iCloud Explained

Last modified
Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team


Recently, I was helping someone with their Mac and the question came up, “What is iCloud and what is the cloud?”

This happens to be one of the most common questions I am asked about Apple products, and that’s no coincidence. Although Apple markets its products and services as being seamless and easy to use, they still conjure that image of some mysterious and complicated cloud, something that often tends to confuse people. In this guide, I will attempt to explain iCloud and the cloud in general; something that, in my opinion, the tech industry has not done a great job at when employing such jargon.

Basically, you can think of the cloud as a storage medium, like a USB flash drive or external hard drive. When you save a file into a folder on your computer, for example, that file is stored locally on that system’s internal storage. To transfer that file, you could email it or put it on a USB Flash Drive or external hard-drive. Or, you could upload the file to a service like iCloud, DropBox or Google Drive. These services allow you to create an account where you can store files on the Internet and access them on any devices signed in to that account.

Obviously, handling this data involves a nebulous network of servers. These servers are referred to as a cloud of servers, or simply, cloud.

With iCloud and other cloud providers, in addition to storage, there are a number of other services available, with this guide focusing on iCloud specifically. The use of such services is referred to as, “Cloud computing.”

With iCloud, you have storage, as well as syncing for email, contacts, calendars, and more. The idea is that once set up, you don’t need to think about the operation of these functions, that they happen automatically in the background. Think of iCloud as the backend infrastructure that powers this.

Setting up iCloud

To use iCloud, you’ll need an Apple ID. If you’ve used other Apple services such as the iTunes Store or AppStore, you already have an Apple ID. If you haven’t, you can create one for free. Use your Apple ID for iCloud and anything else Apple related. An Apple ID is sometimes referred to as an iTunes or iCloud account.

When you first set up your Mac or iOS device, you were probably asked to sign in with an Apple ID and password. If you entered this information during setup, iCloud is probably set up already. If you didn't, you'll be presented with an option in Settings on iOS and iPadOS or System Preferences on macOS to do so.

Once set up, settings for iCloud can be accessed in iOS and iPadOS by going to Settings > [your name] > iCloud, or in macOS by going to System Preferences > Apple ID, and selecting iCloud in the table.

iCloud services

While the purpose of this section is not to cover all of the various features of iCloud in detail, it should help familiarize you with the basics so you can make a decision on what sounds useful to you.

Mail, if activated, allows you to create a free @icloud.com email address that you can use with the Mail app on macOS, iOS, iPadOS, other email clients, or on the web. If apps like contacts, calendars, and reminders are listed and activated, those apps are using iCloud to keep data in sync across devices.

For example, if you add a contact on your iPhone, it should automatically appear on your Mac. Likewise if you add a calendar event on your Mac, it should automatically appear on your iPhone, or whatever other devices you have signed into your Apple ID. Make sure these apps and services are enabled on all the devices you want to sync them on. Descriptions of some other iCloud features are given below.

iCloud Drive

iCloud Drive allows you to store files that are kept up-to-date on all your devices.

On macOS, iCloud Drive is accessed by choosing go > iCloud Drive in the Finder, or pressing Command Shift I. It opens like a typical folder, where you can use standard Finder commands to add, modify, and delete files. On iOS and iPadOS, iCloud Drive appears as a location in the Files app, which acts similarly to the Finder on macOS. Any changes you make should then sync to iCloud Drive on your other devices.

On macOS, the contents of your desktop and documents folder can be synced using iCloud Drive. This is useful if you, for example, have multiple Macs and want to keep your desktop and documents folder in sync, eliminating the need to send files back and fourth.

Another useful feature of iCloud Drive is the ability to store files remotely, and only store recently opened files locally. This can help save storage on your Mac. To enable this feature, select the, “Optimize Mac storage,” checkbox in Apple ID preferences. While the entire contents of iCloud Drive is displayed when you open the folder, only recent files are actually stored locally. Files are downloaded as you open them.

By default, a user is given 5 gigabytes of free storage; but this can be upgraded up to 2 terabytes.

iCloud backup

iCloud backup, (iOS and iPadOS only) allows you to store a full backup of your device on iCloud, so if you ever lose your data or need to replace your device, you can sign into your Apple ID and download the data on the new one.

Tip: After replacing an iOS device and restoring from an iCloud backup, the backup of the old device is retained in addition to that of the new one, potentially taking up valuable space. When you’re confident that all your data has been restored, you should delete the backup for the old device. To do this, go to Settings > [your name] > iCloud and double-tap, “Manage storage.” In the resulting list, select backups, followed by the name of your old device, and then double-tap delete backup.

Messages in the cloud

Messages in the cloud allows you to store all your iMessages and text messages in iCloud, improving cross-device syncing.

