Syncing Contacts in Windows without iTUNES or Outlook

Last modified
Wednesday, July 17, 2019

If you have Microsoft Outlook, it can use several methods for syncing your contacts with your iPHONE; this guide doesn't cover that.

If you use iTUNES whether or not you also use Outlook, it too, has many ways to work with your contacts.

But for me, both iTUNES and Microsoft Exchange have tended to mess up my contacts as much as automate the sync process, so I have found another, and what I believe is a safer way for Windows users to keep contacts in order.

I use Windows 7 and don't really know how much of this applies to Windows XP, Windows 8 or Windows 10. However, if you use one of these other Windows versions, some of this information should stil be useful.

My program of choice is Windows Contacts, built right in to Windows Explorer. If you press Windows-E you run Explorer; if you select My Computer from your desktop or start menu, you also get Explorer. This is the Windows file manager, and there are many ways to run it.

In your user folder, you'll find a folder labeled contacts. This is a special folder,(like your start menu or desktop) and each time you select File New, New contact, and fill in the fields for a new contact, a .contact file is created in this contacts folder with the information you provided. You can be anywhere in Explorer, select File, select New, and then select New Contact. But the file you create will always appear in the Contacts folder.

What I like about this method is that the process of creating contacts is a familiar and speech-friendly interface. It's a simple multi-tabbbbbed dialog box with fields for the common information you enter in to a contact. There are tabs for work and home, and you can enter as much or as little as you want. Tab to OK, press enter and the .contact file is saved.

Now if you want to find someone, you simply navigate to your contacts folder and arrow through it until the contact is located. The filename is the full name field in the contact record. Need to add a phone number or change an email address? It's just a few keystrokes to accomplish. Windows search will also automatically dig through your contacts.

But, suppose you want all these contacts on your iDEVICE. Here's where the process is not as automatic as you'd get with Outlook or iTUNES, but where it is less prone to errors. There's nothing more annoying than syncing 500 contacts and discovering you have two copies of each! There are several great apps for removing dupes, but who wants to keep doing that!

Your first step is to export the contacts to a format other programs can handle. If you need to get these contacts in to Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird, Gmail or Yahoo, you'd go through the same export step.

You have two choices: VCF or CSV files.

A VCF (apple calls it a V-card) file can contain multiple contacts, but many programs, including Windows contacts, create a separate VCF file for each contact. The old Nokia PC suite software worked with VCF files,and even as far back as the Windows 3.1 CardFile program, VCF files were in use. A VCF file is actually a text file; you can open and examine it in any text editor. But it has a very specific format so that it can be read by the maximum number of address book applications. Outlook and Windows live mail, for example, can read VCF files. You can read more about this format here:

Note that the Contacts app build in to iDEVICES can directly read VCF files. So if you export to VCF,you won't need a separate app on the iPHONE to handle them. What outlook calls a "business card" is also a VCF file, and many other email programs will attach an electronic business card in the form of a VCF with the sender's outgoing messages.

Your other choice is a CSV file. This is also a text file, but it always contains multiple records. Each record is on its own line, and each field is surrounded by quotes and separated from neighboring fields by a comma. Comma-delimited data files go back to the very dawn of computing.

In Windows, Excel can read CSV files, as well as Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird, and Microsoft Access. If you click on, or press Enter on a CSV file, it's likely to be opened in Excel. In Excel it will look like a spreadsheet. But you can open it in any text editor and see the commas separating each field and the carriage returns separating each record. Old-timers call these comma-delimited ASCII files and they haven't changed in forty years. CSV stands for comma-separated values, and if you examine one of these files, you will note that there is no space between the quotation mark terminating a field and the comma which indicates the start of the next field in the record.

Sadly, the contacts app on your iPHONE can't deal with a CSV file directly; you'll need a third-party app such as Excel Contacts Lite, SA Contacts or Contacts Kit to import your contacts.

Because they are human-readable, both CSV and VCF files can be directly edited but you have to be careful not to disturb their formatting. You can read more about CSV files here.

In your Windows contacts folder, you need to select Export from the toolbar. It's right below the Explorer menu bar, but it has no keyboard shortcut. So you'll need to work with your mouse or review cursor to locate and click on the Export button.

