alongside the iCloud Drive entry in the list.

When you are using an app that syncs its data with iCloud you can easily access your iCloud Drive from within it:

  1. Open Pages (or another app that syncs via iCloud).
  2. Click on File > Open.
  3. An iCloud section will appear on the column on the left.
  4. You can access the iCloud Drive by clicking on the dropdown box at the top of the window and choosing iCloud Drive.

Similarly when you are saving any file you’ve created in Pages or similar just follow these steps:

  1. Click on File.
  2. Save.
  3. Choose the name you want to Save As.
  4. Then click on the dropdown box beside Where to choose where on iCloud Drive you’d like to save your file.

How to use iCloud Drive on the iPhone or iPad

Any files located in your iCloud Drive will be available for you to access not only on your Mac (or Macs) but also on any of your iOS devices. You can open the same Pages document you were working on in the office and finish it off on your iPad during the train journey home, or you could make last minute changes to a Keynote presentation on your iPhone while on route to a meeting. It’s certainly useful to be able to access your files on all your devices, especially if you suddenly have to work from home.

First of all you need to set up iCloud Drive on your iOS devices. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Tap on Settings.
  2. Tap on your Apple ID at the top of the screen.
  3. Tap on iCloud. Here you will see the various apps that are using iCloud. Scroll down to iCloud Drive and turn it on (so the slider shows green).

How to access iCloud Drive on your iPhone or iPad

Prior to the release of iOS 11 in 2017 accessing your iCloud Drive was a little tricky, but with iOS 11 came the Files app, which is a little like the Finder on the Mac.

The Files app should be on your iPhone or iPad by default (as long as you are running iOS 11 or later). If you can’t see it you might have deleted the app, in which case you can download it again from the App Store.

Tap on the Files app on your iPhone or iPad to open your iCloud Drive.
There are two tabs: Recent and Browse. You’ll find the documents and files you have been working on recently under Recent.
Alternatively tap on Browse to see everything on your iCloud Drive.

If you create a document in an app that uses iCloud, such as Pages, any new document you create will automatically be saved to iCloud Drive.

If you tap on a document and it won’t open check whether you have set that app up to open documents saved in iCloud:

  1. Go to Settings.
  2. Mobile Data.
  3. Scroll down to iCloud Drive and check that the slider is green.

If you don’t see your files in iCloud Drive on your iPhone try these steps:

  1. Go to Settings and click on iCloud.
  2. Choose iCloud Drive and turn it off.
  3. Restart your iPhone/iPad.
  4. Open Settings and click on iCloud again.
  5. Go back to iCloud Drive and turn it on again.
  6. Open Settings and click on iCloud again.
  7. Sign out of iCloud. restart your iPhone or iPad.
  8. Sign in to iCloud again.
  9. Wait for the iCloud Drive documents to sync.

If files are saving to your iPhone or iPad rather than iCloud follow these steps:

  1. Open Setting. Scroll to the app (e.g. Pages) and tap on it.
  2. Tap on Document Storage and choose iCloud Drive.

How to access iCloud Drive on a web browser

There’s one other way you can access your files saved to iCloud Drive and it’s particularly useful if you don’t have access to one of your Apple devices. You can even use a Windows PC or Linux computer!

Here you can download files, or upload new ones, as well as create folders. Files can also be deleted or emailed to others via your iCloud email address.

  1. Open a web browser and go to iCloud.com https://www.icloud.com
  2. Log into your Apple account.
  3. Click on iCloud Drive.

You will also find web versions of Pages, Numbers and Keynote which will enable you to edit those files.

How to add more iCloud storage

iCloud Drive is just one part of the overall 5GB free iCloud storage all Apple owners get, which is also used for iOS device backup, your iCloud email, and the iCloud Photo Library, or for storing data from the likes of the Contacts and Calendar apps. Any space left over after all these take their chunk is available for iCloud Drive storage.

More iCloud storage can be added by paying a monthly subscription: 50GB is 79p/99c, 200GB is £2.49/$2.99, and 2TB is £6.99/$6.99 a month.

Upgrading is achieved on a Mac within System Preferences by clicking the iCloud icon, then the Manage button, and finally the Change Storage Plan button.

On iOS upgrading is done by selecting iCloud within the Settings app, and tapping the Storage heading, and the Change Storage Plan link.

If you use iCloud for backup of two or more devices (such as an iPhone and iPad), and for your photo library, then it’s unlikely there’ll be much left over for iCloud Drive, making an upgrading a virtual necessity.

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