How to use iCloud Drive for Mac, iPhone and iPad

Keir Thomas
25 March, 2015
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iCloud Drive, mac, ios, macworld australiaIntroduced with OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, iCloud Drive is like having a personal hard disk on the internet. Files placed in iCloud Drive are automatically and invisibly synced ‘to the cloud’. Files already there that are edited are also synced as soon as you save. Syncing means that:

  • the file is copied to iCloud Drive online
  • the file is downloaded to the iCloud Drive of any Macs signed into the same Apple ID
  • the file is made accessible to iOS, and some iOS apps sync with iCloud Drive when you open them, while others grab a file from iCloud Drive when you request it.

iCloud Drive must be activated on each iOS device and Mac you own. On your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch you may need to open the Settings app, tap Cloud, then iCloud Drive, and toggle the switch; on OS X Yosemite and later you’ll need to open System Preferences, click iCloud, and put a tick alongside the entry in the list.

How to use iCloud Drive: Mac access

On a Mac using iCloud Drive is just like using any folder. You can save files there in the usual way via File > Save… or File > Save As, or open files already in iCloud Drive by double-clicking them in Finder, or by selecting them after clicking File > Open. You can also delete or copy/move files into or out of iCloud Drive using Finder, or by clicking File > Move To within compatible apps.

iCloud Drive is accessible on your Mac:

  • under the Favorites heading at the top left of Finder windows
  • as an option in the Where dropdown list in small (unexpanded) File Save dialogue boxes within apps designed for iCloud Drive, like the iWork suite
  • at the left of expanded File Open/Save As dialogue boxes within all Mac apps, again under the Favorites heading and – if the app is designed for iCloud Drive – also under the iCloud heading at the top left

If you can’t see iCloud Drive, open a Finder window, open preferences (Command+,), select the Sidebar heading, and ensure there’s a tick alongside the iCloud Drive entry in the list.


When a file is being synced with iCloud Drive on a Mac a small cloud symbol appears alongside the filename if List, Column or Cover Flow view is in use in Finder or File Open/Save As dialogue boxes. In List and Cover Flow view a progress bar also appears in the File Size field showing upload or download progress. In Icon View you’ll see the word Syncing beneath the filename.


How to use iCloud Drive: iOS access

iOS apps handle iCloud Drive differently compared to Macs. Notably, there isn’t an iCloud Drive app for iOS and access to iCloud Drive is handled on an app-by-app basis.

The first and most common way iOS apps make use of iCloud Drive is known as sandboxing. When you select to save to iCloud within an app, you gain access to a private storage space inside iCloud Drive. The app itself isn’t aware the rest of iCloud Drive exists, so can’t browse it. Sandboxing is all about security. If the app is malicious, or gets hacked, then it can’t be used as a gateway to the entire file system.


The sandboxed storage space will appear as a folder in iCloud Drive on a Mac if there’s a Mac version of that app. It will be named after the app and have the app’s icon overlaid on top. The Mac version of the app will probably use this folder as a default location in the Where dropdown when saving files – Pages will default to the iOS Pages folder, for example.

Note that some Mac apps such as Preview, TextEdit and Automator also have their own iCloud app folders even though there’s no iOS equivalent.

A second approach taken by some iOS apps is to grant you access to all of iCloud Drive, just as it appears in Finder on a Mac. You can open and edit files already in iCloud Drive, or create/copy new files.

Apps sometimes mix and match the two approaches. For example, the iWork apps use the sandbox approach but you can also export the file you’re working on to anywhere in iCloud Drive. Just tap the Share icon, tap Send a Copy, and in the Send a Copy window that appears choose an output format. Next, tap on Send To and the iCloud window will appear. Tap an iCloud Drive folder where you’d like to store the document and, at the bottom of the resulting window, tap Export To This Location.

Perhaps surprisingly, iOS devices can manage the entirety of iCloud Drive in a basic way. Open the System app then click iCloud > Storage > Manage Storage, and select an app under the Documents & Data heading, or tap Other Documents to access files in the root of iCloud Drive. Then swipe left on any file or folder to make a Delete option appear. You can’t move, duplicate or copy files, however.

How to use iCloud Drive: Online access and more

You can access your entire iCloud Drive at the iCloud website via a desktop web browser. Here you can download files, or upload new ones, as well as create folders. Files can be deleted or emailed to others via your iCloud email address – just select a file and then click one of the icons at the top of the screen. The online versions Pages, Numbers and Keynote at use iCloud Drive.


Notably, you’re blocked from accessing the iCloud Drive website via a browser on iOS, even if you use a non-Safari browser like Google Chrome.

Windows users are given a piece of iCloud love via the official iCloud for Windows add-on, which brings iCloud Drive to Windows Explorer in a similar way to how it’s accessed via Finder on a Mac.

How to use iCloud Drive: Problem solving

Sync errors occur if you edit the same file on your two different devices simultaneously, such as your Mac and iPad. This is easy to do if you forget to save a file on your Mac before switching to your iPad, for example, or switch between editing a file on different devices without allowing time for syncing to occur.

iCloud Drive ends-up with two copies of the file, both with recent edits, and doesn’t know which to keep. A dialogue box appears showing the dates and times the two files were last edited and you’re asked what you want to keep – one of the files, or both. On a Mac click the thumbnail previews in the dialogue box to Quick Look the documents to see their differences, although this won’t work on iOS.


iCloud Drive offers no way to merge the two files. Put simply, it’s down to you to decide how to proceed. More often than not you’ll end-up saving both and attempting to salvage the new edits in each. It can be messy and time consuming.

Therefore, good practice if you decide to use iCloud Drive for files you create is to ensure you always save and close files whenever you’ve finished editing them on both Mac and iOS. On a Mac you might subsequently wait a moment before sleeping or shutting down your Mac so that syncing has time to take place.

Note that on both Mac and iOS devices there is no way to force an iCloud Drive sync. You just have to wait for it to happen automatically.

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