Once that's done, an export window appears, and it's very speech friendly. Simply select the file format you want and the location where you wish to save, and pick OK.

It's a good idea especially if you've chosen VCF as your format, to save to a separate folder, so you won't confuse your exported copies with your real contacts. I create a folder called Send2Phone which is where I export.

Now that contacts have been exported you have two copies of everything. If it was a CSV export, it's one big file with multiple contacts. If it was a VCF export, the results are multiple files, one contact in each.

To get the files in to your iPHONE, you'll use email or cloud storage. I've used Google Drive, Dropbox, and One-Drive, and the process is similar.

First, I get the exported contacts I want copied to the cloud drive and wait to be sure it's uploaded. Then I fire up the appropriate cloud storage app on my phone.

For example, with Dropbox, I'd launch Dropbox on the phone, navigate to the Save2Phone folder in my Dropbox. There I'd find a ton of VCF files. I'd double tap on one, and a screen would appear, telling me that no viewer for the file was available. That's because though Dropbox can handle many formats including word, MP3,text and html, it doesn't know what to do with a VCF file.

But no worries. There is a Share Button and a More Actions button. I choose More Actions.

Next a list of actions, most of what I don't want appears. These are actions for dropBox, to help you move, copy, delete, keep offline or do other things with the file. The choice I want is Export.

After selecting Export, yet more choices appear, again most of which I do not want. Near the bottom of the screen "Open In" is the choice I select.

After selecting "Open In" yet more choices appear. But the choice I want is "Copy To Contacts".

The next screen to appear depends on whether the contact resembles something already in your contacts list, and here's where you have full control. If it finds nothing similar the contact from the VCF file simply opens in edit mode and you can make or not make changes and select Save or cancel, if it's not correct. If there are multiple similar contacts, there might be one randomly chosen and in that case, "add to existing contact" and "create new contact" buttons will appear near the bottom of the screen. "Create new contact" is the default if you simply picked Save.

But, especially with dropbox, if there are similar contacts, then you simply see the All contacts screen, with the table index on the right and a "Back to Dropbox button on the top. This is the confusing part, because it does not appear that you've actually copied the imported VCF to your contacts, but you have. Contacts needs you to choose a contact to update. So locate a contact, double-tap on it and it opens. Now your information is merged with the information in that contact, but you haven't lost control yet. At the bottom of the screen there are those two buttons, "Creat new contact" and "Add to existing contact". If you create a new contact, this contact you're now viewing won't be changed. If you select "Add to Existing Contact", it will. If you have the wrong contact, simply select Back and pick another contact. You have to do cancel to get this entire copy process to abort.

You are probably saying that this process is super tedious and you are right. There are several ways to avoid the tedium.

One method is to email contacts to yourself as VCF files. You skip the whole exporting, and open with process, simply double-tap on the attachment and at the bottom of the window that appears, you'll have the "add to existing contact" or "create new contact" buttons. That's because the email program knows how to open VCF files directly, and doesn't need to go through the Open With" routine.

One warning though: if you use some modern programs to create VCF files, like Outlook 2010 and above, you'll get the notes field populated with XML that's specific to the exporting program. And that XML can confuse voiceover. If this happens, you won't be able to find the two buttons to add to existing or create new contact. Use all four fingers to tap the bottom of the screen once. This causes Voiceover to scroll past the offending XML and land you on one of those buttons.

A few notes are in order here about using OneDrive, which is more streamlined than Dropbox. If your CSV file is in OneDrive, several third-party apps can connect directly and grab it with little intervention on your part, other than you entering your user name and password. If you are importing a VCF file, you select it in the OneDrive app, select Open, and the list of actions that appears includes Copy to contacts. You'll get the closest contact record, with your new information automatically merged in and the two familiar buttons at the bottom of the screen "Add to existing contact" and "Create New Contact". You can always press Cancel to abort the whole thing or Back to select a different contact to merge.

For Google drive, because there are several drive apps that support it, the process is slightly different. I use two-step verification so my process for moving a contact from google's cloud storage got more complicated than I wanted to write about. Try it with one or two contacts first. With google, you might be better off syncing all your contacts from Windows to google via a CSV file directly, and then using a google-friendly app to copy them all to your contacts.