With messages in the cloud disabled, new messages are pushed to your devices, but they must be manually deleted from each device. In addition, current messages aren’t synced when you sign in on a new device. Storing messages in iCloud allows them to be deleted from all devices and automatically synced on to new devices that sign in to your account.

To enable this feature on iOS and iPadOS, enable the, “Messages,” toggle in iCloud settings. To enable this feature on macOS, open Messages and choose Messages > Preferences, (or press Command-Comma) click the iMessage button in the toolbar, and select the, “Enable messages in iCloud,” checkbox.

Find My

Find my allows you to view the locations of your signed in devices on a visual map, play a sound on a lost device, and lock or wipe a lost device's contents. In addition, you can use Find My with AirTag and other supported accessories to help locate commonly misplaced items such as keys, wallets and bags. This is done in the Find My app on iOS, iPadOS and macOS, and you can also use SIRI on your Mac, iOS device, or HomePod to find your lost device.

Activating, “Lost mode,” on a lost device allows you to display a phone number on that device for someone to contact you should they find it. Likewise, activating lost mode on an AirTag allows you to provide a phone number that anyone with an NFC capable smartphone can view by tapping their phone against the AirTag.

If you erase a device, it can no-longer be tracked, and iOS devices and Macs with a T2 security chip or Apple Silicon processor will require your Apple ID and password to reactivate them. These Macs include the MacBook Air, (2018 and later) MacBook Pro (2018 and later) Mac Mini, (2018 and later) iMac Pro, (2017) Mac Pro, (2019) and iMac (2020 and later).

Tip: like iCloud backup, Find My may retain your old devices and accessories, which may be confusing when you’re trying to figure out what device or accessory is what. This can happen particularly on devices you never signed out of. Therefore, you should remove your old devices so as not to confuse them with your current ones. To do this on iOS and iPadOS, go to Settings > [your name] and double-tap your old device, followed by the, “Remove from account,” button. To do this on macOS, go to System Preferences > Apple ID, select your old device in the table, and click the, "Remove from account," button.

iCloud keychain

iCloud keychain allows you to sync your passwords and credit cards across devices. When you choose, for example, to save a username and password in Safari, that information is stored in a location on your device called a keychain, where it can be used to autofill webforms in the future. With iCloud keychain, your devices’ local keychain is synced; so if you for example, save a password for a website in Safari on your Mac, you can autofill it on your iPhone later.

Although iCloud keychain can suggest and save strong passwords for you, it does not have all the functions of a full-fledged password manager like 1Password.

AppStore and media in the cloud

When using Music, TV, Books, or the AppStore, you may have been asked if you want to use iCloud.

When you buy something from an Apple media store, it is downloaded to your device for local playing. However, that content is also stored in iCloud, allowing you to delete the local copy from your device and stream it over the Internet. Thus If you ever delete a purchase, you can download it from the, “Purchased,” list of the respective store. This does not count toward your iCloud storage quota. If you have an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscription, music you have acquired from other sources can also be stored in iCloud.

Similar to iCloud Drive, you can save storage on your Mac by electing to delete movies, TV shows, and podcast episodes once they’ve been played. Of course, you can still access this content in iCloud, but it’s no longer taking space. To enable this feature, open TV and choose TV > Preferences, (or press Command-Comma) click the files button in the toolbar, and select the, “Automatically delete watched movies and TV shows,” checkbox. Repeat this process in the Podcasts app to delete played episodes, but note that the equivalent setting is located in the, “Advanced,” rather than the, “files,” pane.

Similarly on iOS and iPadOS, you can save storage by electing to delete podcast episodes once they've been played. To enable this feature, go to Settings > Podcasts, and enable the, “Remove played downloads,” toggle.


In addition to managing iCloud content and settings on your Apple devices, you can also use some iCloud features on the web by going to icloud.com on any computer. Here, you will find web apps for Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Find my, and more. However, accessibility of these web apps with Voiceover and other screenreaders is hit-or-miss at best, so I don’t recommend using them.

conclusion and recap

If you’ve read through this guide and thought, my devices already do the things described, great! This is how it’s supposed to work. If you found any of the descriptions a little confusing, basically, to recap, the cloud is a location on the Internet where data can be stored, managed and synced across various devices. iCloud is Apple’s cloud solution for keeping multiple devices in sync, essentially providing the bedrock of their ecosystem.

More information can be found on Apple's iCloud overview page, and you can post a comment if you want something clarified in this guide.


The article on this page has generously been submitted by a member of the AppleVis community. As AppleVis is a community-powered website, we make no guarantee, either express or implied, of the accuracy or completeness of the information.



Submitted by Justin Philips on Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Thanks for the guide. Will be handy when explaining to others.