iCloud: Turning Off Desktop and Documents Syncing

2 minute read
| Quick Tip

Here’s a funny thing about Apple: When they introduce new features—like Desktop and Documents syncing under Sierra, say—I think they’re not always the best at communicating what’s going to happen, especially considering that new options are often on by default. I’ve had a lot of users complain about being asked to buy extra iCloud storage because they didn’t understand what they were agreeing to when they clicked through Sierra’s installation screens and accidentally left the “Store files from Documents and Desktop in iCloud Drive” toggle on. Whoops.

If that’s the situation you find yourself in (or if you’re just not getting any use out of the feature!), you should know that there’s a simple way to turn this syncing off, but it’s a bit…weird…in how it works. To get started, you’ll click on the Apple Menu at the upper-left corner of your screen, pick “System Preferences” from that menu, and then click “iCloud.” When that opens, click on the “Options” button next to “iCloud Drive.”

macOS iCloud Drive Options Button lets you set what files sync to the cloud

On the next screen, you’ll see the choice we’re looking for right at the top.

Turn off Desktop & Documents Folders syncing in iCloud Drive Options settings

If you turn that checkbox off, you’ll get a warning:

Turning off iCloud Desktop and Document Folders syncing shows a Dialog Box warning they'll be removed from your Mac

Here’s what I think is pretty odd. As that dialog box explains, turning off Desktop and Documents syncing will remove those folders from your Mac, leaving them only in iCloud Drive. As you can imagine, that’ll mean that the contents of your Desktop and Documents folders will vanish, and if you didn’t read what you were agreeing to there, this could mean a moment of panic. Or many moments of panic! But it’s all OK, because after we turn this off, we can still download all of our stuff and put it right back where it came from. So let’s do it! Click on “Turn Off” on that box and watch your files disappear before your eyes. Helpfully, though, you’ll get a reassuring pop-up afterward:

Click Show in Finder to see where your files are in iCloud Drive

If you click “Show in Finder” there, you’ll be taken to the place where all your files went—under the “iCloud Drive” section in Finder’s sidebar.

The Finder shows where your Desktop and Documents files are in iCloud Drive so you can copy them back to your Mac

From here, you can drag items out of those Desktop and Documents folders and back into their locations on your Mac (which will in turn remove them from iCloud Drive). Or if you’re regretting your decision, you can also go back to System Preferences > iCloud> iCloud Drive > Options and turn the feature back on, which’ll plop all the files right back into their original locations. (And just so you know, you can log in to iCloud.com to download your files as well if you’d rather do that for some reason.)

And now is a good time to point out that you should definitely have a backup or three before you attempt anything like this, right? Right. You should have a backup or three anyway, but I figure you all know how I feel about that by now.

In case you don’t, though: MAKE A BACKUP BECAUSE I SAID SO. RIGHT NOW. Okey-doke?

12 Comments Add a comment

  1. Lee Dronick

    I like the synch feature for many documents, but I would like more options. “Synch files in iCloud and on this device” or something like that.

  2. geoduck

    IMO they took a good idea, automatic backing up of the desktop and documents folders, and totally blew it. Turn off synching and it deletes my local copy? Sorry but the person who thought that was a good idea is an idiot. My Mac gets low on space so it starts moving the only copy of files to the cloud? Really? Without asking? I mean I want this to work. I really like the idea of auto backup/auto sharing through iCloud. But the local copy has to be the master. As Lee said above, at least give us options as to how it behaves. I like the concept, but Apple took a good idea and screwed it up, badly.

    • Adam Spirit

      Also an interesting point you make thanks – I suspect that the idea behind automatically synching masses of stuff from Desktop and Documents folder is that you automatically are obliged to depend more and more on iCloud Drive and eventually pay for space.

      At the moment, I have absolutely minimal automatic synching and dont need more than the Free 5gb for storing absolute essentials like Contacts, Mail etc and after several years I still have half left.

  3. MarcusNewton

    I too was excited about this feature when they announced it, but in reality it is implemented poorly.

    Exactly as Melissa describes in the article, when I originally went to turn off syncing I was shocked to see the local copies gone, and had to go into iCloud and download them all over again to get them back.

    I have a lot of stuff on my desktop, and I don’t want all of it synced to iCloud, just some stuff. But, for me, the all or nothing aspect of the Desktop and Document Syncing makes it useless. Especially considering that I have many apps on my Mac that do not have apps on my iPad and iPhone, so there is no need to have these documents in the cloud since my devices cannot use them.

    I have actually written to Apple in their feedback form asking to allow users to choose which folders get synced and which do not. Being able to choose which folders on my desktop or in my documents folder is synced in the cloud would make all the difference for me.

  4. ssmiley67

    Are the Desktop and Documents folders encrypted en route to and on the iCloud servers? (I’m trying to decide whether or not to remove these document folders from iCloud.)

    PS: This was a very helpful article. And I agree: Apple makes a mess out of explaining what they’re doing with your files with their “feature” for putting Desktop and Documents folders on iCloud.

    thanks for your help.

  5. Joseph Landaw

    I did this today, Aug 26 2017, and it now asks you if you want to have the files move to an “iCloud archive” folder. It worked just fine. All you have to do is move the files from that folder, which is in your user folder, to the newly created Documents and Desktop folders and you are back in business in a few seconds.

  6. Adam Spirit

    I discovered your extremely useful piece as – for the first time – I wanted to use a Numbers spreadsheet across iPhone and Macbook Pro. Previously as a signed up Dropbox user I had no use for iCloud drive because I never needed to work on documents across platforms. However after much experimentation I realised that you couldnt easily move a Numbers document back and forth from Dropbox to iPhone Numbers app etc – so I actived Icloud Drive ( as opposed to just iCloud).

    My iPhone SE ( v 9.3.2) and MBPro ( El Capitan 11.5) – work perfectly without upgrading ( as of 1Jan2018) and so the option you refer to ‘Desktop and Documents’ is not yet an option in the iCloud>iCloud Drive Settings you illustrate above.

    Number is – and so the spreadsheet is working fine across both devices. Finally to my question: there are Pages and Text Edit documents visible on my iPhone in iCloud Drive.. but where would I find those documents on my Mac desktop?

  7. Ron Pullins

    Thanks. iCloud is neat, but it was driving me crazy and taking forever. I agree with above, that it would be nice to sync but store original documents on my iMac because of speed. But I can’t quit figure it out, and can’t find anywhere that really explains iCloud and how to use it, options, etc.

  8. Phillippa Lack

    I have had the WORST time lately with this ICloud feature. I am on my 6th Mac now, but this is going too far. They moved all my files, (and soem of the support reps could not find where they were when they got back to my machine) and it took days of support calls (lucky I had apple care) to get them back. BUT!! they have now begun moving the document files back to ICloud. so I have an ICloud desktop and a local desktop, and my documents are once again in ICloud. My Applications folder is in two steps.. with some files duplicated.. I am thinking of getting an attorney to write Apple and tell them to get their hands off my stuff, I’m that desperate. I do not want my documents away from my computer. I have proper backups and I do not need to be stealth billed for storage. Any advice will be much appreciated.

  9. RileyandAllyson

    weird question, after turning this off, is there anyway to get your desktop to stop being named “Desktop — Local” ? It’s driving me nuts because I only want the local version.

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