Another method for bypassing the tedium of importing one vCF at a time is to use a CSV file. You'll need a third-party app, and you should read its documentation before proceeding. Contacts Kit, for example creates a folder in your Dropbox, and you can keep a CSV backup file of your contacts there. Excel contacts lite transfers files directly between iPHONE and Excel using all known cloud storage platforms. It asumes you will maintain your master list in Excel and move it to the iPHONE periodically. It makes the nicest backup files as well. These programs typically let you back up, delete all your contacts and then import a brand-new list.

I personally like updating two or three contacts each day. I start with the letter A, and eventually get to Z. I make all my changes in Windows contacts when I can; if I end up making the change to a contact directly on my phone, I simply email the altered contact to myself and import it in to Windows contacts. To email a contact, simply open it and select share and email from the sharing choices. It is automatically converted to a VCF file which most all programs can import.

To get an iPHONE contact back in to Windows, simply right-click on the file, choose Open with, choose Windows contacts, and you'll get the same multi-tabbed dialog box for updating the information. However, another button appears, right beside the "name and email tab" labeled " add contact". Selecting that, followed by OK will create a new .contact in your Windows contacts folder. Simply zap the older version and you're done. Windows contacts never overwrites another contact file , or adds to an existing one if you bring it in as a VCF file. The Windows contacts toolbar also has an import button, which is similar to exporting, and that will handle a CSV file created by one of your third-party iPHONE apps.

It's a good idea, even if you do choose to use Outlook, which I do at work, to decide where the master list should reside. Because our exchange server at work was so buggy, I had multiple sync problems along with my co-workers. When I told Siri to "call my husband", she caused my friends to bellow with laughter by inquiring "Which husband?" I knew my love affair with Microsoft Exchange was over. Exchange does a great job of syncing my notes, email and calendar, but it messed up contacts too many times for me to trust it. I now keep my master list in Windows contacts and each time I update something there, I add a corresponding VCF to my send2Phone folder in OneDrive. On my home PC, I use Thunderbird and Windows Live Mail, and import my contacts in to their address books periodically.

But other co-workers choose to use Excel to maintain their master list, and some continue to use Outlook, and simply manually email updated v-card (VCF) files to their phones. There are many ways to sync contacts and never use iTUNES to do so.

Just remember that if you maintain a master list in one place, you won't have to wonder where the most current version of a particular contact resides.


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 kool_turk on Saturday, July 23, 2016

Just thought I'd point out, if you save a number as iPhone, instead of cell phone and export to CSV, that number won't show up.

You're better off categorising them as cell phone, even though said contact is using an iPhone.

I don't know why an iPhone needs it's own separate category in the first place, but I thought I'd point this out so people don't make the same mistake I did.

Submitted by Roxann Pollard on Saturday, July 23, 2016

This is an informative guide. Thanks for submitting the info. Since I use iTunes for my contacts to be merged onto my iPhone, I had previously tried Outlook as my choice but was horribly surprised to find a real mess once I was done syncing with iTunes. For many years now, I have used the Windows Contacts and sync it via iTunes to my phone. this works very nicely had never causes such a mess as Outlook did. It's nice to see a way to get Windows Contacts to the phone without the use of iTunes. I had no idea this could be done. Thanks again for sharing.

Submitted by johnsiroen2017 on Tuesday, September 13, 2016

For my business needs I basically use just Outlook since its very useful and powerful in terms of sharing and communicating across platform and with other users.
For all this syncing and transfer I found that using Outlook together with a plugin called EVO Collaborator will make this all so much easier. using these 2 softwares together gives me optimal sync of all my devices and data.

Submitted by That Blind Canuck on Tuesday, September 13, 2016

If you use Microsoft Outlook as your e-mail client on Windows, you can also just download and installed iCloud for Windows, formally known as iCloud Control Panel.

This allows you to sync your bookmarks (IE, Firefox and Chrome), contacts, calendars, reminders, photos and even have access to your iCloud Drive.

I have it set up on my home machine for contacts, reminders, calendars and bookmarks and work machines to sync only my bookmarks and it works as a dream. The version I am using is v4.1 and it is pretty accessible with JAWS too.

Just thought I would pass that along.

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